Game Reviews J

These reviews are in alphabetical order according to the name of the game reviewed. The index also has a few extra features. First and foremost of these is the instant gratification feature. If you see the SPAG button:

Then you can click on it to retrieve the file from, or to go to that file's directory on the archive (in the case of competition games).

The email addresses used are those submitted with the review, so naturally some of them may be out of date. All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine with the traditional 'at' sign.

Table of Contents

Jacaranda Jim Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win Jane Janitor Jewel of Knowledge Jigsaw The Jim MacBrayne games (The Mission, Holy Grail, Frustration, Golden Fleece) John's Fire Witch Journey Journey Into Xanth The Journey of the King

Jacaranda Jim

From: Alex Freeman <Freemanry SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #24 -- March 24, 2001 NAME: Jacaranda Jim AUTHOR: Graham Cluley EMAIL: hamrag SP@G DATE: 1987 PARSER: Quite good SUPPORTS: DOS AVAILABILITY: Public Domain URL: Jacaranda Jim is another game by Graham Cluley. It was actually written before Humbug, but there are many similarities between the two games. In Jacaranda Jim, you are... Jacaranda Jim. You have crash landed on the planet Ibberspleen IV. The game starts with you waking up from a dream. When you do wake up, you find that you are in a dark cave with Alan the Gribbley. In case you're wondering what a gribbley is, it is some strange creature that is a cross between a neanderthal and the aftermath from a night with Malcolm Muggeridge. Alan has a rather disgusting beard also. Anyhow, you don't really know what to do, but you figure (no doubt correctly) that it would be at least a good idea to find some way of getting back to Earth. As you explore Ibberspleen IV, you find that it is a lot like Earth: There are a post office, a zoo, a grocery store, a church, and other Earth-like buildings. While you're doing all this, Alan is constantly at your side even when you're out in the rain, but he leaves when it becomes night (the game goes through the cycle of day and night). The NPCs are generally not as well developed as they are in Humbug, but you get to know them better (or at least the well developed ones) by asking them questions. My favorite NPC is the thief. When you're on the beach, you better beware because he may try to rob you. When he does, he says, "Har, har! Give us yer valuables!" If you ask him about the police he says, "They aren't after me; are they?" Also, don't think that running away from him will help you any because he'll chase after you and smash your head with his mallet. My favorite place in the game is the cave. It contains interesting areas and plenty of puzzles. It also contains one of my favorite puzzles: the wall of fruit. As you explore the cave, it becomes less and less like a cave (it contains stuff like a telephone booth and a safe). Its parser is quite good. It is easy to use and understands fairly sophisticated commands. However, it can't do really fancy stuff like recognizing multiple commands. Like Humbug, it is humorous but not as much. It is still rather witty, and it sure adds to the game, though. My wildcard points are once again for the humour. Its main flaw is its puzzles. Many of the puzzles were too hard, such as the colored buttons one. The hint system solves this problem partially, but it is no substitute for good puzzles. Don't get me wrong, though. It has many good puzzles such as the wall of fruit that I mentioned earlier, but there should have been many more. Overall, Jacaranda Jim is a good game and worth playing, but it could have been an excellent game if the puzzles had been better. Atmosphere: 1.3 Gameplay: 1.5 Writing: 1.5 Plot: 1.2 Humour: 1.3 Total: 6.8 Characters: 1.3 Puzzles: .8 FTP FilePC game files (.zip) FTP FileSolution (including registration key)

Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win

From: Joe Mason <jcmason SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #19 -- January 14, 2000 TITLE: Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces To Win AUTHOR: J.D. Berry E-MAIL: berryx SP@G DATE: November 1999 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 One of the things I've always liked most about adventure games is plunging into another world - learning its rules and background. That's why Jacks was a delight. You play the head of a church with a large bureaucracy whose officers are named A's, B's, and C's. (The lowest rank we see is an E.) Districts are also given letters, leading to characters with names like the B of H. Each B heads a district: you are apparently the one and only A. "Jack" is slang for a hired killer. The goal of the game is to survive and assassination attempt. I've heard the rule "show, don't tell", and frankly I have no truck with it. Neither does the author of Jacks. During the opening text, you are introduced briefly to your character, the world, and the fact that you suspect a plot. Throughout the game, you are handed every deduction which your character makes. I don't see this as a flaw: it kept the story moving, and was a good way to mix the presentation of world background with the narrative. The player is supposed to be someone very experienced in the local politics, and having the game present you with appropriate memories and conclusions as they come into play was a good way to keep this believable. The technique does break down, though. First, the writing is pretty ham-handed at times. Although there are a few great descriptions and some good moments, most of the writing is only serviceable. When descriptions were presented badly, it wasn't too bad, but it was really jarring when the player's thoughts were handled clumsily. This happened more towards the end. There was also a tendency to infodumps. In the opening text, this was excusable (although, "You, the venerable A, are..." is not a very catchy opening), but when a character was introduced later with a long political discussion, it really broke the pace. A second problem is that the ending really isn't up to the rest of the game. It seems to be cut off quite abruptly, and the writing is very clumsy. Right before the finale, a subplot is introduced and resolved in exactly one move (three or four if you stop to examine things). The subplot is bracketed by more infodumps explaining the political importance of what just happened: they gave a good feel for the background, but really shouldn't have intruded in the middle of the game. Cutting the subplot and devoting the extra space to the main plot would have made the ending much better: the subplot could have been expanded on in a sequel. In fact, the game cries out for a sequel. Using this short scenario as a way of imparting background information is a great way to introduce a world and a character which could be developed further. I'd like to see a game with a similar tone which isn't so linear, and with a greater scope for politicking. The church isn't actually fleshed out that well - it feels more like a surface sketch - but its hard to tell whether thats because of the game's length (or lack thereof) or because the author was actually writing it off the top of his head. The pseudo-science aspects of the randomly generated church dogma lead me to feel its the latter, but the world, sketchy though it is, is engaging enough that I'm sure the author could do a game with much more depth there if he wished. The randomly generated church dogma is hilarious, by the way. "Which gets back to what I was saying earlier, if you are serious about our religion, you will account for a positive outlook." "You don't need to be the A to know frequent efforts can put our words into practice regarding life in general." "Clearly, among all things, it's not throwing the baby out with the bathwater to go beyond inertia." Rating: Base: 8 (Really good game, but a few flaws) +1 (A complex setting to dive into) -1 (Prone to infodumps) -1 (The ending loses it) Final: 7 (Should be great, but has many flaws) FTP FileDirectory with Inform .z5 file and walkthrough


From: Jessica Knoch <jessicaknoch SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #31 -- January 3, 2003 TITLE: Jane AUTHOR: Joseph Grzesiak EMAIL: jane SP@G DATE: September 2002 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters AVAILABILITY: IF Archive URL: VERSION: Release 1 This was an interesting one. It starts right out telling you that it "deals with the potentially uncomfortable topic of domestic abuse." Telling the player up front about the topic is a very wise move, in this case: Jane is really nothing like a traditional work of interactive fiction. The idea is simple. You play the role of various characters over the course of a few weeks/months in the story of a woman with a violent husband. There isn't a lot of room for changing the course of what happens; in fact, I think it's pretty much impossible. You may not notice it much the first time, but play it through again. This isn't just the linearity of a story-game, though: the inability to affect the ultimate outcome of the story actually lends to the sense of helplessness in the title character, and the helplessness too of those around her, who watch and want to help but can't seem to find the right thing to do or say. The conversation is done with menus, which is a fine way of doing it when you're trying to tell a specific story. The problem is this: a menu with only one option isn't really much of a menu. The author explains in the afterword that he would have preferred to implement more conversation options. I can imagine it's a pain in the butt, keeping track of conversations and characters and stuff -- heck, Emily Short has written more than one game entirely consisting of complex conversation. So I don't mind too much. I also agree with what the author says in the afterword about alternate endings: if he had implemented an ending where Jane gets away from her abusive husband, then he would risk making any ending where she doesn't seem like a "losing" ending, and that can't help but trivialize the subject. It's a difficult thing to handle in a work of interactive fiction, but I think this is an excellent attempt. It is a little disorienting to switch from one character to another -- yes, I know everyone always says that. It doesn't make it any less true, and it's also true that it detracts from the overall feel of character and cohesiveness of the story. At the same time, though, the two scenes near the beginning that we get from the husband's point of view are invaluable for a deeper understanding of the complexities of the topic, which is something the author was clearly trying to portray. There's no question that the piece is being used to raise awareness of domestic abuse, and I'm not really sure that the Comp is the place for such things. On the other hand, it certainly is honest about what it's doing, and uncomfortable though it is to play through, there is no doubt of it's sincerity. And I do approve of raising awareness of such things in general. This is by no means a fun game, but it is well coded and a competent job of story-telling. There are a couple of oddities that only an "IFer" would notice, mostly scenery objects that can't be interacted with as you might expect in reality: shoes that can't be picked up, a bench you cannot sit down on, and a wife you can't kiss ("Keep your mind on the game" is quite a jarring response when I've forgotten that this is anything related to a "game" at all). Plus I couldn't save or transcript and I don't know why. In summary, a thoughtful piece that addresses a serious issue in a skilled and competent way. (There, I went the whole review without mentioning Photopia. D'oh, I just did!) FTP FileDirectory with zcode .z5 file and walkthrough


From: David Welbourn <dswxyz SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #31 -- January 3, 2003 TITLE: Janitor AUTHOR: Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn EMAIL: ifcomp SP@G DATE: September 2002 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters AVAILABILITY: IF Archive URL: VERSION: Release 1 Do you like puzzles? Do you like a challenge? Are you nostalgic for games like Colossal Cave and Zork I? And do you like breaking mimesis? Yes? Then this is the game for you. Remember Zero Sum Game from 1997? In that game, you had just finished an adventure with the high score, but then your mom ordered you to put all your treasures back where you found them. Janitor starts out much the same way, except this time you’re a janitor at the Flavorplex Text Adventure Company, a player has finished the game, and it’s your job to put everything back. And just like in Zero Sum Game, the score goes down when you solve a puzzle, not up. Fortunately, Janitor is far less bloodthirsty. An added conceit to the proceedings is the addition of mimesis and space warping technologies. The internal game, a cave-crawl called Flavorplex Qualifying Adventure, is built like a series of movie sets adjoining the company’s hallways, and populated with actual treasures. But internally, a mimesis field makes the sets seem real and hides the access corridor exits, while some other pseudoscience connects the rooms so that they follow the adventure’s desired layout. And you’re equipped with a mimesis disruptor in your mop so you can see how the rooms really are and get your job done. So once you’ve understood all that (and probably made two contradictory maps of the place), and stopped chuckling at all the in-jokey game references, you can start figuring out what goes where. As you might imagine, it’s somewhat tricky, and in places somewhat unfairly so. I wasn’t done when my two hours ran out, and I had to rate it partway through. (There are hints, both in-game, and in an external html file should you need them. And, in time, I did need them.) Still, the game wouldn’t let me go. Quite apart from the desire to successfully reset the game, there were clues that something wasn’t quite right about Flavorplex; there’s a mystery to solve as well. You might want to talk to your boss’s secretary, Eva, guest starring from Grim Fandango, about a few things. And when you’ve won Janitor, you can still continue to play by playing the Flavorplex game forwards! What fun. Rating: 8 FTP FileDirectory with zcode .z5 file and hints

Jewel of Knowledge

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #18 -- September 15, 1999 TITLE: Jewel of Knowledge AUTHOR: Francesco Bova E-MAIL: fbova SP@G DATE: 1999 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 Is the truest/highest purpose of IF entertainment, or art, or a fusion of the two? Is a game that provides an enjoyable playing experience as worthy as one that questions the nature of the form, or slyly sends up cliches or assumptions about its genre? Should the IF community turn up its nose at games that aspire to be nothing more than a collection of puzzles, bound by a tried-and-true plot? Francesco Bova's recently released Jewel of Knowledge does not pose these questions, technically, but playing through it does bring to mind some issues at the very core of IF--because, in its essense, Jewel of Knowledge is a puzzle-fest dungeon crawl in the tradition of Colossal Cave, Zork, and other foundational works of IF. To be sure, it gives the player considerably more backstory than most of the seminal dungeon-crawl works, and your motivations are considerably more developed. But what really works here is what made the canonical dungeon crawls work, namely good puzzles and a well-described setting; the moments where the author tries to question the assumptions of those traditional dungeon crawls are far less effective. Let me be clear, though: there are many intriguing innovations in Jewel of Knowledge that may well catch a Zork veteran off guard. Particularly notable is the opening sequence, which makes the backstory/prologue of the game interactive and forces the player to pay attention to the story rather than ignoring it and blithely jumping into the puzzles. While the plot does not at first glance appear novel--defeat three dragons, obtain the McGuffin of the title--the story follows a rather different path than the fantasy-game aficionado might expect. Other mild surprises include a maze that isn't what it appears to be and a false puzzle of sorts, an obstacle that cannot be passed in the expected way. These are effective in the context of the game because they keep the player guessing. Moreover, many of the puzzles are genuinely creative. Particularly notable is a cloak into which the player can insert other objects (the exact physical process here is left vague); the cloak then assumes the properties of those objects. The game doesn't do as much as it might with the implications of this power--some of the stranger and more interesting results are left sadly underdescribed. Still, it's an interesting idea that gives rise to some unusual puzzles. The maze mentioned above is clever as well and accommodates different solutions, in a sense, and other puzzles turn on recognizing relationships between objects in ways that reward careful reading. It is obvious to anyone who has finished Jewel of Knowledge, however, that the author had more on his mind when writing the game than coding original puzzles and arranging them in a satisfying sequence. There are Weighty Issues Afoot; progressively stronger hints develop them throughout the game, such that the finale is a surprise only for the player who hasn't been paying much attention at all. But while the game does a nice job of developing the PC's character and fitting him into the story, the author overdoes his theme--and what was presumably supposed to be a surprise ending becomes painfully obvious. The loudly moralistic ending is exacerbated by a guess-what-the-author's-thinking game for the optimal ending; even if the player recognizes the action that would lead to the suboptimal ending, she's likely to try it just to get a clue toward what the author _really_ wants her to do. The trouble is partly that the point isn't all that novel--Zork III made it much more subtly--and the alternatives presented at the end are painted in such stark colors that it doesn't actually say much to us. (Admittedly, it may be asking a lot to expect a fantasy game to say anything of note, but a more nuanced set of options might have helped.) There are similar problems with the writing. Parts of Jewel of Knowledge are impressively well-written: the scenes, by and large, are set vividly and economically, and the cave setting comes alive even for players who have already seen thousands of cave settings. There is plenty of geological detail (shades of Colossal Cave) that reduces the feeling that the cave is just a generic setting for the author's House o' Puzzles. (The geology even plays a part in some of the puzzles.) Other descriptions give the setting some atmosphere, though on the whole there isn't much of that. But there are also many awkwardly phrased moments, and, unsurprisingly, many of them come along when the author is reminding us of his Themes. This passage, from a conversation with your companion, is not entirely atypical: "Of course, returning the Jewel to Amylya will provide us with a lifestyle we could have only dreamed of," continues Jacob, "and the omniscience that the Jewel brings would tempt any person." Any person? Conversation isn't easy to write, but jarring moments like these don't help. Likewise, in what is presumably supposed to be a chilling moment, you discover the body of your companion: Oh, the horror! Lying face down on the cold granite ledge is your former colleague Ariana! Looking up through the shaft, you deduce that this must have been the air pocket she fell through a few layers up. The tone wobbles badly--any "horror" the player feels is minimized by the ill-placed observation about the air pocket. On the other hand, in the same scene, there is one particularly well-done line: You feel a lump in your throat as you realise that your nimble friend won't be around to experience the joy of your triumph as you bring home the Jewel. The author makes a rather surprising point here about the essential selfishness of the PC--and while it's jarring to interrupt the player's sympathy for Ariana, it does serve the purposes of the story. The writing isn't world-class, in other words, but it's good enough to be worth paying attention to--particularly in in the way it develops the protagonist's character. Likewise, from a technical standpoint, Jewel of Knowledge is mostly successful despite some rough spots. Some puzzles take more experimenting with verbs and syntax than seems strictly necessary, and others take more manipulation and searching of apparently insignificant scenery than one would expect from the average player. (At one point, moreover, the author seems to have unintentionally created a puzzle involving your escape from a dream or reverie, since the required action is rather obscure.) But there are very few bugs, and the design flaws don't significantly impede the player's progress. There are well-done little bits here and there, such as a warning system when the player is about to render the game unwinnable, and a "practice" puzzle reminiscent of Edifice. Jewel of Knowledge is, in fact, well-crafted enough that the forced ending is all the more disappointing--and yet it does manage to say something, even if unwittingly, about the state of IF. It is not exactly a secret that generic cave crawls focused entirely on gathering treasure are no longer in fashion, but Jewel of Knowledge, it may fairly be said, goes out of its way to avoid that label just a bit too much. No doubt this is the product of envelope-pushing IF that have left the traditional fantasy quests looking unimaginative, but it should still be possible to combine the traditional fantasy game with a modicum of irony; that was, after all, Zork III's approach. Perhaps more importantly, the split in personality between the "game" side of Jewel of Knowledge, which is by and large well done, and the "fiction" side, which is a worthy effort but needs some help, leaves the whole thing feeling a bit schizophrenic. My point, if I have one, is that not all IF needs to be dedicated to pushing envelopes, erasing boundaries, overturning tropes. Certainly, it's fun and a good idea to send up familiar settings or introduce fourth-wall humor to show the player that you're hip to the latest trends. (Jewel of Knowledge does do this in a few spots, and quite well at that.) But IF can be perfectly serviceable as _entertainment_, hardly an illegitimate goal, without beating the player over the head with a message about the limitations or assumptions of the genre. Jewel of Knowledge feels like it wants, in its heart of hearts, to be a Spider and Web, a Losing Your Grip, a Photopia, and it just isn't up to the job. There is plenty to like about Jewel of Knowledge; in most respects, it's a worthy heir to the tradition of fantasy quests, and while it has some problems, they don't detract from the game aspect much. Unfortunately, as interactive fiction, the overall effect is best described as uneven. From: Karen Tyers <karvic SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #18 -- September 15, 1999 Jewel of Knowledge is the first offering by a promising new author, Francesco Bova, and hopefully it won't be the last. It is a traditional dungeon crawl, so for you purists out there, it's ideal. In my opinion (not worth much, but there you are), there are far too few traditional text adventures being written nowadays, and I have to confess I am not too sure that I like the way that interactive fiction is heading. I like to have puzzles to scratch my head over, and the trend towards puzzleless games doesn't appeal to me at all. You might just as well write a book and be done with it. There, now I'll get off my soapbox, and on with the game. When you start, you find yourself deep underground, obviously in the middle of some quest or other, but with very little information on what you are supposed to be doing. This had me stumped at first, but you do have a travelling companion (Jacob), and if you start talking to him about various things, you will find the game soon opens up, and since poor Jacob doesn't live very long, as usual in this type of game, you find yourself alone and very much up the creek without a paddle! I am not giving away anything here by telling you this, since in order for the game to start properly, unfortunately poor Jacob has to go and meet his Maker. OK, so you're now even deeper underground, and you must start to wander round the various tunnels and passageways in order to achieve your object of finding this wondrous jewel which is reputed to give it's owner unlimited knowledge and power. I really don't want to say much about the puzzles since it would give too much away, but there are lots of things to do in a very small playing area. What about that porous wall that you can look through - can you get to the other side of it? What about that shaft above the geyser - are you able to get up there? What about the crack in the roof of one of the tunnels? What about that skeleton that seems to be hiding something? The list goes on, and you haven't even met the three dragons yet! Is there any way of getting in contact with the people who sent you on this foolhardy mission in the first place? These are just a few of the questions you will have to find the answers to while playing this game. There are many more of course, and I have to say that although I got stuck in several places, none of the problems were insoluble with a little thought, and a lot of lateral thinking. Just a word of warning, don't be too quick to be destructive and violent - think about things. When I finally got to the endgame and found the jewel, I was quite relieved. I know from messages on the newsgroups that I subscribe to, that several people didn't like the ending, but I have to say that I found it to be a very refreshing change. I won't say more than that, as I don't want to spoil things, but I would be very interested to know what other people think. There are still one or two minor bugs in the game, but nothing that will stop you completing it. The author is aware of them, and they should be cleaned up shortly. I may be a little biased here, since I was involved in the beta-testing, but I would thoroughly recommend this as a smashing little game to while away a few hours. I do hope the author continues to write games like this, for those of us who still prefer a good old 'zorky' type of game. FTP FileInform file (.z5) FTP FileMap (.gif) FTP FileSolution (Text) FTP FileAlternate Walkthrough (Text)


From: Christopher E. Forman <ceforman SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #8 -- February 5, 1996 NAME: Jigsaw PARSER: Expanded Inform AUTHOR: Graham Nelson PLOT: Complex and entertaining EMAIL: graham SP@G ATMOSPHERE: Excellent AVAILABILITY: Freeware, IF Archive WRITING: Stylish & imaginative (.Z5 and .Z8 versions) SUPPORTS: Infocom ports PUZZLES: Varying, clever & logical DIFFICULTY: Hard CHARACTERS: Accurate but primarily underdeveloped The turn-of-the-millennium party at Century Park is something of a letdown, with little to do but run out the clock and, ultimately, let yourself succumb to the festive spirit that's already claimed all the other partygoers. Unless, of course, you found something else to take your attention away from it all. Something like a time machine, perhaps? "Jigsaw," the latest wonder from Graham Nelson ("Inform" and "Curses," for those of you who've been in comas for the last three years) promises to be every bit as fascinating a diversion as his previous works. As players jump back and forth through twentieth-century history, they discover pieces to complete the aforementioned time machine, which is in actuality a large jigsaw board. In that respect, "Jigsaw" really _is_ a large puzzle to be solved by the player. Each of the sixteen timeplaces houses a critical event that needs to be resolved so that history as we know it can proceed. Solving an area means you must determine where you are, figure out the critical event that's about to take place, take action to ensure that it happens as history tells you it did, and escape back through time to the jigsaw board. Complicating matters is a mysterious stranger in black, whom you recognize from the party, alternately hindering and (sometimes seemingly inexplicably) helping you. As the game progresses, a relationship develops between yourself and "Black," whose intentional lack of a specified gender sparked a brush-fire of discussion across r.g.i-f in the weeks following the release of "Jigsaw." Comparisons to Nelson's previous work is inevitable. "Jigsaw" stacks up very well to "Curses," although IMHO, it's not quite as extravagant as the popular attic search. Perhaps this is because "Curses" was released during a severe I-F drought, and its superior parser and excellent gameplay immediately astounded players. There was nothing out there even remotely close to it at the time. Now that the shortage is comfortably over, "Jigsaw" suffers a little. Don't get me wrong, though. It's still one of the very best games out there, and it does manage to overcome the (few) problems "Curses" had. For instance, the jigsaw board gives the game's layout a more structured feel, whereas the whole of "Curses" always seemed slightly fractured and incoherent, with several seemingly unrelated puzzles simply thrown together (again, only my opinion). And whereas "Curses" took awhile for me to really get into, "Jigsaw" drew me in right away with the powerful first meeting between White (as the player is referred to) and Black, in Sarajevo. Virtually all of the timeplaces are self-contained and require no outside information to solve, but this doesn't make the game any less challenging. Some of the puzzles here are very, very hard -- the ghost plane, the moon, and the Enigma machine were particularly taxing. Everything has a satisfying, logical solution to it, and the clues aren't buried quite as deeply as in "Curses," although you still need to examine everything. Another game to compare "Jigsaw" to would be Legend Entertainment's cult classic "TimeQuest," as both share a similar premise -- that of jumping back and forth between historical events to preserve the timestream's integrity. Personally, I found the historical figures in "Jigsaw" to be handled more realistically than those in "TimeQuest." While the "Jigsaw" player gets to see many of them up close, direct interaction is usually minimized. "TimeQuest" required the player to speak and act around its historical personages to influence their actions, often in unrealistic, sometimes almost laughable, ways. The atmosphere in "Jigsaw" is better, giving its areas a dark, gritty edge that's necessary to make it convincingly realistic (in particular, the Berlin chapter is one of my favorites). Sadly, while the NPC's are very accurate (Graham Nelson did his research), aside from Black, they are not as interactive as I'd hoped. It would have been nice to be able to ask them about a larger number of things, for instance. "TimeQuest" offers a much wider variety of (amusing) queries. I found "TimeQuest" quite overwhelming at the start, though, with nearly eighty timeplaces open for exploration at the very beginning (although the game does make some effort to point you in the right direction). "Jigsaw," by contrast, keeps just enough timeplaces open at once to give the player a variety of alternatives to choose from. This furthers the structured, episodic feel of the game: At the start, you have a small number of places to visit; in the middle-game, nearly half the board is unexplored; and as the endgame draws near, the number of unsolved pieces is again reduced. Speaking of the endgame, I must confess that I felt it tended to drag on considerably, with nothing for the player to do but solve an extremely linear sequence of puzzles chasing after a single object. Saying more would necessitate spoilers, so I'll close by saying that the endgame in the Land is by far the weakest portion of "Jigsaw." Once the player gets through it, though, a satisfying conclusion awaits. "Jigsaw" also sports a nifty performance of the Z-Machine assembler, in the appearance of the board and puzzle pieces. Graham Nelson again works wonders with his Inform compiler (but I noticed that "Jigsaw" uses version 6.0, currently unavailable to the rest of the I-F community). If you haven't played "Jigsaw" yet, then by all means, do so. You won't regret it. From: Adam J. Thornton <adam SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #8 -- February 5, 1996 [Beware, Adam's review borders on a few spoilers near the end, though I edited out what I could. -GKW] _Jigsaw_ is the second full-size game from Graham Nelson, author of _Curses_ and the Inform compiler. As one would expect, then, it has been written in Inform, and is thus an Infocom-format story file. There are actually two separate versions of each release: one the familiar .z5 Version 5 story file, such as used in _Trinity_, in which the game and footnotes are separated into separate files, and one in the new Version 8 format. Infocom never wrote a .z8 story file; the format itself is new, and was developed by the author as a way to lift the restrictions of v5 analogously to the way v5 removed certain v3 limitations. This, then, is the first Inform game that could not, in principle, have been an Infocom product. That is to say, the sheer quantity of this game places it outside the scope of even late-period textual Infocom. The game is certainly one of the biggest currently existing. For sheer amount of text, only _The Legend Lives_ and possibly _Avalon_ (of the games in my experience) come close; both of those are TADS games, and therefore have a different set of limitations and restrictions with which to cope. However, quantity does not, of course, imply quality. We need only to look at the sixteen (?) floppy diskettes of _Leather Goddesses of Phobos II_. _Jigsaw_ is big. Is it good? I'll cut the suspense short: yes, it's good. It's very, very good. It is clearly intended by Nelson as his _Trinity_. I consider this an awfully ambitious goal, as _Trinity_ is, in my opinion, Infocom's finest hour. No one else currently working in IF could, I think, write anything approaching another _Trinity_. This is not to disparage any of the fine works that have recently appeared or soon will be appearing. _Avalon_ is a fine game; it also involves a lot of time travel, modularized puzzles, and a plot of cosmic significance. But it doesn't try to be _Trinity_; _Legend_ has lots of travel--this time spatial rather than temporal--between worlds and a plot of cosmic significance, although its puzzles tend to be much less self-contained; however, it too does not attempt to be _Trinity_. The structural similarities between _Jigsaw_ and _Trinity_ are striking. Both have a motif of a central place from which portals lead to other worlds; in _Jigsaw_ these worlds are found within the puzzle of the title; _Trinity's_ mushrooms provide its portals. In each, there is a specific problem in each world which must be fixed for the game to proceed. In each game, the fate of the world hangs in the balance, and devolves onto the player, initially just another IF protagonist--in _Jigsaw_, a millenarian partygoer, and in _Trinity_ a boorish American tourist. There are more subtle parallels as well: each game abounds in animals, and both are liberally sprinkled with quotations from external sources. Remember _Trinity's_ quotations? I do. "Tomorrow never yet/ On any human being rose or set." "Time isn't holding us/ Time isn't after us/ Same as it ever was/ Same as it ever was." "Tempus edax rerum." It was the first time I realized that IF was heir to the same wealth of allusion that traditional fiction is; if you like, the first time it hit me that IF could be Art rather than mere recreation. Nelson has managed to find the same sensitivity in choosing appropriate quotations; like _Curses_, _Jigsaw_ bears the stamp of someone gifted not only with his own words, but with knowing when to use those of others. _Trinity's_ historical research was good, particularly in the painstakingly correct layout of Trinity Site. _Jigsaw_ has raised the stakes again. It is clear that a great deal of reading has gone into the recreation of its historical set-pieces: Kitty Hawk, the S.S. Titanic, Proust's apartment, and others. This, of course, suggests the other comparison between _Trinity_ and _Jigsaw_. Where do they differ? _Trinity_ has eight worlds; _Jigsaw_ sixteen. _Trinity_ has the lemmings, the bees, the magpie, the German shepherd, the lizard, the rattlesnake, and, of course, the roadrunner. There are sixteen sketchable animals in _Jigsaw_, and a host of others that make cameos. "Sketchable?" I hear you cry. Patience. All will be revealed. Up to now I have told you how _Jigsaw_ is and isn't _Trinity_, but very little as to what it is. One way of characterizing it might be: _Trinity_, but with a love story and a sketchbook. You play White, the generic IF protagonist; you start at a quarter to midnight in Century Park, somewhere in London, on the evening of December 31, 1999. You have a party invitation; it instructs you to wear white--hence your character's appellation--and have seen a brief glimpse of an attractive stranger, dressed all in black. Shortly after, you come upon a giant jigsaw piece, and a very bizarre statue of a very bizarre man, one Grad Kaldecki, whose fault all this will turn out to have been. Then a monument to him. There's also a strange device, a rucksack that looks--and acts--surprisingly like the one in _Curses_, and a sketch book belonging to a girl named Emily, intended to hold drawings of animals. WIth luck, you can figure out what to do before the celebrations start and you are sucked into the merriment. What you find is a giant jigsaw puzzle; and you're already carrying a piece. Add to this a lovely Victorian clock, and you have the makings of an adventure, as, when a piece is correctly placed, it opens up a portal to another area of the game. There are sixteen pieces. Each one is a self-contained puzzle; in no place do you need an object from any other, although a certain gadget found in one scene can be used in another, but is then lost--and therefore must be put to its intended use before being taken to that world, and one animal can only, I think, be sketched with the use of an object from another piece of the puzzle. Through the course of the puzzles, there seem to be three ongoing goals: you need to collect the remaining pieces of the jigsaw, you ought to sketch the animals you find, and you get to know Black, the Mysterious Stranger, somewhat better. The motivation is admittedly weak here: putting together the puzzle and sketching the animals are both things done only because the materials to do so are at hand. While the rationale behind the puzzle pieces appears early on, until the epilogue is reached, there is no indication of the point of the sketchbook. Graham Nelson has done an amazing job with the White-Black romance. Black is never assigned a gender: she or he can be whatever you want him or her to be, as long as it's attractive. Black has stayed a caucasian female for me, though White's gender has fluctuated. has had a long discussion on the technique used. It is, I think, devastatingly effective. I have a theory that Black's gender may in fact be determined, but to give my speculation would give away a great deal of the game. Black, it turns out, is trying to modify the course of the Twentieth Century to make it better, or at least, what Black feels to be better. After realizing that allowing Black to make his or her changes is fatal to the progress of the game, it becomes clear that your job, as White, is to keep history the way it was, or, at least within the context of the game, should have been. This means thwarting Black at (almost) every turn; the tension between preserving your future and courting Black is ridiculously persuasive, despite that fact that Black is no more interactive than your standard IF NPC and that the depth of your crush on Black, within the game, makes little sense. This is another of my criticisms of the game: for someone on whom you're so hung up, you can do curiously little to elicit responses from Black. And one feels that, given Black's behavior throughout the game, you may well be heartily sick of the poltroon by the end. The endgame takes place in The Land; it includes knowing winks to _Colossal Cave_ and _Zork_, and is basically one long Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson puzzle: what you have to do is obvious, but, as you try to do it, like the Babel Fish in _Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy_, obstacles keep interposing. It's charming, and reasonably climactic. And just when you think it's all over, there's an epilogue, which (finally) reveals the purpose of the sketchbook, brings closure to the tension with Black, and, like _Trinity_, drops you back into the circle of time. The game fares well as narrative; but how is it as a game? In short, just fine. There a few flaws: one has to "look under" too many things. The Barge scene needs a bit more of a clue; as it stands, it's a "guess the author's intention" puzzle. For someone so central to the game, one would hope that Black were more interactive, but he/she doesn't seem to ever want to talk to you. There is one puzzle of exhaustion: the Enigma machine. One feels that Nelson was so pleased with what a spectacular bit of programming modeling an Enigma Machine in Inform was that he forgot to ask whether it would be a good puzzle. If one more stecker were given, reducing the problem to brute-forcing one steckering and one wheel setting, it would be a less annoying puzzle. There is one maze, thankfully brief and not a standard drop-and-map maze. There is one egregious "guess-the-verb" puzzle. There are also a few wonderful puzzles. The Ghost Bomber is one such; although I've seen complaints from the rgif readers about it, I found it logical, well-motivated, and well-executed. Berlin is small, but tightly constructed and entertaining. In fact, most of the worlds have tight and satisfying puzzles. At the end of the day, _Jigsaw_ is a masterful game. It lacks the endearing silliness of _Curses_; it is a much more serious game. It could not have come from Infocom, and I suspect could never have been produced as a commercial venture: too much effort went into the research to have been commercially viable. It is arguably the finest piece of IF yet written. That includes _Trinity_. I have not yet decided whether I prefer _Jigsaw_ or _Trinity_; for once, trying to compare _Trinity_ to anything else is not comparing apples and oranges. However, _Jigsaw_ ranks, on my personal scale of games, comfortably within the top two, followed at some distance by _Spellbreaker_. I close with an observation and three questions: first, I would like to see a full bibliography rather than just the scattered notes at the end of each section's footnote. Since the v8 format is huge, and since the v5 footnote file is small, could we not also have a list of "Have you tried..." as we had in Curses? Second, shouldn't the bowl in Paris contain lime, rather than jasmine, tea? Finally, who is Emily? [By the way, before everyone starts asking if Avalon is done again, noticing Adam's comments in his reviews, I'd better head you off and say that no, it isn't, and Adam is one of my betatesters, hence he's actually seen the thing.] From: Gareth Rees <gdr11 SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #9 -- June 11, 1996 "Jigsaw" opens on the night of December 31st, 1999, at a party to celebrate the new millennium. Feeling out of sympathy with the thronging party-goers, and unable to find again the attractive stranger in black who has just slipped away, you wander off to explore a mysterious monument built by the late eccentric millionaire Grad Kaldecki. You discover that Kaldecki has constructed -- or somehow obtained access to -- a time machine. In the centre of the monument, the time machine takes the baroque form of a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces (once found) give access to turning points in twentieth century history. Kaldecki planned to alter history, but died with his work barely started, leaving his acolyte (the attractive stranger, soon capitalised as Black) to complete his megalomaniacal scheme. Much against your will, you find yourself trailing around the century in Black's wake, trying to restore history to its rightful course, and searching for hidden jigsaw pieces. You visit some of the most important moments in twentieth century history: World War I, the Wright brothers, women's suffrage, the Moon landings, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall. (Though not every historian would place the writing of Proust's novel "A la Recherche de Temps Perdu" in this list!) The quest is complicated by a romance between you and Black, and by hints of metaphysical significance when you enter a realm called "The Land," whose mist-shrouded locations are emblematic of the great themes: Art, Science, War, and Nature. It is often an axiom in time-cop novels that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that any kind of interference with history must be disastrous. "Jigsaw" rigidly enforces this convention by ending the game whenever the past is changed. This extreme historical conservatism sits uneasily with some of the chapters: it is not clear why eight million men had to die for the sake of the world as we know it, nor what is so bad about the world described in the following paragraph that World War I was preferable: You shake your head, confused. Why did the mad London-born architect Kettering build this monument? Why did the government of the Franco-British Republic ever allow Century Park to be built here at Versailles? Never Mind: time to go and get a drink of potato brandy from the commissars and toast the new millennium. Sometimes it is completely implausible that the disturbance in the past could have led to the result you see. For example, in the Suez Canal chapter, the wider outcome does not depend on your actions: even though Black brokered a deal to prevent the Suez Crisis, the powers that be always intended to renege on the deal. "Jigsaw" is a huge game, one of the largest text adventures ever written. It is made manageable only by its episodic structure: each time zone can be treated more or less as a separate game, requiring only those objects that are nearby to solve its puzzles. (Though there are a few interconnections between the eras to make life interesting, and attempts to use anachronistic objects inappropriately are often amusing.) "Jigsaw"'s puzzles are hard; often all you can do is collect the available objects and fiddle with them, without any real understanding of what your objective is until you've achieved it. Particularly unfortunate in this respect are the Alexander Fleming, women's suffrage and East Berlin chapters. A few other puzzles refer to classic works of interactive fiction including "Adventure," "Zork" and "Enchanter," and the novice without this background will struggle. Some of the puzzles, on the other hand, are inspired. In one chapter, you find yourself at Bletchley Park in World War II and have to decrypt a message encoded by the Enigma machine. Sweating away at this problem, I suddenly realised that, whereas the usual derring-do of and adventure game is only so much make-believe, in this case my task was made no easier by its fictional nature. Of course, my 1940s counterparts faced a more difficult Enigma machine -- Nelson's being slightly simplified -- and had to succeed without the benefit of information gained by supernatural means, had no access to high-speed computers, and faced rather greater consequences of failure than merely an unfinished game. I found myself thinking, "If Turing and Newman could do it, then surely I, with all these advantages, can do it too!" The most interesting feature of "Jigsaw" is the war it deals with Black's sex. By cunning paraphrase, Nelson manages to avoid ever stating whether Black is male or female: knowing only that Black is attractive to you, you are free to project your own preference onto the situation. This is a more elegant device than the outright question "Are you male or female?" or the various other contrivances by which Infocom games force a decision on you. Not every reader appreciates this elegance: at least one person posting to, having noticed that both you and Black are able to pass yourselves off successfully in masculine roles, argued that you and Black must therefore be gay men. But given the fantastic nature of the piece, and the famous cases of women who have gone disguised as men for long periods of time without detection, it is foolish to rigidly insist on such an interpretation. "Jigsaw" is Nelson's second game. His first, "Curses," grew by stages into a mish-mash of Celtic Druids and King Arthur rubbing shoulders with classical Greek Gods and the poems of T.S. Eliot. The effect is certainly startling, but I imagine that a writer as attracted to elaborate formal structures as Nelson could not be satisfied with the outcome. A new game gave him the opportunity to make amends. The result is dominated by structures based on the numbers 16 and 100. There are 16 time zones, 16 chapters, 16 jigsaw pieces, 16 animals to sketch, 16 locations in the Land and the game starts with 16 minutes to go before the start of the new century. There are 100 years in the Twentieth Century and 100 points to be scored. There are also pairings of opposites: Prologue and Epilogue, Black and White, nature and technology, the dead Land and the living Land, the party at the end of the century and the party at the beginning, the chapel unbuilt and the chapel disused. At times I felt the correspondences and allegory were too obvious and too much; Black's schematic role rather overshadows the tentative story of Black's relationship with the player (and this is now helped by the flexible order of the chapters). "Jigsaw" also lacks the excitement and unpredictability which "Curses" achieved by being so chaotic. Still, "Jigsaw" is extremely good by the standards of existing text adventure games, and certainly good enough to be worth paying the compliment of taking it seriously. Although it adopts a traditional puzzle-based style of game-play, and doesn't make any technical advances beyond the state of the art, it does wonders with the limited techniques at its disposal. Everyone who enjoys text adventures should play it. FTP FileInform Game File w/ Help (.z8) FTP FileInform File, Help Only (.z5) FTP FileInform File, Game Only (.z5) FTP FileSolution (Text)

The Jim MacBrayne games (The Mission, Holy Grail, Frustration, Golden Fleece)

From: Duncan Stevens <dnrb SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #21 -- June 15, 2000 TITLES: The Mission; Holy Grail; Frustration; Golden Fleece AUTHOR: Jim MacBrayne E-MAIL: jmacb SP@G DATES: 1996 PARSER: TADS 1.0 SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URLS: VERSIONS: The Mission: Release 1.02 Holy Grail: Release 1.01 Frustration: Release 1.02 Golden Fleece: Release 1.00 Among the most obscure denizens of the IF Archive are four games by one Jim MacBrayne--all written in 1989 and 1990 (possibly in AGT--I'm not sure), and ported to TADS and uploaded sometime in 1996. And while there are technically four games--Holy Grail, The Mission, Golden Fleece, and Frustration--they're so similar that they're practically indistinguishable. For that matter, their merits and faults are all pretty much the same as well: they're quite well put together but not especially engaging. The genre is vaguely fantasy, though the settings go back and forth between modern-day and otherwise (within the same game-- medieval castles and mysterious machinery sit virtually side by side). The premise of Holy Grail involves medieval stuff, as you might imagine, but it hardly matters, since the plot is all but irrelevant to these games; the objective amounts to object- collecting. (True, in Frustration, the idea is to pull together items on your shopping list--but it doesn't really change the game significantly, since you don't find the relevant items in places you're looking for them, unless you look for honey by climbing trees in deserts.) All four games are out-and-out puzzlefests in the tradition of classic IF--the objective provides a vague excuse for your being there, and a nice ending message, but doesn't really affect what comes in between. The puzzles themselves are at once varied and oddly monotonous. Keys for doors play a very big part--all four games are simply littered with keys--and magic potions with various unforeseeable effects are also a recurring theme. All four of the games feature at least one math problem and at least one maze, and all of them revolve around singularly bizarre magical transportation systems which make it annoyingly easy to strand yourself somewhere and make the game unfinishable. Not many of the puzzles break out of the apply-object-X-to-obstacle-Y feel, and many of those that do rely on trial and error and weird intuitive leaps. One puzzle in Golden Fleece, for example, involves what amounts to a giant see- saw, and requires lots of tedious object-moving to balance the seesaw properly; another at the beginning of Holy Grail involves, in essence, a timing device to open and close a door. Creative puzzles both, but highly obscure--and the relevant descriptions don't help much. There are other, stranger similarities. All four games have at least a few "Broom Cupboard" locations--Jim has a fondness for the things, whether or not there are brooms around--and three of the four have at least one long hall that you traipse along, opening doors. All of them are inordinately fond of buttons or switches that trigger something else somewhere in the game, no longer a favored approach to IF design; likewise, all of them have lots and lots of useless rooms. In fact, the author sometimes gives the impression that someone's requiring him to have a certain minimum number of locations (perhaps he worked for Sycamora Tree), because he often seems to make fun of himself for throwing in useless rooms: Small Chamber The small chamber you have entered has but two features. One of these is the small doorway inset into the wall to your north, whilst the other is its total lack of interest. Or, even stranger: Almost-featureless Chamber An involuntary gasp of recognition issues from your throat as you pass into this dead-end chamber. Wonderingly your gaze travels over the walls, floor and ceiling, remarking on the total absence of mossy growths, damp patches, stalactites or any other remarkable features. You are about to come to the the apparently-inescapable conclusion that this is a featureless chamber, when your eye comes to rest on a knobbly little bit of rock with a texture and colour marginally but sufficiently different from that of the surrounding rocks as to make the chamber almost-featureless. Calm down, Jim. There's a balance to be struck, of course, in crafting a setting--not every location needs to be absolutely crucial--but when a room has so little purpose that the description consists of a comment about how useless the room is, it's time to rethink. It's especially odd because many of the settings are effectively described--granted, some of them throw too many diverse milieus into too little space, but most of the subsections and smaller areas within the game are well done. Those areas include numerous locations that are just there for the atmosphere, and they work very well. Unfortunately, as shown above, there are other locations that don't even play a role in providing atmosphere, unless the desired effect is dullness. Moreover, the volume of useless locations leads to a lot more traipsing around than seems strictly necessary. As games, all of MacBrayne's works are only somewhat successful. Certainly, if you're looking for an involving story, these don't have much to offer--but even on their terms, as collections of puzzles, these games have some problems. Too many of the puzzles rely on guesswork and on experimentation rather than on logic as such; it's hard to imagine that most players actually like pushing a button and then poking around the landscape to see what, if anything, happened. Much of the transportation involves going through one-way doors of sorts--and if you failed to bring something with you, or press a certain button that will end up opening a certain door, you're stuck. In other words, there's a lot of unfairness and player-unfriendliness going on. There's one puzzle in Frustration that turns on a rather silly pun, and another in the same game that amounts to a stubborn-parser trick, and another in Holy Grail that's the ultimate in knowledge- obtained-by-screwing-up. There are moments of creativity, but they're outnumbered by rather mindless give-object-to-obstacle puzzles. The shame of it is that Jim MacBrayne's games clearly reflect some real effort--there are lots and lots of objects in each one, for instance, and the objects all interact in more or less sensible ways. The writing is thorough, and though it's a bit overdone in places, it's usually good enough to convey the scene efficiently. There's some entertaining whimsy scattered here and there as well--there's a cut scene in Frustration involving a giant teddy bear (really), and there are numerous jokes of varying degrees of cleverness scattered through all four games. There's even a sense of dramatic progression at times-- particularly in The Mission, where your quest for the toothpick of Quetzlcoatl (really) is periodically interrupted by scenes out of some old boys' club, where the potentates who commissioned you with the quest speculate on the chances of your completing it. It's a cinematic device that I'd never seen in IF, and it's used to great effect here. The problem is that standards have changed since MacBrayne wrote these games, and even well-written puzzle- fests don't elicit much more than a yawn anymore--even when they don't have the game design flaws that these have. The year when these were released--1996--saw thoughtful efforts like So Far, Delusions and Tapestry that integrated story with puzzles in a way that little, if any, IF had done before; obsolescence, for old-style fantasy/puzzle IF like MacBrayne's games and Path to Fortune came suddenly. Works on the wrong side of that divide are treated more like museum pieces than works of actual interest now--and while the development is a healthy one is many respects, it left some games that were clearly the product of considerable labor out in the cold. It can't fairly be said that these are terrific examples of their kind; they're flawed in several respects on the design front. But they're solidly put together, and nostalgic old-style IF buffs just might enjoy one of them; Holy Grail is probably the best of the lot, but there's not much to distinguish them. For most of us, though, the main function of Jim MacBrayne's games is to offer some perspective on where IF has come. Frustration: FTP FileAmiga file FTP FileTADS .gam file and DOS TADS runtime FTP FileSolution Golden Fleece: FTP FileAmiga file FTP File1989 DOS version FTP FileTADS .gam file and DOS TADS runtime FTP FileSolution Holy Grail: FTP FileAmiga file FTP FileTADS .gam file and DOS TADS runtime FTP FileSolution The Mission: FTP FileTADS .gam file and DOS TADS runtime FTP FileSolution

John's Fire Witch

From: Magnus Olsson <mol SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #4 -- March 2, 1995 NAME: John's Fire Witch PARSER: Excellent AUTHOR: John Baker PLOT: Linear EMAIL: baker-j SP@G ATMOSPHERE: Very good, Enchanter-ish AVAILABILITY: IF Archive, S6 WRITING: Very good PUZZLES: Standard, with a few nice touches SUPPORTS: TADS CHARACTERS: Few, rather simple DIFFICULTY: Easy It's a cold December's day, and you're visiting your old friend John - or, rather, you would be visiting him if he were there; but he never showed up at the pizza place where you'd agreed to meet, his apartment is empty and unlocked, and you've got nothing better to do than spend the night on John's living-room floor. The next morning, you wake up to find that a terrible blizzard has cut off the house from the rest of the world. When searching the apartment, there's still no sign of John. There is, however, a deep, mysterious hole in his basement, a hole which turns out to take you straight into the middle of a conflict between magical powers... This is the starting point of "John's Firewitch," a short (in the author's words, "snack-sized" ) but extremely well-written piece of IF. On the surface, this game isn't very remarkable: it's quite simple (it took me about three hours to solve), neither the puzzles nor the story are very original, the author doesn't seem to have any high-flying literary ambitions, and there are no startling new innovations in game design. Still, this is one of the best - perhaps _the_ best - shareware games I've ever played; better, even, than most commercial games. I'm not quite sure I can put my finger on what makes it so good - it's always easier to pinpoint what you don't like about something than what you like - but "John's Firewitch" is simply very good workmanship; those little irritating glitches and mannerisms that seem to be unavoidable in non-commercial works are absent; the game is eminently playable (much thanks to the excellent parser); the puzzles logical with satisfying solutions; the ending forms a satisfying climax; the writing excellent and free from mannerisms and bad jokes; everything just feels right. The atmosphere and style of the game are very similar to Infocom's games, especially the Enchanter trilogy, with the possible exception of the beginning which shows a refreshing sense of self-irony (John in the game being the author's _alter ego_). It is much smaller than a typical Infocom game, though. If Enchanter is a novel, then this is a short story. This very shortness may be a reason for the game giving such a good impression. On the technical side, (as one reviewer noted on, the small size of the game saves the author from the complexity of large games (which tends to increase very rapidly with game size). On the literary side, it's much easier to maintain dramatic tension in a short work than in a long one; and this advantage is enhanced by the puzzles being easy (but certainly not obvious!), which keeps down the playing time. This reviewer, being a busy man with too little time to spend on IF, and in addition being slightly disturbed by the recent trend towards "simulationist" IF (where the authors try to provide a good simulation of their literary world, complete with all objects, an attempt which will only serve to overwhelm the poor player with useless information) would certainly like to see an increase in the number of small but well-written games like this. "John's Firewitch" is an excellent example to emulate for prospective authors. And with authors like John Baker around, why should we mourn the passing of Infocom? From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #12 -- December 13, 1997 There isn't a lot to John's Fire Witch; it's relatively short (250 moves or thereabouts required, and much of that is traveling hither and yon) and the puzzles and characters are simple. What's there, though, is refreshingly well put together, with very few obvious bugs or gameplay problems; as first efforts go, this is one of the better ones you'll find. You, the player, have come to visit your friend John Baker -- who, for an author included in his own game, takes quite a verbal beating; we certainly don't get a very good impression of John's habits and tastes. There is no sign of John in the apartment, though, other than junk scattered here and there and a diary left in the bedroom suggesting that John has stumbled into a confrontation between a Fire Witch and Ice Wizard residing in his basement. (This suggests to you about John that "years of heavy drinking have finally destroyed his mind.") Nevertheless, you investigate the hole in the basement and, sure enough, find all manner of strange things, none of them obviously supporting the claim that an Ice Wizard and Fire Witch are in the area (until the very end) but intriguing in their own right. The best of the puzzles is one involving a devil and the task he assigns you: the solution requires an intuitive leap of sorts, but a sensible one, if that makes sense; though most are fairly clever and rewarding to solve. There are few moments in John's Fire Witch that break the spell, so to speak, by drawing the player's attention to the mechanics of the game. One is a painful guess-the-verb moment, coupled with some illogicalities on the solution to the relevant puzzle (why one particular solution to the ring problem is deemed correct, and another incorrect, is less than obvious to me). There is a puzzle that cannot be solved until a certain number of turns have passed -- and if you move through the earlier part of the game efficiently, you may find yourself a bit puzzled about why there's no apparent way to move the game forward. (Or simply irritated about having to wait 50 or so turns for something to happen.) The inventory limit is fairly small and requires some step-retracing (arguably, this is more rather than less realistic, since the classic adventurer seems to have eleven hands, but it does complicate things), and there are a few situations that require somewhat exact syntax. But most nouns and verbs have several substitutes, though the game occasionally fails to fill in logical gaps (for instance, "sleep" with a bed in front of you puts you to sleep on the floor). Moreover, the game is free from scenery-object confusion, free from disambiguation problems, as far as I could tell ("which do you mean..."), and takes the trouble to code many specific responses to non-useful actions, lending to the polished feel. In short, even if there isn't much there, problems that distract from what is there are relatively few. The writing is mostly good, though it has its rough moments -- the death of an adversary is somewhat unnecessarily gruesome, something as unusual as a bridge made of ice gets virtually no description, and the game takes it upon itself to tell you when you stumble into a crystal grotto that "the overall effect is quite beautiful." Let me conclude that, John. You just tell me what's there. Still, most of the writing is solid, though some of the better descriptions are in the apartment rather than in the tunnels, which often feel, well, just a bit generic, and occasionally a tad clumsy. For example: Long Tunnel (1) This is a long tunnel leading north and south. It has definitely been purposefully made, being tiled with crafted stone. It looks like something that would have been created centuries ago. You can see the Red Crystal Grotto to the north, and a side corridor leads off to the east. Not awful, certainly, but there are more adept ways to suggest that the tunnel didn't just come about than "it looks like something that would have been created centuries ago." Like the rest of John's Fire Witch, though, the writing is good enough to keep the game enjoyable (and focus the player's attention on the puzzles, for that matter; more striking prose would give the game an exploratory feel, which might mesh oddly with its role as a diversion with some clever puzzles. And many moments have a certain deadpan charm, e.g. when you're about to be frozen: There is a loud and horrible rushing noise in your ears, and the room appears to be filling up with what you would describe as steam if it were not so very very cold. John's Fire Witch was designed as a short diversion, and it fills that purpose -- and more elaborate descriptions or development of the plot might distract from that purpose. As it is, the player need only grasp the essentials of what's going on (actually, not really even that) before plunging in and starting to solve puzzles -- and the unobtrusive writing is consistent with the overall feel. The ending points to a sequel, which may or may not be more elaborate -- but as s short "snack-sized" game, this one works quite well. Its general solidity (in comparison to much of what is produced nowadays) testifies to the undeniable truth that putting together workable, polished IF is not easy. On the whole, John's Fire Witch is not especially remarkable for anything in particular it does right, a few clever puzzles aside, but especially for a first effort, it deserves recognition for the many things it avoided doing wrong. FTP FilePC Executable and TADS .gam version (.zip) FTP FileStepwise Solution (Text) FTP FileWalkthrough (Text)


From: Graeme Cree <72630.304 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #5 -- April 19, 1995 NAME: Journey GAMEPLAY: Multiple Choice AUTHOR: Marc Blank PLOT: Extremely Linear EMAIL: ? ATMOSPHERE: Good AVAILABILITY: LTOI 2 - CD ROM WRITING: Well Done PUZZLES: Slightly less than average SUPPORTS: Some Infocom Ports CHARACTERS: Good DIFFICULTY: Relatively Easy Journey is an extremely difficult game to classify; not quite a text adventure, even less of a graphic adventure, and certainly not a role-playing game. Billed as a "role-playing chronicle," this helps us little, as it is the only one of its kind. It is generally classified as one of Infocom's text games, because it uses the same interpreter as Zork 0, Arthur, and Shogun. While every other text adventure is written in Second Person, Journey is written in First Person, from the point of view of your own character, who keeps a journal of your progress through the story. While most text games have a parser that requires complete sentences, Journey's parser resembles a graphic adventure. It lets you choose from a set of actions in a separate window, and even allows mouse support. While the AGT Master's Edition allows one to use a similar parser, it is probably unique in commercially published text games. And ultimately, Journey must be considered a text game, as it is through the text rather than the graphics that the interaction takes place. Though the parser is extremely easy to use, it makes for very linear game play. In most cases it is impossible to return to a room that you have just left. At times the game seems more like one of those Adventure Game Decision Books than it does a computer game, though it still presents you with many more choices to be made than the average book does. Still, the game allows less interaction than most text games do, and the graphics only partially compensate for it. Some sort of sound and music capability should have been included. Journey's plot is a variation on that made famous by Tolkien and imitated many times since then. A Dark Lord (here called "Dread Lord" ) is wreaking havoc on the countryside and its populace, so a questing party is formed and sent to seek the wizard Astrix for his advice. After many perils, they reach Astrix who sends them on a quest to break the Dread Lord's power. Since Journey is only part 1 of the Golden Age Trilogy, and parts 2 and 3 were never written, we don't get to see the Dread Lord's final defeat. Due to the menu system, Journey's puzzles are generally not too difficult, but there are some that will challenge the experienced gamer, and one at the end that can only be solved if you were paying attention earlier. Journey is one of several "experiments" in formatting that Infocom undertook around this time (some others being Nord & Bert, Beyond Zork, Border Zone, and of course the infamous Infocomics). This is one of their less successful attempts. The game is fairly enjoyable to play by itself, makes a nice change of pace, and presents the gamer with a new way of doing things to try to assimilate, but ultimately the reduced interaction, and the difficulty of doing challenging, interesting puzzles with this parser would have made a whole line of such games rather less interesting. The moral: play Journey and have a good time with it, but don't feel too bad that the series was never continued. FTP FileSolution (Text)

A Journey Into Xanth

From: Christopher E. Forman <ceforman SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #8 -- February 5, 1996 NAME: A Journey Into Xanth PARSER: AGT Standard AUTHOR: Neil Sorenson PLOT: Quite linear EMAIL: None Given ATMOSPHERE: Well-adapted AVAILABILITY: IF Archive WRITING: Prosaic, with good spelling but poor grammar PUZZLES: Easy, typical, but plot-related SUPPORTS: AGT Ports CHARACTERS: Nicely developed DIFFICULTY: Easy - Medium No, this is not the graphical "Companions of Xanth" game released by Legend Entertainment a couple years ago. Rather, it's a text adventure, set in the magical land of Xanth, that I stumbled across on GMD. Xanth (the world, not this game) is the creation of author Piers Anthony, and is explored in a couple dozen books comprising the popular series. Unlike our world, known in Xanth as "Mundania," everything about Xanth is magical, and puns are taken quite literally -- a "card table" is literally a table made out of a giant playing card! Each inhabitant of Xanth has a single magical talent, and no two talents are identical. "A Journey Into Xanth," a charming I-F adaption of Anthony's world, succeeds admirably in capturing the same whimsical appeal of the books. Author Neil Sorenson is obviously a dedicated fan -- his game is chock-full of places, plants, and personages from Xanthian lore, as well as truckloads of the really bad puns that Xanth is famous for. (You _will_ cringe. I guarantee it.) Sorenson's "Xanth" puts the player in the role of Mim, a young Xanthian with the ability to summon a magical mirror, which he can use to communicate with anyone else in Xanth. A lengthy but well-written introduction sets up the plot. When the Sen-Trees (told you you'd cringe!) that guard Castle Roogna mysteriously wither and die, leaving the palace defenseless, King Trent sends for your friend Lief, the only one with the power to restore them. Because you have knowledge of swordsmanship, as well as the ability to communicate with the king via your magic mirror, you are chosen to go along as Lief's companion and guide. The game handles better than most AGT packages I've had experience with. There are usually plenty of good synonyms, and some amusing responses (although there's no escaping some of those goofy-sounding AGT defaults). What impressed me most about "Xanth" and convinced me to write a review of it were the NPCs, particularly Lief. Rather than attempting to successfully implement a convincing "ASK <character> ABOUT <thing>" or "<character>, <command>" routine, Sorenson restricts all NPC interactions to the simpler "SHOW," "GIVE," and "TALK TO" commands, and leaves plot advancement to the more lengthy strings of dialogue produced by the actions. Although it may appear somewhat unrefined by TADS or Inform standards, this method _works_ here, and it's well-programmed. Dialogues appear when they're supposed to, and produce different responses based on game circumstances. This creates the illusion of some of the most realistic NPCs seen in an AGT game, although they are fleshed out through primarily non-interactive methods. Unfortunately, while the dialogue routines are quite nicely done, the rest of the game's writing is marred by a great deal of rather poor grammar. I found no spelling errors (a plus), but few of the room descriptions are particularly memorable, and run-on sentences abound. Also, there are no double-spaces or indentations between the lines of dialogue, which makes it hard to read in places. Occasionally an event description will be printed out of order in some locations (a common problem with AGT games) which furthers the somewhat ramshackle appearance. While most of "Xanth" is fairly logical (though sometimes in a strange, punnish kind of way), a few problems -- crossing the river in particular -- determine success or failure (i.e. life or death) based entirely on the outcome of a random number generator, a very, VERY big no-no in my book. Also, while many of the puzzles make perfect sense after you've solved them, there is often little indication beforehand that a particular solution is the correct one. Perhaps this is due to the somewhat inconsistent nature of the AGT play system more than anything else. It's hard to knock "Xanth" completely though, because it tries so hard. The author has gone to great lengths to make the game as easy to play as possible, even including a set of brilliantly rendered ASCII maps (a great time-saver) with the game files. There's also a walkthrough in case you find some of the puzzles a bit too obscure. Speaking of the puzzles in "Xanth," although they aren't terribly difficult or imaginative, they do serve to actually advance the plot, a feature sadly lacking in so many text games. The plot itself is a pretty standard fantasy journey, and quite linear. Unless you do most things in a particular order, you'll either become halted or stuck. But because of the author's ability to make a good story with a somewhat limited development tool, I decided to score him fairly high on the wildcard points, even if the game is otherwise unspectacular. As an adaptation of sorts, the appeal of "A Journey Into Xanth" is limited primarily by the size of its target audience. It's obviously aimed at fans of the books. Players familiar with Piers Anthony's world should get a kick out of it if they can bear the AGT parser. If you're not at all familiar with Xanth, or if you've tried the Xanth series but didn't care for it, you'd be advised to look elsewhere, perhaps into a more mundane game. FTP FileAGT files with PC Executable runtime (.zip)

The Journey of the King

From: Mike Harris <M.Harris SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #47 -- January 16, 2007 TITLE: The Journey of the King AUTHOR: Peter Nepstad EMAIL: petern SP@G DATE: November 26, 2006 PARSER: TADS 2 AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: Peter Nepstad has based The Journey of the King on the Lord Dunsany story of the same name, originally published in 1906. In the "About" file included with the zipped download he notes that the story is now in the public domain in the United States and helpfully includes a link to the story in the Project Gutenberg archives, One does not need to be familiar with the story to successfully play the game. In fact, the author's primary purpose would seem to be to familiarize those who might not know the tale nor Lord Dunsany's work in general. The titular PC talks to the NPCs in a menu-driven format, gradually and interactively telling the tale. One chooses to hear prophesies of various sages within the kingdom and finally choose among them. During the course of this one encounters some puzzles, none too difficult. It's possible to put the game in an unwinnable state by hearing the prophecies in incorrect order - or perhaps more accurately, I managed to get myself impossibly stuck a couple of times. In any case, it's not much of a hardship to restart the game and replay should this happen, if one doesn't mind verbosity. The story in this case served me well as a semi-walkthrough and hints file. The play itself is bug free, with no guess the verb problems. Indeed, beyond "TALK TO" and "EXAMINE" there's very little else to do, with only a scant handful of objects available for manipulation. If you happen to be open to appreciating Lord Dunsany's very florid 19th Century writing style you'll find the game very enjoyable and actually a rather clever way of getting painlessly through some fairly dense prose. The mood is well set and conversational menu commands, such as that to your faithful Cupbearer, e.g. "I would drink the wine of my Ancestors, so that I may feel more at ease" suit the tone of the tale. If on the other hand you prefer your PCs to be less compelled by a narrative, or prefer crisper, more modern prose you'll likely not find the game to your taste. Out of 10 I give the game a 3 for simplicity and a 6 overall. TADS game file, cover art, and author's notes
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