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Review by Emily Short, Fri 14th Sep 2012
By Anonymous - See all my reviews
Return to Camelot is a fantasy pastiche game loosely combining hardboiled detective tropes with Arthurian characters. Itís fairly sizable, and I ran out of time before completing it (though others might not).
As of ADRIFT 5, ADRIFT games can now be over the web in a WebRunner. This is a terrific development, and Iím delighted Campbell Wildís putting the work into it.
The downside is that everything is still new and the runner is still a bit quirky (I ran into a minor but irritating display bug that Campbell immediately fixed, but it meant I needed to restart the game at one point to take advantage of the revision). Also, thereís a significant delay in responding to commands because thereís a reload of (as far as I can tell) the whole page every time you act; and if you go away from the game for a while, your session appears to time out. The cumulative effect of all that is that I spent much of my permitted comp-judging time replaying the opening to Return to Camelot (because of the bug, because I got interrupted while playing and had to start over, and because playing is just slower than it would be on a local interpreter). So I didnít get nearly all the way through it and had to go to the walkthrough.
Design is fairly wide-open, in the portions I saw ó itís possible to wander around quite a bit without knowing where to look first. Thatís not always a bad thing, but I would have welcomed a slightly more vigorous pace in the early midgame. Then again when there is hinting, it is extremely direct, even aggressive. At one point during the early game, a message popped up saying ďNarrator interrupting:ÖĒ with a clue about what I ought to do next to trigger forward progress. At another point, an NPC directly challenged me to do something I didnít particularly want to do, and for which I was then immediately punished ó but the story wasnít going to go forward until I did it.
This felt awkward. A tighter design would have let me find the intended path a little more naturally, without this kind of fourth-wall-breaking intervention. The writing also could use a good thorough trimming; there are sentences that look like hedges gone untended for a generation. (More specifics about both those issues follow the spoiler space.)
Overall, from what I saw (the latter part all from the walkthrough), this is a fairly middle-of-the-road offering in terms of puzzle difficulty and implementation depth. The setting doesnít really grab me, being chiefly a compilation of bits borrowed from other works, rather than a freshly imagined or re-imagined world. So it falls at the low end of my recommended scale, Iíd say: itís playable and has some amusing moments, but there are an assortment of craft issues, and it didnít grab me with a compelling, coherent vision.
So in the first part of the game ó which for circumstantial reasons I replayed I think four or possibly five times, so I became intimately familiar with it ó there are a couple of critical triggers to move the story forward. First you have to sit in your chair to trigger the appearance of your visitor; then you have to kiss her in order to get kidnapped into Merlinís lair. Using triggers to ratchet the story forward is a time-honored technique in games, and itís useful, but the aesthetic goal is for the player not to experience any stuck periods or to have to go on a hunt for a trigger, and also not to notice the arbitrariness of the triggering event. In this case, I did both: I spent a bunch of time poking around my office looking for something useful to do with the painting after it was delivered until the narrative voice told me to sit in the chair (and then I sat in the easy chair, which didnít trigger anything, before trying the office chair).
So there are a couple of points here about triggers.
1) Itís good if theyíre connected to something the player has a strong intrinsic reason to try even without knowing thereís a trigger there. Sitting in the office chair isnít necessarily the obvious choice for the player, given that there are appealing objects to explore and a mystery about the freshly delivered painting.
2) Sometimes itís helpful to have more than one trigger to set off the same event, or to use a count of related actions, rather than just a single action, to spring the trigger. Assuming the aim is to let the player look around his office for a little while and get acquainted with the protagonistís semi-loserdom, but to move the narrative along before he gets too bored or stuck, it might be reasonable to trigger off, say, interacting with three of the narratively meaningful objects in the room (out of a somewhat larger total set ó say the painting, gun, whiskey, files in the desk drawer, phone).
3) If at all possible, itís cool to disguise the arbitrariness of all this by making the trigger and the triggered event feel somehow related. E.g.: give the player the fake goal of making his office look a bit less pathetic; then as he tries to carry this out, via any of about a half dozen legitimate methods (like say scattering the files on his desk), have the beautiful woman walk in and mockingly notice him in the middle of this embarrassment, but move the plot along. Now we may not have agency in the classic sense that the player accomplishes what he wanted to accomplish ó on the contrary, his actions make him look like a bit of a dork in her eyes ó but thereís a narrative connection between what he was doing before and what happened after.
As to the writing, hereís what I mean about trimming (and while Iíve picked an extreme example, a lot of the writing shows similar characteristics):
Peacocks, pecking for food, wander around a marble bench which is placed under the protective shade of a small almond tree and a low stone wall surrounds the garden on two sides, the castle wall making out the third and the wall with the arch which you walked through to the east, makes out the fourth.
There are too many ideas in this sentence. The structure means the player may need to read it more than once to work out the layout thatís being described, and by the end the interesting details about the almond tree and peacocks may be already forgotten. Besides this, much of the description has a dutiful quality:
> x stone
The stone is light gray, not that it matters, but thatís the color. Itís polished smooth and is actually quite decorative. Thereís some writing on the side, only a few sentences written in glowing letters.
I donít know about you, but I actually felt a little sorry for the author as I read this. It sounds like a cry for help. ďOh, fine, the player wants me to describe this stoneÖ I guess I have to pick a color for it. Itís rock-colored, okay?Ē
Many many objects in the game are described mechanically with reference to their color, material (lots of oak things), or general level of attractiveness. The result is often a kind of modifier soup: too many adjectives and adverbs, sentences that go on too long about things that arenít distinctive or important, and a real wall-of-text experience for the player on some moves. The descriptions would be much stronger ó more memorable, more interesting, easier to parse ó if the author gave us half or a third as many details, but made sure each one was something that mattered.
What matters about this stone (other than the already-mentioned presence of Excalibur)? It has glowing letters on it. Thatís the interesting thing. Thatís the first thing Iíd notice if I were checking out a magic-inscribed rock. Lead with that, describe it evocatively, and I guarantee the player wonít be thinking ďokay, sure, glowing letters, likely magic, has Excalibur stuck into the top of it, but what shade of gray is it?Ē
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Review by Carl Muckenhoupt, Fri 14th Sep 2012
By Anonymous - See all my reviews
And itís another private detective in novel circumstances! Seriously, if this hasnít been established as a distinct sub-genre already, this Comp alone provides enough instances to do the job.
The novel circumstances this time around: a minion of Merlin transports you back in time to the court of King Arthur. There are numerous mentions of your previous visit, so Iím assuming that this game is a sequel to another one that I havenít played. Your job this time around is to protect Guinevere from kidnappers, although you do a miserable job of it and presumably have to rescue her afterward. Why Launcelot isnít on the job, I donít know. Rescuing Guinevere from kidnappers was pretty much his thing back in Chretien de Troyesí day.
Apart from the opening in your office, the entire game, or as much as I saw of it, takes place on the grounds of Arthurís castle. Thereís some nice magic that works by discoverable rules, and a couple of secret passages, although one of them is confusingly mentioned in a room description before you find it. This may be a symptom of a general problem with things that should be displayed conditionally ignoring their conditions; I noticed a number of things mentioned multiple times in room descriptions as well.
I wish I could report on just how the whole gumshoe-in-Camelot idea is developed here, but I didnít really get very far. I found it very hard to even get started on this due to guess-the-conversation-topic problems. When you initially arrive in Merlinís tower, youíre locked in with no ability to exit until you ask Merlin about ďJOBĒ, and while there is a nudge in that direction in the voluminous output text, it wasnít nearly strong enough for me. I got past that by means of a walkthrough, only to find similar problems later on. Talking to people about the right keywords is the gameís main challenge, it seems, and itís not a challenge I much enjoy.
Incidentally, this is the first game Iíve played in Adrift 5. I donít know what kind of improvements it has over Adrift 4 for authors, but the one big change I see on the player side is that the automap is now 3D, and can be rotated freely by clicking and dragging.
0 of 0 people found the following review helpful:
Review by TempestDash, Fri 14th Sep 2012
By Anonymous - See all my reviews
Sequels are a tricky thing in any medium. Youíve got to balance the urge to assume everyone has experienced the prior work with the desire to simply reiterate the first work in case anyone missed such a seminal piece. You can never please everyone.
Return to Camelot is a sequel to Po. Pruneís earlier work ĎCamelot.í I did not play the prior piece, so Iím not sure what parts of this game are supposed to feel familiar to me. The introduction threw me for a spin because I didnít even know this was a sequel at first so the references to having Ďcome backí from Camelot were strange, and descriptions of Merlinís laboratory as a familiar place (despite the game starting in a modern day office building) were confusing. I had to stop playing and research Po. Prune before I could mentally move forward.
Once I did, however, the game dropped me into Camelot (as the title implies) and saddled me with a quest to protect the lovely Queen Guinevere, despite being dressed as a squire that nobody knows. The castle and grounds are fairly well implemented, with about a dozen rooms as depicted on the included map (a feelie, if you will), but I quickly ran into a dead end, unable to figure out what to do to gain an audience with the Queen. I consulted the included Walkthrough. And while I saw what to do, I was baffled as to how I was supposed to figure it out on my own.
Iím an atypical IF player, I think. If anything, I represent the generation of players that the old school masters are trying to court these days. I know that historically the adventurerís mantra is ďlook at, look under, and lootĒ, I certainly did so when I played point-and-click adventure games as a high schooler, but today I just find it so tiresome. Why must the player do the work of tying together the puzzles in a game Ė certainly in one with such a story-heavy setup such as this one? Is it so much to ask that when I look back on my log, that all the actions appear as if they evolved from the actions prior?
Instead, what I found myself doing is suspiciously manhandling the mantle of a fireplace to reveal a secret passage to a ĎPanic Roomí (a concept I find suspicious in Arthurian legends, maybe this is explained in the previous game?) that initially appears empty until you figure out the trick to reveal a painting. And thenÖ
The key problem here is that in absence of any real telegraphing of what you need to do next, you need to roam the castle inspecting everything. And, as mentioned before, the castle is big. A dozen rooms filled with miscellany is nothing to balk at. As I moved through the walkthrough, I started to get an idea of what was going on, but it was never obvious enough to me that I felt I would have gotten it on my own.
The room and item descriptions are generally there, but they are frightfully verbose. Brevity is the soul of wit and this game could do with some cutting of the fat. Room descriptions are easily too big and become a wall of text whenever you change rooms. Item descriptions are sometimes lengthy, but generally not. Characters sometimes get paragraphs and sometimes (like with Guards) get only a few lines. NPCs, by the way, stay put throughout the whole game, including a couple of enemies that really shouldnít have been hanging around given their role.
Finally, the game is really missing a strong voice. In the initial scene, where you are in your office in modern times, the room and item descriptions are quirky and unique (although sometimes that means unfunny) but all that fades as soon as you reach Camelot, becoming a more traditional Zorkian style of description (only longer). I feel like this is a missed opportunity. Providing a strong voice for the protagonist could have allowed details about the prior game to sneak in and give new players the feeling of legacy. As it is, itís just dull.
Ultimately, Return to Camelot is a potentially good game that is lacking polish. Descriptions need to be trimmed to their essential elements, given a bit more life to them. Required actions need to be better hinted so the player isnít forced to wander aimless through a large map. Finally, I just didnít feel properly invested in this game. The story has you suddenly acquire a magical painting (where did it come from?), then mystically pulled in during a conversation with a woman (what was her deal?) only to be told your presence was a mistake, and then given a really critical task with no equipment or direction on how to accomplish it. There are a lot of games where amnesia is given to the player character to explain their unfamiliarity with their environments. This is the opposite, where no amount of knowledge could have helped or added to the player characterís plight, which gave me feeling of helplessness. If ANYONE could have substituted for me, why is it important that I do anything?