IFComp 2020: Sage Sanctum Scramble

This one’s close to a pure puzzle game. The whole idea is that you have to collect “keywords” by passing challenges set by various ludicrous “sages”. There are a great many challenges — I’ve unlocked 58 so far, which is enough to get a winning ending, but not the best one. And there’s a good variety to them. Some sages just want you to guess their word on the basis of riddles or hints or warmer/colder. Some want to play word games with you, and just give you the keyword outright after you solve a series of little puzzles like “I’m going to give you pairs of words and you have to give me words that connect them” or whatever. There’s a series of puzzles where a machine transforms letter sequences according to rules you have to figure out by experiment. There are anagrams and mini-crosswords and at least one cryptogram. It reminds me a little of the small items they’d shove together on a single page in Games Magazine, and a lot of The Fool’s Errand and its sequel.

Notably, it only accepts one-word commands, and most of those single words are interpreted as guesses in your current puzzle. There are just a few commands that do anything else, including LOOK/L to repeat the current puzzle, PUZZLES to get a list of available puzzles and numbers to switch to a different puzzle, BOOK to list the keywords you’ve collected. Because everything is done from the same command line, it’s impossible to use any of these words in a puzzle. There’s one puzzle that’s essentially one-dimensional Lights Out on an alphabet with wraparound, except that the alphabet is missing L, because it has to.

What do you do with the keywords once you have them? You proceed to the endgame, where you use them as spells to fight a monster. If you fail — or if you succeed but want to keep on solving puzzles — the game lets you rewind to before the fight. Words disappear from your list when used, offensively or defensively, and the only way you fail is by running out of them. Most of the monster’s attacks can be countered by words with specific properties, like “alternates vowels and consonants”, but if you don’t have such a word, you can use any word at all as a last-ditch defense. Huh? What does it matter, then? Well, the counters completely nullify the attack, whereas the defenses keep you safe but let it damage the Sanctum, affecting the ending you get.

The narrative aspect is minimal and the descriptive text is short, but at least there are some amusing characters among the Laputan coterie. The most memorable is smug a fellow who insists that you guess his keyword with one completely inadequate hint, but who can be goaded into giving you more information by ignoring the one hint until he’s beside himself with frustration. That one puzzle was particularly difficult because it broke the pattern of the rest of the game: that the puzzles have basically no connection to their presentation.

1 Comment so far

  1. matt w on 24 Nov 2020

    Your description of the last puzzle reminds me of one of the cleverest IMO (but also cruelest*) puzzles of Machinarium. There’s a grumpy exhaust fan that wakes up and gives you fan-based puzzles. If you get them right, he calms down and goes back to sleep. It took me a while to realize that I had to deliberately get the answers wrong, making him angrier and angrier until he spun his blades off and I could climb through to the greenhouse.

    *That is, cruel in that it requires doing something nasty to a completely innocent character, not Plotkin-cruel.]

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