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IFCOMP 2005 - The Sword of Malice

Game #18: The Sword of Malice, by Anthony Panuccio
Played On: 10/25/2005 (10:10 AM to 10:35 AM and 11:10 AM to 11:55 AM)
Unofficial Score: 4.0 (4.0 base with no skew)

     Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give up so soon while trying to solve a game. I’ll go an hour or two – even longer, if I feel I’m making progress on my own – before I resort to the walkthrough. With The Sword of Malice, I probably should have peeked early. When I did, I started over so I could go strictly by the author’s suggestions. I have to pat myself on the back, though, for making it out of the “Altari Castle” (why does the author put quotes around room names? No idea), albeit without the scabbard. I made it to the tomb with the three puzzle rooms, and I even defeated the skeleton warrior without hints.

     I don’t think I’d ever have solved the game (especially for the “best” ending) without the walkthrough. It’s hard to feel smug about getting as far as I did, when it was partially accidental. I had to check the transcript later, to realize that the bed is held up by chains. This is important, but nothing about it drew my attention. In fact, when other commands started referencing the chains by mistake, I thought the author had flubbed up and completely forgotten to include a vital piece in the description. My fault, but why wasn’t it clued better? Say a little more about the chains. Draw my attention to them. Make me curious about them in some way. I solved this only because the game kept thinking I was talking about the chains, even though I had previously overlooked them.

     I really wasn’t too put off at first, because this seemed like a one-room game. Limited objects might lead to more and more, until the game was bigger than it first seemed in my quest to escape. Thinking of it as a possible one-room game, though, I tried a few random actions just to observe the results. That’s how I got the Power of the Sekoniun. I don’t know how to explain this without giving a blatant spoiler. I’ll just say that the action required to obtain the power (which I did just in the course of experimentation) is hinted in a journal, but you can only get the journal by doing something that would seem sufficient to trigger the action anyway. I’ll use a generic example. Suppose a path stretches before you. You go north. You return to the south. It’s only when you “walk on path” that magic happens. Wasn’t it implied that I was walking on the path already? Maybe that’s not a good example, but it’s the best I can do without spoiling it. The power, according to the walkthrough, is optional – for a lesser ending. Even finding the journal was problematic, because I couldn’t search or “move” something to get it, but… well, again with the possible spoiler.

     Here’s a better example, straight from the game, and it doesn’t spoil anything. If you try to get the scabbard, a transparent aura blocks you. If you touch the aura, you die. Didn’t I just do that, in the process of trying to reach for the scabbard?

     It isn’t a one-room game, and knowing this, I couldn’t help but lose faith in its internal consistency. I’ve said this more than once as I’ve reviewed the other games this year, but I do understand puzzles. I get the point. I enjoy puzzles, and I know that allowing anything and everything kind of defeats the point. This is where beta-testing is vital. The puzzles don’t have to be easier, but they can be clued better. The wrong actions – especially obvious ones – should at least tell players why they’re wrong. If this makes the puzzle too easy, then give more thought to improving the puzzle. As I see these kinds of problems this year, I’m learning what not to do in my own future games. As another example, I looked at the potions on the shelf several times. I saw two or three different ones – and sometimes none at all – after repeating that ten or so times. Later, via the walkthrough, I found that one potion can be taken. It’s not required – it solves a puzzle that I solved in another way – but it just made me wonder again about consistency. You can take the potion only when you stumble upon it, which requires pure and repeated randomness.

     At the end, I managed to stick the game in a state where I had done everything required, but the forge wouldn’t respond. I think it’s when I tried to save time by using “all” with the required action. That’s just a guess. Anyway, I had to “undo” a few times, so I could try again. Then, it worked. I had all points. I guess that was the “best” ending, but I’m not too sure what’s to become of either the Sekoniun or the Altari races. Worse, I don’t think it really matters.

     The writing is okay. I didn’t spot any real problems, but I found myself wanting to re-write the text. For instance, “the epigraph on the stone is inscribed deeply into the stone” might flow better as “the epigraph on the stone is deeply inscribed” or perhaps “an epigraph has been deeply carved into the stone.” This may be a matter of taste. When I play console games, I like good graphics. When I play text adventures, I like good text.

     To its credit, The Sword of Malice is appropriately comp-sized. Had I been able to go further without the walkthrough, it might even have hit a full two hours. The game seems to fit right in at 4.0 on my scale. This is due more to my frustration with the puzzles and consistency than to the text and story, but all of it could use some work. Beta-testing is almost as important as writing a good game to begin with, and no good game is great without it.

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