March 10, 2015

Review: The Lost Hound by Palaverous

The Lost Hound is a TADS 3 game by Palaverous that was released last weekend. I've played through it several times now and, having slept on it, here are my impressions.

The opening feels very cinematic in the sense that it's a series of contextless 'images' that you could imagine playing beneath the opening credits of a movie to give the viewer an impression of what's gone before. While it's certainly well written, I couldn't help thinking that an opening like that works better in the cinema than it does in a game where you're supposed to be encouraging the player to take an active role. What I mean by that is that while there are a lot of things in the opening that are mysterious (and thus only make sense with hindsight), there's nothing that tells a new player anything about the game itself, or what they're supposed to be doing in it. I wasn't even sure what genre The Lost Hound was supposed to be. The appearance of a sword at the end suggested fantasy, but until then I was getting a science-fiction vibe (which returned once said sword started talking like a computer).

The reason I bring this up is that I would really have welcomed some direction during the early part of the game, all the more so because the PC is an amnesiac with no inherent motivations of his own. As it is, you're expected to wander around a maze-like forest without any idea of what you're supposed to be doing, while constantly being attacked by random monsters. I have to admit that after I died for the second time (which happened before I stumbled across any of the things I was supposed to stumble across), I rage-quit and didn't come back for several hours, which perhaps isn't the best way to 'hook' the player.

What brought me back is the fact that The Lost Hound is undoubtedly a very well made game. In particular, the technical implementation is absolutely first-rate. Pretty much every item referred to in a room description is implemented (as are some secondary details), there are various ambient messages to provide a sense of the environment, responses seamlessly change depending on what characters are present, and so on. It's not absolutely perfect as it does trip itself up on occasion (eg. if you listen in the forest you'll be told you don't hear anything, which can be immediately followed by an ambient message saying that you hear something), and the few things that aren't implemented (eg. 'lick ass') stand out. There are also a couple of cosmetic bugs, but overall it's still very impressive for a first-time author.

However, one piece of technical implementation that I could have lived without was the combat system. The only strategic choice available to the player is whether to fight or run, and the outcome of both is seemingly random (they're based on various stats, which aren't explained in any great depth and can't be influence by the player anyway). Certain creatures have vulnerable areas, but working out what they are (or indeed what bodyparts the creature actually has) can get the PC killed in the early stages of the game. The bigger problem is that combat is pointless most of the time. The vast majority of the battles in the game are random encounters that have no relevance to the larger story. The imps don't carry treasure, you can't skin the wolves to make warm clothing, you can't roast the boars for food, and so on. The only thing you get for winning a random encounter is XP, which eventually increases your combat skills. But of the handful of battles that are actually part of the story, only one is wholly dependent on the PC's combat skills (and I could just be missing something there). Consequently the only in-game reason to win random encounters is to make it easier for you to win random encounters, which isn't a compelling reason to include random encounters in the game. The likelihood of random death is pretty frustrating, especially since it seems to be intended by the author (the UNDO command is disabled during combat), and it led to me rage-quitting multiple times (particularly when it happened after I'd forgotten to save for a while). In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if it wasn't for this review, the combat system would have defeated me and I probably wouldn't have completed the game.

The overall quality of the writing in The Lost Hound is very good, and there's a lot of it. In particular, the responses in the sex scenes are pleasingly detailed. However, that level of detail starts to become a drawback when it's applied to the game's many many cut scenes (flashbacks, conversations, book excerpts, etc), making them a chore to read. The choice of a menu-based conversation system exacerbates this, as it ensures that the player will see every response, rather than just those that are directly relevant to the story. The reliance on overt exposition for world building is problematic in terms of involving the player, and its uneven tone doesn't help. In general the fantasy world seems to be played straight, but every so often there were moments of flippancy (eg. "who were somehow humanoid due to what we'll chalk up to divine genes being weird like that") or uses of modern idiom that strained my suspension of disbelief and prevented me from taking the game seriously. The only other problem (apart from the odd typo that slipped through) is that every so often there's a choice of word that doesn't quite fit, usually in terms of usage rather than literal meaning.

There are six interactive sex scenes, plus various partially interactive and non-interactive scenes. The Lost Hound introduces a command to delay the PC's orgasm, which is a nice addition even if it doesn't serve any vital purpose in the game. My favourite scene was Aura's by a wide margin, since there's more of a delay between her being presented to the player as a potential lust object and her actual conquest, which helped build my anticipation. Sadly, the player doesn't directly do anything to achieve said conquest (in fact the actual deflowering happens when he's unconscious), but the scene itself is an enjoyable denouement to the game. The other scenes receive much more perfunctory build up, often no more than 'x is an attractive female', which didn't help me get invested in them. On top of that, in the majority of cases the PC is doing it for some other reason (eg. curing Eri's corruption, upgrading Myleanis, transferring energy to Ryhna, helping Lysara pass her test) than mutual pleasure. Overall, the sex scenes in The Lost Hound are an enjoyable read, but I didn't find them involving in the way that I look for in AIF.

However, The Lost Hound's besetting sin, for me at least, is its attitude to player agency. If you've read some of my other reviews and articles, you'll have probably noticed that I have something of a 'thing' for player agency and I greatly prefer games that have it. Sadly, The Lost Hound doesn't to any great extent, and that's something that starts from the PC. Typically amnesiac protagonists in games are defined by the actions and choices that the player makes over the course of the story, which makes the trope interesting despite its overuse. However, in The Lost Hound the majority of the actions the PC takes are prompted, either implicitly or explicitly, by the game. The PC can explore, but there's generally only one direction they can explore in. If there are any secret doors, they're pointed out to the player (although to be fair, hidden objects are more subtly clued). If the player wants to talk to someone, the game does the speaking for them. As if to emphasise the PC's secondary role, they're frequently surrounded by people who are more powerful and knowledgeable than he is. There were a few points in the game where I actually had to think, notably some of the combats and the one obvious puzzle, but there weren't enough of those moments for my taste.

It doesn't help that most of the time you don't know why you're doing something, or what you hope to achieve by it. You're doing it simply because the game has indicated that's the way forward. The nadir of this is when, after several rounds of shuttle diplomacy (and accompanying random encounters), the PC is sent to deliver a fragile item. He is repeatedly told how bad it would be if the item was broken. Cue much cursing from the player when it breaks, more cursing when they discover that it's impossible to stop it from being broken, and even more cursing when they discover that the whole situation was a Kobyashi Maru test anyway. Fortunately, after that point things start looking up. The plot is finally explained (via a massive infodump), and as a result I found the final areas more interesting to play through because I knew what my goal was and why I was trying to achieve it (the random encounters become much less painful as well). The ending is a bit of a let-down though, as the PC doesn't really get to defeat the Big Bad because he needs an NPC to save his bacon from the demon's deus ex machina. True, the fact that she does so is indirectly down to the player's past actions, but it's still much less satisfying. Something else that I found less than satisfying was the fact that instead of the amnesiac PC becoming his own person (ie. the player's character), he ultimately becomes a carbon copy of the NPC he's based on.

So, after all is said and done, did I actually enjoy The Lost Hound? Sadly, the answer would have to be no, but that's mainly because of how frustrating I found the combat system and the random encounters it threw at me. With the combat system removed or toned down, I would have found The Lost Hound to be more than acceptable, although it probably wouldn't have been among my all-time favourites. I suspect that the root cause of most of the other problems I had with the game (lack of player agency, intrusive exposition, etc.) is that The Lost Hound was originally envisioned as a static story with a linear plot, with the interactivity shoehorned in after the fact. I feel I should stress that despite the fact that I didn't enjoy The Lost Hound, I still think it's a good game. In fact I'd go so far as to describe it as an exceptionally well made game in terms of both writing and technical implementation. The problem for me was that little of that skill and craft was directed towards the things that most interest me in AIF.

5 comments:

  1. I think that it's better to have read the 3 prologues before beginning the game (so you have a grasp of the world), it would have been a good idea to have them in the zip with the game and they are good short stories (but I likes the fantasy setting).
    I can understand because you (or other) haven't liked the combat, personally having played many rpg I haven't had problem (some saving, avoiding enemies too strong and a bit of grinding each zone), I haven't even needed to learn the enemies' s weak points, it's true that it seems a bit unnecessary (a very combat system would have to be more complex and with reward) but at the same time the story wouldn't have been the same without (but like I said for me wasn't so frustrating).
    I don't dislike linear game (and probably palaverous's style is more adapt to this).
    Enren's tests were a bit frustrating when done (but when found the reason behind I have reevaluated them)
    For the sex scenes I find that some suffer for the initial blank state of the protagonist, he do thing because he have or less passion at the beginning, when he show more interest or personality they are better (one of the reason because Aura's scene is better than others), but probably this depends only by the story that wanted to tell, because I think that he shows, when he wants, to be able to prepare the scene well).
    In any case even if I liked the game more than you (personal taste), we agree than he is a very good work for a first game and it's an author that could produce great games.
    I have to said than I'm surprised how many good new authors showed lately, I don't know how much of them will release a second and a third game, but for now I'm happy to have seen this.

    XXX

    ReplyDelete
  2. An interesting read, as usual. Though I didn't have any contact with other testers, it is interesting that most of the things you mentioned (besides perhaps linearity / player agency) was brought up during testing, so it seems to be just a matter of style and personal preference.

    I know I had mentioned the battling being something that would certainly be a turn off for many people, and other people would love it. Such things harken back to the 'old days' of RPGs (some grind-heavy ones still exist of course), and it rarely translates as well into direct text.

    I had also mentioned the use of things from modern times, such as lifeguard, being used. However, as I kept playing my idea of the game sort of changed as well. At first I felt I was playing ye ole' fantasy style game, but as it went, scenes were described, etc. it felt to me personally much more like an anime. They obviously aren't all the same, but that kind of action-filled, humorous sort came to mind as I read on.

    As for the wordiness, the author himself warned us about it himself. I can't say much, as it is a flaw of my own, but I can see the point. I did mention about the books being so lengthy that they sometimes dwarfed other more important parts of the game in sheer size. But I also figured as long as it wasn't a key part of the game, it could at least be ignored by those who didn't care to read them (though I guess it could be argued a first time player might not know how unimportant they were).

    The question of how much I enjoyed it is a bit of a confusing one considering the testing. I spent most of my time trying every single option I could think of, trying to break it and check things out all while trying not to overlook too many typos, so it is a different feeling than just outright playing a game. I did have fun with it and was amazed that it was released as a first game being so full of content. It seems those are often the kinds that stop authors from ever putting out anything at all.

    All in all though, most everything you said is how I feel, though I did seem to get more enjoyment from it. The combat didn't personally bother me, though I think it would have been just as good (or even better) without. Still a very impressive game and certainly hope we see more from the author in the future.

    And to the poster above - definitely is nice to see so much activity in relation to how it has been. I don't know if it can keep up the pace, but certainly hope so!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do wonder how I'd feel about The Lost Hound if I hadn't had that bad early experience with the combat system. I held off on posting the review for a couple of days to see if my feelings about it would mellow. But they didn't. If anything, writing a walkthrough hardened them.

      "I guess it could be argued a first time player might not know how unimportant they were"

      That was the big issue for me with the books (and most of the conversations for that matter). Knowing nothing about the background of the game, I had no idea what was important so I felt that I had to read everything. Then, once I realised how little of it was directly relevant to the game, I felt like my time had been wasted.

      "it is a different feeling than just outright playing a game"

      My own experience with playtesting (longer games especially) is that even if I enjoy the game initially, by the time the game is released I can't play it for pleasure (which is one reason why I try to avoid reviewing games I've also playtested).

      "Still a very impressive game and certainly hope we see more from the author in the future"

      I don't think it can be over-stated how good The Lost Hound is from an objective standpoint, especially for a first-time author. Unfortunately, the subjectives were direct hits on a couple of my IF pain points.

      Delete
  3. I mentioned this in my comments over on the community blog, but my biggest issue with the game is that it just doesn't feel like an AIF game. Is there sex? Sure. But there's no heat. I didn't find any of the characters or setups particularly sexy. It's superbly turned out, no question, but it seems to me that the game might have been just as well off as mainstream IF or straight up fiction. And I'm just not a fan of all these ambitious RPG elements/combat systems that a lot of up-and-coming AIF authors are trying to shoehorn into their games these days.

    Still, it's a well-made game by an author with a hell of a lot of potential. I wouldn't be surprised to see it topping some people's Game of the Year lists.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "but it seems to me that the game might have been just as well off as mainstream IF or straight up fiction"

      I'd actually disagree with that, on the basis that the sex is fairly well integrated into the plot, and you couldn't remove it without seriously changing the game. I think the lack of heat is more down to the fact that the sex scenes aren't 'sold' to the player in any way other than the NPC in question being an attractive female. No flirting, no signs of mutual attraction, etc.

      Fully agree re RPG elements/combat systems though. Random chance is something that should be avoided in IF gameplay, in my opinion.

      Delete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.