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What's Big and Bright and Covered in Feathers?
Review by: Charon
Game: Firebird
By: Bonnie Montgomery

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Info at Baf's guide

One big, bright, feathered light source — that's the Firebird.

For this review I have decided to dig up an oldie but a goodie from 1998 — Firebird, an interactive retelling of the Russian faerie tale of the same name. Although I've seen it crop up now and again in recommendations for children or beginners to interactive fiction due to its basic guide to adventure games, its rather mild puzzles, and its gentle-lead-you-by-the-hand footnotes, Firebird can just as easily be enjoyed by more advanced gamers as well.

I've actually found the footnotes to be some of the best and most charming parts of an already charming game, giving interesting background tidbits (such as three by nine somehow equaling twenty nine in Russian folklore) or just gently prodding the player along in a tongue-in-cheek way. I rather wish their use had been extended even further to include more background information on the elements present in the game, as from the bibliography alone it seems that quite a bit of research was sunk into it. In fact, in honor of Firebird, I too shall engage in the use of footnotes throughout the review. These footnotes will go into greater depth regarding details of the game, so anyone who has yet to play this game and wishes to remain unspoiled should beware. [1]

If you are reading this message, then you have survived the two tests I arranged for you. First, you have killed something, anything. Second, you have had to outwit someone, anyone.

Firebird does an admirable job following the conventions and style of faerie tales... characters are princes and princesses or tsars and tsarina's in disguise, buildings are made of silver, gold, or the appropriate sparkly material of choice, and events tend to fall in threes, creating a nice playing rhythm with the repetitions. For the most part these repetitions help rather than hinder the flow of the game. [2] The Russian twist given to some of the folk tales is quite interesting... a good example being the odd anecdotes passed between the peasants going to and fro the tavern. This was also my first introduction to the baba yaga, lo those many years ago, so I had a better understanding of what she was when she popped up again in several other places — the game really is educational! [3]

The characters in Firebird also fall in line with those of standard faerie tales — more archetypes (or parodies thereof) than any real developed personalities. This certainly is no well-developed drama with deep, multi-layered characters and it doesn't pretend to be. Anyone looking for a serious, deeply challenging game instead of a fun, fluffy romp would do well to look somewhere else.

However, I still would have liked a bit more attention paid to the NPCs than the thinnest veneer of personality they were given. Most characters are nothing more than props to puzzles and completely non-interactive in any other way. This has been taken to the point where it seems almost like a bug — such as when the old man in the forest repeats the same, the same, the exact same message every time you meet him or merely type "look" in his vicinity. Slightly customized responses to some of the Prince's expected, if more outrageous behavior, would have raised by enjoyment level of the game by several more magnitudes, such as any reaction at all when I spent the entire game running around in the Dimitri mask or kissing everything and everyone in my sight. [4]

While finding your dishonored princely brothers skulking about the region in disguise is quite amusing, I greatly wished that they were even slightly more responsive, especially when it seemed that they ought to be part of a puzzle's solution. Vasilii is a bit better off than Dimitri, the latter of which has all the attributes of an untalkative rock.[5] Even Vasilii, one of the most central NPCs along with the firebird herself, isn't interested in discussing the evil wizard we're attacking and has absolutely nothing to say about our mother or father. (Considering he had been banished by your father, you'd think he'd have a few choice words about him!)

Since I was already familiar with the story of the Firebird, I had been rooting about trying to get a bit of background to see if the game was following along the same plot path as the original. [6] Alas, I was pretty much stymied in every way, which is rather disappointing considering how clever are some of the tiny bits of background and characterization that make it into the game. [7]

It's too dark to tell much about these trees apart from the massive size of their trunks (indicating their antiquity) and the gnarliness of their branches (indicating their gnarliquity).

Perhaps its greatest strength, Firebird contains some really charming turns of phrase such as the one listed above, as well as delightful and witty descriptions. Particularly amusing is the chip on Ivan's shoulder, which can easily be missed as it's only mentioned in the prologue to the game, or having the firebird whistling the greatest hits of Stravinsky, which refers to the composer's own ballet based on the firebird folk lore.

Unfortunately, these witticisms are not as prevalent as I would have wished, since the implementation of descriptions is sparser than I would have liked. You could be standing in a path covered in mulch with a stone at your side and leaves covering the rest of the way and none of those things would be implemented. Certainly none of those things are necessary to solving the plot, but those little details tend to be what makes one game stand out from another in my mind. Very few extra verbs are implemented as well, so there will be no singing nor dancing in this tale. (Although you can mispronounce the only word in Czech that you can remember.) A shame since I would have liked to "scream" at certain points of the story.

The puzzles within Firebird fit well into the faerie milieu and are moderate and mostly intuitive (and I can be a good judge of such, being not-so-good at puzzles) and best of all, many have differing solutions that can set you on separate story paths and give the game some replayability. (You can also avoid some of the faerie tale repetition if you're clever.) There is one puzzle present in the game that might be deemed a bit unfair and frustrating [8] and a couple of places where it's a bit buggy. [9] The ever-hated maze is also present in the game, although the footnotes make solving it quite an easy snap.

Regrettably, the use of synonyms is not as rigorous as one could want, making some puzzles more about guessing the right syntax than anything else. [10] There is no in-game hint system besides the sporadic footnotes, and so turning to a separate walkthrough might be necessary. [11] However, to keep the player from making any undo-able catastrophic decisions, save screens are brought up at points where the story is about to get hairier. My favorite of such triggers is the horse which... probably would be a spoiler to say anything more. [12]

Speaking of undo-able catastrophic decisions, the bad endings of the Firebird were such a delight that I may actually prefer them above the optimal ending(s) as amusing as...[13]

Spoilers below

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FOOTNOTES

[1] I was particularly pleased with the twist ending where Prince Ivan discovers that he is actually the last unicorn in disguise and must start out on a new quest to find his missing brethren. Confused? Okay, I lie, there are no unicorns-- disguised or otherwise-- in this game (that I've found anyway...) But I will be discussing the real endings as well as some puzzle techniques in detail, so this is your last warning...

[2] With the exception perhaps of the iron claw puzzle considering how much climbing up and down of the magical mountain needs to be done during the game. Tripping over your own feet the first three times can be amusing (especially to your quest companions), but after that... The game keeping count of how many times you fall over in the course of your adventure is quite entertaining, though.

[3] The game even taught me a new word I didn't know... thurible! And hey, I thought the pun was funny...

[4] The unexpected reaction to the frog being kissed was hilarious; it seems a shame that the kiss verb isn't really implemented for anything else. It also seems downright odd that I'd be allowed to wander the world in the Dimitri mask yet gain no further reaction after the initial puzzle except from the copper bird! I suppose that acts as a clue to who Dimitri should be married off to.

[5] It was rather irritating that all I could get out of Dimitri is "I don't know anything about that" even when asking about something he really ought to know a smidgeon about, like himself. The only interaction I could ever get out of him was showing off the Dimitri mask (although my waltzing in with the mask on does nothing), demanding that he propose to someone, and then the special no response if you come bumbling in with the firebird in tow. At least Vasilii has the same problem with him during my favorite bad ending.

[6] I wanted just a bit more background on the entire mother relationship to have a better clue what the heck was going on. There's a side comment about Ivan's 'mother' being too vain not to wear the lipstick that he is spectacularly allergic to and then nothing is mentioned of the foster-mother again. Dead, conveniently fallen off the face of the earth, or perhaps hoodwinked by another evil wizard that everyone has forgotten to mention, perhaps.

[7] I wish the game had been sprinkled with a bit more instances such as the flashback into Ivan's past given when the censer is smelled or even the bit of background dropped when you discover the reason the groom is silent is because your father had his tongue removed. Between that, the letter you receive from him, and some of his actions in the bad endings, your father probably is the most fleshed out of all the NPCs.

[8] I love the idea of the refuse pile, but mostly as a place to pick up optional items such as the waters of life and death, which can be one way to solve a particular puzzle. The matches, however, which are absolutely necessary to finish the game and should be the first item found in the pile, are actually the last to be tossed in. It might not be logical to expect the player to have Prince Ivan scrounging around a heap of trash for so long. (I did it the first time through, but I'm a packrat in games anyway.)

[9] There's a definite bug in the game when trying to hunt down the flicker in the forest. Trying to do anything in the southwest branch keeps bringing up "Which bird do you mean, the flicker, or the flicker?" I was also confused why the otter kept keeling over on me when I gave it water and greens to eat, but was perfectly fine if I picked him up and gave him nothing. It may also be possible to put the game into unwinnable states, such as not helping the hawk in time left me wandering the world befuddled with my quarry flown the coop until I gave up and restarted.

[10] Ie "tie chain to pot" doesn't work but "connect chain to pot" does. And the nine fits that dealing with the allergist gave me...

[11] Although the only walkthrough I've seen available only goes through one of the games puzzle branches, leaving the others to find by yourself.

[12] I love the horse, (although apparently Prince Ivan isn't supposed to, heh) great, big red herring that it is anyway. Or perhaps its true purpose still eludes me... I thought the horse was supposed to help me in my quest; I hopped right aboard and was taken straight to a bad ending. If there's ever a way to ride that horse to victory, I haven't found it. Perfect equine bumper sticker as well.

[13]... Marrying everyone to all and sundry in the optimal endings, especially when I discovered that even my most outrageous proposals were taken under consideration and that I wasn't even limited to only marrying off my brothers. I was pleased that nearly everyone showed up for the wedding (except for the man in the forest, unless he was the archbishop in disguise?) Unfortunately, it seems that it's impossible to have a Vasilii and a Chauncey ending at the same time. While I liked having the entire gardener background cleared up in the latter, the final cooking showdown and the use of Engrish by the Japanese chefs is too hilarious to miss in the former.

As entertaining as the sudden death by allergic reaction to kissing and the joining the dark side bad endings were, my vote for favorite bad ending has to go to the one where Vasilii kills Ivan and you get dragged along for the ride as he runs amok across the kingdom. That ending also works as a good source of hints for continuing with the game.

And so this review ends with footnote 13, which seems rather proper. This has been your friendly neighborhood bird watcher, signing off.

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