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Casting Call
Review by: Jessica Knoch
Game: Words of Power
By: Stark Springs

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Info at Baf's guide

Nutshell: A charming game, with a well-thought-out setting, a good sense of characterization, and engaging if simplistic gameplay.

[Note: This review does not mention any music or sound effects because I played the "no sound" version, a savings of over 3.5 MB in the size of the download.]

In Words of Power, you play a physics student named Thea Armstrong who has been mysteriously transported from our Earth to a fantastical land, complete with magic and non-human sentient species. At the start, you are presented with two methods of gathering information about your situation: an 18-page primer written by another visitor from Earth (presented as a PDF file for your perusal), and a talking cat, whose knowledge is (mostly) contained in the PDF file. At first, your goal is simply to find your fellow Earthman and return home, but as you progress, other objectives arise. In addition, your understanding of this world's history changes as you explore, with new-found information and perspectives from different inhabitants.

Being from Earth, your body is more sensitive to the magic in this world than normal, resulting in your ability to cast spells. At first, I was worried about the whole magic system: I might forget to use the spells when I needed them, the syntax required to cast might be difficult or overly strict, or any other problem so often associated with spellcasting in IF. To my great surprise and enjoyment, however, the magic was easy-to-use (down to clicking buttons on the graphical interface, if you wanted), well-clued as to when it was needed, and even easy to create new uses by combining different effects!

The magic system appears to be very portable to other games, and modular as well. There are different action words, target words, and modifying words (the "words of power") that are used to cast spells. The more words you know, the more combinations of actions, targets, and modifiers you can create. This game keeps it simple by only introducing a few targets, fewer actions, and even fewer modifiers. I found it much easier to use and more intuitive than, say, the example spell system given in Balances, or even the limited spell list from Fort Aegea. My only complaint was that a few times, attempting to cast a spell without saying what you wanted to cast it on gave the response "That won't accomplish anything," rather than the more helpful "What do you want to cast that spell on?" which is, admittedly, difficult to code (after all, you don't always have to cast a spell ON something, and how's a parser to know?).

I was quite impressed with the depth of the world, which was mostly contained in the PDF file that came with the game. It was a lot of reading up front, but well worth it once you started the actual playing of the game. Without reading about the history and geography of the land, the short text messages for traveling in between important places wouldn't have meant much, and the world would have felt much smaller and less interesting than it was. As it was, when the game told me "Hours pass and the night falls..." or "As the hours go by, the road starts to climb gentle, wooded hills," I could almost imagine the empty landscape and the hours of traveling through this strange world.

The world's history reminds me of Tolkien's Middle Earth history in that much of the important stuff seems to have already happened. Wars have been fought, the culture has changed, non-human species are no longer as friendly as they may have been, and so forth. But in Words of Power, we get the chance to deal directly with figures from that long-ago time, and you may even get a chance to set things back to the way they were, by helping to reinstate a lost king.

Along the way, you'll find several small and simple tasks to accomplish to augment the overall puzzle of figuring out what's going on, what happened in the past, and most importantly what to do about it. These simpler "puzzles," if they can be called such, are very intuitive and straightforward. I thought I was getting into a maze at one point, but it turned out not to be. Words of Power has a wonderful way of allowing you to try something, anything (it seemed), and making that work. There was one particularly tricky puzzle that seemed "timed" but really wasn't, with at least one alternate solution taken into account -- it changes the problem but doesn't get you completely out of trouble. I appreciate that, and I appreciate a game which takes pains not to let any player get stuck and miss out on the story. It's very much a "no player left behind" feel, but it does work to keep you progressing through what turns out to be a very interesting story.

I was initially put off by a few slightly unpolished phrases in the 18-page primer, thinking that this was less than stellar writing. That may have been true, but once in the game proper, the author never tries to write "over his head" again, so to speak. The result is a good deal of very clear, straightforward text that fades into the background to allow the story to take center stage. Using pictures for characters and creatures also helps to take the burden off of the text.

Part of the appeal of the story comes from having a couple of plot "twists," one that I could see coming and one that I couldn't. Also, while there isn't a lot of room to take different paths through the game, you have free rein on how much exploring to do and what order to do things in. Best of all, there's more than one ending, and while I may have my favorite, none of them is inherently "better" than the others. Re-reading the PDF files after finishing the game might shed a slightly different light on an ending!

Overall, Words of Power has an original feel and is easy to play through to the end. It's not a bad way to spend a few hours. It may not win any awards or break any new ground in the field of Interactive Fiction, but it succeeds very well at being a fully fleshed-out fantasy game, complete with all the elements you'd expect. Thumbs up.

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