IFComp 2016: Stuff and Nonsense

Spoilers follow the break.

As you’d expect from the title, this one’s a lighthearted romp, a fast-paced choice-based adventure illustrated with vintage photography. In an steampunkish alchemy-enhanced alternate 19th century Australia (even just typing this sentence is fun), sprinkled with just enough real historical details to provide an outlandish counterpoint, you play a member of a small band of revolutionaries led by a mad scientist, setting an ambush for Queen Victoria on the occasion of her visit to a Grand Exhibition displaying the automatons and ornithopters created by Australia’s numerous brilliant inventors. Escapades ensue. After laying some preparations and having a narrow escape or two, and possibly meeting Charles Dickens, you spring a trap involving mechanical spiders, intended not so much to hurt the Queen but to humiliate her in public and make your displeasure with her governance impossible to ignore. This is followed by one final climactic emergency as the entire exhibit hall inevitably collapses.

You get a choice of five characters to play, and while there is a certain amount of textual variation based on that choice, mostly it affects things indirectly, through your alchemical affinities. Each playable character possesses certain objects of magically-activated metal that affects their abilities: an item of silver grants you mechanical know-how, aluminum gives you physical grace, lead helps you lead, and so forth. The basic UI contains a helpful display of which metals you currently have, with summaries of their meanings and a link to a page that goes into more detail. Since this is basically a system of character attributes, why do it indirectly through the metals? Apart from simply being thematic, it provides an excuse for characters to suddenly acquire new attributes in a short timeframe — although the way it happens, it really seems like we’re acquiring skills through practice rather than picking up objects. I could easily imagine something more like an adventure game using a similar system, using these talismans as keys for solving puzzles, but this game isn’t puzzle-based so much as test-based: at many junctures, you have a choice of three actions, each using a different metallic attribute to determine success or failure. The required metals are not explicitly indicated, but are pretty obvious if you’re paying attention.

The interesting thing about this is that it means that many of your choices aren’t so much choices of what to do as how to do it. You get essentially the same effect for fighting your way out of a sticky situation (using the power of Iron) as for convincing a well-to-do bystander to come to your defense (using the power of Gold). Even picking the wrong options and failing in your missions is fairly inconsequential. The midgame consists of three short scenarios, all optional — you have to do at least one of the three before you can choose to move into the endgame. After each, you return to the team’s rendezvous point to pick another (or proceed to the endgame), regardless of what happened, the better to keep the story moving. The only place where you can really fail in a big way is in the ending, and even there, failure is always avoidable; the author has made sure that the available choices accommodate every character’s metal combinations.

If I have one complaint about the game, it’s that the metal system is initially presented in a way that invites the player to really learn it, and make decisions of which character to play on the basis of it, but the game is really too short to justify the mental effort this involves. Maybe I’d find it more satisfying if the midgame scenarios had just a few more metal-based tests.

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