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IFCOMP 2005 - Phantom: Caverns of the Killer

Game #24: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer, by Brandon Coker
Played On: 10/30/2005 (4:20 PM to 5:20 PM)
Unofficial Score: 2.5 (2.5 base with no skew)

     Eeeee... Okay. I want to say some good things about this game before I talk about whatís bad. In many ways, Brandon Cokerís Phantom reminds me of my early, inexperienced attempts at writing adventure games. By no means am I any kind of expert now, but I think Iíve improved. My more recent games are better than the TRS80 stuff I wrote many years ago, and my most recent Hugo efforts are better than my earlier DOS attempts. I had this same concern last year, with Ruined Robots. How can I write an honest review of a very bad game that doesnít seem completely discouraging to the author?

     Well, itís a pretty short game. I finished it in an hour, although I might not have finished at all without the maze solutions found in the walkthrough. The rest of the game was pretty simple, but those mazesÖ well, Iíll get to that soon. Kudos for using Inform instead of a hand-made parser. Again, I have no room to talk in that regard, but with the flaws in the game itself, I can only imagine how unplayable it might have been without the stable Zcode framework to keep it on track.

     Just about everything that can be wrong in a game is wrong with this one, with the exception that itís not really buggy. What I mean is, the game is flawed in a large number of ways, but I found nothing I would consider a bug. Rooms connect together. The map (aside from the mazes) makes sense. No errors crashed the game. It can be won with a full 100 points, and it doesnít seem possible to repeat the same points.

     The text: Itís bad. This includes sentence fragments, run-on sentences, general misuse of commas, missing apostrophes in contractions, capitalization problems, spaces before commas where no space belongs, no space after commas where it does belong (sometimes referring to the same comma), bad spelling, and stray 1ís and 2ís (a digit) in ending text.

     Implementation: Not good. Implemented scenery is hit and miss (usually miss). ďEnter shackĒ says you canít enter it, but ďX shackĒ says you can. The answer is a simple ďinĒ Ė odd. In the Dome of Life, the same lengthy room description was used for both halves of it, with just a minor variation at the end. There is no difference between a 61-point ending and the 100-point ending Ė at least, no difference that I could see. These treasures donít even have a purpose, except to give a higher score at the end of the game.

     Puzzles: Easy or impossible, with no middle ground. Points are gained just from picking up important objects found in various areas. Two of the most important puzzles in the game, the four doors and later the four boxes, can be solved with an ďundoĒ followed by the next possible choice. Iím not sure Brandon realizes ďundoĒ isnít just available at an ending. Both puzzles would be insanely difficult to figure out otherwise, yet this makes them just minor obstacles that donít really pose a challenge. Then, there are two mazes (well, three, but the third isnít hard). The first might be possible to solve, because variations to the text and available exits at least provide feedback to the player. I gave up and got the answer from the walkthrough. It might be okay if either was a real maze, but thatís not the case. These are pseudo-mazes where the solution is a special combination of directions. In the first maze, failure brings you back out of the maze. The second is tougher, because not only is every room identical (every room can be exited in any direction), but the solution involves going one way and then back the way you came. Who could possibly solve this?

     The story: Itís pretty generic. Youíre an archeologist looking for the tomb of a mythical (and possibly evil) warrior, which was written in a legend in a rare (but apparently readily available) book. The premise is never really developed, though. The phantom isnít even there, and instead, you ultimately confront an ages-old deceased explorer who might also be evil. At the very least, he might have warned me before I joined in his fate. Also, if he had been there for 500 years, why was a note written to him just lying outside the tower?

     I hate to be so negative about Phantom: Caverns of the Killer. I think the author is probably young, and I know he must have spent a lot of time working on this game. I cringe to think of what other reviews heís likely to see, and I just hope that this isnít too discouraging. It takes time to get this right. I would encourage him to practice even non-interactive writing. Get better at that, and read a lot. Then make each game better than the one before, and before you know it, you could have a top-10 entry one of these years.

     To rank this one accurately on my scale, I have to give it a 2.5. As it is, there just isnít much here to be excited about.

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