The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: Augmented Fourth
By: Brian Uri
Augmented Fourth uses an adapted-for-its-genre version of the Enchanter spellcasting concept: as a trumpeter you can play pieces whose magical power work transformations on your environment. And like the Enchanter spells, these pieces must be painstakingly acquired and learned (though, fortunately, Uri has dispensed with the irritating requirement that one learn them over and over again. Once you've learned a piece you know it; musicians are apparently less absentminded than magicians, as a rule.) This is a fun system in its basic concept, and one reason it has been reused so many times over the years, I imagine, is that it permits the author to put considerable freedom into the hands of the player.
There are, of course, a couple of possible downsides. One is the combinatorial problem: you can trust that your players will try the spell in just about every conceivable situation, not only in the one or two places where it will solve a puzzle but in all the others, including several where it ought to cause major trouble. Uri does a good job of providing interesting failure messages where the spells are not going to work; he is also aided by the fact that the music-spells are not directable, so instead of having to implement an interaction (or failure) for every game object, he only has to deal with every location. This, I can only imagine, made things a lot simpler.
The other downside is that the spells themselves do fairly odd and abstract things. This is delightful when it works; when it doesn't, one is often left wondering what's missing and whether one is even trying the right thing. In one sequence of the game in particular I was most of the way to the correct solution, but kept failing because I hadn't set things up quite properly. I had the idea; I just didn't have the execution exactly as Uri envisioned it, and there were no "you're almost right" messages to help me along, so I was left to wonder whether I had the right spell at all. Making this even more frustrating is that the spells fail randomly, especially during the early section of the game; you can easily 'misplay' a piece, not because it's not the right piece for the moment but because the random number generator is not on your side. This, boys and girls, is frustrating. I suppose the idea is to convey the feeling of accomplishment as the game goes on and you become a more proficient musician, able to play correctly the first time, but it also makes the early puzzles a pain.
So much for that: there were a couple of spots where I was held up by what I felt was an arbitrary lack of hintage, and insufficient indication when I was close. There were also red herrings (besides the obvious one), some of them (to me at least) moderately confusing. On the whole, however, I didn't find this to be too severe a problem. The author provides an elegantly implemented walkthrough too, available from gmd, htmlized so that you can highlight only the parts you want to see. This is nice.
This game also pointed up some spots in which my expectations have changed since early text adventure games. Augmented Fourth does some things the Old Skool way. The need to do arbitrary things just because they seem like they might be a good idea. The freedom to mistreat NPCs, which, these days, makes me feel a little guilty. The linearity of the game design, a lot of which consists of getting into one place which contains a key to another place where there's a key to a third place... Then, too, I nearly ran screaming when I encountered the, ah, maze. Not to worry, though: it's not as bad as it looks.
And it all ends well: the endgame is satisfying and not too difficult, which is How It Should Be.
There are moments of surrealism in the game, and plays on the names of things reminiscent of the un-un-machine, the T-remover, and other such mechanisms of text-only adventures. There is much talk these days of simulationist IF, of achieving "immersion" by getting the player to identify as strongly as possible with the PC; Augmented Fourth pursues a different direction, never trying to pull the player in but keeping much of the amusement value of the game precisely at that interface between player and player character. I think I derived as much amusement from the score notification system as I did from some of the puzzles. At the same time, there is a consistent story providing context for all this -- which the player also receives in an unimmersive way, by receiving flashes of what is happening "meanwhile" in another part of the kingdom. The result is stylish and entertaining, even if not emotionally compelling particularly; I never felt suspense or was particularly concerned about the jeopardy of my PC, for instance. But that was, in this case, fine.
Where Augmented Fourth shines most is in the goofy style, which, with its numerous animals and brightly colored objects, frequently reminded me of a children's book. Combined with the relative easiness and the elegant implementation (which deals nicely with book objects and other tricky items), this makes it a pleasant way to spend a few hours.