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Misc Reviews - The Isle of the Cult

The Isle of the Cult (TADS 2), by Rune Berg
Reviewed On: 12/29/2004 (Originally appeared in NCRP 2004)

     From the first few moves in, I was a fan. The writing was short but effective, describing a feudal-fantasy setting that might have been appropriate as the basis for a D&D scenario. As a new member of a thieving guild, you have been set to the task of retrieving a certain item from a certain island. This is, of course, contrived as a wrapper for what turns out to be a lengthy puzzle-fest.

     Overall, the puzzles are logical, varied, and fun. I was stuck after two hours at sixteen points (out of one hundred), but a plea to “rec.games.int-fiction” elicited the proper nudge. The two suggestions were surprising. In essence, I had already solved both of them, but my phrasing wasn’t right. This is probably okay, except that the resulting messages were more to the effect that “you can’t do that” rather than a nudge toward the right action. I remember at least one other instance where the same kind of thing stuck me again. This is my biggest gripe with the game. As much as I enjoyed romping across the island, discovering all manner of secret rooms and hidden figurines, this was a real problem for me. Difficult puzzles are fine; but it’s disheartening to find that I had the solution right, just not the expression of it.

     To be fair about it, these things are only improved with player feedback. It probably didn’t occur to Rune that someone might try going about it the way I did. In all but these few instances, though, the detail was outstanding. Proper responses to listening and touching and standing were frequently met with a “Wow! That worked!” from me. The author put extra effort into subtle but fair cluing throughout. Aside from those few sticking points with command phrasing, very little in the game might be considered as too obscure to have been solved without hints. It’s difficult, but with close attention to detail and a habit for looking at everything, it’s probably not impossible.

     Unfortunately for me, I’m an intermediate-level player. After my first two hours, and at several places thereafter, I needed more hints. The Isle of the Cult has no built-in hint system. As a puzzle-based game, I can agree somewhat with the decision. With an author-provided walkthrough in hand, I was more apt to peek at it again after I had done so once. In-game hints would probably have turned what was a six-hour adventure for me into a couple hours of hint-spoiled rushing. On the other hand, a game like this is where hints are needed most.

     The writing, as I said to start, is short but effective. To expand on that, it’s brief enough to lend itself to frequent re-reading, but descriptive enough to paint a very vivid picture of the Isle. It’s a style that’s perfectly suited to this kind of game; that’s about as clearly as I can put it.

     Maybe because there is an island and a monkey, I kept thinking of Monkey Island. In turn, this brought about an interesting thought. How well would this game work as a graphic point-and-click adventure, where the would-be thief roams the island, climbing and jumping and acting out the various commands? It’s exactly that kind of game, but with text. Yeah, text adventures spawned graphical ones, not the other way around. Still, the game is vivid enough that this is how it played out for me. The island and various temples, caves, beaches, and jungle paths provide a large enough map (at something around seventy-five rooms). The locations are, for lack of a real word, very “adventurey” – it would be a fun place to explore visually.

     I was a little disappointed that I encountered no natives; no villagers or active cultists or bloodthirsty headhunters. Although this does simplify the game, focusing it on solitary adventuring, it just felt a little lifeless. Aside from the boatman (who leaves at the very beginning), a monkey, and the Guild Master (at the end), I was free to plunder the island unobserved. Evidently, the island was inhabited shortly before I arrived. Where they all went, I don’t know. Exactly what happened as we sailed back toward the mainland remains a mystery to me, as well. Maybe I shouldn’t have joined the guild.

     All in all, this is a well-written puzzle-fest. For a difficult and challenging adventure, this is the one.

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