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Dead to Rites
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Necrotic Drift
By: Robb Sherwin

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Robb Sherwin's new game "Necrotic Drift" is a loosely-connected sequel to his multi-XYZZY-winning "Fallacy of Dawn" (2001). "Drift" is again set in the dystopia of New Haz, with the same implausible mixture of future technology and current cultural references; where "Fallacy" celebrates older video games, "Necrotic Drift" is a celebration of classic Dungeons & Dragons. Like "Fallacy", it features a first-person protagonist who never remotely pretends to be an everyman, but has a definite attitude, history, and personality of his own. "Drift" also shows off the strong writing, unusual characters, and multimedia polish that characterized "Fallacy". It is also at about the same length and difficulty level: relatively easy puzzles, with extensive exploration and character interaction bringing the play time up to about six hours. (Your mileage may vary.)

Hugo's strengths as a language for multimedia IF are on full display here. "Necrotic Drift" is extensively illustrated, with pictures for all the characters and locations (and that's a considerable number) and additional scene pictures that illustrate particularly important moments of the plot. In spots the photos have a slightly grungy, amateur quality (which probably comes from the fact that Sherwin had his friends provide the visual acting), but this suits the game's atmosphere perfectly. There is also a soundtrack, cued to start new music at important points. This contributes to the massive download size (nearly 40 MB), but is worthwhile. I didn't see any points where having the sound or graphics would be absolutely essential to game play, but they were a nice addition. As with "Fallacy", I had the impression that it would have been much harder to tell apart the large cast of rapidly-introduced NPCs without the benefit of visual cues. Not having to spend so much time establishing individual identities lets Sherwin get the story off and running sooner.

But I'd be doing this game a disservice if I made it sound as though it were merely Fallacy Part Two. "Fallacy" is not a prerequisite: the world remains the same, but this plot and cast of characters stand on their own. Fans of "Fallacy of Dawn" will find a few references to the events in that game, and some further information about the fate of its protagonist, but these are easter eggs, not essential components of "Necrotic Drift".

And "Necrotic Drift" is unquestionably worth playing on its own merits, even if you never found time to try "Fallacy", or you got critically stuck and never finished it. "Drift" is the work of a more mature author, and it shows. First, the implementation is more solid: even playing an early release, I ran into little that could be characterized as a bug. "Fallacy" had some problems with bizarre phrasings and parsing that didn't make sense; "Drift" didn't, at least as far as I could find. There remained one or two things that really should have been implemented -- you'd think a vampire would react to being shown a bag full of blood, for instance -- but they were far fewer than before. Sherwin seems to have put more time and effort into the testing phase on this project, and it shows to good effect.

The game design is tighter as well. Partly this is because "Drift" is a bit more linear through the midgame. Like "Fallacy", "Drift" has fairly constrained and puzzleless opening and concluding chapters, with most of the gameplay in the middle. In "Fallacy" I found myself getting lost during that middle portion. "Drift" seemed more focused, without actually being overly constrictive. The game's premise -- that you're battling against D&D-style monsters -- makes most of these puzzles consistent.

"Drift" is also more mature in content. I don't just mean that it's not for children, though it certainly isn't: there's enough violence, scatological detail, description of sexual activity (more in theory than in practice), profanity, drug use, occultism, and so on here to make a CAPALERT reviewer very unhappy indeed. None of this is particularly unusual for Sherwin, who can introduce a surprising amount of dark humor into the most unpleasant situations. What sets "Drift" apart is that, despite the humor value, it still takes its characters and their problems seriously. There's a more complex character story embedded in this game than you'll find in most other interactive fiction.

Are there drawbacks? A few. The character story is good, but it's also more or less beyond the player's control. There are a couple of significant things the player can accomplish or fail at, but mostly the choices are out of your hands. In some ways this makes sense given the nature of the player character -- he can be a bit oblivious to the important things happening around him, and it makes sense (maybe) that the player is never given a chance to intervene and clean things up. For the most part, all we get to do is figure out puzzles and enjoy the scenery.

"Drift" also relies on fairly constrained menus for communication; many times I or the person I was playing with tried to talk to an NPC, thinking that there must be something obvious to say, and there wasn't. Presumably this is because it's a substantial game already, and you spend almost all of it in the company of several NPCs. Programming a more flexible conversation system would have been extremely taxing and might have had an unfocusing effect on the game-play. Still, there were times when it would have been nice to be able to talk more.

The puzzles in themselves aren't really "Drift"'s strong suit either. There are a couple that I thought were pretty clever, but many are of the get-object, use-object variety, or involve repeatedly whacking your opponent with something. One or two others were good ideas, but were insufficiently clued and left us confused. And (to make the situation more annoying) there's a fairly low inventory limit, which encourages a player to drop things that don't have any evident purpose. Combined with a large geography and some puzzles with time limits, this can be a pain. We had to negotiate several portions of the game with liberal use of save and restore. For the most part, though, the puzzles are straightforward in concept, so even if it takes several passes to execute them, the frustration factor is relatively low.

These are fairly weak complaints. "Necrotic Drift" is easily the best of Robb Sherwin's games to date with the most solid design and implementation, and the best blend of story and interaction. The writing is excellent, and the characters are some of the best-written in interactive fiction. If you were planning to try some Sherwin and just never got around to it, this would be an excellent place to start.

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