This review has been sitting on my hard drive for a long time. I had intended to give PAF one more playthrough before I passed final judgement. However, it’s been the best part of a year now, and I haven’t been able to summon up the motivation to do so (which perhaps tells its own story). So I’ve decided to post it anyway, with the caveat that it's not a comprehensive as it could be.
The basic premise of PAF is that the PC has been sent to an isolated location populated entirely by women (and secretly under demonic influence). If you’ve played PAC that premise will seem very familiar. That sense of familiarity is increased by a number of what seem like direct callbacks to the first game. For example, there’s the fact that the PC arrives without any possessions. More obviously, there’s the concealed male relative of one of the female characters who sells the PC useful items (an old man in PAC, a young boy in PAF).
The problem is that that premise fits Grey Island an awful lot better than it does Sirius Station. For example, why is Sirius Station entirely staffed by women? We’re provided with an explanation for why all the pilots are teenage girls, but that explanation can’t be applied to the support staff (which must be considerable if there are thirty trainees). The fact that the computer hasn’t been programmed to recognise males suggests that it’s an official policy of some kind. But if that’s the case, why bother testing boys at all (especially since they don’t have the required aptitude)? I realise that that’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of a number of elements that made me think of PAF as less of a game in its own right and more of a knock-off of PAC.
Although the central revelation of PAF differs in its details (or at least I think it does; even after completing PAF three times I’m still not entirely clear on all the details of Minami’s plan), it’s still similar enough to PAC that anyone who’s played that game won’t be surprised by it. Consequently, it would have been difficult to replicate the air of mystery and menace that was so effective in PAC, and there’s no real attempt to do so. However, without that mystification, the NPCs seem weirdly blasé about the oddities of their situation. The fact that no one knows where the space monsters come from, or why they attack the station (and only the station) one by one at regular intervals never seems to be of much concern to anyone. Likewise, the fact that the station’s commanding officer is an arbitrary and dictatorial tyrant who routinely abuses her subordinates is merely cause for mild complaining rather than the possible mutiny that would occur in anything approaching the real world.
As with PAC, the characters of PAF are all straight from bishoujo central casting. There’s the childhood friend who hits the PC a lot, the girl that the PC saved as a child and then forgot about, and so on. While PAC’s characters seemed more like general types, several of the NPCs in PAF reminded me of specific characters from other bishoujo games I’ve played. That’s not a problem in and of itself as types are often a convenient means of characterisation. However, there were few (if any) moments when the characters asserted their individuality by playing against type, and the result was that I seldom thought of them as characters in their own right.
Minami is by far the most memorable character in my opinion. Her initial scene is a masterpiece in pushing the right buttons to get the player to hate her. However, her subsequent appearances feel more and more over the top and she ends up as something of a pantomime villain. Despite all the kick the dog moments Minami gets, for some reason her subordinates never go further than a few muttered complaints, which both strains believability and undercuts her villainy. The prime example is the scene where Minami takes away Kenji’s privileges. The other characters have all previously witnessed Minami giving Taka demerits for no reason, and some of them have suffered direct abuse from Minami. Consequently, it makes little sense that no one questions Minami’s trumped up charge. Despite the amount of effort that goes into establishing Minami as the villain, her death is somewhat anticlimactic as it occurs without any direct intervention from the PC.
I found Ami to be the least likeable, both as a character and as a person. She's presented as the PC's childhood friend, although the only sign of friendship she ever shows is that she's thinking of buying him a birthday present. Mostly she just hits him whenever he says something she doesn’t like (a running joke that gets taken to its logical conclusion when Ami ends up actually 'killing' Kenji). Naturally it turns out that she’s secretly in love with Kenji, just like every childhood friend in every bishoujo game I’ve ever played. What made her unlikeable as a person to me is that despite her belief that Kenji isn’t interested in her, she does her best to scare off any other girl who shows an interest in him, making her seem very selfish.
My impressions of the NPCs weren’t helped by the fact that the player seldom gets to interact with them directly. Although much of the game is devoted to building up the PC’s relationship with them, that process is abstracted and dependant on the PC’s stats. The NPCs are individualised somewhat by the fact that they respond better to certain stats, but in practice the best strategy is to ignore their preferences and just focus on one stats. How much influence Kenji gains is also affected by the NPC's mood, which is neat idea. Or at least it would be if the player had any way to affect it. As it is, it's just a random element to make the player's life slightly more difficult.
Kenji (the PC) is your standard issue horndog, exaggerated for comedic effect. In less skilled hands I suspect I would have found him very grating, but BBBen is a good enough writer to make him at least passable. However, that still didn’t make him someone I enjoyed playing, and I found his PAC counterpart to be a much more interesting protagonist.
PAF takes place over the course of three weeks. Each day the PC is able to perform up to three actions to boost their stats or their relationships with the NPCs. Plot events are triggered on specific days or when the PC reaches specific stat levels. The result is that the story unfolds at a very deliberate pace, which can be frustratingly slow if the player already knows what’s going on. The game is slowed even further by the fact that to be sure of triggering all the cut scenes, the player has to visit every location every day. This quickly becomes repetitive, especially since there isn’t anything new most of the time. PAF tries to make this exercise more palatable by providing puzzles for the player to find and solve, but that’s only effective until the player has identified all the puzzles, which can happen within the first few days.
I have mixed feelings about the space battles. On the one hand they use what is undoubtedly the best combat system to ever appear in AIF. Several different strategies are available, depending on what stats the player has specialised in. Additionally, the availability of various power-ups mean that the player has to think tactically, and combat is much more interesting that simply repeating the attack command over and over.
However, having ten separate battles takes what is already quite a slow-paced game and slows it down even further. Once you’ve worked out the optimum strategy (and despite the sophistication of the combat system, it’s still susceptible to meta-gaming), combat becomes more of a chore than anything else. Moreover, the battles themselves don’t feel very important within the context of the story. Defeat means not getting paid, and perhaps losing some influence with your wingman. The other pilots are competitive over who has the best scores, but no one treats the battles as a matter of life and death and only two pilots are ever scrambled to deal with a monster. This is in stark contrast with the much more dramatic situation set up in the tutorial battle. All of the named pilots take part and it’s clear that they would have died if Kenji hadn’t saved the day, which makes it seem as though the monsters are a genuine threat. The subsequent battles that the player has to fight are anticlimactic by comparison.
The sex scenes are somewhat circumscribed by the fact that the PC is prevented from performing certain actions unless his stats are high enough. I’m not sure I see the point of that, unless it’s another means by which the player is ‘encouraged’ to play the game multiple times. Apart from that they’re enjoyable, largely because of the quality of BBBen’s writing. If I have a quibble it’s that because the build-up to each scene is largely based on cut scenes and meta-decisions, I didn’t find them to be very involving, especially given the slow pace at which each relationship developed.
Although ADRIFT 5 is showing steady improvement in its development, my overall impression is that it’s still not quite ready for primetime, especially when it has to deal with a game of the size and complexity of PAF. In particular, the lack of disambiguation options compared to TADS or Inform makes the player’s life more difficult (as the readme acknowledges). To be fair, ADRIFT 5 has had a lot less time to mature than its two main rivals, only having been in beta since April 2011 (unlike Inform 7, which has been in beta for seven and a half years).
The main technical innovations employed by PAF are the use of sound (even more extensively than PAC), animation (a first for traditional AIF), and the combat system. The fact that PAF is partially-voiced is probably its unique selling point. I felt that the overall quality of the voice acting was even better than it was in PAC. But in a game that’s based on text (rather than just dialogue) I’m not convinced that voicing is ever going to be much more than a gimmick. It works better here than it did in PAC, since ADRIFT 5 allows sound to be played at specific points. But when you’re reading through a lengthy cut scene it feels like you’re just having the occasional line read out to you (at least until you start skipping through the cut scenes). That said, the sex scenes are definitely enhanced by voice acting, since there are some things text can’t adequately reproduce. The use of background music is also very effective, although I would question the choice of Saint-Saens’ "Danse Macabre" since it seems out of place in a science-fiction game (possibly due to the other contexts in which I’ve heard it).
I feel a bit guilty for being so critical of PAF, since it is a very polished game in a technical sense, and the writing is excellent. My lack of enjoyment boils down to two main issues. The first is how familiar everything seems. The plot is very similar to PAC, the NPCs reminded me of characters I’d seen in other bishoujo games, and overall the game held no real surprises. By itself that’s not a fatal flaw, as an awful lot of AIF is essentially predictable. However, it did exacerbate the second problem, which is how quickly playing PAF became repetitive for me. I enjoyed my first playthrough, enjoyed it less the second time around, and by the third was finding it a bit of a slog. The decisions that the player can make only affect which girl(s) Kenji ends up with. The bulk of the game is essentially the same each and every time you play it, which is not a great recipe for replayability. I still think that PAF is a good game, but unfortunately it lacks the qualities that would have maintained my enjoyment levels past the first playthrough.