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Starship Volant: Stowaway

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Postby David Whyld » Tue Jun 12, 2007 12:30 pm

Starship Volant: Stowaway by C. Henshaw

One of two ADRIFT entries in the Spring Thing 2007 (the other being mine, so don’t be expecting a review of that), Starship Volant: Stowaway came a respectable third, trailing Fate and The Reluctant Resurrectee but ahead of The Epic Origins of CamelGirl!

The game is an uneasy mix of regular IF and CYOA (i.e. half of it has you entering commands like you would in any other IF game, the other half has you selecting highlighted commands from a block of text), which is a nice enough idea in itself but the way it’s been implemented here leaves a lot to be desired. A good deal of the time you won’t be presented with any highlighted commands, making you suspect that this is one of the times when you need to enter regular IF commands to make any progress. Not so. Whatever you try doesn’t seem to effect the game one bit and after a few moves have passed, you are presented with a number of highlighted commands. You select one of them and then several moves later, you're presented with some more. A sizeable part of the game is played in this manner and any illusion that you can affect anything aside from the highlighted options is just that: an illusion. Whatever you type (when highlighted options aren't available) you end up with the same thing every time. So in fact the best thing to do when highlighted commands aren't available is bash out WAIT until they are.

Handled better, this could have worked quite well (though I'm not entirely convinced that a IF/CYOA hybrid would ever successfully work). But with too much waiting between the options, it often feels that the game pauses of several moves between choosing commands isn't a good idea. Continually typing WAIT until something finally happens doesn’t work; simply presenting the player with whatever the next set of highlighted commands is would have been a better idea.

The layout of the spaceship is confusing. I played with the standard ADRIFT Runner which displays a map of the game in the top right window but I ended up having to disable this due to constant error messages flashing on screen telling me the map was too complex. The map was also problematic in that sometimes it would fail to correctly list exits that were indicated in the room description.

Most of the game isn't very interactive at all. Once it had begun proper, and the starship was being approached by an alien vessel, the main command I used to progress the game was WAIT. I wasn’t able to leave the bridge* and while I could speak to some of the people with me, I couldn’t seem to make any progress that way. More annoyingly, when I was asked a questioned by Mrs Williamsby and attempted to respond, I couldn’t figure out what to tell her. YES and SAY YES didn’t produce any response and TALKing to her just informed me that she was doing her job and I had nothing to discuss with her. This despite the fact that she had just asked me a question and was sitting there waiting for my response! Attempts at conversing with other crew members had me issuing them orders that I might not necessarily have wanted to issue. Conversation was handled in the TALK TO {NAME} format but instead of merely talking to people, the game took it upon itself to have you issue orders whether or not you wanted to.

* Or, I should say, I don’t think I should have been able to leave the bridge. At least, that’s what I was told when I tried to go EAST or DOWN, but when I went UP the game let me leave. I then wandered around for a while, eventually making my way back to the bridge and then being told I couldn’t leave again. The EAST and DOWN commands seemed trapped with the appropriate response, yet UP wasn’t. I was also able to bypass this restriction by preceding the direction command with GO.

The HELP command came in handy for getting me past the problem of what to do on the bridge (apparently I could TALK to the alien vessel, which I guess made perfect sense seeing as we had communications devices on the ship but for some reason this had never occurred to me to try), but again most of the action in the game seems to involve a lot of WAITing, followed by a list of options in bold and underline for my next action. When I discovered that I could make progress by typing WAIT over and over again until more bold and underlined text was displayed, things went a little smoother, though I would have preferred something more than waiting around for things to happen.

The game often switches perspectives between the various crew members, though I was never sure why for the most part and I spent a while trying to figure out what the reasoning behind this was. I'm guessing that there are certain tasks that only certain crew members can undertake and so the switching is done for that reason. But a lot of the time I was never really sure just why X could do one task yet Y couldn’t. Or why the Captain, the highest-ranking member of the crew, didn’t have permission to enter certain cabins on the starship.

There's an option to switch between the various crew members, which was a nice touch… if it worked properly. Sometimes it worked fine, other times I was moved to a room called LIMBO and presented with a list of possible crew members I could switch to. None worked. However, I found that selecting the numbers of certain crew members provided me with hints that didn’t really seem to related to any of the problems I was currently facing. From LIMBO, there are no directions and so the only way out proves to be liberal use of the UNDO command. As the game switches perspective completely of its own accord, it’s possible you don’t need to switch perspective on your own, but it’s mentioned in the game that you can and so it’s a pity that the game’s nicest feature doesn’t work. It’s also not likely to go down well the Spring Thing judges who are probably going to tear the game apart for this kind of thing. From what I could tell, the switching between characters worked fine at the beginning of the game but once the main game had begun (i.e. after the sighting of the alien starship), something goes wrong and attempts to switch strand you in LIMBO.

The game has hints which only become available as and when you need them. A nice idea but the implementation leaves a little to be desired. One of the hints, dealing with the answer to just why I was being switched from one character to another without warning, didn’t work whenever I tried it. At other times, I'm given hints as to what I should be trying to do in each of the various characters I play, but as the switching from one character to another seems uncontrollable, it’s difficult to do any of these things. A couple of times I received hints pertaining to other characters at a time in the game when I had already played those characters and had no idea how to get back to them. Other times I switched to another character before I had finished what my current character was meant to be doing (as the engineer I was meant to be fixing a hatch but while wandering around trying to figure out how this should be done, the game abruptly switched me to the security officer)

Aside from when I was stuck in the CYOA side of things and simply selecting the options that were presented to me, I found it difficult to make progress. Certain parts of the game become unavailable to certain characters and others become available, though whether anything needs doing in these parts, or if they're there simply for show, I was never sure.

But despite its flaws, there were some parts of Volant I liked. The setting was pure Starship Enterprise, so much so that I expected one of the crew members to sport pointy ears and was mildly when he did not. I also liked the idea of the player viewpoint switching to different people, though can’t help but feel that being given the choice over whether this happened, instead of it just happening and me being forced to figure things out as I went along, would have made it much better.

4 out of 10
David Whyld
 
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