Comments after the cut.
I put Across the Stars off until late because it looked like a big one. The game comes with a huge collection of reading material and auxiliaries: readmes, PDF files, a little website with the blog of your character, a sample transcript detailing things that happened to you before the game begins, etc., etc. The hints even come in their own separate game file, which suggests that the authors ran out of space in the main .z8 file and had to pack that extra text off somewhere else.
All those extras read to me as a pledge of quality — you know, saying that the authors wouldn’t have bothered putting that much effort into the side goodies if they hadn’t also gone as far as they possibly could with polishing the main game. And that’s a pretty fair assessment: I didn’t run into any bugs, the game was solidly implemented, and it looked as though (given that I ended with 85 points out of a much larger possible score) there were alternate solutions and endings to be found.
The setting is a kind of generic military space future, though the military elements feel a bit less silly than they do in many such games; I was not entirely surprised to read in the about comments that one of the authors has in fact served in the armed forces. The storyline is simple and unambitious, but essentially satisfying: you find yourself in a mess, and then you get out again. It would make a fine episode of a space-adventure TV show, say. There’s a lot to like here, potentially.
The reserved tone in my review comes from the fact that I didn’t enjoy this game nearly as much as it deserved. Almost all of the puzzles stumped me. I played in good faith from the beginning, got bitten by a time limit, started over, tried to figure out how to get around the problem, couldn’t figure out where to find essential tools, and was near running out of time again. When I went to the hints, I found that the solution was one I wouldn’t ever have hit upon, because I had mis-envisioned certain objects and failed to notice others. I tried to get back into the swing of things after that — the game is high-enough quality in terms of polish to deserve (I thought) a real attempt to play without the walkthrough interfering — but again and again I had to look things up and eventually played the end of the game entirely from the walkthrough.
I think the problem here is one of description. The physical dimensions of things aren’t always clear; the machinery sometimes requires you to look at a lot of subordinate parts before you start to recognize which bits of the scenery are important and useful. Maybe playing under less of a time constraint — that is, not trying to finish within the regulation two hours — I would have found this easier; but I suspect that in any case I would have found the descriptions just a little too obtuse.
So: recommended with reservations.
My initial problem was that it would never have occurred to me to throw the coffee cup at the prox-tar in order to turn it off. I didn’t envision the off-switch as such a broad, easily-pushed target, or the cup as sufficiently heavy. I was thinking of the cup more as a light-weight thing, maybe even the equivalent of styrofoam (though it doesn’t say so in the description), but, more to the point, the physical aspects of the prox-tar switch aren’t especially encouraging. The description just says
The power switch to the prox-tar is located on the left hand side of the unit.
Now, to me, that makes it sound like something you have to reach around to get at, and besides, switches are often kind of stiff and finicky. I was on completely the wrong track, looking for a pair of rubber gloves to protect myself from the shock. (This would be a pretty cliché puzzle in the annals of IF if that had been the solution, but it seemed a reasonable guess.)
Lots of the other puzzles were written like that too: all the pieces were there, and the solution made complete sense once you realized what the layout was supposed to be, but the text of the game didn’t lead you to envision the pieces right or to think of how you might properly interact with it all. I suspect — and this is a very unusual diagnosis in my experience — that this game could be made substantially more playable if the authors just edited some text descriptions here and there to be just a little, tiny bit more forthcoming. No change needed to the underlying code at all.
Ah well. Possibly my reaction is unique, so it’s probably worth seeing what the aggregate opinion is. I did think this was a solidly-made thing in most respects; it doesn’t try to be literary and it doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre particularly at all, but sometimes one is in the mood for this kind of story. And it was, tonally, a welcome variation from the general run of the comp; there’s nothing else that has quite the same action-adventure mood.
Oh, and a side note: I totally expected that that bit where you pick between the apple and the pear was the game’s way of discovering your gender of preference, by way of setting up a romance/sex scene. Of course, it’s all a mirage for the player-character, but I like the way the authors used the expectations of IF form to sucker me-the-player into believing the mirage too.