Friday, December 29, 2017

Adventures in VR: Dead Secret (2016)


It's been a long time, more than a year.  But while I haven't been writing much about games of late, I have had time to play a few and to goof around with virtual reality using the HTC Vive platform.  This is exciting stuff, actually, and reminds me a lot of the pioneering days of video games I have so often written about; conventions for movement and interaction are still evolving, the technology is here but has definite room for improvement, and interesting gameplay experiments are happening.  Its immersive qualities are great for adventure games, and while I tend to favor the "theatre of the mind" created by classic text adventures, this technology is taking us to some fascinating new places.

This past fall, I played through Robot Invader's 2016 indie adventure game, Dead Secret.  The game also supports standard PC mouse-and-keyboard play, but I'm going to focus on its virtual reality mode here and what that brings to the experience.  I played it on the Vive; it also supports the Oculus Rift, and a Playstation VR version is expected soon.   

I haven't mastered figured out even started to work out a reliable way to capture decent screenshots from VR games yet -- the projections and distortions applied to the image to make it look "real" in a headset don't translate very well to flat images.  And my attempts so far tend to look a little inebriated at best:

Since this is a recent game, I'm going to do my best not to spoil the plot, which is in many ways this game's best feature.  But I will be citing some specific examples from my experience with this adventure, so there may still be a few...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

Dead Secret is a mystery adventure game set in and around an old house whose owner, a professor, recently died or was perhaps murdered.  As a reporter with one arm stuck in a cast, it's the player's job to explore the area, find clues and evidence, and figure out what really happened.

Let's start by talking about the game's VR interface.  Virtual reality's biggest strength is its ability to put the player inside the game's world, and Dead Secret does a good job of this in the basic sense.  We can look freely around the world, texture resolution is sufficient to avoid obvious pixellation, and items of interest are sometimes hidden in areas we'll only spot if we peer under the furniture or behind a prop.  Locomotion is handled by pointing a cursor at a possible destination, then clicking; we slide slowly to the new area, and are free to look around while we're moving, as if riding on a conveyor belt.  (There is a comfort mode that limits the field of view during motion, for players prone to motion sickness in VR -- I am building a tolerance for it, but my brain still doesn't like it when I seem to be walking or tilting quickly and my body is not doing the same.  I had no problems with Dead Secret's default movement speed.)  Doors and transition points like stairs are identified with icons, and the world fades out and back in at the new location, a VR convention that works well here. 

Text is nicely presented, anchored within the world rather than floating in front of the player's face -- descriptions of items are presented on surfaces nearby, museum-style, and the many printed clues we find are rendered as folders we can hold in our hand and read.  I was happy to see that the font handling supports up-close viewing, so everything is clearly readable and there are no obvious bitmaps visible.  And when something scary is happening, being "there" definitely heightens the impact.

Unfortunately, the interface betrays its non-VR origins in a lot of ways, probably due to the game's support for both desktop and headset play.  The game is running on a point-and-click engine, which means that even though we feel very present in the environment, we can't simply pick up and manipulate objects at will -- we have to click on a limited set of movable items, using a floating pointer rather than an in-game hand, and the inventory system takes us out of the game world into a menu system where we have to point and click the old-fashioned way.  (Other VR adventures I have played use a backpack or a belt to provide a more "realistic" approach to inventory handling, though scale is always a little weird when we can SEE that we're carrying all this stuff with us.  Text adventures had their awkward conventions too!) 

Using an object where interaction is supported also feels artificial; we have to access the item in inventory, then point at the intended location and click, at which time a scripted animation plays out.  We don't get to really fit things into place, turn keys or open drawers directly, and Dead Secret's approach robs the game of some of the immediacy important to VR.  In the most egregious case, when we are tasked with solving a puzzle involving weighted bottles and a scale, it feels like we are manipulating icons rather than really weighing bottles on a scale.  We want to lift and drop bottles and shuffle them around in real time, even with only one workable hand (a limitation that serves the game's drama well at times), but we're only able to "click" them into predetermined slots, severely breaking the reality for the duration of that puzzle.

The game's plotting is well handled -- there are moments that might be paranormal in nature, or might not be, and the story behind the professor's death is revealed in small, interesting revelations as we discover clues.  Seeing our character in a mirror early in the game was surprisingly effective -- I'm so used to being anonymous in adventure games that I thought this would seem like an imposition, but in a world that feels this real it was satisfying to inhabit a character with defined limitations, goals and (as we discover during the game) dreams and emotions.  There are a number of scary surprises, mostly involving a masked, robed figure that lurks and attacks at key moments in the story, and much of the game's drama comes from the rush of desperate escape and concealment.  VR and horror are remarkably effective in combination -- without the distance that a screen provides, even simple "jump scares" can be unsettling.  Dead Secret uses the medium very well in this regard, with measured pacing to convey approaching menace and jeopardy.  Part of my brain knew it was just a game -- but part of it didn't, and I found my heart pounding and breathing rapid several times along the way.

Multiple endings provide a little bit of extended play value -- one is accessible at the very beginning, if we opt to just leave the house rather than investigating, but the others depend on choices made near the very end, and the game generously allows us to restart just before that point to discover the alternatives.  I was so involved in experiencing the environment and events of the story that I didn't do a great job of finding and making sense of all the clues, so I wasn't at all sure about my factual determinations, and this design concession to the player hours invested up to this point was greatly appreciated.

Dead Secret is not a perfect adventure game, and its VR implementation misses some opportunities.  But the experience stuck with me -- not just the eerie moments, but the discoveries of new spaces and clues in a virtually real environment.  Immersion to this degree is perfect for old-fashioned adventure games, where methodical examination and consideration is of more importance than fast action, and I look forward to seeing what else the nascent VR game industry produces along these lines.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

At Random: Quest for Camelot (Gameboy Color, 1998)

Hi, everyone!  It's been several months since I've posted here, but my current show is up and running and rehearsals for the next one don't start for a few weeks aside from a staged reading I'm doing next weekend -- whew! -- so I have a little time to do some gaming and writing.

One of my brother's students has given me an opportunity to play a game that hadn't even crossed my mind -- Quest for Camelot for the Gameboy Color, published by Titus Software to tie in with Warner Brothers' 1998 animated fantasy movie.  It showed up in the mail on October 1st, so I've been able to spend a little time with it!

Licensed games are almost always at a disadvantage, especially when development schedules are constrained by an immovable studio release date.  Generally, these games end up using an existing engine, or even modifying a work-in-progress game design and just grafting on graphics related to the licensed property.  Projects like this are valuable, in that they keep many a fledgling developer afloat while they work on more original and substantial projects, but the results are usually rushed and unpolished.  For example, this terse, silent title screen could have done with a little color and context and 8-bit music:

To its credit, Quest for Camelot differs from most licensed titles in that it's not a side-scrolling platformer -- instead, it opts for a Japanese-style Action RPG design.  We can select English, French or Spanish language at the start, after which a lengthy sequence of illustrations and text screens sets up the story -- our hero, young K... something, must discover what's happened to... oh, man, I've already forgotten what the storyline is.  Time to reset!

Okay... a young girl named Kayley jumps off a pony into the arms of her father, Sir Lionel, who must leave immediately for Camelot; she wants to be a knight too.  At Camelot, Sir Ruber demands King Arthur give him more than his fair share of land, and attacks the King when his "need" is denied. The King successfully defends himself against Ruber's attack, probably because Sir Ruber's arm appears badly broken (or his name is actually pronounced "Sir Rubber") and he has no idea how to wield his mace or aim at his opponent:

Somehow Ruber manages to escape all of the charging knights -- but what's this?  RUBER HAD LEFT A HORRIBLE REMINDER OF HIS BETRAYAL!  By taking a big... oh, no, by killing Sir Lionel.  As the game begins, it is ten years later, and Sir Ruber returns to... well, the text cuts off here and there's no music to set the stage in these cutscenes, but we see a grown Kayley fleeing on horseback before the action cuts to...

... some dude we haven't met before, standing out in the woods someplace and suffering from acute constipation judging from the expression on his face.  Oh, wait!  When I start walking around and turn the character to the side, I can see that it's Kayley... I think... she has a ponytail, at least, but who knows what she did with her horse?  The first person I talk to, a FARMER, gives us directions about how to talk to someone, which is not very helpful as I've already figured out how to GET IN HIS FACE BY PUSHING AGAINST HIM AND PRESSING THE A BUTTON.  After telling me that Sir Ruber has captured my mother, Lady Juliana, and warning me about his ruthless knights, and informing me I should visit the blacksmith to the east, he tells me to hold the control pad in the direction of the person I want to talk to and press the A or B button, and that I need 30 gems to save my game.  Then Mr. Farmer flees offscreen, apparently in terror of our heroine's aggressive questioning technique or fearing he will be discovered by the RPG GRP (Game Reality Police).

Mr. Farmer's flight has cleared the bridge to the south, but I'm going to go explore to the east before we start out on what I presume will be a long and arduous journey.  There's a blue knight wandering around here, and if I walk into him, I lose one of Kayley's five life hearts, accompanied by a horrible farting sound, so I guess he's not somebody we should be talking to.  There's an impassable fence line to the east, and nowhere else to go up here, so we'll travel south across the bridge and then head east in search of the blacksmith.  We have to avoid some more blue knights in the area, but I find the blacksmith where I was expecting to -- he tells us that Ruber's knights have scared his hens away, and offers to help us if we can round them up.  Why the Blacksmith has hens is not explained, so we'll call this Rushed Development Clue #1!

Now, a lesser game might ask us to find a hen, or maybe three, but Quest for Camelot is no quick cash-in... we have to find FIVE of the feathered blighters.  I find the first one in a cave -- well, it's actually a path to another area of the map, and Kayley's passage through it is accompanied by a flash of light and a rather neat screen-warping effect, rather overselling what appears to be a village underpass.  The blacksmith has no interest in only one of his hens, and tells us to keep looking, forcing us to carry live hens around while we search in caves... oh, I guess that WAS a cave, I just expected such a cavern to look different from the surrounding countryside.  It doesn't take long to find the five hens, and on my way back to the blacksmith, I encounter a ghostly, shaky-looking, possibly inebriated Merlin, who advises me that RUBER IS IN THE MANOR but we must become a skilled sword fighter before we face him.  I soon realize I have wandered into another section of the map and the blacksmith isn't here, but I go back through a "cave" and find my way back to him.  He gives Kayley a sword and advises her to seek training from his brother, who lives in A HOME to the south.  I hope he means a house.

"Here's a great sword for you, the best I ever made!  Now go pick it up out of the dirt!"

I almost leave without noticing that the sword is just laying on the ground and has not been automatically added to inventory.    There's a short, Zelda-ish animation when Kayley picks up the sword, at least.  I find my way to the brother's house, and he accuses me of stealing his brother's sword before deciding I look honest.  He tells us that we will gain experience through combat, strengthening the sword, and that he will teach me more after I take out all the knights terrorizing the town.  Of course, he doesn't actually tell me how to use the sword to fight the knights, and I reach my first GAME OVER screen shortly.

(As I replay the opening, it occurs to me that the Blacksmith looks a lot like one would expect the Farmer to look, and vice-versa.  Primary evidence: the Blacksmith is holding a pitchfork, plus the aforementioned hens.  RDC #2!)  This time, I mess around with the interface a bit and figure out that the Save screen (accessed by pushing START) is also the inventory/equipment screen.  I highlight the sword and hit some button or other, and the sword moves up to the top row of the generally featureless inventory screen -- and now I can hit the B button to attack with the sword.

Quest for Camelot's combat mechanics leave a lot to be desired.  Basically, we approach an enemy and start wildly swinging the sword -- if we do it fast enough, we generally won't take any damage, though every contact knocks us backwards a bit so we have to be careful not to get cornered or pushed into the bounding box of another enemy.  An energy bar is displayed above the enemy's head when we've done damage, and while no numbers are ever shown, the bar display seems to be based on the maximum number of hit points an enemy can possibly have; all of these guys start with the bar only partially filled.  Some enemies drop 10 gold pieces or a life heart when killed, which is handy as I have taken quite a bit of damage just trying to collect the hens.  It took me a while to find and kill all the knights, but now the swordmaster teaches Kayley a charged-up spinning sword attack, useful when surrounded (well, purportedly useful -- I found that I took more damage when I tried to use the spin attack instead of just beating on the nearest enemy.)  The swordsman advises us to seek Merlin to gain entrance to the manor, which the drunk old wizard does by allowing the formerly (and still) featureless bridge nearby to become a portal, and promises to see us again elsewhere.

I almost die at the hands of a number of blue knights just inside the Manor walls, but manage to survive.  Inside the Manor, the music thankfully changes to something a little more melodic than the thumping, raspy, percussion-heavy travel tune we've been hearing since we started the game.  A servant tells us we need a shield, and he saw a man with a dog pick one up (let's hope the servant's eyesight is pretty good and the guy wasn't just cleaning up after his pet.)  Setting out to find him, I run into some cloaked figures -- and the sword as-is isn't much use against them, as they just get larger, doing damage as they press me against walls and furniture, and I die shortly, restoring from a recent saved game to continue.

I find the man in the southeast corner of the manor -- his dog has indeed gone missing, so we have another fetch quest to complete.  While looking, I discover that contact with the cloaked enemies causes them to give chase -- so it's really important not to attack or run into them.  I see Merlin yet again, who tells us we need to find a grappling hook, and a dungeon key, and then pick up an arrow outside; he also mentions that we can open chests by swinging our sword, as one does.

It's about at this point that I start to wonder who this game's target audience was meant to be -- the adventuring and puzzle-solving is pretty elementary, but it becomes a tedious stealth game at this point, and sometimes the ghosts start making a bee-line for our heroine without apparent provocation.  In other words, I am dying A LOT.  I find the guy whose dog is missing again, but no sign of the dog -- in fact, he seems to have given up, and just assumes the dog will come back when it's hungry.  I also find a large gem of no practical value.  Wikipedia tells me that the game has 9 worlds and 60 levels... oh, man, this does not sound like fun.  For the purposes of exploring more of the game, I enter a GameShark cheat code (010518C1) that refills Kayley to full health whenever she takes damage.

Now I can continue more readily, and I learn that the ghosts can be defeated -- it's just risky to take them on, because if you end up backed against a wall or even near a less-than-sprite-sized gap when they enlarge, you're hit repeatedly and dead in short order before you can even move out of the way.  I find a hidden switch that opens a secret passageway, and this allows me to zzzzzz....

Sorry, this allows me to find the grappling hook.  And eventually I find the dog, and the graphics are so clumsy that from the side it looks more like the dog with two backs, y'knowhatI'msayin':

And I learn, of course, that if we run into a ghost with the dog in tow, the dog runs away. so it takes me a few tries to get the dog safely back to its owner and earn the shield.  With the shield and grappling hook in hand, I discover that we can only have one item equipped at a time, so we'll have to be choosy about our inventory handling.  Returning outside the castle, I realize that the "ARROW ON THE GROUND" Merlin mentioned is actually a pattern of stones on the ground pointing to where we can use the grappling hook, allowing us to access the upper level of the Manor and fight some more knights.  And my sword levels up, apparently having drawn enough blood to be more powerful now, though there's no indication onscreen of its level or its XP, so it's anyone's guess as to when it will level up again.  I find the dungeon key up here, so we're getting closer to fighting Sir Ruber -- Merlin is standing by the dungeon entrance, and now we can enter it.

Kayley finds herself in an underground maze patrolled by giant spiders now; they're fairly tough to kill, and our progress is slowed by webs on the ground so navigation becomes more important.  A tunnel leads to a boss battle with Sir Ruber, who leaps around like an idiot, descending on Kayley's head and otherwise being hard to hit without taking plentiful damage.  And he looks more like Peter Boyle as Young Frankenstein than any of the other crudely-rendered Sir Ruber images we've seen so far. 

I finally manage to wear him down, but despite Merlin's warning that Kayley must not let him escape, he escapes.  A cut-scene (well, some scrolling text followed by some Warner-approved illustrations eating up cartridge space that could otherwise have been used to enlarge the maps or improve the graphics) establishes that Ruber's attempt to steal Excalibur from King Arthur was interrupted, but the legendary sword is now lost in the Forbidden Forest.

The forest is patrolled by invincible moving rock formations, snakes, and winged creatures that are particularly hard to get into sword range without taking damage.   Someone named Garrett guards a bridge and will only let us past into the more dangerous part of the forest if he believes in our sword skills, which I will presume means the sword must be at level 2, as despite all the fuss he lets us through immediately.  The blue knights have given way to more dangerous gray knights, and we can find Garrett in his house in the forest, though he throws us out immediately for no specific reason.  Merlin continues to wander around the map, and here he appears to warn us about a deadly giant plant ahead -- to defeat it, we need a MAGICAL STICK (back to basics here) and he won't let us past without it.

Sure enough, we meet another farmer (this time represented by the graphic used earlier for the blacksmith, RDC #3! Bingo!) whose garden has been destroyed by Ruber's knights.  He wants us to kill all the knights in exchange for some reward. The worst thing about these "kill them all" quests is that we're given no indication of how many potential victims there are, so Kayley has to wander around the map, murdering people until she thinks she's dispatched everybody, then check in with the quest issuer to find out if she's really done or not.

While hunting down knights, I visit Garrett's house again -- and this time, the game state has changed so that instead of just throwing us out for no stated reason, he's quite talkative.  He volunteers that he knew Sir Lionel when he was a stable boy, and he opens up a sealed spider cave where the magical stick is rumored to be hidden.  On the way there, I spend 50 gems on a magic shovel offered by a merchant standing in the middle of the woods, not really the best location for a retail operation.  The cave is filled with pitfalls that kick us back to the entrance, and the spiders here are fairly resilient.  The magical stick is hidden in a chest, and now we can continue.

As I exit the spider cave, my sword levels up again, its lust for bloodshed ever increasing, kids!  I manage to kill all the local knights, and the farmer now allows me to dig up turnips in his garden with the shovel I just bought.  Apparently a horse in the area likes turnips, and that's why we're doing this?  I find a bunch of small turnips which the game displays but doesn't seem to acknowledge, until after quite a bit of digging I turn up a large one.  Now Merlin opens up the gateway to the plant boss, but a strong wind prevents us from walking there, which is apparently why we need to find the horse.  Sigh.

Looking hither and yon for the horse, I dig in a suspiciously artificial-looking rock formation to find another heart container, which if I weren't cheating already would be very valuable.  And I finally find the horse, back near the beginning of this whole area of the game to ensure maximum backtracking play time.  While we're on horseback we can't fight the knights, so I try to avoid them.  The horse gets us past the wind (I think we needed to have found the large turnip to make it, suggesting the horse is partly flatulence-powered) but then disappears after we're on the other side.  He doesn't run off, he doesn't stop and graze, he just vanishes into the thin air.

We now find ourselves in a maze with little, minimally fire-breathing dragons to kill (think Fygar in Dig-Dug, with a short-range lick of flame coming out once in a while.)   I find a slingshot in a dead-end part of the maze, a heart refill, and finally enter a cavern where small carnivorous plants attack from the walls, forcing us to avoid them.  The boss battle occurs not too far into the cave, and is perhaps the most tedious affair I've seen in an Action-RPG, thanks mostly to the game's awkward interface.

We have to switch to the magical stick, get it into the giant plant's mouth, switch back to the sword, and attack until it breaks the stick -- apparently what's magic about it is that it can be reused indefinitely.  It's hard to dodge the plant's randomly attacking underground tendrils and get close enough to put the stick in without taking damage, and the constant need to interrupt the action to switch equipment becomes tiresome quickly.  So I just keep switching and doing and switching and doing some more, thanking the GameShark every so often for keeping Kayley alive in the face of my sheer combat incompetence.

Finally defeating the plant takes us back to Merlin, who informs us that there's yet another crisis to take care of before we can face Sir Ruber.  Merlin tells us we have FOUND ALL THE SECRETS, though he doesn't elaborate on which secrets, exactly.  And he gives us one piece of a mystical... eight piece... parchment.  And then... my game hangs.  I can't move or access the menu?  Oh, it's just a dramatic pause, apparently.

We now enter the Dragons' Territory, where Kayley meets Devon and Cornwall, a two-headed bickersome dragon that was apparently a major character in the Quest for Camelot feature film.  He tells/they tell us we need a dragon's scale to cross a large body of water to find Excalibur, and some dude has it.  And exploring this world is even more of a pain, because if we sink in the lake accidentally, we are put back at the beginning of the level, and navigating the narrow shorelines without falling in the water proves pretty difficult until I get the hang of it.

And I am not finding the dragon's scale!  It's supposed to be out here somewhere... I finally consult a walkthrough and learn that the sword can be used to cut down some trees.  Actually, it only works on one specific tree, so I can excuse myself for not discovering this on my own.  And I learn that a compass I was meant to acquire much earlier in the game would be making my life easier at this point, but of course there's no going back from this level so I can't take advantage of this newfound knowledge without starting completely over.  And I find a warp point at the edge of the lake that takes me to another area, where I can fight another of those furshlugginer plants...

And for your humble blogger, at this point my motivation is gone for completing this particular Quest.   We're approaching one-third of the way through the game; we fought Sir Ruber once already, and while I'm sure he'll be disappointed if he doesn't get to battle us again, I'm starting to share the title screen's distinct lack of enthusiasm.  The game isn't as lightweight as I expected, but by the same token it feels padded throughout -- the maps are small and full of wandering and retreading, the inventory handling is awkward, the graphics and sound are stuck somewhere between passable and terrible, and the amount of fetching and finding required to make progress makes it hard to care if Kayley ever succeeds.

I've seen worse licensed games than Quest for Camelot -- but that's not saying very much.  Time to disable the GameShark and let nature take its course:


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Adventure: Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder in the Hotel Lisbon (2014)

Ed.: As many have noticed, I'm finding it difficult to keep up with my adventuring and blogging of late.  So I'm changing up my approach a little bit -- feedback is welcome!

For several years now I've been doing comprehensive playthroughs and avoiding more recent games -- unnecessarily, as it turns out, since walkthroughs are actually easier to find for modern adventures than the vintage text games I often choose to battle through.  So I'm going to try a lighter approach and see how that works -- I'm going to play a game for fun's sake, capture a few screenshots, and then write about it from recent memory, rather than trying to take detailed notes along the way.  I won't be doing reviews, exactly, and there will still be some spoilers here where I want to comment on or illustrate something notable.  But I'm going to try to focus more on what a particular game brings to the adventure gaming genre, and how it uses or changes its conventions, and break my old habit of narrating every step of the game, at least where more recent titles are concerned.

So, with that said, I've recently been playing Portuguese developer Nerd Monkeys' 2014 point-and-click animated adventure, Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder at the Hotel Lisbon.

The adventure game genre never quite died off commercially outside the United States, though I was surprised to see this effort is not implemented using the near-ubiquitous Adventure Game Studio, but Game Maker Studio.  The game is designed by Filipe Duarte Pina and produced by Diogo Vasconcelos, with backgrounds by Luis Bacharel, character design by Nuno Saraiva, a great jazz combo score by Rafael Pina, recorded with live instruments but yet somehow seamlessly looped when necessary.

The story is straightforward -- our hero and avatar, the amoral Detective Case, must solve a murder as well as several supplementary cases with the occasionally helpful assistance of an inherited robot sidekick who wants to be a stand-up comedian.  (Straightforward as adventure games go, anyway.)  The game mechanics are kept simple, and there aren't really any inventory puzzles of the traditional sort -- we do collect items and evidence, but they are used primarily within the victim and suspect interview sequences that provide the bulk of the gameplay.

It's not hard to work one's way through the game using exploration and a little experimentation, and there are walkthroughs available elsewhere, so I'm going to skip the details of the plot other than to say there's a murder afoot and an array of suspects with possible motives.  But I'm going to talk about details of the game's style here, so as always, I'll warn you that beyond this point there are likely to be...

****** SPOILERS AHEAD! ******

Detective Case/Lisbon (for short) has an appealing 2-D low-res European comic-strip look about it, with dialogue popped up in word balloons.  There's not a lot of character or event animation -- mostly walking, idle animations and some funny close-ups during the interrogations.  But the combination of backgrounds and characters (by different artists, no less) works nicely, and there are nice little visual touches like passing traffic and silhouettes used to indicate people who exist in the game's world but aren't available for interaction.  The engine smartly allows itself to cleanly adjust to a variety of vertical resolutions by employing a wider canvas (visible in windowed mode):

The writing is funny, unabashedly bawdy and politically less-than-correct at times, but it's not self-conscious or smarmy.  The translation to English is sometimes grammatically awkward, and there are a few jokes I never was able to grasp, but the characters come through well enough.  The game is not voiced, probably to reduce costs and localization challenges, which I appreciated when trying to click past repetitive dialogue exchanges.

(Speaking of repetition, while the game is generally pretty polished, I did run into one repeatable crash early in the game -- if one clicks on the police station door after entering from the left side without walking farther into the scene, the engine's text positioning calculation fails and causes the game to halt.  But I didn't run into any other showstoppers or gameplay dead-ends.)

The game's visual design is very consistent -- the camera angle never changes, so the same sprites are used everywhere; there's not even any scaling, as all entrances are left, right, or through a doorway that transitions to another location.  This is used creatively to accommodate a raucous foreground audience that treats the early going as a sitcom, and as a happy byproduct, the game's fast-travel taxi can be summoned anywhere, even inside a hotel room, to speed up gameplay.  There aren't many locations in the game, but the excellent score and well-chosen colors and background details keep the visuals interesting.

There's not a lot to actually do in this adventure, beyond pursuing the case at hand by exploring the world, finding connections and interviewing the parties involved to elicit information or confessions.  There are quite a few funny little details to check out and conversations to trigger, but many are optional and unvarying, and there are only a few cases where pixel-hunting becomes necessary to find an important item.  The interface is helpful -- Detective Case can ask Clown Bot for a reminder about the current objective, and we can review the items in inventory to learn additional details that might trigger an investigative path.

The core of the gameplay is the interviewing mechanic, a graphical reinterpretation of the classic ASK [SOMEONE] ABOUT [SOMETHING] text adventure approach, enhanced and/or limited by multiple choices for both questions and objects.  This has always been a problematic approach for me going all the way back to Infocom's The Witness -- each puzzle succumbs to trial and error, of course, but one never feels like much a detective when resorting to that.  Here, we're not allowed to initiate an interview unless we have all the necessary evidence to complete it successfully -- a reasonable design choice that saves us from too many dead ends, but it still doesn't help when we just happened to miss an important item somewhere and wish we could talk to someone to pick up an idea about where to look.  There's an additional layer of complexity here -- we can conduct a given interview as Detective Case or as Clown Bot, and some suspects react very differently to the two characters, leading to different outcomes based on the same evidence.  And the game's finale requires us to interview two different suspects at the same time, switching back and forth through six rounds of questioning instead of the normal three.

Unfortunately, the whole approach is sometimes a little opaque -- two questions may make basically the same point in slightly different ways, with one being successful and the other failing miserably.  Essentially we read the three possible questions, review our current inventory, and select the most productive question paired with supporting evidence.  But sometimes two pieces of evidence that should support the same line of questioning produce very different results, and sometimes a piece of evidence that seems tenuous at best ends up being the one the game wants us to pick.  So there's still some guesswork involved in these interviews, and the finale is especially vexing -- we have to replay the question/answer pairs we know multiple times as we try different combinations for the one we're currently stuck on, and there's no way to save the game mid-interview, leading to a lot of repetition that becomes frustrating the closer we get to finishing the main story.

Still, the game is entertaining, and Detective Case's, um, cases are developed in a light-hearted but logical manner.  And there's some charming retro humor on offer, including a vintage arcade stocked with parody coin-op titles in the Space Quest tradition:

Along the same lines, a thorough tour of the Hotel Lisbon allows us to access the mysterious room 401, which leads... right out of the game and into a vintage operating system:

This last joke is handled particularly nicely -- the game autosaves before we enter this area, as there's no way back in once we've exited, hinting at the frustration of 1980s game crashes and adventuring dead ends without forcing a replay.

There's also a nice nod to the development team, appearing as alley dwellers in an optional area of the game, and the band in a restaurant can be induced to play an entire song complete with vocals.  The music really makes up for a lot of the gameplay's limitations -- there's always a jaunty, promising feel in the air even when the hunt for evidence, suspects and the right combination of interview questions bogs down.

And that's what I have to say about Detective Case and Clown Bot: in Murder at the Hotel Lisbon!  It's not a must-play adventure, but I look forward to seeing what this developer comes up with in the future -- the intentionally limited style seems to be working for Nerd Monkeys, and I appreciate that they aren't biting off more than they can chew like some other indie adventure game devs.  Sometimes a simpler style benefits more from modern technology than an envelope-pushing style the budget can't support.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Adventure: Dr. Livingston, In Search Of (Softside, 1980)

Thanks to all the longtime readers inquiring as to my whereabouts.  I assure you I am well, just busy with life elsewhere.  I have not written a new post since August of last year, and my old weekly schedule will not be returning any time soon, so I'm going to just start calling these "Adventure" posts instead of "Adventure of the Week."

Anway, I had a little free time this weekend, and so I wandered randomly into the SoftSide disk magazine archives in search of something I haven't played yet.  And I discovered that I had somehow overlooked this TRS-80 text adventure from September of 1980: Dr. Livingston, In Search Of... -- also known as African Adventure: In Search of Dr. Livingston when it was ported to other platforms later on.

It's basically a jungle-themed treasure hunt, without much of a plot to speak of.  Like many of the SoftSide adventures, this BASIC-language game's author is uncredited -- the engine appears similar to other games the company published, which I will probably appreciate if we get stuck along the way.  This game predates the availability of lowercase alphabet display kits for the venerable TRS-80, so the parser will only recognize entries in uppercase.

I've been considering changing my old format for these posts, especially when I'm dealing with animated/modern adventures and well-known games where walkthroughs are commonly available and that level of detail doesn't necessarily add value.  But this adventure is more obscure, so I'm going to stick with my usual approach, detailing my playthrough experience in the following.  In other words, if you plan to search for Dr. Livingston on your own, you may want to stop here.  There are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

We begin where so many other adventures begin, in a bedroom, presumably our own, in pajamas, with a closet, a bed, and some bedcovers that are curiously emphasized in the text as TURNED DOWN.

There's also a TIMEWORN BOOK on hand, so it makes sense to READ BOOK.  Oh, right, YOU DON'T HAVE IT.  I am clearly out of practice!  I GET BOOK -- 'TIS DONE providing a nicely period-appropriate parser response -- and then READ BOOK; TRY READING IN BED.  Um... okay.  I GO BED and now we can finally READ BOOK to discover its title: "AFRICA - LAND OF THE UNKNOWN - BY R.U. REDDE." 

The book seems fairly central to the action here, as we can also OPEN BOOK and READ PASSAGE: "... PLORER NODDED OFF TO SLEEP, HIS THOUGHTS BEGAN TO DRIFT T..."  This seems like a clue, but we're not allowed to SLEEP, GO SLEEP or CLOSE EYES, so I'll GET UP and see what else we can do here.  EXAMINE CLOSET yields no information... and neither does GO CLOSET?  Ah, we have to OPEN CLOSET, adding a faded red knapsack and a pair of hiking boots to the visible items in the room.

I'll GET KNAPSACK and GET BOOTS -- they are automatically worn, it seems.  OPEN KNAPSACK reveals only that it's already open, and I can't seem to PUT BOOK or DROP BOOK in any way that involves the knapsack, so we'll assume it is just here for show or perhaps to increase our carrying capacity.

There appears to be no way to leave the bedroom -- N, W, S, E, U and D all reveal various blocking messages.  I suspect these are randomized for variety, and that the "THAT DIRECTION IS SEALED OFF" text doesn't necessarily mean we can open up a passage there.   We can't seem to do anything with the nightstand, so we'll try going back to bed.

I suspect we need to sleep, but repeated reading of the book doesn't do anything, and I can't PULL BEDCOVERS or COUNT SHEEP.  Ah!  DRIFT OFF is hinted at by the passage in the book... and now we find ourselves DRIFTING IN A ROWBOAT ON A LAKE.  That's a nice transition of a type peculiar to text adventures -- the conceptual pun, if you will.

There's a tiny grey mouse in the boat with us, and we can see a beach on the eastern shoreline.  We can simply GET MOUSE and store him in the knapsack, and go E to arrive on the shoreline with our boat conveniently tied to the dock.

The game does not in most cases tell us which directions are available for travel; going N is unsuccessful, so I'll head S into a grassy plain where a native throws a spear at us.  Fortunately, HE MISSES AND RUNS OFF, and we can now GET the poison-tipped SPEAR.  The grassy plain is a bit of a local maze, and I eventually find my way out to the east, where a trail begins near a tree.

It would not be an outdoor adventure game if we weren't obligated to CLIMB the occasional TREE, and this one hosts a VICIOUS VIPER.  We can't seem to SPEAR VIPER or KILL VIPER, but this snake isn't particularly strike-happy, so I'll climb back Down and head south onto the trail.

We can see cliffs to the east leading to a plateau, but I'll continue south for now to the overgrown end of the trail where we find a sack of coffee beans, which we'll take with us in case they come in handy later on.  We can't go any further south, but we can travel east to see a nearby village.  This would be a good time to SAVE GAME, if this engine sported such a feature; but it does not, so I'll have to live in 2016 and make do with an emulator save state.

As we enter the village, A VOLLEY OF SPEARS FLIES OVER YOUR HEAD!  AN OBVIOUS WARNING!  So we'll take this under advisement as we flee back W... except we can't go back that way!  I stumble S into a hut, where we find a crumpled note that reads: "SWAMI DIAMOND."  Okay, I was hoping for something a little more coherent, but we'll keep the note in case this comes to mean something later on. 

Unfortunately, when I re-emerge from the hut, we're dead, presumably from a native attack, with only 5 of 250 possible points earned -- but to my surprise, this early game actually has a bit of an auto-rewind feature, and we find ourselves drifting in the boat on the lake again.  However, we have none of our inventory... though this turns out to be informative, as when I make a direct return to the native village, people seem much friendlier and one native offers a trinket in trade for something.  I think perhaps we are better received if we're not carrying the spear I picked up earlier... and yes, if I restore my earlier save and DROP SPEAR before going into town, we're safe here.

I can't TRADE KNAPSACK or TRADE MOUSE, so let's do some more exploring.  I find a jungle south of the trail's end, where we meet a wild dog who is not friendly.  Fleeing at random, I find some quicksand -- we can't travel north across the quicksand, it seems, though we can see that a trail continues beyond.  I can't seem to find a way out of the jungle, either, so we'll restore again and check out the cliffs alongside the trail we saw earlier.

A FIERCE BLACK LEOPARD BARS THE WAY to an opening in the cliffside, and we can't THROW SPEAR (it just hits the ground) or KILL LEOPARD (THAT'S TOO DANGEROUS.)  So I'd better map this area out more thoroughly and make sure I'm not missing some important inventory items.  Oh, wait -- I didn't try to TRADE the coffee BEANS to the friendly natives, and that works -- now we have a GOLDEN NOSE RING in inventory and 20 points in our SCORE.

I try to JUMP QUICKSAND when I run across it again, and the game asks, "DO YOU REALLY EXPECT TO JUMP OVER 30 FEET?"  To my surprise, when I answer YES, the game displays a short bit of vintage TRS-80 animation as we leap over the quicksand with a satisfying "TA DA" at the end!

Safely on the opposite side, we can acquire some sugar cane.  I wander around some more, and apparently we've been whittling as we walk, as suddenly we're informed that we've converted the sugar cane into a CHARMING LITTLE FLUTE.  I also discover that if we DROP MOUSE by the plateau opening, the leopard is startled into flight and we can now go U into the opening, where we find a SPARKLING DIAMOND, worth another 20 points it appears.

I discover we can enter the cave to the east, finding a cavern and a pearl-handled dagger -- but our load is getting too heavy, and there's an occasional unsettling voice heard uttering the word "SWAMI," so I'd better decide what to do with some of this stuff.  I can't seem to PLAY FLUTE, but I can CHARM VIPER with it, and take the LETHARGIC VIPER along.  We can DROP VIPER near the wild dog in the jungle -- the two fight and both disappear into the quicksand, and a DEEP-BLUE SAPPHIRE appears sparkling in the grass.

There doesn't seem to be much of a plot in this adventure.  Can we stash these treasures back in our bedroom?  Yes, if we return to the boat and DRIFT again, we find ourselves back home.  And now we have 102 points, suggesting that this is indeed what we're meant to do with the treasures.  I also discover that we can only DRIFT at home when we have the book in inventory, but it does not travel with us to the rowboat.

I return to the caverns and acquire the pear-handled dagger, then find a passage heading east to a valley.  A trading post here offers a silver chain in exchange for something... there are ears of corn in a field to the south, but they aren't in demand it seems.  I find two shrunken heads on a sign to the west -- apparently headhunter territory.  I also find some groundnuts near a squirrel running by, with a sign suggesting this is also a trading post of some kind, although it may just refer to the nearby hut we visited earlier.  To my surprise, I can TRADE GROUNDNUTS for the silver chain.  Time for a trip home to drop off some treasures, and we're at 137 points now.

Exploring some more, I find a hungry alligator lurking in the marshes but am unable to escape being eaten by him.  I stumble into the UJIJI VILLAGE, land of the shrunken-head artistans, and in a pit to the south I actually find Dr. Livingston!  I can't GET LIVINGSTON -- or can I?  The parser responds, DR. LIVINGSTON?, and when I guess successfully by typing the "magic words" I PRESUME, 'TIS DONE, and now we have him in inventory!

We can take Dr. Livingston back to our room and drop him there, and now we're at 187 points.  So it feels like we've finished the story, but we must have at least a few more random treasures to acquire.   What haven't we done yet?  We can THROW SPEAR to kill the alligator, though the result is randomized and it took me a few tries and fatalities before I succeeded.  This doesn't seem to accomplish anything new, though, and eventually the DEAD ALLIGATOR is replaced by another HUNGRY ALLIGATOR with nary a treasure or other substantial change in sight.

What was the meaning of the note in the hut?  Are we supposed to bring the SWAMI DIAMOND there?  I try that, and nothing happens in the game or score-wise. So I think this is the best ending I can come up with:

Looking at the code, I don't see any other treasures or events I haven't seen.  It turns out that we get points for dropping ANY of sixteen inventory items in the bedroom, not just the treasures -- and in fact, it looks like we are better off keeping some of the mundane items than going for the treasures in trade, although there are some other specific scoring events that award points so it's not strictly a matter of treasure hoarding.  We've seen what there is to see here, it appears, and I'm not motivated to track down the perfect combination of actions to earn all 250 points, so I'll leave that as an exercise for more obsessive adventurers than I.

So I think that's it for the oddly named Dr. Livingston, In Search Of!  And I hope to be back, if not next week, at least relatively soon with another post.  Thanks for reading, and for your patience of late!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spottiness Ahead!

FYI, my postings here are going to be less frequent for the next several months.  I've taken on a couple of theatre projects that are going to eat up more than my available free time, and it's a busy time of year on top of that.  But rest assured I will be back, I have some games in the pipeline that I haven't written up yet and several more I am eager to tackle.  Thank you for your patience.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Quick Impressions: King's Quest 2015 - Episode 1

I've been remiss in my regular blogging duties this week due to a hectic schedule, but this gives me an opportunity to introduce an occasional look at more recent adventure games.  My regular Adventure of the Week posts operate under a self-imposed five year embargo -- yes, I know there are walkthroughs a-plenty out there, but I like to let a game ferment and grow some historical context before I write about it in spoiler-filled detail.  But I do play more current adventure games, and I'd like to use this space to write about those now and then.  And... for a change there will be...

***** NO SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

This past week I've been playing the new King's Quest game, the first of five planned episodes being released by Activision's revival of the classic Sierra label as an "indie" channel.  The season pass on Steam currently retails at $39.99, a bit more than the $25-$30 range other publishers have conditioned us to expect.

First, let me say that I'm glad to see something KQ-related finally come to market after a long dry spell, fan projects and the abortive Telltale Games take on Roberta Williams' classic franchise notwithstanding.  It's a healthy sign of revival for the adventure game genre, in that a large mainstream publisher is taking a gamble on a title like this. 

Second, I should point out that I'm not a huge fan of the series -- I've played KQ I-VII and written about them here, but I've always regarded the series as a bit contrived and less dramatic than it wants to be.  With tongue firmly in cheek, I also question its sense of morality, as Graham and his progeny seem to feel no compunction at all about pushing old women into ovens and such when the plot calls for it; they're unfailingly polite and deferential to everyone else, but witches and non-human creatures are often cruelly dispatched without a moment's thought.

As I write this, I'm only about 4 hours into this first episode -- apparently the budget does allow for a little more content than the three hours or so I usually get out of an episodic release -- but I have to say I'm enjoying it quite a bit.  It's definitely not designed as a point-and-click game -- I'm playing with an Xbox 360 controller, which provides direct control of our hero and works well for the mild action sequences and Dragon's Lair-style events that come up once in a while.  That said, there's no parser and interactions with inventory objects are very simple -- we just stand near something that an object can be used on, open inventory, and select objects until something at least responds, often with a groan-inducing pun if it doesn't apply.  Sometimes no response is produced at all, but I can't say that's a bad thing.

I like the structure of the story -- an aging King Graham (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) shares tales of his life and exploits with his granddaughter, Gwendolyn, allowing for plenty of "I would have died IF I had done that" instant recoveries and first-person-from-a-distance narration.  This convention flows better than the clunky popups and frequent die-and-restore cycles of the vintage King's Quest games.

And I like the artwork a lot -- the three-dimensional environments often call the pioneering painterly style of King's Quest V to mind, and the character models, while a little chunky up close, fit the quality voice acting nicely.  Animation is lively and often subtle, and while there are little glitches and priority breaks here and there they never seem all that important somehow.  And the effects animation is really well done -- flames and flowing water look great, but not overly realistic, without the pasted-on, memory-constrained look that the vintage Sierra titles often suffered from when trying to look dramatic.

The gameplay is, if anything, a little too reminiscent of the vintage series.  I'm currently doing quite a bit of backtracking and experimenting, and a little fast-travel or parser-quick navigation would be handy, but that's always been a problem in these animated adventure games if you ask me.  So we do spend quite a bit of time watching young Graham's gangly walking animation, steering him from place to place as we try to figure out what to try with the latest object we've acquired.  Dialogue interactions do occur, and are generally informative and/or entertaining, but dialogue doesn't drive the story as directly as in many other modern adventures.  For the most part, we have to figure out where to use the thing on the other thing, with the occasional hint thrown our way by another character or future Graham, and the old-school mechanics are fine with me.

All in all, I think the Odd Gentlemen and Activision have done the right thing in bringing King's Quest back.  The style is a workable hybrid of the modern choice-driven and classic animated adventure games, and I'm enjoying the story and the puzzles, many of which call the earlier titles to mind without seeming like direct copies.  I expect I'll write about this game in more detail some day; for the moment, let me just say that the 2015 King's Quest is proving very worthwhile -- a bit of nostalgia, a lot of genuinely fresh fun.  And I'm glad there are still death animations, with the added bonus of quick recoveries.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Wizard's Revenge (1981)

This week's subject, Wizard's Revenge, is another of an informal series of text adventures published by the Atari Program eXchange for Atari's 8-bit home computers, and the only one I hadn't yet tackled in my recent posts about these games.  Wizard's Revenge was written by Max Manowski circa 1981, and does not appear to use the same parser as the other adventure games in the APX library.  It also has a few role playing game-style elements, so it may present some different challenges.

The plot is fairly standard early-adventure material -- the player has been banished to a strange land by a powerful wizard, though this setup does more than most adventure games bother to do, in explaining why the player starts out in an unfamiliar place with no possessions to speak of.  The game also handles illumination in a more sophisticated way than most adventures of its era, and the structure is very open-ended -- there aren't many required puzzles, there are a lot of red herrings and atmospheric optional locations to visit, and the player is given a lot of freedom to explore.

Interested readers are of course encouraged to spoil the Wizard's Revenge before reading about my experience here -- but be warned that the game is a little buggy and there are lots of fatal scenarios, and no built-in SAVE facility, so I highly recommend using a modern emulator with machine state save capabilities, as I don't think I would have persevered for very long without that technical assist.  I also found that the game seems to work better under an (emulated) Atari 800 OS-B configuration than on an XL platform, though even then I found a number of situations that just hang the game.  So feel free to avoid some annoying non-game issues and learn what this one is all about in the...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

As the game begins, we find ourselves in a Forest.  YOU ARE 50% ALIVE, we're informed, suggesting that there is a role playing game concept of the player's health involved here.  There's a cave to the east, but I'm going to do a little exploring and mapping first.

My initial attempt to head North meets with resistance, as the parser informs us that I DO NOT ACCEPT ABBREVIATIONSNORTH is more successful, leading to a clearing in the woods with a green pole stuck in the ground.  I try to EXAMINE POLE, and the parser's visual response suggests it's only really recognizing POLE -- but just the same, the ground trembles, and we fall through a newly-opened crack before it closes above us. 

We are now in a Dimly Lit Room, with passages west, east, and south.  Heading SOUTH, we pass through a room with a little light visible to the south, into a Very Narrow Passage -- I thought the game had gotten hung up here, but there's just a pause as we find a sword, get stuck, and struggle back into the room to the north. 

Just out of curiosity, I try this again -- and on the second try, I get attacked by vampire bats and my health drops to 37%.  This happens again on subsequent tries, until I'm dead, so I guess we're only supposed to find one object here.  What's interesting is that after I restart and make another attempt, I acquire a silver button instead of the sword.  Curious, I start again and pick up a potion.  So it seems this is a way to acquire only non-critical items.

From the room with little light, I discover we can go EAST into a room with walls that feel covered with moss, and we hear strange sounds from the east.  We can't go north -- the room descriptions don't always list the available exits, so we have to make attempts in all possible directions, though at least UP and DOWN don't seem to be recognized so I think we only have to worry about four possibilities.  Heading south leads us into a Room that feels Damp (this game's text doesn't always name rooms formally, so my capitalization is going to be rather inconsistent here also.)

Here, we can only go back north, or west into a Dry Room with a torch on the wall.  I try to TAKE TORCH, based on my recent experience with APX adventures, but we can only GET TORCH... no, that doesn't work either... ah, my mistake.  I'd gone back to the damp room, and instead of telling me the torch wasn't available, the parser was just saying HUH? in response to GET TORCH and WHAT? for TAKE TORCH.  This suggests the nouns are treated according to situation or location, and maybe given priority over the verbs; the parser actually underlines the words it recognizes with up-arrows after we enter a command, giving us some hints as to how the game "thinks."

In the dry room, I do successfully TAKE TORCH -- and it's already lit, saving us hunting for matches and such.  The passage mentioned leading north turns out to be too narrow to enter, but the torch's light reveals that it seems to run on for quite a distance.  The only other apparent option is to head WEST, which leads us back to our starting point.

I still have some areas to explore inside the cave, but let's check out the map above ground now that we're back here.  Heading west from the forest leads to a Small Stream, flowing north to south.  DRINK WATER here proves refreshing, but doesn't seem to improve our health, which remains at 50%. 

I head NORTH again and find the source of the stream at the mouth of a small cave.  I DRINK WATER once and feel stronger -- but health stays where it is, and when I try to drink again, I die of an overdose!  After a restore (there is no SAVE GAME command, so I'm glad I'm playing under the Atari800Win emulator) I drink just once, and confirm that we can't go north or west here, and EAST returns us to the clearing with the green pole, though it's no longer here after I disturbed it earlier.

In the interest of mapping, I follow the small stream south this time, to the point where it flows into a small crack in a large rock.  Trying to go west from here leads into an area where The Ground Here Is Very Swampy, and the game appears to hang.  So I have to restore again, and hope this doesn't happen too often; the same thing repeats when I try again, so it might be a bug or an intentional dead end.  I'll steer clear of it for now.

South of the forest is an area with many trees, and ONE OF THEM IS VERY TALL.  We can't go UP, but we can CLIMB to see a deep valley far to the east.  I try to go NORTH, and subsequently fall from the tree, knocking my health down by 9%.  CLIMB does not bring us back down, but DOWN works here.  Just to be thorough, I learn that trying to head EAST from the treetop is fatal, but the player's character is somehow wiser about heading south or west.  So maybe under some circumstances yet to arise, we will be able to head east?

I head south of the tall tree to find more trees and a large hole in the ground.  The game seems to hang up again if I try to go WEST of this point, and we can't go DOWN into the hole, at least not that way.  EXAMINE HOLE proves unintentionally effective, as we find the edge of the hole slippery and fall into it.

This leads us back to the room where we felt moss earlier, but with the torch in hand, we can now see it much more clearly.  It has mossy walls and passages leading east, south, and west.  This is a really nice way to handle illumination -- we were able to explore in the darkness before we had a proper torch, which is a more natural solution than the usual it's-so-dark-you'll-break-your-neck-just-by-walking-around situation these games often present.

With this insight, I travel back to the dimly lit room we visited earlier, which is now just a room with passages to the west, east and south.  I haven't been west yet -- this leads to a room with a Musty Smell, and we can continue west to a small room with a door on the west wall.  I try to EXAMINE DOOR, and end up wounded somehow, though the game suggests we might be able to push harder.  This seems misleading, as another attempt produces a click, and a dart is stuck in my neck, costing some health as I pull it out.  PUSH DOOR produces a similar result, and with my health dropping again I opt to restore to a previous save state.

Heading back to the east, I see some strange powder near the north wall.  We can't TAKE POWDER, or PUSH WALL to look for dust-disturbing secret panels, but if we try to go NORTH, a spark from the torch lands in the powder, and it explodes!  We don't seem to suffer much damage, but the torch is now useless.  I try to DROP TORCH after a restore, but DROP is not even a recognized verb, so we'll do some more mapping before we try to push through this area.  I do discover that if we let the torch be blown up, and try to go NORTH, we're told that it's too dark to see anything -- but if we type LOOK, we can learn that we're still in the musty room despite the lack of a light source.

We have some more mapping to do, so I'll head east of the formerly dimly-lit room into a dead end -- but when I try to turn back, a bright flash occurs, we move through the air, and find ourselves in a small cave with a poisonous snake approaching.  I try go SOUTH but fail to escape a deadly bite.  After yet another restore, I attempt to KILL SNAKE, and to my surprise I'm able to do so even though I don't have an obvious weapon in hand.  But the game hangs again here, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm even going to be able to play this one to completion.

What next?  Let's check out the strange sound to the east of the mossy room.  The passage turns north into a Very Large Room with water blocking the way north and a large, apparently friendly bird.  I try to EXAMINE BIRD and SING BIRD and PET BIRD, but only get strange looks and more chirping.  CLIMB doesn't work -- he's not that large -- nor does RIDE BIRD.  I try to EXAMINE POTION, in case it might be helpful here, but the parser assumes I want to imbibe it, and I find myself back at 100% health... just before the game hangs again.

What is going on?  I set up my emulator to run as an Atari 800 with OS-B instead of as an Atari XL, reboot, and now the game seems to be slightly more cooperative.  My quick test, heading into the swampy ground west of the trees, leads to a pearl and a hang-free prompt.  I opt to head north into knee-deep water, where I get bitten by a water moccasin and die.  Restarting, I go to the bird room, and trying to go NORTH reveals that we must either WADE or SWIMSWIM is not great, as a large fish bites us and we're wounded.  WADE has the same effect.  Dang it!

Entering the narrow passage, luck grants me a book this time.  READ BOOK reveals a single page of writing: "TO LEAVE THE CASTLE, KEEP GOING EAST."  That will probably be useful advice.  Next, I try to KILL SNAKE in the small cave again, but this still seems to hang the game.  I restart and pick up a worm in the narrow passage, which enables me to GIVE WORM and get the bird to fly me across the water.  This game seems to depend on random events to a startling degree!

We enter a small passage here, crawling to discover a key before we have to back out.  The passage caves in, but another passage north takes us to a Round Room with passages west and south.  Writing over the south passage reads: "WHEN SMILED AT ALWAYS SMILE BACK," but then the writing fades away.

We might as well head south, then, to a dead end where a rock SEEMS TO STICK OUT IN AN UNNATURAL WAY.  I TOUCH ROCK and fall through a trap door, landing fatally on some spikes.  So we'll restore and avoid doing that.

Instead, we'll go west into a room with passages to the south and west.  THE NORTH WALL LOOKS STRANGE, but we can't walk through it or otherwise interact with it.  The south passage leads to a room with walls that sparkle, and no obvious exits.  SMILE and SMILE WALL aren't productive, but I TOUCH WALLS, and we find ourselves at the west end of a valley with steep sides and a western sparkling wall, presumably way to return.

Heading east, I pass some bushes, and reach an area where the walls are not as steep.  CLIMB still fails, but we're not hurt after sliding down from about halfway up, and we can continue east to an intersection of two valleys.

A partially readable sign suggests, "TO EXIT GO .O.TH," which means it's a good time to save state for the umpteenth time -- and also suggests that Mr. Manowski's game must have felt a little sadistic in its original, unSAVEable form!  I opt not to decide yet, and check out the east end of the valley, where some rocks are starting to fall.  EXAMINE ROCKS proves fatal, though, as they crush our health turn by turn, and we can't escape by heading back to the WEST -- all we can do here, in fact, is suffer wave upon wave of falling rocks until we're dead.

Restoring and heading north instead, I find some bushes at the north end of the valley, and go west into a small room with a passage west and a small gem in the wall.  Going west leads us to the small cave with the poisonous snake we earlier reached by another route, and again the game hangs up.

I'll restore and try going south at the intersection -- this leads to a stairway in the south wall.  The steps are tiring, we're told, but we are able to climb them and arrive at a clearing.  To the west is a tall tree -- similar to but not the same as the earlier one -- where we can see a valley to the north and a river to the east.  Further west is a clearing with some bushes bearing yellow berries, which I'll ignore for safety's sake at the moment.

This game's map is fairly large, though there aren't a lot of inventory items or puzzles to deal with.  I'm going to go back to the east for now, discovering a castle near a river with an open door.  GO DOOR is not recognized, EAST causes us to drown in the river, and GO CASTLE is also unproductive.  It finally dawns on me that, with the castle's door on its east wall, we've probably just come through that door -- which suggests we're making progress escaping said castle.

I try going SOUTH from here, finding a log across the river that DOESN'T LOOK SAFE TO CROSS.  But with the luxury of a save state to back me up, I try to CROSS LOG anyway... and to my surprise, victory is ours!

The game still feels a little bit unfinished, with lots of loose ends, so I restore to my pre-log crossing situation and wander around this area a little bit more.  I meet a smiling man in the woods to the west, and SMILE gets him to tell us that "IT'S SAFE TO CROSS THE LOG," which we'd already figured out.  I find a flute in a grove of willow trees, but can't PLAY FLUTE to do anything with the poisonous snake.  I get the impression that certain random events, especially the discovery of one of multiple possible objects in the narrow passage early on, allow Wizard's Revenge to have multiple solutions, but I'll stop here, satisfied to have found one of them at least.

Wizard's Revenge is certainly not a standard adventure game -- it's got some odd behaviors and a few bugs, but as what I surmise is an attempt to produce a more RPG-like, loosely-structured experience, it's not bad.  The map is very large and I have to think that other paths to the ending are available -- at the least, the design presents a greater illusion of choice than most text adventures of its time.  As far as I can determine, this is the only game Max Manowski ever published, so we don't have any other examples of his approach to the genre to compare to this one.  But I enjoyed wandering through this expansive, if largely plot-free, adventure game.