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Alloys and Allies
Review by: Paul O'Brian
Game: Bronze
By: Emily Short

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The unveiling of Inform 7 is hugely exciting for many reasons, not the least of which is a sudden bounty of new games by Graham Nelson and Emily Short. These example games are meant to show off various capabilities of the development system, but the designers being who they are, the games are likely to be eminently playworthy in their own right. This review begins what I hope will be a series that illuminates the value of these example games to players, quite aside from what they demonstrate to authors.

First on the list is Bronze, an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and an old-fashioned puzzlefest, though only old-fashioned in the good ways. There are no mazes, no hunger puzzles, no expiring light sources; for such favors I thank the author sincerely. What we have instead is a large landscape (in this case the Beast's castle), a well-paced plot punctuated by clever puzzles, and a variety of endings that allow for varying interpretations of the main character. The PC herself goes unnamed, but she is clearly the Beauty of the story, known as Belle in many versions, including both the Disney and Cocteau films. The tone of this game is much closer to the latter, pleasantly. In fact, Bronze reminded me often of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête -- its gloomy, echoing chambers, its magical aura, and of course the wounded, romantic figure at its center.

Bronze's castle is less wildly inventive and evocative than Cocteau's, though of course this is a rather rarefied standard to apply. What it does have over any other adaptation I've seen, however, is dimensionality. This game cannily exploits the strengths of IF to use its landscape for multiple ends. At the most basic level, it arranges the map in three dimensions, and at several points forces us to think not only of what is around us but what is above and below. A further (and more interesting) depth accretes as the PC's memories surface in connection with certain rooms and objects. This is not a new trick in IF, but it's very well-wrought here. Later in the game, we are shown yet another dimension via a magical item that allows us to hear the memories that other characters attach to various places. In addition, the game lays in a great deal of history to the castle, the Beast, the Beast's family, and so forth -- indeed, learning this history is essential for completing the game. The historical information is nicely woven, mostly avoiding infodumps and cutscenes in favor of memory-freighted objects and consultable items.

On the down side, though, the need to CONSULT X ABOUT Y so often was perhaps Bronze's greatest weakness for me. I got rather impatient with having to plumb so many sources about so many topics, especially when only one of the sources was portable. No doubt I'm rather spoiled by small competition games. Perhaps more to the point, I squeeze IF into the corners of my life and thus am not only unable to remember many details from one play session to the next but also reluctant to take notes while playing. I'd imagine that someone in a different mindset would find all the research opportunities quite rewarding. I did not.

Another choice that stymied me was the structure of the endings. My first attempt at Bronze terminated rather abruptly, at a less-than-optimal ending, and it was not immediately apparent why I couldn't keep proceeding to complete the other goals that would have led to a more satisfying conclusion. The answer had to do with my failure to consult a particular item about a particular topic before that item disappeared, but I did not put this together until after I had turned to the walkthrough. Even after I understood the problem, it still felt a little unfair to me -- I wish there were a bit more space in the design to prevent such accidental losses. Finally, there were one or two aspects of the magic system that took me a long time to figure out. Some of this may have been due to haste on my part, but I think they were also a little underdescribed.

Enough whinging. An area where Bronze really shines (uh, no pun intended) is in its technical prowess. Its blurb text promises "a number of features to make navigating a large space more pleasant," and those features are lovely. GO TO <location> navigates the best path from the player's present location to the target room, a godsend for the many, many occasions when one has to trudge from one end of the castle to the other. Similarly, FIND <object> takes the PC directly to the target object's location via the same pathfinding method. Bronze also implements LOOK <direction> to let the PC investigate adjacent rooms without traveling to them. Other great features include an adaptive hint system accessed via the THINK ABOUT verb, and a status bar that shows not only what exits are available but also color-codes those directions according to whether they have been explored or not. Finally, I must mention the very newbie-friendly, context-sensitive "novice mode" that gently injects instructions for how to deal with the IF interface throughout the game. In fact, Bronze is a game I'd recommend for newcomers to the form, since its story is a familiar one, its help system is extensive, and its writing is rich and enjoyable.

A few more words about that writing. Short's style is a familiar one by now: elliptical but densely packed, full of arresting images and subtle wit. At times, devoting so few words of description to so large a map can make the game feel a bit sparse, but more often it achieves a lovely mystique, showing us just enough to intrigue and enchant. Many sentences are striking in both their economy and power, such as this description of a door:

The work of the hinges and handle, the color of the wood, the point of the arch: all malevolent.
In addition, the imagery of the castle's fixtures is pure Short, such as the giant hourglass whose sands never stop pouring, or the cherry-wood floor in which is carved an expansive map of the Beast's kingdom. Another authorial trademark that will be familiar to fans of Savoir-Faire is the game's detailed working-out of a magic system and its implications not only for puzzles but for character and story as well. Bronze is no masterpiece, but it is a well-crafted, fun, and satisfying game. I recommend it not only to people wishing to learn Inform 7 but to all fans of quality puzzle-laden text adventures.
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