This review/notes/etc was updated on April 22, 2008. When I first wrote the original, I was kind of new to IF, especially homebrew IF, and have seen other parts of the story. For the sake of fairness, I have kept the original pieces intact.
I first got into Interactive Fiction (IF) (or, if you prefer, text-based adventures) when I found a cd containing a lot of old Infocom games. It wasn't THE CD, the Masterpieces of Infocom collection that has most of them, but it had some Zork and some various others. I found torrents that had the games, and was able to download good quality z-code files to play them, along with extras and doodads, but I wanted to have that official collection.
While digging around for copies of the games, I came across a couple of mentions of Pentari: First Light by a fellow named Howard Sherman and through a company called Malinche. Well, there was title, author and company. It seemed to be a new game. Newish. I thought I would delve into it.
The reviews I found were mixed in that way that oil and water is mixed. They were composed of either "HATE!" or "LOVE!" and there was nothing much in between. I am the sort of guy who hates that style of review: all passion and no completely accountable substance. Just about everything, within reason, has flaws and just about everything has something worth liking, so lumping it under either header usually means that you are only talking about the bits you hated or loved, and are flapping over the other bits. If a game is truly great, or truly horrible, you will tend to have only a handful of contrarian reviews, who state themselves as "I don't know what everyone else is smoking, but...". We are in the age of the false "5- or 1-star" review (unless this is Youtube.com we are talking about, where everything is 4-stars) and the average consumer usually has just as hard of a time digging through the flack as they ever did.
I dug deeper, unconvinced that a game could be hated and loved by reviewers of very similar backgrounds unless there was something else at play. I began to find some bits of the story, most of which I will leave to your own research. Sherman said a stuff about the hobbyist IF field, and the hobbyist IF field said stuff about Sherman. I still don't quite get how it came to a head, and for the most part am more than willing to focus just on the games.
Since his games were commericial, they cost upwords of 20 dollars a digital copy. I wanted to find some way to give it a whirl. I wanted to get an idea of what I was up against. He offers two games for free for a test run, both of which are small and possibly not the best demonstration of his style: Azteca and Pentari: the Prequel. I suppose it is the same issue many artists go through when they get their album out there and a couple of songs that not their core sound are chosen as singles. You can see what the artist is up to, but not quite how they are going to get around to it.
Azteca was the first one I played by Sherman (and then I went to do the other free game). He cites it as a popular example of how his reserach molds his games. I felt it would be a good way for me to get a glimpse as to whether there are bits worth digging into.
I will start by saying the end of this review: this is an okay game. It is not groundbreaking, nor epic, nor completely stupid. It is of the length and general character that much of the hobbyist fiction is, which can be taken as a sort of irony if you wish.
Begins with a bit of a blustering bravado, felt somewhere between comedic and serious. My first impression was to take it as comedic pastiche, but as I went through, felt I may have jumped the gun on this. The scenario is clear, and interesting enough, if a bit abruptly tied up by the end of the game. The writing is stilted, but not horribly so, and mostly in the same way that Tom Clancy and John Ringo feel stilted. Word choices are a bit off and some of the sentences flow questionably.
Sherman guarantees a quality of research, and it shows up. Just not enough. We have insights into the layout of the temple and the religion, but overall the game treats these things as a skin on top of the overall product, not as the depth and core of the product. It is quite concievable that with a few word tweaks, you could port this game to just about any other style of adventure (i.e. science-fiction, historical, horror, set in Africa, set in the US) and the flow would be unharmed. I tend to be a narrativist at heart, and so I like to see the words "Aztec temple" influence even the way the paragraphs are written, and to come through a little more in the way the quest is run.
Getting into the game itself does not take long. It is 75 points long, with only a half dozen real things needed to be accomplished. Searching through the first few rooms, there are some things to see and do, but mostly just description. Azteca mentions a few phantom items (i.e. "next to a blue box", "search blue box", "I see nothing like that there") but a most of the items have fair description.
One room seems offered death fairly quick. Took me a few play throughs to find out what word I was meant to type. Another room that seemed to be a dead end but worked out when I reworded my command. Both of these are quasi-obvious commands based on the clues, but in the latter I feel that it is too much of a syntax trap, where the two words should mean the same thing, but do not. I said to do something, and it told me that it wouldn't work. Then I say to do something else, which my character did, but then my character follows it up by doing the original action and it works. It could have been worded different in-game to avoid frustration.
My expectations mostly panned out. About an hour of playing by the end. Some fun stuff, a little tension here or there. Fair descriptions. Memorable game. Completely deflates in the the final four-five rooms. Final moment mars a lot of build up because one action leads to a conclusion right at the time the game could be building up some more speed.
The experience was not unsatisfying, but not deeply satisfying. I would likely rank it an Eh with drifts toward Meh by the end. Sherman's short, upfront descriptions are more for a longer game, where small bits of description play into the flavor of the whole, not for a short game like this where you only have twenty rooms to begin with, making single sentence responses end up being only a couple pages of sparse text for the whole thing. It doesn't have multiple endings, which a lot of his longer games brag about. My overall first glimpse into his game stylings was inconclusive, and I had to move on from here.
Died a couple of times with final score of 65/75 and then replayed to get 75/75. Missed one item first time through due to complete oops on my part (the room description mentioned a third exit that I just overlooked a half dozen times). Found both solutions to the...um.."stabby" puzzle. Do not think I am missing any rooms, at least nothing that will effect plot.
Written by W Doug Bolden
For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".
"The hidden is greater than the seen."