from XYZZYnews #9

Game Reviews


(Release 2)

Parser: Inform
Author: Dan S. Yu
Requires: ZIP interpreter
Response to the XYZZY command: "A hollow voice says, 'cool!'"

review by C.E. Forman

SpiritWrak is the first all-text adventure to be set in the Zork universe since the demise of Infocom. It takes place in 976 GUE, after the great Guildmaster (your character in SpellBreaker) has brought an end to the Age of Magic and given birth to the Age of Science.

You have to wonder whether this is an infringement of copyright. After all, Activision still holds the entire Infocom universe in its unyielding grasp. On the other hand, there have been three or four Internet MUDs (multi-user dungeons) based loosely on the Zorkiverse, and I've never heard of their authors getting sued. In SpiritWrak, unlike the MUDs, the Zorkian names and places are complemented by some true atmosphere and Infocom-style puzzles.

The plot? You're a monk in a secret monestary where magic users continue to practice spells, though the game refers to them as "prayers" or "chants." Brother Joseph, the leader of the sect, has inadvertently used a Holy Rod to summon the demon Anabais into the world, much like Belboz and Jeearr in Sorcerer. The demon shattered the Holy Rod into four pieces and scattered them, so the player's quest is to get them back. The journey takes players to the four corners of both the Eastlands and Westlands, to the Zorkian cities of Frostham, Gurth, Aragain, Anthar, Miznia, and (New) Borphee, among others.

The game's spell-casting system was quite obviously lifted directly from Graham Nelson's sample game Balances. Players must memorize spells before they can be cast, and once cast they're forgotten. Unfortunately, while this system worked great in the classics, nowadays it's a bit irritating to have to re-memorize spells again and again. A method such as that used in Legend Entertainment's SpellCasting trilogy, where the player can simply cast magic straight from the book, would have worked far better, and is strongly suggested for use in future games of this type. I also missed the amusing ability to cast spells on random objects. Most of the time, this produces only a message to the effect that the spell doesn't work at all, with no adequate explanation as to why.

Compounding this problem is the fact that magic is still deteriorating, so there's a chance a spell will fail even if a valid target is chosen. This feature wasn't really necessary and could have been eliminated, in my opinion. Also, as the game has no day/night cycle, uncasted spells aren't cleaned from the player's memory, and the player can't "forget something in the shuffle" by trying to memorize too many. The only way to get rid of a memorized spell is to cast it. Such quirks require "spell management" in addition to the normal inventory management of IF, and it ultimately detracts.

The puzzles are generally not hard -- very few are close to the mind-benders in Sorcerer and SpellBreaker -- but many of them, particularly the new ones added for Release 2, are quite clever, if a bit gratuitous. Release 2 also removes a couple of the less-than-intuitive puzzles and adds more zorkmids for increased flexibility in riding the Great Underground Subway. Nearly everything is satisfyingly logical, and there is plenty to do -- the game itself is vast, with a wide area open for exploration from the inception (though Yu does take a few liberties with Zork geography).

The fact that the game is a direct and unauthorized continuation of the beloved Zork history, rather than being set far into the future (as was Return to Zork) may initially turn off some players, as it did myself, but I gave SpiritWrak a chance, and it grew on me. It has that intangible Infocom-esque nostalgia -- the sense of interconnected puzzles, items, and travel that recent commercial adventures have failed to capture. Thus SpiritWrak seems a more natural extension of the Zorkiverse than, say, Activision's newly released Zork Nemesis, which feels more like a tribute or pastiche. A great many obscure names, places, and other references, many only recognizable from the original Infocom packagings, can be found in SpiritWrak, and they fit in quite well without appearing to flaunt their own presence.

Continuing the tradition of Zork and Enchanter, two of Infocom's most popular releases, is a difficult undertaking for any IF author, and I applaud the efforts of SpiritWrak. Still, it remains to be seen how much of Dan Yu's expanded Zork history will be taken at face value with regards to future Zork adventures.


Parser: Inform
Author: Mike Oliphant
Requires: ZIP interpreter

review by C.E. Forman

You wake up on the floor outside your office, in a drunken stupor. You haven't paid your secretary in weeks, the rent money is due today, and you're in deep to gangster Jimmy Voigt. But just when all hope is gone, you finally get a case that just might save your neck...

These private detective cliches are the opening of Gumshoe, an IF investigation that may not add anything new to the detective genre as a whole, but manages to take text adventures in a direction relatively explored. Infocom's mystery games typically cast players as a police detective, and, though they broke from this mold with Moonmist and even more with Suspect, the hard-boiled private detective genre was never attempted.

Any sort of detective story is difficult to do effectively, as investigating skills tend to be necessary in every IF environment. Players typically need to pay close attention to their surroundings and piece together plot events to discover what needs to be done next. Still, Gumshoe manages to be fairly convincing, and contains a fair amount of depth for such a small game. Travel to various places is accomplished via taxi, which creates the illusion of vastness in a game whose areas have at most four or five locations.

The NPCs are mobile, well-programmed and responsive, and interactions with them are necessary to gather information and make progress. Some, such as the bar customers, have vital clues that you need to extract while others, such as police detective Boggs, will do everything in their power to stop you. This sense of being the underdog and working against everyone else contributes largely to the sense of satisfaction obtained from overcoming the obstacles.

Overall Gumshoe is not difficult, but it's easy to get stuck if you miss an important clue or item somewhere. A couple of objects aren't listed in any of the descriptive text, and players must deduce their presence. It is possible to get the game into an unsolveable state in some instances, but as the game is relatively short, having to restore is not a problem. A nice feature is a "bad" ending you get if you earn your fee but don't accomplish everything you should have.

Though released early, Gumshoe would have made a nice entry for the 1996 IF competition. It's about the right length and demonstrates good Inform skills. I'm interested to see what Mike Oliphant has in mind for the competition itself. With another entry like Gumshoe, he can't go wrong.

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