The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: Back to Life... Unfortunately
By: David Whyld
For this game review I decided to focus on a game written with a slightly less prominent system, which surprisingly took a bit of effort to find one that hadn't been in any type of previous competition. I eventually settled on 'Back to Life... Unfortunately' written with Adrift. My computer promptly decided to honor my choice by repeatedly kicking the bucket whenever I tried to run Adrift, although I had been previously playing such games with no problems only a few short weeks earlier. (I wish my computer had taken other action on behalf of 'Unfortunately...' perhaps by spitting out some of those fabulous crown jewels found within the game.)
And so I was cast in the same role as the antagonist Chancellor Verenor as I kept dragging something back to life again and again that would rather have remained dead. Unlike the good chancellor, however, I emerged triumphant and so we come to the review of 'Back to Life... Unfortunately'...
The premise, perhaps the best part of the game, revolves around life and death. Or rather how to end your un-life and get back to your peaceful death. You take the role of a nameless (beyond 'Your Highness') long dead king who was dragged kicking and screaming back to life to once again rule over his troubled people. And again. And again. And again. For you see, the people are troubled by highland barbarians, they are troubled by pygmy attacks and pirates, they are troubled by the assassin who first offed you those many years ago, and perhaps most of all they are troubled by Chancellor Verenor who keeps executing random people for treason every time he brings you back from a successful suicide attempt.
The king, alas, is not overly concerned with such things. (At least in the best ending there is some closure given regarding the troubles of the kingdom that were the cause of your recent resurrection(s)-- by literally knocking some sense into your slack-off son!) While the dead king was not cavorting in some afterlife paradise, he seems content enough to lie in his grave like a dead log. Well, if that's what he really wants...
While sudden deaths have often been the bane of interactive fiction players (I usually don't mind them overmuch so long as I have my handy Undo command), this is one of the few games where finding those sudden deaths and offing yourself in various humorous ways is the point. Poisoning seems to be the death of choice (with nearly half of the deaths being related to poison in some way), yet I was particularly amused by the two balcony related deaths, especially the one where the poor commoner survives your landing on him, but not the wrath of Verenor. (Although perhaps I feel the most sorry for "some fellow who was passing by the palace at the moment you died and, thus, immediately became a suspect" and was summarily executed, of course.) I only wish the game were a bit longer, with even more deaths to find. (I can think of a few more ways for a king to kick the bucket with panache...)
While there are twelve different ways to kick the bucket and only ten available in one play through, 'Back to Life... Unfortunately' is really rather short. There are only five rooms in the game, so one of my favorite Adrift functions, the auto-mapping feature, is not necessary. Or perhaps I did need a map after all, as various websites and the game itself mentions the five rooms, but I was only ever able to blindingly find four. Then, with unerring talent, I also seem to have stumbled upon a way to put the game into an unwinnable state, as I reached the maximum ten deaths per play-through but wasn't able to achieve an ultimate death. (Or perhaps I was supposed to suffer with the king, doomed to an eternal life of boredom pacing within my four rooms?)
Unfortunately in 'Unfortunately' it is quite easy to cut yourself off from a suicide attempt by not completing them in a correct order that can really only be deduced in hindsight. If you're too gluttonous and not studious enough or if you give into the temptation of that rickety balcony just waiting there, begging to be jumped off of (before you realize that death is not going to come that easily), you will end up missing the optimal ending. Some of the puzzle solutions seemed a bit counterintuitive, such as the Gadrian one -- it would seem only logical that a person with such a huge death wish would run gladly into the arms of an assassin (and that the assassin wouldn't be so persnickety as to not to deign to show up if he's not noticed.) While I was glad that Gadrian put in his expected appearance, the 'optimal' scenario seemed to waste his character potential a bit.
Other puzzles were a bit guess the verb-y. While I enjoyed messing around with the potions (although I wish there were a few more reactions included when mixing them) I originally missed one solution when I was told that a potion did nothing. It actually did do something, but only when referred to by its full name. I also had a hell of a time with the quill, ink, and coupon, whereupon I knew exactly what I wanted to do but could not quite get that idea across to the game. (Funnily enough, when I finally 'SCREAM'ed in frustration while trying to deal with the coupon, the guards answered me, heh.) The only thing that bedeviled me nearly as much as the coupon (the twist with the second coupon was amusing, but it ended up sending me down the dead-end path) was the ring. At least I was able to eventually get violent with the latter.
As stated within the game info, there are no real non-player characters within 'Unfortunately'. Your misguided head chancellor, Venenor is the most chatty and well described of all the castle cast, but he appears only in non-interactive cut scenes. Your beloved wife isn't able to visit her newly resurrected hubby as she's dead drunk (Oh well, at least that's better than my first suspicions!) and you have no interaction with Gadrian the assassin in the optimal storyline, and only a cut scene with him in other plotlines. You can also try to strike up conversations via menu choices with your blithering idiot guards (supposedly guarding you from others, but more likely guarding you from escaping) or communicating with your slack-off of a son through the aforementioned ring, but these conversations are rather stunted. (And the king first mistakes the ring for his son ... and he's supposed to be the intelligent one!)
Along with an amusing status bar that keeps track of successful suicide attempts and current health (the worse being the better!), it's interesting to note that there are three types of walkthroughs beyond the rudimentary help/hint section. One is a list of basic commands, one is told in amusing story form, and one is a transcript. Alas, none of them helped me in the situation I found myself mired in and overall I found the in-game hint system too vague. However, the reading material within the game ended up being a pretty good and interesting hint system for the topics they covered. (Although I never did figure out the genie in the bottle puzzle or if the missing journal was more than a red herring as neither was mentioned within the clues or walkthroughs.)
There are also a few other interesting meta-commands available in the game such as Facts (for game tidbits), Reviews, Games (for other games by the authors) and Intro which replayed the prologue and was a necessity for me as I clicked 'Enter' one time too many originally and had the text go flying past unread.
Another joy of the game is simply poking around with stuff, delighting in the amusing descriptions. I was quite glad that the cold draft in your bedroom could be examined (as I wander through games poking anything that looks remotely pokeable) and found it funny that you observe "Even as you wince at this poor description, you realise you just can't find a better way of describing it. It's cold. It's a draft. It's a cold draft." Yet it seems a bit of fun was missed with the description of the dead king, which remains the same throughout his ordeal no matter if his head explodes or he goes splat against various sundry objects, and who seems to look exceedingly good for a man seven years dead. (Shouldn't he be a skeleton at this point, or perhaps a mummy if this kingdom has good preservation techniques? Or at least have some body parts falling off, as there were only the maggots in the prologue.)
And so 'Back to Life... Unfortunately' with its amusing twist on a morbid subject ends up being a short, entertaining bit of fluff, ultimately not particularly memorable beyond its premise, but worth the download and the time spent playing it.