Thieves’ Gambit: Curse of the Black Cat is a Choice of Games title in which you, as a great cat burglar, have to pull together a team of co-adventurers to attempt to steal a particular cursed gem. As usually for CoG, you can pick your sexuality and gender, as well as specialize in one of several types of theft-related skill. You can also decide which other characters to pursue romantically, which turns out to be one of the more significant aspects of the game, affecting not only how you feel about other characters but how your team forms up and how you approach the heist.
There’s enough bushy branching in the structure that you can experience significantly different scenes during both the break-in and the preparation, and overall the story felt quite responsive to my decisions. I might have liked to see more development of the romantic leads before I was forced to choose which options to pursue, but once I had made a choice, I noticed a number of subsequent points that had been unobtrusively tailored to reflect those decisions.
It wasn’t quite as thrilling a thriller as I had hoped, though. CoG’s house design strategy is one in which there are no bad endings available during the early stages of the game: your choices may affect your long-term stats, but you’re not going to die. That’s often a good design for choice-based games, because it means that the player is likelier to experience a complete and satisfying story arc on any given pass through the game.
Here, though, I found that this choice undercut the tension of some of the major scenes in Thieves’ Gambit, a story with a lot of action sequences in which it is narratively but not mechanically likely that you will face disaster at any moment. I knew I couldn’t possibly be caught by the police during my first escape. I knew that a car chase in the midgame couldn’t possibly go wrong, no matter how badly I played it. The specter of genuine and significant failure doesn’t really arise until the very end. I found myself somewhat wishing for a feature like the “lives” counter in Paul Struth’s The Sacrifice, which allows you to see a certain number of otherwise-fatal outcomes before really having to give up the story. Because your lives are a depleting resource, and because you get to see what a Bad Ending looks like without actually having to stop there, you get the advantages of feeling that early screwups have a consequence, but without the risk of actually ending your story during the first act.
Overall, Thieves’ Gambit is entertaining if you enjoy cat burglar stories, if lighter weight than some of their other work. Chiefly recommended if the genre appeals to you. (It appealed to me. I would be up for more interactive heist stories.)
Psy High, also by Choice of Games, is a tribute-verging-on-fanfic of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars, with maybe the occasional flicker of an X-Men origins story. The protagonist is a teenager who (along with many other students) has recently acquired psychic powers and who uses them to do Mars-Investigations-Style small jobs around the high school. At the same time, they’re negotiating the dating scene, juggling academic tasks, managing their parents, and trying to settle on their own identity. Other students also have various powers which pair up with the protagonist’s own. The sneering principal is more or less Principal Snyder in a new hat, while the school’s chief Mean Girl bears an eerie resemblance to Madison Sinclair. There are a couple of small detection tasks that soon give way to the arc story of the piece, namely finding out where these powers came from and who else is trying to control them.
As the synopsis would imply, there are a lot of strands in Psy High, and it handles most of them pretty well. It doesn’t reach the point of being a full-on resource management sim, but your job and cash flow, academic achievements, and dating choices all feed in to how much time you have and what all you’re able to do. Your relationship with your parents can be anything from warm to surly, as far as I could tell. There are also enough individual scenes with other characters to give the romantic choices (or at least, the ones I made) some heft.
Though the game doesn’t play up the implications too hard, it does also present some questions that I found morally interesting, about how to handle the powers you’ve got, whether to try to manage them or destroy them or share them or keep them secret. There’s also an interesting passage involving a teacher you admire, and whose help you try to enlist, who turns out not to have as much moral courage as you might have hoped: it felt like a fairly Mars-esque storyline, about the idealism of youth and the often disappointing pragmatism of adults who have a lot to lose. I would have loved it if the story had delved even more deeply into these issues.
I did find some of the identity formation choices in Psy High a tiny bit jarring. On my first playthrough (which I subsequently abandoned in order to restart), I had defined my character as a bit hard-edged and indifferent to social norms. I picked the most anti-establishment outfit she could wear and tried to select for a character whose strongest expression of empathy was a kind of silent solidarity with those she cared about. (At one point you can choose to confront or comfort another student or just lean up against the wall next to them. My character was totally a wall-leaning sort.)
But the text didn’t really bend that way, despite my efforts; my leather-clad, triple-earringed bisexual badass nonetheless got incredibly goopy and gushy when she caught sight of her crush Tyler, and at one point I was forced to choose whether to make her bad at gym or socially anxious, none of which felt like her at all. When I restarted the game, I went for a much more preppy good-girl persona and found that it fit the game’s inner narration more smoothly.
I’m not sure whether this is an issue with the story, or more of a Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair situation. If forced to narrow it down, I’d say that I understood several of my choices to be choices about character attitude, about how my protagonist not only presented herself but actually viewed the world. So I was taken aback when the game treated them more as simple fashion preferences. YMMV, though.
There’s a lot going on in this piece, and (among the ones I’ve tried), it’s my favorite CoG release since Choice of the Deathless.
Disclaimer: I paid full price for both of these works and have no past or current financial relationship with Choice of Games. However, we have occasionally discussed the possibility of a future working relationship.