Sorry about the delay, all. Had a DnD session yesterday that ended with me having a huge headache. Should have the final review for SoH up in the next hour.
Samurai of Hyuga Book 5
By Devon Connell
”Toshie responded by placing her hand on my shoulder, refusing to remove it until my eyes returned to their natural color. “I have witnessed firsthand the love you have for others, Jin-san, in both your care for Masami…and your remorse for your friends that have fallen. You’re not cruel or wicked to anyone but yourself.”
A conversation I have with an old friend fairly often is why I don’t like the first few Uncharted games. I love the idea of the somewhat grounded explorer going through puzzles, and following a mystery that needs to be solved. At the end of the games, it always feels like it takes a cue from the Fonz and rides a shark over an undead yeti ghost. It’s always a dramatic shift in theme and tone that shakes me from what I was enjoying before. Samurai of Hyuga Book 5 (and most of the series) feels like the exact opposite of that. I usually feel at odds with the beginning of the title, but by the end it all comes together into something I genuinely enjoy.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. With zombies and Hiroo Onoda.
The Ronin deals with the psychological trauma of a trip through hell, and endures some of the most disgusting tortures for… well… no real understandable reason other than to endure the tortures. After slowly regaining themself, they set off on their original quest of being the Shugenja’s bodyguard. Along the way they infiltrate a foreign cult and save it from itself. In the process, they experience loss and remember who they are.
This title continues a trend I’ve noticed, and might actually be a meta way of ensuring the game maintains an easier start for the author. Something separates you from most of your companions, and forces the Ronin to start alone (mostly) before reuniting with the plotline in the future. Even though the story includes some very dark moments, this seems to coincide with the Ronin slowly climbing out of the darkness that has pervaded the last few books.
Format and Typos:
Noticed a few (reported) typos, but readability is still as high as ever.
Game Mechanics and Stats:
Book 5 continues the trend of opposed pairs, acting within your personality, and text inputs for mystery. Throughout the title, your character acts in a way that reminds me of Storyteller (like Exalted) flaws, where the character acts in the most extreme way that represents their personality.
SoH titles all seem to basically have two specific playthroughs for each title as there is not much in the way of branching choice, so you usually are just trying to see how the opposed personalities respond. You can choose to side with two groups at a point within the story and this changes one specific chapter, but you can still see the majority of this with just two playthroughs.
- Still not a fan of prolonged misery, and it feels like there will be at least five chapters dedicated to this in every entry.
- As important as your spirit animal was in the first title, it feels like you see very little of it. This feels true to shonen style manga, but it was an interesting thing that seems only described in depth once or twice per title.
- Never want to read about dumplings ever again.
- The ‘foreign cult’ described in the splash screen is awesome.
- Still one of the best authors when it comes to making characters that you initially dislike, but become attached to and even really like.
- Honestly, the ability to make a character seem heroic while the world is crashing down on them… it’s inspiring, and you really feel like your own mood is rising along with the Ronin.
I appreciate all the in-depth SoH reviews, @BourbonDingo! While I’m accustomed to getting feedback here on the CoG forums from avid choicegame readers (for obvious reasons), you’ve brought up and articulated some really interesting insights into these stories.
It’s very neat how much we have in common, from being raised Catholic to Blockbuster VHS tapes we shouldn’t have been watching as kids, as well as the stuff that’s different. For myself, I’m not an avid choicegame reader, or even a fan of them at all. That may sound crazy considering I’ve been making them for over 8 years, but I’m sure it makes a lot more sense after reading all my work and seeing how they differ from other choicegames.
That, I think, is what attributes to a lot of what makes SoH so unique and divisive. It’s a surprise blessing that it’s as popular as it is, considering it’s written for readers like myself (who wouldn’t be playing choicegames otherwise), but it’s also a testament to how much the audience has broadened since Choice of the Dragon’s release in 2009.
Absolutely, and for everything negative I’ve said about my experience with the stories; I do really enjoy following the Ronin. I think the majority of my issue comes solely from approaching the titles with the expectation of what I consider to be standard interactive fiction, but for the most part that is what I’m approaching the reviews with in mind.
Thank you for each of the stories, and I do plan to continue following (and carrying) the Shugenja for as long as you let us.
Land of Three Classes - The Exam
By Christopher Saloman
”This is again a nearly empty room. The walls, the floor etc are made of the same materials as in the last room (do you remember? - worked stone!). To the east there is a door, which is guarded by a guard dog.”
Have you ever played the original Tomb of Horrors by Gary Gygax? It was a dungeon crawl made for D&D that was created for the sole purpose of stymying and punishing ‘invincible and min-maxed’ players. Some people laud the difficulty and lethality of the traps and puzzles. Others, like me, think the juxtaposition of ‘a place that punishes you for experimenting’ and ‘solutions that require experimenting’ is frustrating and purposefully un-fun.
I don’t think Land of Three Classes was created in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors, but maybe flew a little too close to the subterranean sun.
You are a student, who can have three classes, taking an exam. Can you pass the exam?
Other than the massive lore dump in the front of the title, this is a story that was pushed to the front to justify what is only a mechanic driven title. This is a D&D game where the DM refuses to give you any more clues than what was written in the pre-printed module.
Format and Typos:
Typos were everywhere, and readability is pretty low. I’m going to assume most people got about two rooms in (being generous), and decided to leave the title unfinished.
Game Mechanics and Stats:
You are a student who has the abilities of a mage, thief, or warrior granted to you by a finite amount of potions you are carrying. You have to muddle your way through rooms in a ‘maze’ solving puzzles, finding secrets, and sometimes fighting enemies.
That seems like a simple premise, but the finite stat potions means it is up to you to discover what ‘stats’ you need to pass something and you can’t just overshoot the goal because passing the exam means being able to complete a lot of the maze. Nothing really tells you what difficulty (common parlance, DC’s) something is, so you’ll be doing a lot of experimentation, which takes up time, which you also have an unknown finite amount of as well.
You will replay this countless times… if you are purposefully trying to beat it. However, if you spend all of the time sussing out what the correct actions are, you’ll not need to play it again.
- More of a solo dungeon crawl where your character can be anything, which basically means you aren’t anything except a concept.
- Do I fight the guard dog? Does that need a 12 strength, a 15 strength, or can I not win because it is too strong and I don’t actually have a frame of reference to understand the difficulty of anything?
- Don’t need to see a text block calling me dumb constantly when I fail at experimentation when experimentation is required to succeed at almost everything.
- The title provides you a good idea of what you are getting yourself into very quickly.
- Could be a worthwhile bit of time for people who like sequential puzzles and don’t mind hitting ‘restart game’ every few minutes.
- Quite a bit of work, code-wise, to realize some of the puzzles.
No announcement thread here! Thanks for reading!
By Naomi Laeuchli
”Taking a seat at the controls, you pull away from the yacht. You keep the motor low and quiet, turning the the boat around, holding your breath, ready to hear shouts and gunfire any second. And then you’re cutting neatly across the water. You speed up; the boat jumps first one wave and then another. Spray hits your face. It feels cool and refreshing, a startling contrast to your wound-up nerves.”
A common outing in interactive fiction is the ‘Spy Thriller’, and honestly, it fits pretty well. Most of them are episodic, have some moral choices but don’t overly punish you for playing the ruthless type, and often allow for branching stories because of double- and triple-cross. Depending on the weight the story is given, all of the descriptive text just needs to make you feel cool like you just ordered a Vesper martini. Or maybe sexy… like you just ordered a filthy dirty martini with blue cheese-stuffed olives.
Excuse me while I go throw up in the reverse upside down 007.
You are a spy with an alphabet-soup agency trying to take down an arms deal, from the inside! Try to maintain your cover, while working as close to your target as you can. Find the mole, and decide how you want to make the most of your time undercover… agent.
Popcorn fiction at its lightest and airiest. There is enough here story-wise to entertain pretty much anyone, without a lot of background in the spy fiction world. The requisite twist actually comes early and quick, and most of the story is spent deciding how you want to capitalize on it.
Format and Typos:
A few typos, but still readable. I’m going to assume that it is because there is actually quite a bit of variation in path at a certain point.
Game Mechanics and Stats:
You’ve got some opposed pairs for personality that can actually affect your success. Maybe you aren’t a very honest person, but you are pretty ruthless. Making someone believe you care about them only works because you either do, or you are manipulative enough to make it work. Stats also run the gamut from technical skills to combat, which is weirdly a stand-in for both hand-to-hand and explosive engineering?
There are quite a few different variations to the epilogues you can get by varying your personality, loyalty to the organization, and performance during the missions. Do you choose to work as a double-agent for the antagonist? Do you spend more of your time trying to take down a corrupt mole, or focus on bringing down the public business of the bioterrorists? Along with four total romance options, there is a good little bit of replayability here. That’s good, because the game is on the shorter side and I found I could get through it pretty quickly.
- Doesn’t seem to be many nods to the spy fiction world, which is subjective. I just honestly think I should never go through an entire spy themed interactive fiction without being able to pick what kind of cocktail I want.
- Romances feel tacked on, and very utilitarian in most cases.
- The ending is on the weaker side in my opinion. You get a few lines from your romance option, a quick aside with some organization members, and then a dispassionate drive into the sunset.
- Quick, entertaining. This is a steady piece of entertainment with decent replay value in that you’ll probably get three to four good reads.
- Options for both a compassionate and ruthless spy, but still understanding not everything always works perfectly for you.
- Many variables that can alter a specific chapter. Who is with you? Are you even trying to rescue the kidnapped? Are you after money or safety?
Just set up a twitter account to make announcements, you can follow me at @Bourbon_Dingo on Twitter, if you like getting notifications that way. If any of the authors want me to pin them, or add their @ to the post, let me know.
Included this in the top post as well, just in case. Thanks for reading, all!
Out of curiosity have you played any of the Infinity Sea games yet before you started the review series i mean
I always enjoyed Undercover Agent. It’s one of those games that I always felt deserved more fans and attention than it gets.
I have played Sabres and Guns, was tempted to check out the new WIP, but I’m trying my hardest to stay away from the WIP rabbit-hole again.
The only thing against it might be how generic the name is? The cover art seemed interesting enough, but I had never played it prior to this review. Having played a lot of the games, I wonder if my eyes just glazed past the title.
Oh boy you are in for a treat once it comes out same with Retribution
Honestly, once you get further along, this makes me want to set up a YT chat with you, @Brian_Rushton, and @AletheiaKnights to discuss games.
I’d be more than happy. Got quite a bit more to go, though.
I’d definitely be on board with that!
I’ve been enjoying reading your reviews of different COGs and HGs, including the SOH reviews. And for one thing, it’s made me even more sure that that series is probably not for me, but it has also, I think, made me understand the whys and hows of that series better. However, one thing that makes me wonder is that, despite you, as far as I can tell, saying that the HGs in that series don’t have much interactivity, they still seem to score quite high in your overall ranking( on place 5,6,7,8 and 10 in your rankings so far). Four out of five score higher than Temple of Endless Night, which you seemed to quite like, judging from your review of that HG.
The thing is, COGs and HGs are, as far as I can understand, meant to be an interactive story-game hybrid, which in turn means that them being truly interactive is as essential as a comedy being funny or a horror movie being scary. Just like I would find it really strange to recommend someone specifically looking for a good comedy a comedy you didn’t find funny at all, even though you still liked it overall or recommending someone looking for a good horror movie a horror movie that you didn’t really find scary, I do find it strange to basically recommend a HG series that you seem to think is bad when it comes to interactivity.
I’m not saying that it can’t be good in other ways. Just like a comedy or horror movie can have great actors and a story that draws you in despite not being(in the case of a comedy) funny or (in the case of a horror movie) scary and so still give you a good viewing experience, a COG or HG that isn’t really interactive can still have a good story and/or interesting and well-drawn characters and draw you in that way. But, just like a comedy is supposed to be funny, an interactive storygame is supposed to be really interactive, and although an interactive storygame that isn’t really that interactive can be good as a “pure” story, it doesn’t really work as an interactive storygame if it’s lacking in interactivity in the first place, the way that a comedy that isn’t really funny doesn’t really work as a comedy. Since this is supposed to be a series of reviews about interactive story-game hybrids, it seems more natural to me for the criterion of interactivity to be weighed more heavily in the final rankings than it seems to have been so far, in the same way the scariness of a movie, would naturally be weighed quite heavily in reviews and rankings of horror movies.
I should say first that as a CoG/HG reader I’m all in on Team Highly-Variable Interactivity. And I haven’t read SoH. In part, that’s because I never really got into the anime genre it’s based on; mostly it’s because while there were some things about Fatehaven I really liked, it was too firmly on rails for my tastes, and Devon was clear from the beginning that this was a feature of his writing, not a bug. (This is also, incidentally, why Devon is on Game 5 of his massively popular series and I’m plugging away deep in the weeds of Game 2 Chapter 1 of what will hopefully be mine.)
But in terms of how critics should rate the best CoG/HG games? I’m all in favor of that being about the holistic experience, and not necessarily privileging high interactivity.
If I were asked to list the best comedy movies, I’d rank movies like Royal Tenenbaums or Harold and Maude above much funnier movies like Borat or Bridesmaids. Ditto in horror for Midsommar, which never scared me, above Hereditary or The Exorcist, which did.
Plenty of reasonable people will reverse the order on those movies–but that’s the thing about taste, isn’t it? When you’re talking about what’s “best,” there isn’t anything resembling an objective definition that everyone coalesces around, or an agreed system for weighting the different factors we like. Despite my own love of high variability, I’d rank Fatehaven higher than plenty of games with more customization and variation, because I also like clever twists and metafiction.
Dingo’s reviews give plenty of info for fans of high interactivity to gauge whether they’re likely to enjoy the game he’s reviewing–and maybe reason to try a game they’d otherwise ignore. I don’t think he needs to nudge his ranking system to push less variable games down the “best” list (which is also going to look very different when he’s at game #220 rather than #22).
I can understand this desire, but I can absolutely guarantee there is no real science in my rankings. Purely subjective, and I’m only really providing it as a resource for someone who looks at my reviews and tends to agree with both the positive and negative to know that if they randomly pick something from the top 50%, it ‘might’ be something they find entertaining.
In the case of SoH, I came at the first game with the mindset that I was comparing it to the CoG format. This sort of did a disservice to the intent of the title, but I still found the titles enjoyable, and worth placing where I did. Part of the problem with any series, as well, is that I am going to have a hard time explaining what I really enjoy about a series in each consecutive entry, without feeling repetitive. This means that something like my SoH series (which is the longest full series I’ll be reviewing) had more and more focus on negatives as it went on, because I didn’t want to praise the same thing each time.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll still try to include a focus on variability and width in my reviews, even if it doesn’t reflect on my rankings directly.
@BourbonDingo I’ve really appreciated your blend of structured approach and holistic analysis. It’s been fun reading your reviews; you seem to have a knack for breaking down games’ strengths and weaknesses with a nuanced approach.
I just hope you don’t burn out! When you get to be in/near your 40s, sometimes you need a break!
I always get antsy when people talk about what choice games are “supposed” to be like. The fact is, Choicescript is flexible, and can offer a really wide range of different experiences. As soon as you say “high variability is the main thing, and choice games should only ever be judged on that criterion!!!”, you’re limiting what these things can be and punishing games which risk trying to be different. I think Dingo’s doing it exactly right: judge a game subjectively on its fun factor, and on the overall experience it provides, rather than starting off with a prescriptive notion of what these games should be like.
I could say that “RPG games are all about loot and combat, and any RPG should only be judged on how satisfying those elements are!” Then I’d go and play “Disco Elysium”, and I’d be forced to conclude that it was trash because it doesn’t deliver those things. But surely it’s better to judge Disco Elysium based on what it’s trying to do and the experience that it offers, rather than punishing it for not ticking boxes on an inflexible list I’ve created dictating what rpgs can and can’t be?
Path of Light
By Ivailo Daskalov
A door opens and a creature comes in. Her gait has nothing to do with Sister Ulmia’s, swaying to the sides and dragging her left leg. When she comes closer to the only torch, you see a grotesque reminiscent of your friend, her lips twisted, her eyes filled with contempt.
Did you know that there is a Christological doctrine called Arianism (no, not that one) that questions the nature of the holy trinity? Neither did I, but that’s what happens when you type ‘gothic christianity’ in Google with a hankering for learnin’. It was declared by Emperor Constantine to be heresy, and I couldn’t figure out how to continue that segue back to the story.
Anyway, this story reminds me of the movie Constantine.
You are a priest of the Light, and you have a soulmate, dubbed Sister ‘Soulmate’, who is fighting against a devilish heritage. You are sent with her on a special mission, but things fall through quickly and you must rescue her. The story follows and you deal with ghouls and guard dogs, all while trying to make sure you maintain your favour (no, Google Sheets, I did spell it right) with the Light.
The story reads like an outline for a future story, with moments of good descriptions and ambience, but the major issue is that the original ‘special mission’ falls to the wayside as you attempt to rescue your soulmate. Each page is often just a short description, and a choice. I found it hard to really understand any characters or motivation, as things just happened rapid-fire.
Format and Typos:
Having reviewed a later title by this author, I can say that this story seems to have fewer typos, even though it can be a little difficult to read. One egregious typo, though I have reported it, is that when you select your name to be Augustin, it is just ‘August’ after.
Game Mechanics and Stats:
I could almost get away with copy-pasting the stats page because there is a huge block that details stats in it. Mostly you make your character by selecting your background and interests, and this determines what kind of priest you are. Are you a healer, or do you lean more into the Paladin type (smite smite smite)? There are some stats to maintain with your soulmate, and most important, your ‘favour’ stat. Which is a finite resource that determines your power usage. It seems pretty strict, and honestly, I died multiple times. Even after opening and following code, it feels like there is a ‘correct’ way to make your character be able to progress through the title. At certain points, the game will check to see if you’ve collected enough pieces to progress successfully through the challenges.
Even with that explanation, I still couldn’t understand when picking a ‘swordsmanship’ priest was supposed to be used when there were combat options.
Your romance option is set in stone, and there are few branching paths. You may find yourself getting one or two full playthroughs out of the title, if only to try a different priest class.
- Some character choices feel like the correct ones, in terms of deciding what class you are choosing for your priest.
- Dialogue jumps between devout priest to contemporary teenager sometimes in the same sentence.
- Damsel in distress happens 3 times within the first 15 choices.
- Good skeleton to hang a future, or more fleshed out story on. It is obvious the author often has the theme and one really good idea for each scene.
- Sister Soulmate is another Heavy Metal-esque devil nun with a dagger, so there is that for you again.
- Writing this and coming up with the Sister Soulmate name reminded me of the song by Train, and that made me laugh.
No announcement thread on this one. Thanks for reading!