Author: S. John Ross
Warning: Mild spoilers.
I can see why this game is polarizing. It’s got loads of randomized combat, which is a turn-off for some players. It’s a pastiche of old-old-school imbalanced pen-and-paper RPGs, which may be confusing if you’ve never been a role-player. It restricts available verbs to about a half-dozen, and the plot starts off as barely remixed Conan the Barbarian.
But under the covers, this is a fantastic game. It’s tightly-implemented, bug-free as far as I could see, and takes full advantage of Inform technology to make the playing experience smooth and clean. The writing, although it apes the breathless earnestness of early RPG modules, is chock full of hilarious descriptions. Clever responses to unusual commands are liberally sprinkled throughout (try to PARLEY with your DUFFEL BAG, for instance).
This is definitely a game that benefits from sitting down and reading the documentation first. And there’s plenty of it. The distribution comes with a manual that details the alternate history the game ostensibly comes from, followed by the entire sourcebook for the fictitious Encounter Critical RPG that ToaSK is based upon, followed by encrypted clues. Although you don’t have to read the documentation, the Encounter Critical RPG setting is the central structure for everything in the game, and understanding it will make some puzzles far more clear. Also, for me, reading the documentation made the game far funnier as I was able to quickly pick out the references.
From a design perspective ToaSK is very interesting. The decision to greatly limit the verbs obviously limits the potential actions the player can take, but doing that also helps the player get interesting responses more easily. If there are only a few things you can do to a given object, it’s far easier to code meaningful text for all of them. The result is a game that feels more fully implemented, even though it doesn’t have full physical modeling. But who needs Inform’s physical modeling when you have “scientific realism”?
The other consequence of the restricted verb set is that it makes the player seem smarter. It’s easier to figure out what items do when there are fewer interactions, and even brute-force repetition can work to reveal hidden puzzle solutions. This type of design approach wouldn’t work for every game, but it certainly works here, and works well.
To counteract this, the parser breaks the fourth wall constantly and deliberately, and slings gratuitious insults for the slightest deviation in command input. Fauxld English is used throughout (methinks this be, mayhaps, where Tiberius Thingamus got his inspiration).
There is, of course, no detailed conversation model. And anyway, you’re a barbarian — sophisticated conversation would be wasted on you. Your interactions with characters are limited to the same verb set as inanimate objects, but this still allows a surprising number of things you can do (try ENTERing characters, for example…). And the choice to limit character interaction allows ToaSK to include many different interesting characters, from Gina the willing virgin sacrifice to the Viraxian Dark Gods, to the runecarved, peg-legged dwarf Gunwar. And, of course, there’s Vessa, the Delicate Doxy, to whom you will be returning many times.
The game is fairly well paced via its combat leveling mechanic. You’ll need to explore and solve puzzles to gain health points. Gaining health points will enable you to fight more powerful enemies, which will get you more gear and items with which to solve more puzzles. Most combats are potentially fatal, but multi-level UNDO works wonders to get you out of fights where you’re in over your head.
Overall impressions? The world of Encounter Critical feels like a tall, cold Kitchen Sink made with bathtub gin. Think of a handwritten mixture of Gamma World (the original edition, of course), Eldritch Wizardry, and Traveller, with some Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Dune, Sinbad the Sailor, Conan the Barbarian, and a Godzilla movie or two thrown in for flavor. Add snark and sex, then overheat the writing to taste.
Until Christmas Eve, the full version of this game cost $6.95. It’s well worth it at that price (and I paid it on December 23 after discovering it that day), but it’s since been released for free. If you’ve only played the intro version, you haven’t seen anything. Don’t miss the opportunity to play the full game, and experience one of the unsung masterpieces of modern retro IF. Or is that retro modern? Anyway, you should definitely, definitely play it.