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IFCOMP 2007 - The Lost Dimension

Game #13: The Lost Dimension
By C. Yong
Played On: October 21st (4 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: C# or VB.NET (Compiled .NET Executable)
Merk’s Score: 5+

     Game’s Blurb:
     The lost dimension tries to present the conventional text adventure game in a non-conventional way. It is hoped that this whole new GUI approach would attract those who normally don't play text adventure game as well.

     If one were to watch the first hour of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, play Simple Adventure by Paul Panks (or any other poorly-conceived text-based combat RPG), get a little drunk, and then program a game in .NET, it would very likely turn out a bit like The Lost Dimension.

     The story in The Lost Dimension (and really, it’s not all that lost; it’s just like every other strange monster-infested real-world-becomes-fantasy-land setting we’ve seen) is that all passengers on a plane have disappeared, except for the initially-sleeping main character. The plane lands (and subsequently disappears), leaving the protagonist to fend for himself (well, the “snore” audio is decidedly male) against various crazed beasties that ordinarily wouldn’t all belong in the same story. All the while, he must hunt for five magnetic stones (could be “relics of power” in any other game) as the key to escaping this strange realm.

     In spite of its many problems, I liked this game. I have to say that first, before I launch into a lengthy discussion on everything that’s wrong with it. This is another game with a custom-made Windows-only engine, but it takes a different approach than the typical home-brewed IFComp entry. It features a point-and-click interface that’s intended to entice players for whom typing is a turn-off.

     The author claims that The Lost Dimension can be played completely via keyboard or with the mouse, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work right strictly by typing in a conventional way. Unrecognized commands (such as “x me”) don’t result in anything but a warning tone. Verbs recognized by the game (such as “look”) bring up a pick list before you even finish typing, making it impossible to enter complete commands. Some actions (such as those listed sometimes in the “special options/actions” section) don’t seem to be recognized as text input at all. (Edit: I see that you can reference special actions at the command prompt by number, just not with any verb or command phrasing.) If, however, you play the game strictly by its point-and-click interface, it works reasonably well. Granted, it takes a little while to become comfortable with an all-click interface for a text adventure game, but it’s easy to manage after only a little while.

     The game’s greatest weakness is that it throws away the power and flexibility of a real command text parser without replacing it with something equally robust (such as visually appealing graphics with point-and-click hot-spots). At any point in the game, every possible action for every potential object is pre-calculated. This allows the game to list all possible actions, or to populate pick-lists when selecting an action that requires an object. Thankfully, it does play more like a point-and-click graphic adventure game than a CYOA-style game, and that at least keeps the feel of interactive fiction intact.

     As the game progresses, the interface does begin to feel more natural. I can see what the author intended by it, even though I suspect most IFComp judges won’t agree. It’s really not a bad engine. To really shine, though, I think it needs work in a few areas.

     It should automatically resize to fit your resolution (instead of downsizing your resolution to fit the game). The trick here (if I can be so bold as to make the suggestion) is to call a generic routine on the INIT for each and every form element. If you’ve based the default layout on 800x600, simply calculate the actual screen size (possibly as a global on startup, or any time the form itself is resized) and change the position and size of the control based on the adjustment of its default size and position. You can resize fonts the same way (although a custom user-initiated font selection is probably a better idea).

     The command prompt, when input is so restricted anyway, is probably better left out entirely. A transcript feature would be nice. An “undo” feature is sorely missed, and the single-file save game ability (based on the name you supply when starting the game) would have posed a problem if I hadn’t realized you can just copy or rename the saved files outside of the program to manage as many different saves as you like. Knowing (instead of guessing at) weapon and armor stats would have been nice, considering your main character stats are on display anyway. Auto-mapping would be nice. Items in the “special options/actions” list are infrequent enough that I sometimes overlooked them until later. Somehow drawing the player’s attention to that area, when options are shown, would be helpful. The color scheme is pretty chaotic, and would do well with some toning-down.

     It could also use a better, more original game to showcase itself. A big flaw I see in home-brewed entries like this is that plenty of effort went into making the engine, but not enough effort went into writing an interesting game. It’s as if the game is secondary, being cobbled together from random elements to form a nonsensical and generic story. It shouldn’t be that way. This engine could be used to create something far more interesting, original and worthwhile.

     The game is also plagued with typos, misspellings and wild grammatical failings. English seems to be a second language for C. Yong, and while it’s a nice effort if so, it’s still difficult to be enthusiastic about what’s basically very simple, generic writing. Room descriptions are short and rely more on the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps than any real visualization of what the author has supplied. Responses to most commands are brief and choppy.

     My notes hold a few unintentionally amusing quotes:

     "Any physical beings including you cannot pass through it."
     "Stone Ape attacks with its Stones but MISS !"
     "The room is covered by various pale paintings of agony-looking human faces."
     "The Little green alien is slained."

     Being a little gun-shy of broken battle systems in home-brewed IFComp entries before, I was leery at first of the RPG elements in The Lost Dimension. I think it’s probably possible to waste the healing “holy water” (available in limited supplies) and the limited-use attack items (like guns and grenades), leaving your character too weak to progress in battle, but that didn’t happen to me until the final (and optional) fight. It actually worked pretty well for me, with well-balanced experience points, hit-points, leveling-up and stat-building that reminded me of what I like about simple combat in RPG’s. Once I noticed the “next” button at the top of the combat progress window (which can be clicked over and over to speed things up), I really started to enjoy the various fights I encountered.

     Still, the combat left me with a few concerns. First, it’s always in seven rounds. The “monster” always goes first (as far as I noticed), meaning it will get four attacks to your three. If the battle isn’t over, the seven rounds can be repeated with another attack (meaning your opponent gets an extra hit for each round of seven). Monsters in some rounds even attempt multiple hits to my one. The balance and fairness seems okay, though, so maybe this was done to maintain a challenge. Also, some “monsters” didn’t really seem like monsters to me. Why am I fighting a mule? Maybe it was a Dire Mule? Or did the author just run out of wacky ideas for monster types?

     Aside from poor writing, nothing major is wrong with The Lost Dimension in the way of bugs. It never crashed on me... uh... except at the very beginning. This was due to an older version of the Microsoft “MDAC_TYP” library on my PC. I figured it out from the .NET exception report, downloaded and installed version 2.6 from Microsoft, and then it ran fine. Non-techie types are likely to be stuck if the same thing happens, though (hint: be sure you’ve installed .NET 2.0 and updated to MDAC 2.6).

     A few general bugs in the game logic could be ironed out with an updated release. It is possible to cross the river to the west from a dead-end area (it’s obviously unintentional, because you can’t cross to the east). A loose brick in a tunnel is either described in a room one west of where it actually exists, or it’s implemented one room east of where it’s described. Sometimes, a big hit in battle will lower your HP to less than zero (and without an “unconscious” range as might be seen in D&D, it doesn’t really fit here). Some of the text at the bottom of the winning end-game pop-up was covered and hidden. Some doors that can be opened will only stay open when broken. I’m sure I noticed others, but without a transcript I only have my quickly-written notes to consult.

     The game features MIDI for music and WAV for sound effects. It fits the game’s style, but sometimes the specific selections seem to be poor choices. For example, the level-up music is a lullaby. The sound effect played when putting on armor or refilling a gun sounds like a bug being squashed. One of the battle victory themes is some classical piece I can’t quite place (but probably should -- it’s very familiar -- and the easily-recognized “Ode to Joy” bit from Beethoven’s 9th is there in the MIDI folder as a monster theme, even though it doesn’t seem to actually play in the game).

     The game isn’t just monster combat, throw-away storyline, and public domain sound files. It’s also a string of simple puzzles that generally require just “looking” at the right thing and then using what you find there at the appropriate location. I wasn’t really bothered that it didn’t feature a deeper implementation than this. The game kept me entertained for just over four hours (stopping at two to cast my vote), and somehow I never got stuck. That’s surprising, when a couple of the things I passed easily should have been far less obvious (such as, spoiler here, digging inside the hut). Maybe I just got lucky. This is one of several instances where I wonder if the puzzle was clued well enough, if at all. I think the limited choices inherent to the game’s interface probably made these things more solvable than they otherwise might have been.

     It isn’t necessary to map the first section (on the plane), but the game really opens up afterwards. I did well enough with a hand-drawn map (otherwise I’m sure I’d have gotten lost easily), but the author includes nice graphical maps in the game’s “solutions” folder. They don’t show hidden rooms, however. Any player looking to solve 100% of the game is wise to mark a hand-drawn map anyway.

     So yes. Somehow, I did like this game. I finished with 88% (although without defeating the monster in the northern cave due to low health), and that feels like enough of the “extras” to really get a feel for the game as a whole. Still, it’s a tough game to recommend to players in general. It will probably appeal to anybody who likes similarly styled games (such as those written by Paul Panks). Point-and-click fans who want the novelty of something entirely text-based might enjoy it. Or, if you’re an IFComp completist with a job in .NET development (like me), you might enjoy it. I’ve been as generous with the score as I can (a “5” with a “plus” for the unique and surprisingly non-broken engine), but I can’t bump it up any higher without conflicting with games that really are more polished and more fun. On my scale, that’s still a “below average - plus.”

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