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Played: November 8th (1 hour 45 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 8-
The looming future. An Earth recovering from alien occupation. A mysterious object is approaching our put-upon planet and it's up to one explorer to discover its secrets.
Star City is really really good – until its beast of an endgame puzzle.
The setting reminded me of Rendezvous With Rama (or maybe one of the sequels), by Arthur C. Clarke. Star City is a huge cylindrical space ship, possibly of alien origin, that awaits the arrival of a lone explorer. The biggest mystery is solved shortly after boarding, only to be replaced by more questions. Why does it exist? How did it come to be so close to Earth? Is the PC really alone aboard it?
Exploring Star City, even though it’s not a very long game, was great. The quick trip through the center of it elicited great mental images. The city itself was drab and uniform with block after block of inaccessible buildings, but the game had already established an interesting layout. I thought of it as a maze at first, but there are no dead ends. Except at either end of the cylinder, you can go in any direction. Others may dislike this, but with a destination presented after only a brief bit of exploration, it worked for me just as the author probably intended.
I noticed no problems in the writing, and I noted only a few minor complaints through most of the game: a missing synonym here, seemingly unimplemented scenery there. This didn’t seem too common, though. The construction of the game felt solid, even responding to a few things I wouldn’t have expected it to. My overwhelming thought through most of it was “this is really good” and “what a great game.”
But then... that endgame. What happened? I think the author probably wanted something with a bigger challenge than the rest of the game (which wasn’t hard, but did feel rewarding enough to make it worthwhile), and something with a greater sense of urgency. The challenge is there. The urgency is there. The last part just wasn’t fun.
I struggled with the first part of the endgame (made harder in that you die after only a few turns, and UNDO doesn’t work twice in a row), but managed to get settled in. The part with the restraints was particularly nasty, requiring guess-the-verb and guess-the-noun, although it was in a “forgot to use synonyms” kind of way, not a “this is a special magic action” way. I made a new save there (good thing, too), and hoped that I was just a turn or two away from the ending.
It would have been nice if the game had ended there, or if the author had reconsidered the endgame puzzle to come. Instead, it’s a matter of controlling a small out-of-control escape craft manually, while trying to figure out how to make it go and turn. I somehow missed an important first step, so my first few attempts weren’t working for reasons I couldn’t figure out. It’s something I should have seen, but overlooked. For the first time since I started, I had to peek at the walkthrough. Knowing then what I missed (and what the game failed to let me know I missed), I survived a little longer, only to meet death after death as I tried to figure out the controls.
Actually, the controls are easy to figure out. A convenient in-game manual explains it. The problem was that I had no idea what kinds of maneuvers I should be attempting, to keep from crashing. The walkthrough helped, but it was expressed in such a general way that I still struggled through a few more deaths before getting everything to work just right. When the winning ending came, I should have been smiling at what a great game I had just completed. Instead, I was grumbling to myself about the inane endgame puzzle.
Score distribution seemed a little off. At one point, I was awarded a whopping sixty points (out of a hundred) at once. The full hundred is awarded before the endgame, leaving no more to earn for all the work involved in actually winning.
About the plot. Since the Gloss seem to exist only as backstory, what was their importance? How could they have overlooked the Star City during their decades-long occupation of Earth? How did the builders of Star City, at the time it was constructed, come by the technology necessary to create such a thing? How is it that the orbit was about to decay just as it was discovered? How was it that a recording, presumably looped for so many decades, broke mere moments after it finally found an audience?
Most of the game is great. I think this could have been a “9” – one of the outstanding games of IFComp 2006 – with a little more substance to the main part of the game and a less frustrating endgame. As it is, the rough endgame only counts enough against everything good that leads up to it, that I put it at “8” on my scale. I’ve added a “minus” for the numerous deaths I suffered at the hands of that ill-conceived design, but it’s still a game I really enjoyed.