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Everyone's Got An Angle
Review by: Brett Witty
Game: Dangerous Curves
By: Irene Callaci

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Straight up, I'm a big fan of hard-boiled fiction in the style of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. I love the plots, the stereotypes and I enjoy spotting the cliches. The genre seems custom-made for IF games; there are opportunities for great plots, strong NPCs and realistic but challenging puzzles. Unfortunately, many of the detective games I had played previously were really... well... uninspiring. That is, until I played "Dangerous Curves" by Irene Callaci.

The game opens in the midst of a classic PI cliche: a blonde bombshell wanders into the PI's dilapidated office, looking for help out of a tricky situation. Jessica Kincaid (our bombshell) is framed for the hit-and-run of her rich (and neglectful) husband. This well-worn beginning would have rang alarm bells if not for the skillful execution by the author; this is no hack imitation but a excellent homage to the genre. The prose burns with the wry humour and extravagant similes that fans have come to expect from hard-boiled fiction. The game is true to its stylistic roots, but thankfully, it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Much to the author's credit, the rest of the game sticks to this style. So the writing is good. What about the programming? Much of "Dangerous Curves" is simulationist in approach. Everything takes place in a largish city that ebbs and flows with the passing of time (yes, there is night and day). But with realistic time, there are food, drink and sleep concerns. Luckily the game is pretty forgiving but you still need to take care of these things. A nice touch is that you begin the game with a few hundred dollars and (the era being the early 1900s) you can get a meal and a cup of coffee for a pair of dimes. Speaking of currency, the game handles money nicely, giving appropriate change. This extra effort gives your money some real value, rather than being "a wad of money".

The game world is reasonably large, but not excessively so. You have a car to use, but it is almost as fast as walking. However, it can take you to certain areas that you cannot go by foot. Luckily, there is a GO TO verb that will auto-travel for you so you needn't map out the city if that's not your style.

In a game of investigation, you'd expect there to be a lot of people to grill. Dangerous Curves has quite a cast and surprisingly, they are all well-implemented. This is mostly due to the good writing, but they are also decently programmed. One of the nice touches is that hints can be bought in classic PI fashion: catching a movie and having a mysterious and anonymous informant whisper hints in your ear, leaving before you can find out who it is. Getting to the movie theatre isn't too taxing, but making it just a tad more effort than typing HINT is a winner, I think.

Unfortunately, I had several issues, some which were due to implementation, some which were actual design decisions. The car you own doesn't offer too much of an incentive to use it. Typing IN will always assume you want to enter the nearby building instead of trying the car as well. Entering and leaving the car is fine (it will automatically do the implied open/close door actions), but what is most annoying is that you need to explicitly say TURN ON ENGINE (or CAR) every time you want to get moving. DRIVE TO will notice that the car is not running but not do anything about it. Since you'll be driving around a lot, this minor annoyance becomes a constant irritation. The GO TO/DRIVE TO verb is neat in that it will step you closer to your destination, but it only take you in little increments rather than the whole way. Sometimes this is a little tiresome, but its a good trade for mapping.

The game world is, as I've mentioned, rather large. There aren't really any locations that are completely useless. Most locations will either be useful or a conduit, and never just random dead ends or "spacers". I'd recommend you explore the world first before doing any detective work. I didn't do this and as a result, there was one place that I didn't even know existed until late in the game. This is no great fault of the author's as you could have guessed such a place existed and the ever-helpful compass in the status bar indicated that you could explore such a direction. I kind of missed it by auto-driving everywhere. One odd thing about the compass was that is often listed synonymous exits which gave me a feel that there were more paths to explore than there actually were. But this is a minor quibble.

Nevertheless, the large game world and the freeform structure was great in that it suggested that you do real detective work. I enjoyed having to hunt down possible angles and puzzle over the plot in true Phillip Marlowe style. Some players may be overwhelmed by being thrown in the deep end so early, but if you do a modicum of detective work you'll have enough to go on and eventually the game will gently nudge you in the right direction.

This being said, you should explore with an objective in mind. The building where you begin has fifty-some rooms, most of them unimportant. They aren't in the way, but don't get too distracted. I felt that this (and the hospital puzzle) were instances of room overkill, but it's not too bad.

Conversation is handled fairly well. In addition to the standard ASK ABOUT type verbs, you can ask what, where, who and how. These were nice additions but not completely fleshed out. This brings me to my biggest complaint with Dangerous Curves: you need to do a lot of talking to people (which is fine), but it often falls into a "guess-the-topic" game. I was never sure how smart the game was. Sometimes it was fine with the simple ASK GUY ABOUT CAR and other times it would only be happy with (a hypothetical example) ASK GUY ABOUT JOHN SMITH'S TRUCK. A TOPICS verb (like the one implemented in TADS 3) would be extremely beneficial in Dangerous Curves. It was also unclear whether it was okay to repeat questions (to get further responses) or whether you had to traverse a particular conversation thread. Both seemed to be used at different times. Nevertheless, the writing really shined so rereading the responses wasn't too painful.

The NPCs were handled nicely for a game of this scope. Not having something to say about a topic was more an exception rather than a rule, which was pleasing. I especially appreciated all the extra effort put into catching special situations. For example, brandishing a gun in the police station triggers the expected panic. NPCs aren't little fountains of information; they often put a spin on things or reply in a way conveying character or history. For example, asking your long-time barman chum about his bar causes him to wonder if you've lost your memory or something. Choosing this approach over a canned speech about his bar is a great decision on the author's part. The author also incorporated some hilarious responses that were great to stumble across (ask the guys at the bar about the lipstick, I dare ya). Though the characters were sometimes a little one-dimensional, the detail and responsiveness made up for this.

The NPCs have cycles to their day which further adds to the simulation. Unfortunately, they don't have moods or much in the way of memory. Sometimes you can go through a conversation that escalates excellently, only to come crashing down with an incongruous "I don't know that" response. Little things like this make me wish that the author took their vision just that little bit further and round out the simulation fully. But Dangerous Curves is already quite a solid piece of IF, so I understand why she stopped here.

The non-conversational puzzles were not too agonizing, although the mechanic puzzle really stumped me. It was a little obscure and should have been reworked. Other than this, no puzzle was particularly obscure, but I often wasn't sure of what I was expected to chase up in some situations. Some of it I am prepared to accept as all part of your detective work.

Although the writing is great, the puzzles reasonably well-pitched, and the NPCs and world simulation well-done, the main disappointment was the plot. It had a lot going for it and borrowed tried-and-true elements of the genre, but the whole thing seemed to lose momentum near the end. The plot was fairly standard (perhaps intentionally) but I would have liked a few more twists and turns. A few characters had great potential from both a characterisation and plot perspective, but sadly this potential wasn't exploited.

Aside from the minor complaints, Dangerous Curves is a solid piece of interactive fiction with highly commendable writing. I hope to see more from the author, as well as more people trying this genre and doing as good a job as she did.

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