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Recent reviews by Mark Y.

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290 people found this review helpful
9 people found this review funny
17.4 hrs on record (6.6 hrs at review time)
Beauty is Pain
In a throwaway poem, the fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay wonders why it is that airports are so grim and soul-crushing; we have the resources, he notes, to make them beautiful and humane. There are, of course, all sorts of systemic and sound reasons for airports being as they are. The same is true of RPGs. For years I dreamed of quitting air travel, but it has proven impossible. Giving up on RPGs turned out to be easier. The endless grind of dumpster-diving for loot, ping-ponging between NPCs on "quests," prebuffing as a lead-in to challenge-free grinding fights, min-maxing stats to achieve modest incremental changes that yielded merely more points to min-max, dialogue trees that were like administrative checklists (one dare not miss a step, but one hardly looks forward to any of them) ... all of this conspired to make me throw in the towel.

As I've previously written[www.gamasutra.com], The Age of Decadence managed to draw me in despite my reluctance to play more in this genre. And I had the great good fortune to work on Torment: Tides of Numenera (in a small capacity), and thus pay homage to one of the games that has defined my own hobby as a writer, Planescape: Torment. But despite these forays, or perhaps because of them, I have not brought myself to play any of the other significant RPG titles of the past decade.

Nevertheless, Disco Eysium (nee No Truce With the Furies) was sufficiently intriguing that I couldn't not play. I'm very glad to have overcome my prejudice. DE answers Kay's question with, "Yes, why not?" And it demonstrates that, with the gusto of delirious and slightly addled humanists, there is no reason why we can't have an RPG that is achingly beautiful rather than crushingly dull.

DE is a game about scars. For most of my life, I believed that scars were a vestige of wound that had healed. But it turns out that scars are patches on wounds that never heal. A scar, like any other part of your living body, must be constantly remade. If you deprive your body of vitamin C (i.e., suffer from scurvy), the collagen that holds scars shut becomes unstable and the old wounds will open back up. That is true even unto our bones; it turns out that there, too, failing collagen can cause old breaks to split apart again. Once we're broken, we never really come back together again.

DE is about a broken man exploring a broken city that plays host to a broken society. Those breaks are mostly scarred over but -- like a scorbutic -- the man, the city, and the society have been starved of something essential to regeneration. The game starts with the parallel bursting of a scar in the man and the society, and you are invited, in a very open way, to decide how you are going to address both the widening wounds and the underlying spiritual malnourishment. If there is a way in which DE is most like PS:T, it is that both of them are about decoding a story of scarrified and tattooed flesh to understand the past and plot a way toward the future.

But DE and PS:T are not really similar games. Both are beautiful (visually and verbally) games in unique settings populated with interesting characters who speak a lot of words. But PS:T is still a fairly traditional RPG (you level up, fight enemies, memorize spells, overcome bosses, etc.), whereas DE is not.

DE's heart is its innovative "internal dialogue" system in which your skills talk to you (and you talk back to them). PS:T really has nothing like this. Where PS:T relies upon a roster of companions who serve as distorted mirrors of the protagonist's virtues and flaws, such that talking to them is in a sense talking to yourself (or, at least, talking through your issues), DE simply lets you talk to yourself outright. It's novel, it's fun, and it's funny. (PS:T had a funny character; DE is a funny game, though the humor is extremely dark.)

This internal dialogue system makes the character creation and development process much more engaging. In most RPGs, your stats and skills come into play fairly sparingly (from a narrative standpoint). In DE, your stats shape every dialogue because even when you aren't employing the Rhetoric skill, say, to persuade someone, the Rhetoric skill is opining on the situation and shaping the player's (and the character's) understanding of what is happening.

Really, I could go on for a long time about these mechanical innovations, but it's enough to say that you should play it for yourself to see a fresh and engaging approach to the genre.

I'll end somewhat where I started. At the end of your first day in DE, your partner remarks on the strange "shuffle" that detectives from your precinct seem to have, searching every container, and how exhausting it is to run back and forth all the time. And as for dumpster-diving, you literally open a dumpster and sift through its contents, and earn money by collecting and selling empty bottles. This goes beyond lampshading (and slyly winking at) the genre's flaw while still employing a tedious gameplay mechanic for want of creativity. By turning the trash-collection into an explicit part of the narrative, it becomes not a point of "ludonarrative dissonance" (when did Aragorn stop to gather crud to offload at the local Gondorian merchant?) but a point of ludonarrative consonance. DE's nameless, amnesiac protagonist (okay, another point of similarity with PS:T) has been reduced to such a shambles that he is literally recycling trash for pennies in hopes of paying for another night at the seedy local hostel. The dehumanization of the that aspect of the gameplay speaks as eloquently as does the game's writing.

This is a must-play. It has left wounds, not the least to the ego of a proud writer who worked on not one but two games inspired by PS:T (my own Primordia and TTON), and has now seen what a worthy successor actually looks like.
Posted October 25, 2019. Last edited October 25, 2019.
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99 people found this review helpful
1 person found this review funny
26.7 hrs on record
Almost 15 years ago, I began a doomed effort to make an event-based, procedural space opera (briefly described here http://www.wormwoodstudios.com/2015/12/auld-lang-syne.html) that consumed many thousands of hours of work but, in spite of that, never got very far.  Part of the pleasure of Crying Suns is seeing how Alt Shift -- with the benefit of intervening games like FTL -- took on that same challenge, solving many of the problems that bedeviled me.  My perspective in this review is thus that of an admiring developer as much as it is that of a player.

The game provides an engaging, if repetitious, core gameplay loop.  Essentially, the player replays the same structure six times, albeit with different window dressing and some minor new options.  That structure consists of three zones in which you plot a left-to-right path down which you maximize gains and minimize attrition so that you can beat the boss at the end of each zone.  The third zone's boss is always a prime suspect in the murder of human civilization -- the protagonist, Ellys Idaho, somewhat credulously gives the same confident accusation each time, only to find he has accused (and killed) the wrong person.  Fortunately, each of those suspects was guilty of at least something, so Idaho remains a good guy if not a good detective.

Between the start and the finish of each zone, the player will fight various capital ships in a tactical fleet combat that is one of the first "solutions" that impressed me.  Space opera games typically struggle to convey anything more than a very small ship.  Star Control II, the peak of the genre, was structured such that fleet battles consisted of a series of 1-on-1 fighter duels, which made little sense thematically (for all it was fun).  Crying Suns solved the problem, at least up to a point.  In terms of visuals and "feel," the tactical combat conveys something like the battles in Battlestar Galactica (the stated inspiration).  The problem of where all of the support craft are coming from is dealt with by having fighters only damaged (and not destroyed) in combat, so that you can redeploy the same ship over and over again.  This is a clever gameplay device, but it has the unfortunate effect of making the battles feel strangely low-key -- undermining both the sense of permanent loss that is a rogue-like staple and the BSG-like premise of faltering, limited resources.

The player will also lead ground missions -- a second clever design device.  How to gather resources is another perennial problem in space opera games (witness the catastrophic lander in The Long Journey Home or the weird Super Mario Galaxy segments of Star Control: Origins).  The early, highly stylized approach used in Starflight and Star Control II simply does not translate well with modern gameplay and visuals.  Some games approach this problem with excessive complexity that distracts from the core theme of space exploration, veering toward more 4X-style gameplay.  In any event, Crying Suns came up with the clever, and thematic approach of a single officer leading a squad of marines to investigate planetary features (e.g., a crashed battleship).  Various obstacles arise (typically not described) that test an officer's skill.  If s/he has the relevant skill, the obstacle is passed.  If not, wounds are inflicted on the marines and officer at random, potentially killing marines (if they are hit twice) or injuring officers (if they are hit 4, 6, or 8 times, depending on office toughness).  These sequences, though extremely simplistic (you are basically doing a starting risk-reward guess, and then counting cards to decide whether to pull out midway through the mission) work quite well:  they are short and fun and simple, and thus complement (rather than hijacking) the exploration core of the game.

Additionally, there are occasional events, much like in FTL, where you can use officers' skills or your own instincts to pick a more rewarding path.  There are not enough events, and thus you see them over and over again -- apparently a bug that will be fixed in future patches.  It is strange, indeed, to catch the same kid trying to sacrifice himself to the sun ten times in ten different solar systems, without any acknowledgment that we had been down this road before.  Still, while the events are not memorable, they are a net plus.

Finally, there is some modest resource management where you can buy new weapons, support ships, officers, etc.  This is largely unremarkable, but it is handled elegantly.

Indeed, "elegant" is probably the best way to describe the game's systems.  They are not complicated, but they look good and play well.

There is an inevitable need to compare this game to FTL.  It is not as good as FTL -- not as finely balanced or as cleverly designed, and nothing is quite as exciting to get as in FTL (the officers are less needful, the weapons less game-changing, the upgrades less interesting, the ships less distinctive).  But it is sufficiently different that it fills a different niche, and is likely to be appreciated by FTL fans rather than disliked.

The biggest distinction with FTL, and the last point worth mentioning, is the story.  There is a vast (back)story to the game.  (There is actually very little in the way of forward-looking story -- you don't meet people, forge alliances, match wits with foes, etc.  The game is really about finding out what already happened to the universe and Idaho before the game started.)  The mystery helps draw you forward through otherwise fairly repetitive sequences, and was enough to hold my interest through the end.  I thought less would have been more in many places (says the long-winded reviewer).  The game offers explanations of all sorts of setting lore (the drugs people use, the religion they worship, the third-tier noble houses they deride), but none of it is necessary -- it's obvious the drug is addictive, the religion is techno-philia, the noble houses lame.  Letting the player's imagination fill in the details would have helped make the story less passive, and would have streamlined some of the very long dialogue sequences.  Still, when the norm in space operas is goofball or wafer-thin plots, this serious Dune/WH40k/Foundation-inspired story stands out.

Alt Shift mentioned that our Primordia was one of their inspirations; if that's true, I'm very glad for it, because I got 25 hours of pleasure out of this elegant game.  I also found the pleasure of seeing designers solve the problems I never could.  Hats off to them.
Posted October 24, 2019. Last edited October 24, 2019.
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24 people found this review helpful
5.7 hrs on record
Pleased to leave the review that pushes CMI over the 500 review threshold to "Overwhelmingly Positive."

It's the weakest of the core trilogy, but still an excellent game -- the funniest of the bunch, with astounding audiovisuals and a few charming new characters alongside the old stalwarts. Despite these strengths, it suffers considerably in its design in comparison to the first two games. Many more of the puzzles are what Ron Gilbert called "backwards puzzles" where you start working up the solution before you're aware of why you're working it; many more puzzles rely on lengthy expository dialogue to string together eccentric motivations for puzzles that otherwise would make little sense. Insult sword fighting, which already went on slightly too long in the original game, overstays its welcome again in a long, grinding mid-game segment. With both insults and puzzles, the game often doesn't recognize viable alternative solutions -- not even with an amusing quip as to why a zinger or gizmo is being rejected. Coupled with the somewhat arbitrary nature of the puzzles to begin with, the whole thing feels more fragile and less clever than the two predecessors. Finally, it's worth noting that the game doesn't really cohere with the ending of the prior title (as Ron Gilbert has groused about), and the ending is really weak -- it's a retread of the endings of the first two games, but whereas the second game improved upon the formula of the first, this one regresses, and thus comes off feeling like a weak knock-off rather than a clever homage. By contrast, an earlier segment involving being stuck inside a snake cleverly builds on the behind-the-wall sequence of the original game.

Despite some flaws, it's a genuine classic. Memorable jokes, characters, and, in a couple instances, puzzles, and some nice set pieces. For too long, it wasn't commercially available. If you missed it as a result, you should definitely pick it up.
Posted August 11, 2019.
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27 people found this review helpful
0.4 hrs on record
While there are other credible contenders (like Quest for Infamy) -- and more to come in the next couple years as Hero-U and Mage's Initiation wrap up development -- Heroine's Quest not only the best Quest for Glory game in the past 20+ years, but in some respects the superior of the games that inspired it.

First, let me get the shortcomings out of the way. The production values are not as strong as in the Sierra originals (the animations are a little choppy, the VO is a little amateurish, and the music is not as memorable) -- but those were commercial games made by seasoned veterans with a considerable budget. Heroine's Quest, unlike our Primordia or the majority of other AGS games you find on Steam -- is free, so it couldn't even theoretically recoup paying professional voice actors or the like. More fundamentally, the game seems to lack a little bit of the smoothness of the original QFGs: the grinding feels a little more grindy, the exploration a little too slow, the world somewhat less open and more driven by a linear plot. But to be clear, this is a *relative* comparison, and it is in relation to what I consider some of the best games of all time.

Having cleared that underbrush, let me now sing the game's praises. Most fundamentally, it achieves what I consider the game developer's greatest duty: generosity. That comes through not just through the price (i.e., free), but through the sheer quantity and variety of content. Everywhere the developers could give us more, they have, optional solutions and little Easter Eggs aplenty. That generosity is conveyed through the timeless and sadly underutilized QFG marriage of RPG and adventure game elements. The challenge of that kind of gameplay is that it requires a lot of art, a lot of alternate paths, and careful balance and testing. Heroine's Quest succeeds in all those things.

Earlier, I mentioned that the game exceeds QFG, and the way in which this is so (in my opinion) is the use of the Norse mythology and foklorica. It's not entirely consistent, and sometimes it mixes in modern fantasy elements or interpretations of the source material that don't quite work, but I found overall that it drew more deeply and broadly from this lore than did QFG, where individual elements were often cherry picked without their contextual elements. (For instance, QFG introduced a whole generation to Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged hut, and what a gift that was, but she is hardly surrounded by other Slavic elements -- instead you encounter a hodgepodge of Greek mythological creatures and D&D monsters in a quasi-German setting.) Heroine's Quest has greater consistency in this regard, though it suffers from the fact that Norse folk lore is more familiar so the characters feel less like "discoveries" than did, say, Baba Yaga.

Anyway, the bottom line is that this is a charming labor of love, shared for free, which leaves you with the warm, full feeling of a childhood feast, for those who grew up on QFG, or will serve as a pretty good entry point to genre to those unfamiliar with it. Three cheers for, and many thanks to, Crystal Shard!
Posted December 22, 2017.
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6 people found this review helpful
8.4 hrs on record
I am not sure whether to say that this game got the small things right or the big things right. I am sure, though, that I want to say that the things it got right made it a real joy to play. If you've somehow missed it despite the hype, bundles, and practically free sales prices, do yourself a favor and get it now.

Let me rattle off the things the game gets right. I think I can sum them up by saying that Bastion feels (and "feel" is the critical word here -- it is a sensory but also in-your-bones-and-heart FEELING) like a superior evolution of a SNES game. As someone who holds SNES games as the pinnacle of unaffected gaming pleasure, this is almost as high a compliment as I can give. Many games that try to conjure SNES (or NES) qualities are excessively "retro," but many games that tried to evolve SNES games took them in really different directions (polygonal graphics, a first-person perspective, cel animation, and so forth). While the graphics are higher resolution, the music more orchestrated, the narrative delivered by voice over rather than straight text, all of these things nevertheless FEEL the same, only better. I guess I would compare it to going from a console port of an arcade game to the arcade game itself. The latter is richer, but the same.

This overall great feeling is complemented by marvelous voice work by Logan Cunningham. I'm biased because he was the lead in our Primordia, but I loved him in Bastion first. The lines he delivers are clever and lend narrative without bogging the game down in expository cutscenes. This, too, evokes Zelda and other SNES-era console games. The story has a melancholy quality is reinforced by every audiovisual element.

That should be enough to buy the game.

Still, I have some reservations, and I can't be sure whether these are the "big" things or the "small" things. Ultimately, I don't think the gameplay loop is very fun. It's ... fine. The controls are tight, the enemies are fairly varied, there is a true abundance of weapon types (each significantly different), and all sorts of gear and special abilities to obtain and power up. There are secrets, and secrets within secrets. But still. Something about the gameplay was off. I *think* the problem was that it was just too easy. While there are elaborate finesse moves and devilishly hidden powerups, button mashing with basic weapons is typically enough to carry the day, even in many of the game's reward challenges. Because there is not much of a difficult gradient, I never felt like I was particularly getting *better.* Occasionally I would detour for one of those reward challenges and, for that purpose and that purpose alone, hone some trick. But unlike, say, Mario or Metroid or Contra, where you inevitably end the game a much better player than you began, in this case it was only by dint of deliberate and gratuitous effort that I improved. The game's many grind-oriented progressions and endless "you have X of Y" achievements and rewards contributed to this feeling of a baroque facade around a basically drab edifice.

And yet this problem, which may sound fatal, is absolved by the "feeling" discussed earlier. The game is such a pleasure to experience that whatever shortcomings I perceived (misperceived?) in the gameplay loop are ultimately irrelevant. They may mean that Bastion isn't a game that draws me back eternally, as say Super Mario World does, but it remains a game I recommend wholeheartedly.
Posted July 21, 2017.
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19 people found this review helpful
37.0 hrs on record (10.0 hrs at review time)
I cautiously recommend Broken Age, in part because it is so often on sale at such low prices that there is little harm in giving it a shot. Despite the game's audiovisual strengths and occasional bouts of cleverness, it is a thin -- if stretched -- shadow of the classic adventure game it was promised to be.

Let me begin with describing a key divergence between almost all contemporary adventure games and the games that I deem to be classics from the 1990s. In my view, many contemporary adventure games rival, and perhaps even exceed, the classics in audiovisuals, story-telling, and length. The area in which they consistently fall short is puzzle design, and I include my own Primordia in that criticism. Contemporary adventures tend to have four very basic puzzle types: (1) use inventory item A on inventory item B; (2) use inventory item A on hotspot B (which might include an NPC to whom you give the item); (3) examine object A and tell NPC B about object A; and (4) interact with standalone puzzle, such as Tower of Hanoi, Pipe Dream, Simon, etc. The best classics included these puzzle varieties, but they also had a large number of environmental puzzles, which required the player to understand the way in which items, NPCs, and environment interact. Off the top of my head, examples of this include passing the lasers in Space Quest IV, finding the Sword Master in Monkey Island, and winning the spitting contest in Monkey Island 2.

Broken Age has almost none of these "classic" puzzles until the latter portion of the second half of the game. Most of its puzzles are very rudimentary variants of the four kinds described above. The overwhelming majority of the puzzles, particularly in the first half, are so simple that they are either instantly soluble or soluble only by brute force because failure involves missing a dialogue option or overlooking a hotspot, not failing to understand the mechanics of a puzzle sufficiently to deduce its solution. As best I can recall, all of these puzzles had a single solution, and amusing "gratuitous" interactions are fairly limited.

The game is relatively long compared to classic adventures, but its length arises almost entirely from extremely long-winded (if often amusing) cut scenes and dialogues and copious backtracking among the same relatively small number of locations. The quantity of dialogue struck me as also out of sync with classic adventures, which tended to tell their simpler stories through gameplay rather than exposition. Regarding the backtracking, my problem is less that the entire game occupies so little space and more that so much time is spent walking between distant rooms. Indeed, I thought it was both clever storytelling and clever salvaging of a mostly expended budget that the second half of the game involves the same locations, but each one is somewhat changed.

Two final notes about the game. First, I thought the game did a pretty good job of expressing the two protagonists' characters (hyper-competent girl and hyper-sheltered boy) through the puzzles they undertook. Second, more negatively, there seems to be a disconnect between the game's children's-cartoon-like aesthetic and its laborious pacing and long dialogues, which proved intolerable to my kids when we played together. (By contrast, they loved Loom, Sam & Max, Monkey Island, Primordia, etc.) Moreover, while the first half of the game is so basic and so amenable to brute force that a young child can manage it, the second half of the game includes logic puzzles that are far beyond a child's abilities or patience. It's an odd mix, one that seems to have been born of pressure from the game's Kickstarter backers during its production.

I guess my bottom line is that I would view this as an inferior version of Grim Fandango: similar in its focus on dialogue and story-telling, similar in its audiovisual ambitions, but shorter, blander, and far less compelling. As noted, the main cost to playing this game is your time, since it is often available for a couple dollars, so I am comfortable suggesting that people at least try it.
Posted July 19, 2017.
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26 people found this review helpful
7.2 hrs on record (3.4 hrs at review time)
A great game for the young or young at heart, and in its own way, a sad testament to how the adventure genre has declined.

After playing Primordia and Loom with my five year old, I set out to find another suitable adventure game. Pajama Sam's reviews have the unfortunately quality of seeming like ironical memes, so I was somewhat skeptical when grabbing them. I'm glad I overcame my trepidation because the series -- particularly the first game -- is excellent.

Basically, Pajama Sam is a pared-down point-and-click with wonderfully animated Saturday-morning-cartoon graphics and a story pitched at young children. Despite the game's being aimed at children, there is enough cleverness in the writing -- and strangeness in the world -- that an adult can enjoy its content.

While Pajama Sam is "pared down" in comparison to Monkey Island and King's Quest V, it is considerably more complicated than most of what passes for adventure games today. The world is larger; the puzzles are more varied (employing a mix of inventory, logic, and observational puzzles); and there is a generous helping of the kind of extra content familiar from old games: the rooms are full of hotspots that provide amusing interactions.

The game also has a host of optional content, and every time you play the world is slightly randomized, with certain puzzles only appearing in certain games, certain areas having different significance, and certain items being moved about. This is an odd choice because the game is not particularly replayable and there is no choice in which puzzles you get -- you might play again and have the exact same distribution of content and items -- but it is an interesting novelty all the same.

In short, this is a lovingly made and endearing game perfectly suited for kids who are learning to love adventures. It would make an excellent entry point to the genre, one that would set them on the path of the puzzle-oriented classics, rather than in the direction of the narrative-choice model that currently prevails.

[EDIT: Two years later, I can now say that the "odd choice" is actually a *brilliant* design insight. Pajama Sam's designers anticipated the degree to which young kids enjoy coming back to the same thing over and over again, whether it's a favorite movie, a favorite toy, a favorite park, or a favorite adventure game. My now-seven-year-old and I have played through the game, and its sequels, many times each. I would say that we've beaten No Need to Hide When It's Dark Outside seven or eight times. The variations in puzzles turn out to add quite a lot because even though the game is familiar, it often has some surprising new detail that keeps us engaged and not playing on autopilot.]
Posted July 7, 2017. Last edited November 13, 2019.
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22 people found this review helpful
3 people found this review funny
4.7 hrs on record
You are Azriel (!) Odin (!!) -- a trench-coated P.I. (!!!), former assassin (!!!!), and intergalactic-war veteran (!!!!!) -- who, with the help of his partner Kane (!!!!!!), must brave the always-raining planet Barracus (!!!!!!!) and its ruling cyberpunk (!!!!!!!!) Yakuza (!!!!!!!!!) before orchestrating the breakout of Delta Six (!!!!!!!!!!), a prisoner in an experimental brain-wiping facility (!!!!!!!!!!) run by a nameless "director" (!!!!!!!!!!!) that lies hidden inside a nebula (!!!!!!!!!!!!). With ludonarrative consonance, Gemini Rue's gameplay is built around a "kick" command taken from Full Throttle, action gunplay sequences from Rise of the Dragon, Playstation-era box-pushing puzzles, and a simulation of cafeteria cliques. In short, the game is nothing less than the Trapper Keeper doodle fantasy of every dorky middleschooler hopped up on Cowboy Bebop, Blade Runner, and Max Payne. Its sheer exuberance stands naked before the player with prelapsarian shamelessness, and any past or present dork (myself included!) will share in that delight.

Gemini Rue is the game that built Wadjet Eye Games, and for that reason alone is worth your attention. Before its release, WEG had developed a few Blackwell titles and The Shivah, niche products that, despite well-earned fandom in the Adventure Game Studio community, could not support full-time development. After Joshua Nuernberger developed Gemini Rue and won acclaim for it at the Independent Games Festival, WEG savvily picked up the game as its publisher. Gemini Rue proved a runaway success in its own right, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and receiving numerous critical accolades. It was also a watershed: WEG went on to publish XII Games' Resonance, our own Primordia, and Technocrat Games' Technobabylon. These third-party titles financed WEG's shift to full-time game development, yielding fantastic titles like A Golden Wake, Blackwell Epiphany, Shardlight, and the upcoming Unavowed, all made by salaried staff.

Yet while every WEG title *after* Gemini Rue is a fairly sober-minded affair, Gemini Rue itself is all coltish enthusiasm. Primordia, Epiphany, Shardlight, Resonance, and Technobabylon all hope to be *digested,* while Gemini Rue just chants, "Chug, chug, chug." Little wonder so many people have loved it! By Odin, you should get drunk on it too!

[Disclaimers: I received this game for free from a Primordia fan who thought I should try it. Primordia was published by WEG, which also published Gemini Rue. Primordia and Gemini Rue were both made in Adventure Game Studio, and I'm a big supporter of adventure games, indie games, and especially indie adventure games made in AGS. So season this review with ample salt.]
Posted July 7, 2017. Last edited July 7, 2017.
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17 people found this review helpful
6.9 hrs on record (6.9 hrs at review time)
Monkey Island 2 may be the best point-and-click adventure game ever made, which means likely the best that ever *will* be made. The art (original), music, characters, puzzles, and story are all fantastic, and the "remake" is not so bad itself (unlike the sparsely animated and mediocre remake of the first game). If you haven't played this, you should; if you have, why not go back for another spin?

The adventure game I helped make, Primordia, contains several elements of homage to the Monkey Island series, but like almost every adventure game made since the mid-90s, Primordia's puzzle design pales in comparison to this masterpiece. In my opinion, other aspects of point-and-click games have matched the golden age, but puzzles haven't -- they range from the stupidly easy ("accessible"!) to the nonsensical ("just like the old days"!), with the "best" being mostly logical but mostly boring. In particular, modern adventure games lack the complexity of the best older games, and Monkey Island 2 is at the peak of this complexity.

The puzzles that make up its first part are a masterpiece of pacing, structure, logic, and fun. What you see is the product of experienced designers with the skill and resources to do things right. The game is careful to supply motivations for the puzzles before you reach them, using visual cues and map layout to almost subliminally guide the player such that he knows what he wants and can start formulating a plan rather than -- as is often the case -- merely taking everything that isn't nailed down and using every item on every hotspot.

The middle of the game is less effective in this regard because it is so open. This is a trade off to be sure, and there is a good argument that such openness is *also* a hallmark of a great adventure. But nevertheless it feels like the middle lacked the same care and attention, and many puzzle-chains lack a logical connection or a strong sense of progression toward a goal. Nevertheless, the middle of the game contains what I think is the finest single point-and-click puzzle ("single" is a bit of a misnomer because it is in fact multi-part), the spitting contest. This puzzle weaves together the three main stands of adventure game puzzles (environmental/timing; inventory/combination; and dialogue), and requires several lateral but logical epiphanies. Other puzzles in the middle are also good, but that one's the best.

The game also contains the best finale of any adventure. Adventures struggle with how to have a suitably difficult puzzle and a showdown with your adversary. King's Quest V does pretty well in this regard, but most don't. MI2 nails it with a puzzle that requires you to apply logic from earlier in the game in a novel fashion, while also "remastering" the finale of MI1. And the ending that follows is notorious...

Anyway, if you like point-and-click adventures -- either as a player or a designer -- it's an absolute must-play. And unlike some other games I've recently revisited (e.g., Loom), it turns out that it wasn't nostalgia that made it seem so great.
Posted February 2, 2017.
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22 people found this review helpful
2.3 hrs on record (2.0 hrs at review time)
Bottom Line: I'm glad to have shared this with my kids, but sad to have tarnished my own childhood memories of it. If you haven't played it, you should; if you have, keep it safely glazed in nostalgia.

Years ago, I played the EGA version of Loom. It came in a box with a book-on-tape that described the setting and the game's backstory and a lovely and creative manual that included a host of "drafts" (or spells) that weren't included in the game but which expanded its universe. The game charmed me before I even installed it, and once I did, I was captivated by its gorgeous art, which used minimalism to make a 16-color palette more than ample, and its beautiful arrangement and rearrangement of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The gameplay was simple and approachable for a kid, with no inventory to manage, no death, scant dialogue trees to wade through, but the puzzles were clever and made me feel clever when I solved them.

In the quarter century since first playing Loom, whatever flaws it had were forgotten and its many virtues grew, as is the case when you fall in love with something as a kid. When, in interviews, I was asked about Primordia's inspirations, Loom was always among the first I mentioned, and I would always recommend it for people as an entry point to point-and-click adventure games. So, when my four year old was looking for a game to play after we did Primordia together, I naturally got us Loom.

It has not aged well, the VGA "talky" version is somewhere between the restoration of the Great Wall and the "restoration" of the Ecce Homo painting in Borja, which is to say not very pleasant. Moreover, I had forgotten (or been unable to recognize) many flaws that exist even in the EGA version.

- The additional VGA colors conceal the artistic feats of the original, and in some instances simply look worse. This video makes the case well: https://youtu.be/bRJD0OrGulU

- The sampling of the voice over is extremely poor, and many audio clips are mistimed and oddly cut.

- Most of the music was removed from the game.

- Certain scenes are shortened (not so badly, in my opinion) and certain parts were bowdlerized.

But even setting aside the problems with the VGA version, the game itself is ludicrously short -- we beat it in under two hours, taking time for the four year old to take her stab at the puzzles. While the game feels open and experimental and somewhat exploratory on the initial island, it becomes increasingly linear, and the last act of the game is *entirely* linear, with every sequence an exact duplication (in gameplay terms) of the last:
Walk left, enter portal, cast heal, enter portal, cast close, walk left...

Bobbin is not as endearing a character as I remembered, and neither is Hetchel -- the loss of the audiobook introduction to her, perhaps -- and Chaos is much less threatening. While some of the puzzles remain relatively clever, others are easy and sometimes tedious (in particular, the main puzzle in the blacksmith guild, which is worsened significantly by voice over freezing you out of interactions). I appreciate brevity in games more now than I used to, but every sequence feels two or three puzzles too short, and as a result none of the characters ever has anything more than a cameo, save for Rusty, whose ambiguous role in the story is as puzzling to me at 36 as it was at 11.

Despite these ample flaws, I still think Loom is a very special game. Its gentleness and the novelty of its spell-based puzzles are undiminished with time, and many of the scenes remain striking, even in VGA. There are many other games where you'll get more bang for your buck, but I think it is still a good entry point to the genre, and an important piece of adventure game history, one that shouldn't be forgotten.
Posted January 19, 2017. Last edited January 19, 2017.
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