As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate entries so that I can post reviews without spoilerage. Within an entry, there is a short, spoilerless discussion (though the comp purists may want to avoid reading even that before playing for themselves); then spoiler space; then a more detailed discussion of what I thought did and didn’t work in the game.
I’m also pursuing an approach I came up with a couple of years ago: I’m playing and reviewing games that have listed beta-testers, and skipping those that don’t. In 2008 that turned out to be a pretty fool-proof indicator of which games were going to end up scoring 4 or less on my personal scale, and it made my reviewing process a happier one in 2009, so I’m sticking with it. I’m hoping this will mean I have more time to devote to the remaining games, which in turn will (I hope) be of higher quality, and you, dear reader, will have fewer rants inflicted on you.
Next up: The Bible Retold: Following a Star
I have to admit that I was kind of dubious about this when I saw the title in the comp listing. While I’m not at all hostile to religion, I tend to be very uncomfortable with aggressive evangelism and in particular angry about works that oversimplify Christianity or twist its teachings into messages of intolerance.
However: this isn’t the super-preachy evangelical work I feared. It’s a comedy retelling of the story of the Magi, focusing on fairly silly and often charming puzzles. There are some maze-like bits, but you can solve them without mapping, thank goodness. It’s really very polished. The particular blend of old-school puzzle concepts, humor, and smooth execution most often reminded me of Risorgimento Represso. (Remember that? No? It was pretty good; you should play it.)
There was a lot more to Following a Star — side quests and optional puzzles and goodies — than I had time to explore in the two hours, and I finished with about half points. If I’d been playing it somewhere other than the comp, I would have enjoyed spending the time to do the extra quests, but I was duly warned by the introductory material that I should play straight through in order to finish in two hours, and that was good advice.
This thing Does Not Take Itself Seriously. Here is a game in which characters from the same cultural background will say both “It was already past my usual time of retiring.” and “Chill out Balthasar.” [Edited to add: the author writes to say that these are characters NOT from the same cultural milieu — one is from a different country. Well, yes, okay, sort of. But they express opposite things about how the reader should approach the ancient world presented here. One reinforces the idea of ‘check out the archaic old-timey culture’ and the other says ‘hey, I am hip and with it in the language of today! or, uh, possibly a few years back. but still post-1900.’ There’s no way for the pairing not to be a comic juxtaposition and a reminder of anachronism. Sorry.]
They also have secret rooms for camels:
“That is why we will be employing personal steeds,” says Melchior, and he casually thrusts his arm backwards, the force of which opens a hitherto concealed doorway behind him, through which the dark forms of three camels can be seen
I want a secret camel room. Shortly afterwards:
You heave yourself onto the camel, who grunts receptively.
…and now we know why the camel room needs to be private.
Well. I’m laughing with, not at. Several points where I feared the game was about to become horribly unfair or under-clued, it surprised me by how well it worked, instead: the astrolabe puzzle looked like it was going to be super-annoying, and then wasn’t. I confess that it caused me a certain amount of pain to type in the fake Latin per the cue cards (Caeciliuse? seriously?). But it was funny, and it was a decent puzzle, and the puzzle rules did at least assign the right cases to things, most of the time. (Though the cue card example with thanking someone in the accusative? No. You give thanks TO someone, in the dative.)
Oh well. This is very soundly made, very fair, and genuinely funny on many occasions. What’s more, to give credit where due, both the astrolabe puzzle and the “Latin” puzzle do achieve specific things narratively: they give you a respect for the learnedness of the Magi and convey something about the complicated society in this corner of the Roman empire.
There was a certain frisson going through the scenes with Herod, and I wondered whether there might be an undiscovered puzzle route through where you could avoid meeting up with him — because the whole Slaughter of the Innocents thing might as well be avoided, right? — but the story doesn’t bend that far, or if it does, I didn’t find a way to do it.