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|IFReviewed by David Whyld on 2006-11-24 05:35
I think I picked this game for the title more than anything. And the fact that it had a 5 star rating on Baf’s Guide. But mainly for the title which, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, just oozed cuteness.
The setting is simplistic but charming. The ‘winter wonderland’ of the title brings to mind a cheerful little Christmassy game complete with singing elves, fairies and the like. While I didn’t encounter singing elves, I did find several fairies. In one location they're playing a game; at other times they'd pop up seemingly at random and pelt me with snowballs. All very twee but, at the same time, charming in its own right.
The aim of the game isn't revealed at first. The game begins with you, a young girl, at the side of your sick brother. A quick conversation with your mother and you're sent off to the village tavern to get some pudding. Nearby there's a toy shop which might prove a decent place for you to buy your poorly brother a nice present assuming, of course, you can find some money to buy it with.
There was only one part here, in the prologue of the game, that gave me any real trouble. I'm used to trying the TALK TO CHARACTER style of conversation first when encountering an NPC who can be spoken to, but when using it here in the tavern, I got a response that:
ONE OF THE VILLAGERS WAVES AT HANNA-MAE FROM ACROSS THE ROOM. AS SHE STARTS ACROSS THE TAVERN FLOOR, SHE CALLS BACK TO YOU, "SORRY, GRETCHEN! BACK IN A MOMENT!"
I tried this a few more times, in case the ‘moment’ was a literal one, but unfortunately not. Hanna-Mae seemed to be continually distracted by other customers in the tavern and had no time for me. In fact, the solution was a pretty easy and simple one – using a slightly different style of conversation – but confusing because of the fact that one style worked fine whereas another gave me a misleading message.
“Winter Wonderland” doesn’t have graphics as such but it includes a few pieces of ASCII art. Normally I'm not too fond of this kind of thing, but here it worked a treat:
Simple yet nice. Quite nostalgic, too, as the title ‘graphic’ reminded me of the graphics in retro games from years ago (this being back in the day when ASCII graphics would have been considered pretty much state of the art as far as graphics in computer games went).
Another effective use of ASCII art is the little compass at the top right hand corner of the screen which provides a handy way of telling at a glance where you are. Of course, the exits are always listed in the text but I found myself frequently glancing at the top of the screen to familiarise myself with the exits from my current location than reading the text to see which way I could go. While in other games I've played, it’s seemed distracting having to glance from the text at the bottom of the screen to the top to see where I am, here it seemed perfectly normal. The compass also aids in making a map; while not necessary, I found the map useful to keep track of things and ensure I hadn’t missed anything. The game takes place over a good few locations – over seventy in total – and a couple of times I seemed to miss key exits that I didn’t discover until making a map later on. Which isn't to say that the layout of the game’s locations is confusing – it isn't (aside from the maze, of course) – just that in a game which features more than X amount of locations, keeping track of them all, and your location in them, is harder than it might at first seem.
While most of the puzzles were well clued, I found a few that seemed a little unfair. Without the hints – excellent hints for the most part, generally giving you a nudge in the right direction though seldom spoiling the puzzle by telling you its solution outright – I doubt I would have got very far in the game at all… and as a result, missed out on a very, very good game indeed.
A few of the puzzles that confused me, and which had me using the hints to get past, were the one in the cottage involving the rings on the glass dome. I couldn’t seem to figure it out no matter how hard I tried. Maybe there were clues to tell me what I was expected to do, but if so I never came across them. The other puzzle I struggled with was the one relating to the maze… although considering my general dislike of mazes and my eagerness to get through them as quick as possible and with as little trouble as possible, it’s highly likely the puzzle wasn’t really that hard and my difficulty with it more down to the fact that I Just Don’t Like Mazes.
Yes, there's a maze in the game, generally one of my least favourite aspects of IF games and high on my list of “things to quit over”. Fortunately, this maze was encountered quite late on in the game, by which time I was really enjoying the game. So when I saw the maze I didn’t immediately quit, fire the game off to the recycle bin and go hunting for something a little less maze-orientated (my usual reaction upon encountering a maze), but instead gritted my teeth, muttered a bit and then went and entered it anyway. In all honesty, as far as mazes go, this one is fairly tame. The exits are cleared labelled (in the main text as well as the helpful compass arrow at the top of the screen), there are none of those hideous occasions when you go east and then go back west and find yourself in a totally different location, and the few times when the maze warps and returns you to an earlier location it’s right at the start of the maze so you can easily get your bearings again. I'm still not fond of mazes at all, and would have preferred this game to have been maze-free, but at least this maze bugged me far less than any other maze I've encountered for quite a while.
If there’s one thing “Winter Wonderland” suffers from once the prologue (the part in the village involving the pudding and the shoes) is over with is its lack of direction. You know what the basic aim of therefore game is – to get home – but many of the actions you need to carry out in order for that to happen aren't obvious. Most of my time was spent wandering around looking for the next puzzle that needed solving but never really sure just why I was trying to solve the puzzles. Other than, of course, the fact that they were there and it seemed I wasn’t going to be able to progress with the game if I didn’t solve them.
There's also a slight annoyance with the way certain of the puzzles have to be completed in a certain order, yet there's seldom any indication that this is the case or what that order might be. Generally it’s a case of you trying a puzzle, find you're unable to figure out how to solve it (even though it might seem perfectly straightforward), and then discover afterwards that you need to have solved another puzzle somewhere else before getting the crucial item you need to solve this one. I certainly spent more than enough time struggling with the puzzle in the ice floes area, going back and forth again and again trying to work out what I had to do, before abandoning it to try again later… and then discovered the item I needed for it was in an entirely different location. Navigating my way over the ice floes each time I thought I had the solution to the puzzle figured out, only to discover that I hadn’t, was a frustrating experience.
But it’s hard to mark the game down for things like that. True, the constant trekking back and forth was frustrating, and some of the puzzles were mind-boggling, but the game itself was a joy to play. The setting was captivating, the writing really made it come alive, and the use of ASCII art a very nice touch indeed; what problems the game has are relatively minor and easy to forgive. Suffice to say, the pros outweigh the cons by a sizeable margin.
9 out of 10
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Name David Whyld