from XYZZYnews #5
Author: Gareth Rees
Availability: ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/inform/ christm.z5
Supports: ZIP interpreter
review by Eileen Mullin
Christminster is the home of Biblioll College, where your brother Malcolm teaches. When he sends you a telegram urging you to come visit and learn about his big discovery, you waste no time in heading out that way. But the mystery is only compounded once you arrive -- Malcolm is nowhere to be found, his room is ransacked, and there are two sinister professors who seem to be hatching a pretty evil scheme. Can you unravel the mystery of what's become of Malcolm, what's with all this talk of alchemy and elixirs, and what are the no-goodnik professors up to?
The NPCs in this game must be pretty extensively coded, because they all seemed especially realistic and lifelike. Edward, the student whose pet parrot you inadvertently set loose, will make you feel incredibly, horribly guilty as you witness the depths of his despair and sense of loss. You'll also feel waves of pity and tenderness for him as he's chewed out by his professor. I think he's the most likable NPC I've seen since Floyd in "Planetfall." If Edward is a new kind of sensitive NPC for the '90s, then I say lets have lots of Edwards! There are quite a few other NPCs who have a good many things to say to you, including the busker, the cop, the porter, and a number of Biblioll professors.
Your point of view in this game is from a female perspective, as Malcolm's sister Christabel. While there are some socially gender- specific features and accoutrements (you carry a purse, instead of a more generic bag or knapsack, and you worry about getting fat if you consider eating a toffee), the game should be readily enjoyable to both men and women, and hopefully it won't be much of a stretch for a man to play the role of "Christabel" as he progresses through it. I was interested in the number of comments made by NPCs that remind you of your gender -- for example, you're called a silly girl if you need to be rescued by the kitchen staff after you're locked in the wine cellar, and Professors Jarboe and Bungay speculate crudely about what you're doing in Malcolm's bedroom before they realize that you must be his sister. The sibling dynamic punches a couple of holes in the problems you need to solve -- for instance, you may be delayed in figuring out how to look up Malcolm's room number or mailbox until you discover his last name ... but as his sister, surely that's something you should be expected to know already!
The range of puzzles in "Christminster" is enormous -- there are a few that are more like the brainteaser puzzles in Gareth's earlier game "Magic Toyshop," such as breaking the code for Malcolm's encrypted note, and others that are more typical of those found in IF games, like locked-door puzzles. A great deal of your insight into Biblioll College and its history comes from looking up names in books and a library index, much like the device used in Graham Nelson's "Curses."
I overlooked the game's hints for solving the cryptogram puzzle since I like to solve those kinds of word games by brute force, but it would have been nice to have some more explicit hints (there's no online help at all) for solving or approaching other problems. The number of names to look up in reference works grew too large for me to handle -- normally I like to play and replay sections of an IF game so much that I don't need the map I drew up originally, and this time after I discarded the map I realized I still needed to write down all the names of the "men of Biblioll" and various book authors because there were way too many for me to remember. I was also pretty stumped by the problem of how to eavesdrop on Jarboe and Bungay's telephone call. I had figured out how to identify which color socket corresponded to which telephone line and how to change the line a specific telephone was connected to, but I just couldn't make the leap to how to tap into the phone call; I eventually had to make use of spoilers posted to the rec.games.int- fiction newsgroup to figure that problem out.
While not a timed game, there are events in the game that take place at certain times of day, and the clock advances a half-hour whenever you accomplish certain tasks in the game. This is similar to games such as "Gabriel Knight," where night didn't fall until you'd solved that day's puzzles, but "Christminster" didn't seem quite so linear as "Gabriel Knight."
There's much to like about "Christminster," from the clever puzzles to the highly interactive NPCs. "Christminster" joins the crowded field of IF games with a collegiate setting, but this one comes in at or near the head of the class.
Author: Brendan Wyber
Supports: ZIP interpreter
review by Eileen Mullin
You're a real estate agent who's spent a busy afternoon showing an abandoned, run-down theater to a potential buyer. You're about to dash off to an evening at the opera, when you remember you've left your pager behind in the theater's basement. Exasperated, you return to the theater and -- after a scripted series of mishaps in which your car is stolen and a roving thug threatens your life -- begin to discover its horrifying past.
Once you've played through this obligatory opening scene -- which may be confusing or tiresome for those who might want to explore other parts of the game which don't have an impact upon this opening sequence -- you're at liberty to traverse the theater's eerie confines. The room descriptions are richly detailed and add a great deal of atmosphere as well as possible clues. There are several secret passages and many areas of the game that aren't accessible until you learn how to sidestep certain barriers.
As you search for a way to exit the theater, you quickly realize that you're trapped by a far more ominous power than the thug standing outside. By collecting and reading the scattered pages of a journal (dated 1898) that belonged to architect Eric Morris, the designer of the theater, you learn how he came to fall in love with the owner's daughter, Elizabeth, who had a nefarious hidden agenda in convincing Eric to change the designs in hideous ways. Not unlike the device used in Myst, the pages of Eric Morris's diary prove more and more useful as you discover additional ones in your progressive explorations though the theater.
The NPCs in "Theatre" are all quite creative, including the ghost of an usher who initially blocks your entrance into the auditorium, and the heartbreaking goblin-creature who is key in instructing you about the evil that resides in the theater and the sources of its power. You'll also encounter a couple of animals that can be helpful to you, but you must find ways to get them to another location first.
Many of the game's puzzles required thoughtful, logical puzzle- solving but were not impossibly hard. If a puzzle's solution required an object you hadn't yet found, however, it could be difficult to realize that a missing object was the difficulty instead of a question of syntax. There are some online hints, but these are of the gentle nudge variety rather than outright spoilers.
Although uneven in spots, "Theatre" is an engrossing game for anyone who's ever been intrigued by haunted houses or by the stories their walls could tell, if only they could talk...
Author: Bert Lee
Supports: AGT ports
review by C.E. Forman
"TimeSquared" casts the player as Nicholas MacGear, a Chronos cadet about to graduate from the Academy. The story opens in the year 2098, when you awaken in your spartan apartment on the day of your graduation. But something is odd...things seem incongruous and misplaced, as if they don't belong here, and yet you get the impression that everything you do has already happened before. And who was that mysterious figure who fled your apartment just as you awakened? And why does your building superintendent seem to be watching every move you make? All you know is that in order to keep the timestream intact, you've got to get to the Chronos Complex on time for your graduation ceremony.
The game was written using AGT, which means the parser leaves quite a bit to be desired. Many common synonyms that should work simply don't. On a number of occasions I knew exactly what I had to do -- the game's puzzles, although often challenging, aren't unfairly obscure -- but I was unable to phrase it in a way that the game would accept. Unlike some AGT games, however, it does allow players to perform a variety of more complex interactions involving indirect objects as well as a verb and noun, so you players aren't limited to typing simple two-word commands.
The game's writing and plot overcome many of the parser's flaws. Author Bert Lee manages to create a futuristic world that, although not all that profound or thought-provoking, is quite vivid and populated with an array of intriguing, albeit underdeveloped, characters. Among the more significant are the quirky and ever-nameless superintendent; the Bankjxes, a family of extraterrestrials who live in the same apartment complex as you; and especially Gmurr, your Denebian companion, who is brought to you at the start of the game in a larval state (just add water!) by a mysterious delivery man. Curiously, another character named Dr. Grace is briefly mentioned, but his holophone number isn't recognized, leading me to believe he never made it to the final version of the game, although not all traces of his prior existence were cleaned up.
The game also has built-in ASCII maps for many areas, and general hints that can be accessed by typing "HELP" at the prompt. While the hints are generally helpful, there is only one (at most) hint for each location, which means there's no more help coming for you if you're still stuck. There are 500 points to be earned during the course of the game, but scoring is difficult -- you're not rewarded at all for finding items or solving small puzzles, only for the major ones that advance the plot.
What impressed me most about TimeSquared is the game's "hyperspatial flenzer," a device given to you by Gmurr which is capable of storing a large number of items in another dimension. The player can then "flenz" and "unflenz" various objects as s/he needs them. It's a remarkable bit of programming for AGT. Unfortunately when something in the game occurs due to the passage of time, TimeSquared has the annoying habit of displaying a block of text on the screen for a fixed period, then clearing the screen before the player has even had a chance to read it. Granted, most of the text isn't that critical to completion of the game, but it's irritating nonetheless, especially since it would be quite easy to fix.
Furthermore, "TimeSquared" is yet another game that starts the player's character out in a half-starved state. It's necessary to find food fairly quickly, and repeatedly -- about every 10 minutes of game time to be exact. The task of finding something edible isn't as obvious as it first seems, as players aren't given a whole lot of time. This is truly a shame, because many players are likely to lose interest trying to overcome this first obstacle and will quit without ever catching a glimpse of the story beyond it.
As a result, "TimeSquared" takes considerable time and effort to really get into, but it's a lot of fun and definitely worth it once you get past the initial setbacks. It's a well-written adventure that makes effective use of the time-travel scenario, but one that doesn't seem to have undergone final debugging.
"TimeSquared" is subtitled, "Chapter One: Centopolis," which implies that the author originally intended this adventure as the first in a series. The game is dated 1992, however, so it now seems unlikely that any future episodes will come into being, which is a bit disheartening. This could have been an interesting saga.
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