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Game Slicing
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Katana
By: Matt Rohde

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For some time I've thought that there aren't enough IF games set in non-western settings and mythologies, so I was pleased to see this one appear, promising a taste of feudal Japan. Feudal Japan is, to my mind, extremely fascinating: you have gorgeous art; a societal structure that I would probably find infuriating to live in, but which is interesting to think about; and plenty of refined etiquette. Even the violence is elegant. What's not to like?

The premise of the game bodes well, in a slightly predictable way. You are (apparently) the American descendant of a samurai warrior, back to the estate where he once lived to look for evidence about his mysterious past. As is the nature of such things, you poke around, find your way into places that are supposed to be off-limits to the public, travel through time, and so on. So far, so good.

Along the way, there's a healthy dose of Japanese culture, mythology, and art, especially focusing on Shinto gods and their standard representations. This is where the game shines brightest, I think: this is material that is fairly fresh to the IF world, and therefore evocative. The imagery is on-again, off-again: there were some moments that I found rather striking, and some others that felt a bit flat, trying for a wondrous quality that they didn't quite achieve. The ones that worked for me, though, worked quite well. And there are some neat details that are clearly there just because the author thought they were fun -- the descriptions of the puppets, for instance.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to indulge my taste for these things as much as I wanted to, because the implementation is somewhat shallow. I felt as though I was manipulating the symbols of Japanese mythology in a detached and mathematical way, but never that I was quite as drawn into the mindset and culture as I would have liked to be. The game features some episodes that show character interaction in the feudal past -- I don't think it is too great a spoiler to mention this -- but it was pretty much impossible to affect how this interaction proceeded. Instead of having conversation menus or ask/tell keywords, you get uncontrollable cut scenes. What is particularly irritating about this is that the cut scenes don't all play out in successive scenes, so that you can be in the past, have three paragraphs of described automatic interaction with the other character, and then have to *wait for three or four turns* before the game chooses to infodump the next piece of cut scene. There isn't (as far as I could tell) any way to change what the infodump would be, nor to cause it to occur more immediately.

The experience is a bit like watching a movie while your little brother keeps pausing the VCR. Now, I realize, of course, why the author did the cut-scene-ish stuff: implementing all these conversations in full would not only be a royal pain, it would also give the player too much control, especially over things that are supposed to have happened in the distant past; multilinear havoc would break loose if you could change the outcomes of any of the pivotal scenes. Some people enjoy that kind of plotting/coding challenge, but not everyone, and it's perfectly fair to want to keep the game on track. But there must be a way to make it feel a little less jerky and distant; at the very least, I think, I would have replaced ASK/TELL (where keywords never seem to be implemented anyway) with a >TALK verb, as several other plot-heavy games have done, and let the player at least have the privilege of triggering the next exchange.

To make matters somewhat more aggravating, I wasn't really certain, even at the end of the game, what had happened. I had the basic outline of plot events, but it wasn't clear to me in what degree I-the-player-character had altered or not altered things.

Some of this is to be expected. The game advertises itself as old-school. This is accurate. The treatment of space is different than in the average modern game, for instance. There are more rooms with less in them; scenery often goes unimplemented, and items with component parts often do not have separate descriptions for those components. There is a fairly obvious formal structure to the puzzles, too, especially in the mid-game; in this respect it brings to mind something like Spellbreaker or Jigsaw, where one is looking for a certain number of magic McGuffins.

But for something that bills itself as an old-school game, this should (it seems) turn on its puzzles. Sadly, puzzle-wise, this game provides nothing startlingly new; the puzzles range from the tolerable to the groaningly cliched. Yes, he actually truly does trot out the old measure-x-amount-with-measuring-cups-sized-y-and-z. On the good side, I guess, this won't take people very long to solve, but many of the puzzles are on about this level: blatantly contrived and leveraged into the game world without any attempt at realism or novelty. Several of them also rely on your having carefully noted things in previous scenes that are no longer accessible. A few, I think, are insoluble unless you have already done the wrong thing once or twice. It is easy to make the game unwinnable, though it does have the courtesy to try to let you know when you have done so. But I'm not sure that that works in all cases -- there was one point where I had left something vital someplace that became unexpectedly inaccessible, and I don't think that the game caught on to the fact that it was now unwinnable. I found that I had to keep a large number of saved games and restore them frequently.

The experience is also somewhat tainted by the roughness of the implementation. There are a lot of unimplemented synonyms; there are a lot of places where I had the right action but the wrong syntax, and had to play guess-the-verb or guess-the-noun. There are a few typos, and a few places where actions are part of a room description ("You realize suddenly that..." becomes a bit less convincing the second or third time you read it.) There is a hidden item you can get to by moving a covering, but >LOOK UNDER COVERING tells you that there's nothing there. You can try to do actions and get an annoying response from the game along the lines of, "[PHRASE THAT THIS WAY: <correct action description>]" If the game knows what I mean, why doesn't it just do the action already?

Probably by this time you have the wrong impression. Make no mistake: I did like this game, and the reason it gets away with some of the flaws and lack of polish is precisely because it is so unabashedly old-school. Playing a game with this sort of design and implementation takes a different mindset than playing most modern games -- you are, in effect, fighting against the game, and the challenge includes having the patience, determination, etc., to put up with minor irritations and the need to restore frequently. I got into this mindset fairly effectively, though in the endgame I gave up and referred to the walkthrough. This is good, because there is no way I would have solved some of the final puzzles on my own. But I was engaged enough in the problem of solving the game that I replayed a couple of scenes over and over even though I was convinced that there was a game stopping bug. (There wasn't; I was being stupid. The game was a bit uncooperative, but mostly I was being stupid. I figured it out eventually, after five or six replayings of the same scene. Normally I would pack a game away if it gave me that kind of experience.)

Besides, when you think about it, the game makes at least as much sense as Zork; it has a deeper-woven plot, which occasionally strays into the corny or overwrought, but contains elements with much more emotional resonance than the average old-school game; and it mercifully skips some of the very most annoying old-school features. There is no maze. There are relatively few points where you have to do stupid and repetitive actions, or worry about the management of your inventory. There may not be any puzzles of the fiendishly clever variety -- they mostly fall into the categories of "so cliched you already know the answer", "requiring that you observed a specific thing earlier", and "you must read the author's mind/guess his syntax to resolve this". But there are several that are pleasing to solve. The solution to the light source puzzle made me laugh aloud.

So I do recommend this game. I think it will be better a version or two down the line, if Rohde chooses to polish it up based on initial player response, because there are some points where the implementation makes things unnecessarily frustrating. But it succeeds at much that it attempts -- to offer an old-school game with a cool, fresh setting. And it is ambitious enough to take more than your standard-issue two-competition-hours to play, which is a nice change, these days. If it were a competition game, I'd probably vote it about a six: not technically clean enough to merit a seven or eight, not jaw-dropping enough for a nine or ten, but definitely fun enough to be worth the time I put into it.

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