Piercing the Veil

It’s 1924. Edward Pierce came back from World War I, the last survivor of the Lost Batallion, with a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes a drinking problem that’s well on the way to destroying him. He’s set himself up as a private detective, since that’s a profession where there’s a certain acceptance that people will get plastered and fall asleep on their office couch from time to time – but that hasn’t stopped him being assailed by bizarre dreams.

Then it comes – the big case. Specifically, it’s the case of one Sarah Hawkins – a gifted artist famous for her macabre, surreal works. Sarah had married Charles Hawkins and moved into his mansion on Darkwater, a lonely island off the coast of Boston, and was apparently happy enough turning out additional work and being a parent to her and Charles’ little boy. Then a terrible fire broke out in the mansion, and all three were reported dead.

Sarah’s dad, however, smells a big fat rat. For one thing, very shortly before the fire Sarah had arranged to send him a painting – one suggesting that she was feeling threatened. And the police report has these odd inconsistencies – like how they go out of their way to insist that Sarah was mentally unbalanced but also that the fire was an accident. (If it were entirely accidental, why would they comment on her mental state at all?) Sarah’s father is convinced that the official report is at best bungled, at worst a cover-up, and hires Pierce to go to Darkwater, uncover the truth, and thereby salvage Sarah’s reputation.

At Darkwater, Pierce finds that Prohibition is being openly flouted, a gang of bootleggers is occupying the main town, and the locals are feeling surly and demoralised. Once upon a time Darkwater was a major whaling centre, but these days it’s slim pickings out there – almost like the whales have been consumed or driven away by some apex predator. It’s not like it was back in 1847, when the celebrated Miraculous Catch saved the island from famine and made the fortunes of the major local families. All interesting, all apparently disconnected from the Hawkins case… but as Pierce investigates, he discovers that Charles Hawkins had a very special interest in the Miraculous Catch legend indeed – and, more particularly, the deity the islanders thank for the Miraculous Catch… whose call resounds in the dreams of Darkwater’s inhabitants, inspired Sarah’s talents, and provides the game with its title.

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(Mythos) Monster In My Pocket!

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

As I detailed in part 1 of my epic 2-part Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstopper article, there’s a new regime in place at decades-old game company Chaosium and they’re doing their best to turn the company around. One of the new projects to emerge under the new regime is Cthulhu Chronicles, a mobile game developed by MetaArcade under licence.

In terms of its format, Cthulhu Chronicles is basically an extremely cheaply-produced visual novel – the artwork being either recycled from existing Chaosium resources or derived from public domain photographs from the 1920s (which can occasionally throw the player if you recognise that, say, Charles Fort has been cast as a prominent character). You pick your character who has a Health score measuring how much punishment they can take before expiring, a Sanity score detailing how much their mental stability can be shaken before they are unable to cope, and three basic skills to cover all areas of human activity – Athleticism for physical stuff, Intelligence for mental stuff, and the highly misleadingly-named Appearance for social stuff. When attempting something challenging you can be obliged to make a roll against Athleticism, Intelligence, Appearance, or occasionally Sanity, with your odds of success being based in part on your score in those attributes and in part on the difficulty of the test.

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GOGathon: What a Lovely Thing I’ve Seen In the Black Mirror!

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The curiously-named Black Mirror Castle – nothing to do with the Charlie Brooker TV series, don’t get confused – is the ancestral home of the Gordon family. It’s so named because legend has it that the castle was built over a portal to Hell by Mordred Gordon, tyrant and diabolist, before Mordred was defeated in a confrontation with his brother Marcus back in the 13th Century.

Closer to the present day – internal evidence suggests that the action of the game takes place in the mid-1980s – and the castle’s present owner, the elderly William Gordon, is up late writing to Samuel Gordon, who left the castle and the family circle a long while ago in order to deal with his grief after his wife died in a fire at the castle. You see, William has discovered some important things about the Gordon family line, matters which Samuel must be made aware of – but before William can send his letter, a mysterious intruder flings him out of the lonely tower in which his study is located. Thus, Samuel does return to Black Mirror – albeit not at William’s summons, but to attend his funeral. Taking control of Samuel, your task is to guide him through his investigation – first of William’s death, then of the matters William had uncovered – in order to finally face the truth about your family.

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The Sega Mascot History Tour

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

People have given a lot of stick to AtGames’ recent Sega Mega Drive Flashback HD model. AtGames have produced emulation-driven handheld and TV-hookup consoles under licence from Sega for a while now, and the most recent Flashback which hooks up to your TV with an HDMI cable to allow for mild upscaling to 720p quality has come in for a barrage of criticism. AtGames claimed that the bad early reviewers were down to a bad production batch and the issues were corrected in the retail version; since the product is pretty cheap and cheerful I decided to give it a go and I’m actually inclined to believe them. I can spot small but important distinctions between the menu presentation on mine and in the reviews, for instance, which suggests that these got an urgent firmware update.

Yes, there’s a bunch of shovelware non-Mega Drive games on here which AtGames could have happily left off without complaints from everyone, and yes the main menu system is a bit off – but Sonic the Hedgehog feels like it plays like it always did for me, and the controller feels close enough to my recollections of the Mega Drive controller that I have no complaints there (though I didn’t have a Mega Drive myself – ours was a SNES house, I only occasionally got to play with friends’ Sega consoles). I hadn’t noticed either the wireless controller lag or the emulation issues others have flagged, and I suspect part of the enduring animosity towards the product hails from the fact that emulation geeks can get incredibly fussy about stuff like dropped frames which no human being would actually notice by themselves unless you drew attention to them or analysed the output from the emulator.

In general, the box feels like it accomplishes what these retro consoles are supposed to accomplish – giving you the experience of playing a cross-section of classic games from the console in question, in something which feels like the original hardware without taking up a bunch of space with a stack of cartridges. (That said, a nice touch is the inclusion of a cartridge slot, which means that many – but not all – Mega Drive cartridges can work on the system.)

One of the nice things about Sega was that they were a bit friendlier about backwards compatibility – one of the first peripherals they put out for the Mega Drive (and perhaps one of the few which actually constituted a good idea) was an adapter that let you play Master System games on it, and because the Game Gear shared enough of its guts with the Master System that it could run its games, some Game Gear titles are included here too. That’s a really nice touch – in particular, it’s nice to have a collection with all four of the original Phantasy Star games in the first place. (Though Sega have put out numerous compilations of their games over the years, many irritatingly don’t include the full run of Phantasy Star I to IV.)

There’s some frankly odd gaps in the collection – why include Sonic & Knuckles without also including Sonic 3? Why leave out Alex Kidd In Shinobi World when it was considered to be one of the better Alex Kidd games? Still, there’s enough here that you can actually use the flashback to explore a fascinating cross-section of Sega’s history – and in particular, their multiple attempts at producing a corporate mascot who could compete with a certain rotund plumber who was drawing lots of dimes for Nintendo at the time.

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The Last Door: Worth Opening

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

You are entering the vicinity of an area adjacent to a location. The kind of place where there might be a monster, or some kind of weird mirror. These are just examples; it could also be something much better. Prepare to enter: The Scary Last Door

OK, it isn’t very Twilight Zone, but I find it difficult to see the title The Last Door without wanting to go for the Futurama reference. Which isn’t fair of me, because this episodic point-and-click adventure is much more than just a potential punchline.

Season 1

You play Jeremiah Devitt, Victorian gentleman. It’s 1891 and out of the blue Jeremiah just received a letter from Anthony Beechworth, who was his best friend back when they both attended a remote Scottish boarding school on the coast near Aberdeen. The letter simply reads “Videte ne quis sciat”, which was the motto of a little club the duo had formed at school dedicated to scientific and philosophical inquiry. Concerned, Devitt heads to Beechworth’s isolated country home, only to discover that a tragedy has unfolded there. Determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery, Devitt heads to the school to see if he can find any important clues there – and finds that the horror resides in a terrible experiment from his school days that he for some reason does not remember, but whose results reverberate to this day.

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Shadow of WTF

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

When we last left the story of the Ranger Talion in Shadow of Mordor, he’d started his day being murdered by the forces of Sauron and then things just kept getting worse. Given a strange sort of half-life by being fused with the spirit of Celebrimbor, the legendary elven smith who had forged the Rings of Power with Sauron, we followed their journeys together as they began their guerilla war against Sauron, using the power to control orcs’ minds to turn the Dark Lord’s forces against him.

All this Grand Theft Mordor shenanigans was fun enough, but whilst the original Shadow of Mordor was like the Saint’s Row of Middle-Earth, Shadow of War is its Saint’s Row 2: it takes the gameplay of the original and injects it with a hefty dose of absolutely bizarre nonsense that makes a farcical cartoon of the whole thing.

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Ferretnibbles 0.3 – Tiny Text Adventures

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Specifically, this consists of my contribution to Ferretnibbles 3 – hence the retitling to reflect that the remainder of the original article, not reproduced here, was written by other hands.

Lately I have been poking at a number of text adventures, largely because the interactive fiction database has been refined to the point where it’s really nice and easy to find good ones. Whilst some can be true epics, others can be wrapped up extremely quickly – here’s some I quite enjoyed recently.

9:05: This bite-sized nibble of text adventure goodness from Adam Cadre is a gentle, easy introduction to the format. There are no real puzzles beyond getting out of bed in the morning, leaving the house and driving where you need to go – except if you do all that as expected of you, you run into a twist which prompts you to immediately replay it and puts a whole new spin on all the descriptions so far. Brief yet fun, and an interesting exercise in how the limited descriptions offered in text adventures can blinker the player.

Lords of Time: Written by Sue Gazzard, this was an early time travel game, commercially published back in 1983 by Level 9 Computing (both as a standalone and as part of the Time and Magik trilogy, though the games in the latter series didn’t have much of a connection). It has an interesting central mechanism – a grandfather clock with nine cogs inside gave access to nine different time zones, allowing you to travel about until you reached the endgame as you tried to collect the essential items needed to repair the structure of time for… reasons. It was let down, as were many games of its era, by the extremely limited text descriptions, which resulted in the premise of the game being a bit heavy-handed and the experience not seeming especially rich compared to later efforts. In its era, it was probably pretty good, but the rich standards of post-1990s text adventures have rather spoiled it for me since it cannot help but seem a bit threadbare in comparison.

Three-Card Trick: Chandler Groover’s pocket-sized adventure gives the player much less freedom than it at first appears, but if you pay attention to the descriptions it yields not just useful hints for progress, but also hints as to a deeper horror to its world. In principle, you’re just an award-winning stage magician annoyed at your rival improving on your signature trick; in practice, something much darker is happening. Making the protagonist a fabulous woman stage magician in a dapper tuxedo is the final bit of polish that makes it perfect, and the clever tricks it pulls with the standard IF parser format are fun.

Anchorhead: You and your husband Michael have moved to the New England town of Anchorhead, where Michael has unexpectedly inherited a family mansion and been given tenure at the local university. Of course, this was as a result of his relative Edward Verlac abruptly killing his wife and children and then committing suicide – but it’s beyond credibility that a sinister ancestor would reach out from the past and try to possess Michael as he tried to take Edward and his family, with the aim of invoking dark gods to end humanity’s pitiful reign on this planet, right… right?

Anchorhead bills itself as a Lovecraftian text adventure, but it’d be more accurate to call it Derlethian – it uses August Derleth’s Standard Narrative as used in his Mythos pastiches to the hilt. That said, it is much more enjoyable than those stories in part because designer Michael S. Gentry is a much better prose engineer than Derleth, and in part because it casts you not as the possessed inheritor of a sinister house but as the inheritor’s wife, which opens up a new take on the old story. Various flavours of real-life abuse are thematically touched on, making this a story more comfortable with dealing with real-life horror than Derleth ever was, and in some respect more than Lovecraft ever did. It is rendered a little tough going by the ease with which you can get the game into an unwinnable state inadvertently, however.