Haimrik (PC)

Haimrik is our next entry in the "interesting idea, mediocre game" lineup, about a Jon Arbuckle lookalike who can enter a magic book by slicing his hand open. The core idea is promising: the floor of the level has a simple story written on it, and Haimrik can conjure effects while standing over certain words (i.e. a sword from the word "sword", a rainstorm from the word "rain", etc.). You get some memorable moments out of it, especially the encounters with warriors with their own magic books who can exert their own influence on the area, but they become fewer and further between as the game goes on and relies more on action bits that get along with the puzzle engine about as well as a velociraptor with a baby lamb.

Now, did you notice my comment about Haimrik "slicing his hand open" to activate the magic book? The cartoony artstyle hides a shockingly gory game, with puzzles that often require you to feed people to carnivorous plants or dump acid on them or shred them in an industrial polisher. And as the game goes on, the shock and edginess start drowning out whatever puzzles haven't been ripped apart by the clunky action. I feel like the concept would have worked better with a comedy game than a borderline slasher one.


Thief of Time (Terry Pratchett)

The Death books tend to be the most... what's the word, metaphorical? abstract? figurative? of the Discworld books. As in, they're the most likely to be completely lost on the literal minded? Reaper Man had shopping malls sprouting from the ground by using snow globes as seeds. Hogfather had Susan going into a child's drawing, where the bad guys are using the Tooth Fairy's collection of teeth to make kids stop believing in Santa Claus, safe from Death who cannot enter the minds of children, and this causes a surplus of belief to start spawning the god of hangovers and elves that put verrucas on your feet. Here we've got monks who can pump time out of mountains and store it in pillars ranging from rocks that can store hundreds of years to sticks of chalk that store a few seconds, and once had to put the timeline back together after a glass clock tried to imprison time and shattered and I've gone crosseyed.

A recurring theme of the Death books is the symbiotic relationship between the forces of the universe and humans, as humans' lives are at the mercy of things like war, time, and freak hurricanes, which are then given form and personality by humans trying to make sense of them. This seeps into other books, like in Small Gods where the Discworld parallel of Athena had a penguin for a familiar because somebody once carved a statue of her and didn't know what an owl looked like, and this image of her became the norm. But the idea is going to be strongest when the personifications are the ones trying to make sense of humans. In the past Death has experimented with being a short order cook or a guard at a desert outpost, but now we have Time herself having a kid with a mortal man, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse retiring to go be a milkman, and manifestations of the laws of the universe known as the Auditors (who I know were pulling Teatime's strings in Hogfather, but I think were also the ones who tried to get Death sacked in Reaper Man when they thought he was getting too attached to humans?) making bodies for themselves and tearing apart artwork trying to find the physical element that makes their human forms like it.

I also enjoyed Death's comment about humans creating Pestilence by poking around in jungles and forming into large indoor groups. Bet you can't guess why that was relevant in 2020.


OneShot (PC)

I can't talk about this without comparing it to Undertale, because as well as being highly praised indie darlings about a child lost in a dark world full of wacky characters barely clinging to hope, both are self-aware meta games that directly address the player. But OneShot did not impress me the way Undertale did.

OneShot is about a cat-child named Niko who wakes up in an alternate world where the sun died out long ago, and it's on them to carry the light bulb that will become the new sun to the top of a mysterious tower. The Steam listing presses upon you that you only have "one shot" at completing the game, but gave no indication of what that meant; if you die, do you have to start over? Do you have to complete the game in one sitting? If you fail a puzzle, is the game basically dead like a Sierra point and clicker? Turns out it's a remake of a freeware game that would become unplayable if you ever closed it by clicking the X in the window instead of quitting at a save point; not as a glitch, as an intentional part of the game. But you can't charge money for a game that will break itself for doing something so common, so now all it refers to is that once you complete the game, you can't replay it... allegedly.

One key difference is that Undertale gave you some time to get settled in before it started fucking with you, whereas OneShot starts talking directly to you from the get-go. This ends up being the crux of the game's failings because waiting to break the fourth wall allowed Undertale to actually tell a story and get you invested in it before it started testing your connection with the game, while OneShot can't wait to show you how brilliant and subversive it is. Furthermore, Undertale had an actual game attached to it with its bullet hell random encounters, while OneShot consists of wandering around, picking up items, and figuring out where to use them. Or fiddling around with your computer, looking for a .txt containing a password, moving the game window around, or deleting a file.

But you know what, it wasn't offensive, a few moments were cute, the worst I could say was it just wasn't wowing me, and the elevator button puzzle was okay. Then came the Solstice chapter, where my opinion of the game went from "unimpressed" to "genuinely pissed off" as I slogged through an hour of text dumps that did little more than hammer in how Undertale convinced me to love it, its world, and its characters, while OneShot just kept telling me I loved it, its world, and its characters.


King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (PC)

Question: How do you get a respectable game out of the King's Quest series?
Answer: Get somebody to keep Roberta Williams' dipshittery in check, possibly with a rolled up newspaper.

Said person would be Jane Jensen, who would go on to write and direct the Gabriel Knight series. This might also explain why the main antagonist is named Abdul Alhazred, the author of the Necronomicon in the Cthulhu mythos, and the part where Alexander faces off against a death god who looks like he's been sealed into the walls of a Xenomorph hive.

Thing got off to a promising start when I was able to figure out the first few puzzles on my own, and without the game murdering the shit out of me at every turn. That ended when I traded off my ring for a magic map only to find out I wasn't supposed to do that until I'd shown it to somebody whose help I was going to need later, but since every other King's Quest started with me wandering around a grid of forests full of random crap, wondering what the chuffing ell I was supposed to be doing until I entered a building and got jumped by bandits, it's an improvement. Going forward, King's Quest VI had moments that stuck out for reasons other than being illogical bullshit, such as the bit where you're attacked by five trolls each specializing in one of the five senses and you have to figure out how to fool each one, or a confrontation with a figurative and literal Stick in the Mud whose brother is a figurative and literal Bump on a Log. One of the game's main areas is made almost entirely out of puzzles you need information from the manual to solve which is a... peculiar bit of copy protection, but I think it was also a way to get you to read up on the lore of the Green Isles it didn't incorporate into the main game.

After the disastrous voice acting in King's Quest V, Sierra brought in professionals for this outing which becomes apparent five minutes in when you meet a rough collie with the voice of Judge Frollo. This led to a moment in the ending that made me laugh so hard the dog thought I was dying, where King Graham shows up and is voiced by the same... calling him a voice actor would be a stretch, the same Sierra employee as in King's Quest V, so you you have a situation where Tony Jay is conversing with some guy blandly reading his lines. What surprised me was Graham's Sierra employee also voices the genie who had some effort put into him, but maybe it just sounds that way because the genie is shitfaced on mint all the time.

The story still draws from traditional myths and fairy tales, but they're integrated into the game world better than previous King's Quests. At one point Alexander get thrown into a catacomb that's been taken over by a minotaur which obviously pulls from the story of Theseus. Any other King's Quest would randomly plop the labyrinth on one screen, waiting for you to go in there with the ball of string you nicked from the Old Lady Who Lives in a Shoe to get the pliers you need for the lion with a thorn in his paw on the other side of the map. Here, it's at least explained to be the mausoleum of a winged people they had to seal off when the minotaur moved in and killed anyone who tried to evict him, and they want Alexander to get rid of it before they'll help him. Yeah, it's not earth-shatteringly innovative, but it's a simple thing that adds at least some cohesion to King's Quest VI. (Bonus point: despite hearing it clopping around as you navigate the maze, you only run into the minotaur at the very end. If this was King's Quest IV he would be constantly popping through doors to gore you to death because fuck you).

But note that I called King's Quest VI "respectable", not "great" or even "good." That's because Jensen could only rein in Williams so far, and it's still saturated in King's Quest's trademark bullshit of screwing your game because you went somewhere without all the items you need to get through it, or didn't pick something up from an area you can't get back to, or combined items at the wrong time and now they won't work anymore. Or killing you for going down a random path that leads you to some druids who then sacrifice you, or taking more than two seconds to figure out what the game wants you to do. Or making you climb a staircase by clicking each step individually and one misclick will send you tumbling to your death. But the fact anything had any grounding in reality is a flying leap in the right direction for the series.