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Spring Thing 2006 - Warlord, Princess, Bulldog

Game #3: The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog

     It's not the next chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia (and if no other reviewer makes the same joke, I'll be surprised). David Whyld's Spring Thing 2006 entry, written in Adrift, reprises the exploits of mercenary bad-ass Stavros "The Bulldog" McGrogan in a sequel to his earlier A Spot of Bother. It's up to The Bulldog to sneak, fight, grunt, and puzzle-solve his way to victory against the evil Warlord, Baron Grishtak.

     At times, this is a contradiction. From the start, the goal is clear. I don't mean the goal of the story (which is also clear), but the goal of the game itself. Finish the three primary objectives with full health for a score boost, and pick up more points for solving puzzles rather than pushing past them with brute force. This opens the game to a variety of play styles, but that "best score" objective is the carrot dangling just beyond reach. The Bulldog loses life points when he fights, and without a clear idea of how to gain them back (let alone how many can be regained), my inclination was to avoid fights and slink about the castle solving puzzles, preserving every point of health possible. So much for being a bad-ass.

     Even though I enjoyed the game using this strategy, I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been aiming for a perfect game. In the end, it didn't matter. I didn't complete one of the three objectives, and I won with a score of only 80 and health of 90. The ending - and the death ending too, when I purposely let The Bulldog get pounced by The Tiger - was still satisfying.

     Things take a bit longer when you play for points. Instead of beating up the bad guys, I lured them into traps, tricked them into leaving, or simply avoided them entirely. When I stumbled into traps or lost health in unexpected ways, I opted to "undo" or "load" a prior save, so I could try another approach. This made the game tougher. To get it all right the first time, I would have needed to read the author's mind. The interesting thing is that this was just another way of playing the game. With a different objective - let The Bulldog fight enemies and bully his way past the tough parts - it doesn't require psychic powers. It's a fair system which rewards do-overs without making do-overs essential to win.

     I've mentioned "health points" several times. If you have visions of RPG stats and random dice-rolls - especially if you don't like those things - take heart. That's not how WPB works. Think of it as the antithesis of a scoring system. When you earn "score" points, it's for completing a task, reaching a milestone, or hitting some score-worthy trigger. These are things built into the game, and the points are set. If you play much IF, you've probably seen this in action. WPB has this in addition to its health point system. Points come off by making mistakes, or in other predetermined ways that involve alternate puzzle solutions. Sometimes, these mistakes (especially in facing enemies) can be repeated, but on the whole it's more like a credit system. The Bulldog is extended so many of these "mistake" points, and he spends them as necessary.

     The beauty is that making these mistakes usually gets The Bulldog past puzzles. For instance, there are several ways to pass the landmines near the beginning of the game. One way in particular saves The Bulldog from damage entirely. Other ways leave him only slightly scathed (or perhaps unharmed, but with the loss of something that might be the key to avoiding damage later). Of course, stepping into it (with persistence) solves the puzzle too, at the expense of a chunk of health.

     It's designed to be winnable, no matter how low your health becomes. The more damage The Bulldog takes, though, the fewer risks he can endure. Suppose this drops to a single remaining point. The game remains winnable, but every additional obstacle must be overcome with brains instead of brawn. This can become very difficult. Health can be recovered, but I never was quite sure how much. If I recall, I healed about 30. The Bulldog has suffered some prior to the start of the game, beginning with 63 health. Health of 100 is considered "full". It may be possible to recover more than 37, making it possible to take damage and still finish with full health. I never figured out the max. It's just as possible that every method in the game adds up only to a total of 37, meaning a perfect win requires a totally unharmed Bulldog. Maybe a better player than I - or Whyld himself - will say for sure.

     Really, it's a clever design. I can't think of a single puzzle that didn't have two or more solutions. The easier the solution, the fewer the points (and often, the more damage The Bulldog would take). Because my goal had me going after the toughest of each solution, I hit the built-in help often. After only a short ways into the game, I was requesting every hint available in every room. In a way, this became just another tool, like "undo". Instead of cheating, it seemed more like a part of the game. Some hints even felt more like puzzles to solve. Even with hints, it was often difficult to work out the best (most rewarding point-wise) solutions. Without them, though, I never would have.

     This all makes it difficult to say just how tough The Warlord, The Princess, and The Bulldog is. I solved many of the puzzles with easier solutions at first, costing The Bulldog only a few points of health. I would have finished faster - and possibly without so much reliance on hints - if I had just pressed forward from those points. I suppose it ranges from "challenging but not overly difficult" to "one step down from impossible", depending on what approach you take. Mine was more on the side of the latter.

     Whyld has done an excellent job of anticipating much of what players may try. The implementation level alone is amazing. Very little encountered in the game lacks first, second, even third-level implementation. If you look at scenery that has parts, you can look at those parts. You can often interact with those parts. If those parts have parts, they're probably implemented too. It pays to really inspect what's around. Even though much of it is optional, enough digging can bring up the keys to alternate puzzle solutions.

     The prose in WPB is dotted with amusing passages. Generally, Whyld isn't trying for real comedy - and if so, it probably wouldn't have worked here anyway. It's more the "ah ha, that was funny" kind of subdued but cliched humor you'd expect from a story in which the hero only grunts yet everybody understands what he means. When Baron Grishtak writes a letter to his ace henchman - subsequently obtained by The Bulldog - he admits that he "foolishly jotted down the access code to the master computer on the bottom of it." He goes on to encourage his henchman to destroy the letter after reading it, for that very reason.

     As to the presentation, the author held nothing back. My first fifteen minutes were spent just reading the introductory material - details about the game, additional commands, the intro, etc. The game font size can be adjusted via the command prompt. Screen-clearing at each room change can be turned on or off (personally, I liked it on - it was easier to quickly scroll up and re- read room descriptions that way). Around four different fonts were used - one for room headers, one for the room description, the default font for most game messages, and a script-style font for letters and notes. It may sound like a hodgepodge, but it works well (if you're using the Adrift runner and your Windows-based computer has those fonts) and it set WPB apart from other games in terms of style.

     To now, it may seem as though I have no complaints about The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog. A big game, though, has more room for things to go wrong. None of these problems (in my play-through, anyway), were game-killing, but they ranged from mildly annoying to completely preventing (or, at times, allowing) certain solutions. My transcripts note quite a few typos - not surprising in a game of this size and complexity, but still minor dents in the proverbial finish. Weirder quirks included things like the non-working pendant (it worked once, but after a subsequent "undo" or "restore", shaking it didn't work even though it still had 3 charges); being able to enter the guards' training courtyard in a "they're gone" state, even though they shouldn't have been; a reference to a voodoo doll in the hints, which doesn't seem to be in the game (Adrift will usually respond to objects it knows, even in other places, and it didn't know that one); being able to break the panel in the sleeping quarters repeatedly; I didn't realize it at the time, but the "code to the master computer" is too long to work in either of the computers found later in the game; some available exits were unmarked on the map; some exits described in the text didn't work in the game; you can't "undo" to before a hint screen; I couldn't get "exit" to work (even though it was supposed to), when trying one of the codes; A seven-letter password scattered throughout the castle appears to have two fifth letters; it's possible to set the watch before winning, so that it goes off during the final scene; a few other miscellaneous quirks.

     As the game progressed, these things either became more common or more noticeable. Maybe it was the cumulative effect, but my faith in the game's internal consistency was shaken. If I felt at all guilty about reliance on hints, the feeling passed when I thought that maybe the game was broken just enough to prevent the solutions I needed for a perfect win. This may not be true. From my experience, the bugs that persist after beta testing are usually the bugs in sections that aren't vital - else they would have been worked out already. Nonetheless, it's a reminder: the better the polish, the higher the faith.

     Most of the design works great. The health point system contributes to alternate puzzle solutions, and alternate puzzle solutions are abundant. The hints, although cryptic at times, are helpful. Even so, a few specific parts left me cold. One very early puzzle (the one that avoids a loss of health - an easier but damaging alternate does exist) requires waiting a few turns after taking action. I was impressed that the game allowed the particular action, but I thought I had messed up - so I did an "undo". Speaking of "undo", you can unwittingly make a move that disables it, in what I can only describe as a prank perpetrated by the author. It's by no means a necessary (or even an obvious) move, but some players will try it. I found no way to re-enable it, aside from reverting to a prior save (or starting over). One obstacle requires that you lose everything in inventory. The hints describe a way to keep most of it, but it requires repeating an action (and it's even possible to undo a failure, repeat, and succeed the second or third time).

     As a Spring Thing entry, WPB is fittingly sized. My play-through - taking most puzzles the hard way and relying heavily on the built-in hints - was eight and a half hours. Despite the flaws, I enjoyed the time I spent with The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog. An incredible amount of effort was put into this game, and it really shows. A post-competition release could address the remaining problems, making it even more recommendable.

     My Spring Thing Score: 9

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