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Review by: Emily Short
Game: Return to Ditch Day
By: Michael Roberts

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Mike Roberts' "Return to Ditch Day" is a full-size, medium-difficulty puzzle game, and a very strong example of this type. The map is large, and much of it is open to unrestricted exploration from the outset of the game. There are a hundred and fifty points to be earned. There's a story that provides ample motivation and context for your behavior, but lets the puzzles shine through. This is a game you can settle into for a while. You'll want to make a few notes; you may even want to draw a map, though if you dislike mapping as much as I do, you can get away without doing so. I think it took me six or eight hours to complete the game in full.

As puzzle-fests go, "Return to Ditch Day" is extremely playable and forgiving. There is a full and context-sensitive hint menu. The puzzles are of medium difficulty -- some may be on the easy side for the most die-hard fans of a challenge, but I thought they were just about right, neither too frustrating or too trivial. It may be possible to make the game unwinnable, but I don't know how. The pacing is also excellent; despite the scope of the map, I very very rarely found myself wandering around at a loss. Some of this may have been luck, but most of the time it seemed that I always had at least one specific lead to pursue, and so -- while I was allowed to explore at will -- I didn't *have* to wander too aimlessly just in order to make progress. In this respect it reminded me a little of "Anchorhead" -- while "Return to Ditch Day" isn't at all like "Anchorhead" in tone, they both make good use of mystery plots to lead the player through an extensive environment. "Return to Ditch Day" even offers an extremely ingenious map with pathfinding, which means that you can look up another location and get directions from wherever you happen to be at the moment.

This is just one of a number of neat features either built into T3 or added for this particular occasion: most of the traditional aspects of IF are handled so smoothly that you almost miss realizing how slick it all is. NPCs can be followed. Keys work as they ought to, unlocking things by default whenever you want them to. The inventory manages itself nicely, not only by stowing items in your tote bag but by taking care of any other business before you put something away (e.g., "You close your wallet and put it in your pocket."). In fact, the game almost never refuses to let you do something just because you haven't completed another trivial action first, but almost always does your accounting for you. These may seem like minor features individually, but they collectively leave the playing experience remarkably smooth and free of frustration, allowing the player to get on with the fun parts.

The NPCs are also quite well-handled. They're not deep creatures with complex backgrounds, but they suit the story to which they belong very well, and they're certainly not placeholders. Some are infuriating, some are endearing, and they mostly give a convincing imitation of having their own agendas and work to do. There are quite a few points where NPCs move around on the map, or become available for conversation due to time, which helps. There were one or two portions that strained credibility -- NPCs who seemed preternaturally stupid or patient in service of keeping a puzzle winnable -- but there weren't too many of these spots, and they weren't particularly vexing. On the other hand, the main villain is given a range of nasty remarks to interject whenever you say or do anything in his presence, and several of the other NPCs react to your behavior at points when, in a less meticulous game, they might sit silently being non-entities. As I played -- this was partly a function of the individual NPCs and partly of the setting description -- I developed a definite sense of moving through a community of people. A somewhat crazed community, maybe, but a community.

Conversation is via ask/tell, but with some good additional features: the TOPICS command will suggest whether there's any conversation that would be especially appropriate at the moment, and sometimes during the conversation the interface will offer a set of alternatives in parentheses, like so: "(You can apologize for pouring chocolate milk on Joe or tell him about the napkins.)" Whenever it is contextually appropriate to say yes or no, these commands are also handled properly.

Time within the game is somehow managed in such a way that it reflects your progress but still seems to pass naturally. There are no incongruous or blatant leaps where you solve a puzzle and suddenly it's sunset. At the same time, you have a watch, and it keeps progressing. I'm not quite sure how this was done, but it works wonderfully.

As for the story, it's not terribly serious, but it is very well integrated with the puzzles, and never threatens to outshine them. Though I did feel a certain amount of urgency to find out what was going on and (even more importantly) to outwit my competition, it remained fairly light-spirited throughout.

It's possible that some people will be a little put off by the game's unabashed geek factor. This is a game about engineers, and though you can get past the puzzles even if you don't know much engineering, things may seem a bit alien if you're the sort of person who doesn't enjoy fiddling with machinery. The hint system provides some background for people who aren't familiar with hex or don't know what an IP address is, but the fact that this is necessary gives you some idea of what the game is like. Occasionally at the beginning I was a little nervous both about the large scope of the map and the technical sound of some puzzles, and worried that I might be getting in over my head. But I never *actually* got stuck, and after a while I found myself relaxing and trusting the game. If you're actively bored by physics and electronics, this may not be the game for you, but if you're merely a little daunted by the beginning, don't worry. It's all manageable.

Overall, then, "Return to Ditch Day" is a very solid, enjoyable game, with strong design and classy implementation. It promises good things to come from T3, as well.

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