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Adventurer's Consumer Guide's Guide
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Adventurer's Consumer Guide
By: Øyvind Thorsby

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Adventurer's Consumer Guide ("ACG") starts with the premise that you are a product reviewer for adventuring products and must take an assortment of gadgets on a quest in order to test them out. I confess that I'm not generally a fan of this kind of meta-premise; it feels a bit worn, and I tend to prefer something with a freshly invented universe or a well-researched historical setting, rather than a rehashed parody of an old one.

I wonder whether other people feel the same way, and if so, whether the premise may be deterring players a bit, because I haven't seen as much discussion about the game as I would have expected, given that it's the kind of piece that lends itself to hint requests and player discussion.

Another possible deterrent lies in a quirk of implementation: ACG is written by Øyvind Thorsby, the author of Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies and, like that game, it disables EXAMINE, SEARCH, and LOOK UNDER.

I didn't mind this effect too much in the deliberately fast-paced first-person-shooter-style environment of Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies. ACG is paced much more like a conventional IF game, with many rooms and detailed puzzles. In that context, not having the ability to examine things gets tired really quickly. I am so used to it that I typed >X FOO many times more or less by reflex, throughout the whole game, even though after hours of play you'd think I would have learned better. A search of my transcript reveals that I tried to examine or search things a total of 45 times during play, even though I was warned at the outset that the behavior was turned off. This really is ingrained. And that doesn't count all the times — and there were many — when I started to type an examine command and then remembered and deleted it in favor of something else.

But even setting my IF reflexes aside, there are lots of times when it would be useful to be able to check on the status of a single object without having to trawl through paragraphs of text. Because there are no object descriptions, everything has to be described thoroughly in LOOK and INVENTORY output; this makes room descriptions longer than usual, and several times I missed exits because mentions of them were camouflaged by the amount of other material. The result is that the inventory listing is completely overwhelming. Thorsby has made some attempt to alleviate the frustration by printing the names of the objects in bold face and providing an option to turn off verbose inventory listings. The thing is, of course, without EXAMINE, the verbose inventory listing is necessary. It's just less convenient to use than individual examine commands would have been. From what other players have said, I'm not alone in finding this a misfeature.

ACG also got quite a brief announcement on rec.games.int-fiction — I know there's a community prejudice against aggressive self-promotion, but it doesn't hurt to write a slightly longer blurb about a game that you want to encourage people to play.

I speculate about all this because ACG deserves a much bigger audience than I've seen it getting so far. It's not a literary piece and it doesn't offer a coherent backstory or a deeply characterized protagonist, but that's not the point. I strongly recommend this one to fans of light-hearted puzzle games, especially to people who liked The Janitor, Augmented Fourth, and Zork. ACG is much fairer than Zork, but shares some of its goofy attitude and anachronistic combinations of objects. It does these things so well that even if you are not initially excited by the premise, you may find you enjoy the game.

Even if you've played a few moves and given up, I'd recommend having another try. The irritation of having no EXAMINE verb is real, but it stops feeling quite as annoying after a while. Then, too, I think the earliest puzzles are the least intuitive. They're hinted rather heavily by a sidekick non-player character, though, so it should be possible to get through them — and, indeed, this NPC continues to be extremely useful throughout what follows.

Once I was thoroughly into the game, I found it delightful. ACG is a moderate-sized piece — compared to the average release recently it may even deserve to be called large. At any rate, it took me most of an afternoon and early evening to play, and I received some hints in the later stages. And it's a quality piece of work, well-tested, with a wide variety of responses to unusual conditions. There are a few things you can do that will have a large-scale effect on the environment, and when these happen, they're implemented in subtle and imaginative detail, with small changes throughout most of the rooms. I encountered no bugs. There are some unfortunate punctuation problems scattered through, and a couple of typos, but I noticed these things less and less as I became more engrossed in the game, and they were never terribly severe in any case.

The map fits my game-playing prejudices as well: it's large enough to be interesting, with new areas that continue to open up over the course of play, but it's not so large or so complicated that there's any real need for note-taking. There are also several times when the relation between areas becomes clear in a new way, or where you get to see the same object from a new perspective — a trick I've seen before, certainly, but it continues to satisfy. The only real drawback from my perspective is the fact that room names are very similar; this was probably meant humorously but it did mean that they began to blend together in my mind, and I remembered places more for what they contained than for what they were called.

As for the puzzles, they're generally fair, and many are quite ingenious: the objects you've been given at the beginning of the game can be used in a satisfying variety of ways. There are very few filler puzzles with obvious solutions, few re-capitulations of old standards: no passwords, no lock-and-key puzzles, and no light source problems — and certainly no mazes, inventory juggling, or hunger puzzles. There are one or two timed passages, but the timing is generous and needs no tedious optimization once you know what you need to do. Almost every solution requires that you not only find the right props but that you apply them with some degree of imagination. There were perhaps a couple of solutions that felt a bit too similar to one another, but I feel as though I'm nitpicking now. Overall, Thorsby keeps the challenges novel and inventive and seldom seems to have stuck in a mediocre puzzle merely because he needed to block an area and didn't have any better ideas. The result is a game that often feels old-fashioned in spirit but offers fresh and novel game-play.

The puzzle structure — the way in which puzzles relate to each other — is also quite well designed, so that there are usually several things that you can be working on, but at the same time it's rare to encounter a puzzle a long time before you have the means to solve it. This keeps frustration relatively low. And even when your sidekick doesn't have explicit solutions to offer you, he can often give some guidance about where you should be focusing your attentions.

Non-player characters exist largely in support of the puzzles, and are implemented so that they respond only to commands and TALK TO, but given this restriction, they've got a wide range of reactions to things you do in their presence, and feel active enough to enliven the whole experience. Watching their responses when you solve certain puzzles is a reward in itself.

It is possible to get stuck in the game, and, I think, to lock yourself out of victory. There are also elements of randomness. Save frequently. Expect to UNDO and RESTORE a lot before you solve the whole thing. But, on the other hand, don't be afraid to explore what happens when you do something dangerous or foolish. There are a couple of points where it's necessary to take a calculated risk in order to advance, and there are also some entertaining easter egg deaths to discover. Killing yourself accidentally a bunch of times is all part of the fun. I only wish that there were a longer epilogue. I would very much have liked to read my character's reviews of the various objects he was sent out to write about...

A final word of warning: there are a few bits of the game that are bizarrely gory. The violence is cartoonish, but if this sort of thing bothers you, don't play while eating.

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