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Reviewed On: 12/20/2004 (Originally appeared in SPAG #40)
I was a beta tester for earlier versions of this game. It has improved in this revision, and the original was already more playable than Paul's recent Comp 04 entry (Ninja v1.30). I have written additional bug-notes to send to Paul, but I'll skip most of that for the purposes of this review.
In short, version 1.26 is still buggy. Some of it is just the inevitable result of building a quickly-made parser from scratch. Attempting to climb anything, whether it exists or not, will result in a message saying that it wouldn't be safe. Birds chirp in several areas -- it would be nice if "listen to birds" would work, but at a minimum, "listen" would be a good verb to understand in general. I still noticed a few typos, but nothing to detract too much from the game. An update will probably address these and several other things I found while playing this version.
The larger problem is that the game is just too rigid with what it can understand. The verb "use" is implemented, but it's not always logical. An alternate solution to the endgame battle requires you to "use" a certain object. However, using it will actually "throw" it, even though "throw" doesn't work as an alternative. In another example, you can't "give" the troll what he wants -- you simply attempt to go south with the item in your inventory, and the action takes care of itself. While that's a nice shortcut, it's also not an intuitive one. If a troll asks for something, I haven't previously been able to pass him, and now I have what he wants, my first instinct will be to "give" this thing to him. I tried a few variations before I found that walking "south" was the solution.
Paul has implemented a few shortcuts, though. The "x" verb works for "examine." The "l" verb works for "look" (although "l object" does not). Version 1.26 introduces a "save" feature, for which I was very thankful. The "undo" command isn't supported, except in one spot (and then, it's automatic as a friendly means of avoiding death). I don't mind RPG elements in a game, but the battles generally take just a couple of hits to finish (and when longer, it's not really clear what's going on -- you can massacre a creature shortly before it massacres you). The extra hit points and "wimpy" mode (run when HP gets low) makes it more playable for those with a dislike for RPG-style fighting. Usage of colored text in Interactive Fiction may annoy some, but I found it useful and appropriate.
All bugs and parsing restrictions aside (the game is playable -- just not as easily as typical "standard" works), I'm disappointed in the story and the consistency. Paul did add more to the intro, referencing the PC's state of inebriation as a clue to why nothing really seems to make sense. Still, it just isn't enough. If I'm going to see dragons and trolls and werewolves, a nice twist would have been to reveal what these things really are at some point, a la Don Quixote -- not just what the PC believes them to be. As it is, I can't tell if much thought went into the story. It seems that Paul decided to make a short puzzle game with various random elements, connected only by the fact that they seem to reside in the same pseudo-fantasy world. With more thought given to the story, it might have worked. Instead, The Golden French Fry offers very little to make it memorable, or to separate it from other similar games.
I mentioned consistency as well. From the beginning, I'm an unmotivated slacker -- yet I proceed on a quest that involves much walking, climbing, fighting, and personal peril. I'm able to kill an owl protecting her egg (in order to take the egg), and the PC offers no remorse. However, slaying the dragon leads to some brief but personal soul-searching. A map of the area (not a bad idea) is shown on the wall of a shed -- but it's written from the author's point of view (with rooms named and numbered). Shouldn't it appear as if drawn by an in-game map-maker?
Paul Panks might just be the Ed Wood of Interactive Fiction. He's motivated and relentless in his efforts, and his enthusiasm is never deterred by criticism. But, like the director of such duds as "Bride of the Monster" and the unforgivable "Plan 9 From Outer Space", Paul seems unable or unwilling to consider compromising his design decisions -- even though doing so might improve his work and help him grow as an IF author.
The Golden French Fry is by no means unplayable, nor is it "bad" in a memorable way. As of version 1.26, it's still rough -- but it's getting better. Paul has been very willing to act upon the suggestions sent after each of my play-throughs. It could be a much better game if given a more meaningful, cohesive storyline -- and if the parser had not been tacked together from scratch. What's most interesting (and disappointing) is that Paul Panks isn't new to Interactive Fiction. He's no beginner, yet the game kind of feels like someone's first effort.