My body has certainly wandered a good deal, but I have an uneasy suspicion that my mind has not wandered enough.
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6 Stars IFReview Rating The Mystery Of Brackly Hall

IFReviewed by David Whyld on 2006-11-24 05:36 

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6 Stars IFR Overall Rating
Blurb:    “Lord Brackly's dead, but no one can find his secret vault, rumored to contain the bulk of his very wealthy estate. His will leaves it all to the one who can find it. Can you?”

“The Mystery Of Brackly Hall” is an online point ‘n’ click text adventure featured on the Rinkworks site. The last Rinkworks game I played – “Escape From St Mary’s” – I wasn’t too impressed with, mainly due to the command lag the game suffered from and its annoying habit of making me repeat commands for no apparent reason. But the Rinkworks’ games seem surprisingly popular – at least, there are several hundred people who have finished each of them, according to the site’s Hall of Fame – so I decided I’d try another of their games. This time I’d pick one of the easier games. “The Mystery Of Brackly Hall” was the one I chose.

The game playing interface is split, with text telling the player which action he has just carried out on the left hand side of the screen and the location description on the right. Below this are a number of options – two to six seems about standard – detailing what you can do in the location, although some of these options will only become available if you happen to be carrying a certain item (i.e. if you come to a locked door and need a specific key to open it, no option to open it will be displayed unless you're carrying the key in question). The options are preceded by a clickable link which performs the command for you, thus making it possible to play the entire game with nothing more than a few mouse gestures and button clicks. Finally, at the bottom of the interface we have the items the player the carrying. (I'm guessing they're displayed like this because there's no inventory command.)

Customisation is minimal, which is a shame. I’d have liked to change the colours of the game (black text on a white background has never been a favourite of mine) and while the option is there to override the colour settings in my browser, it’s rather more trouble than it’s worth so I left it as it was. The option buttons can be changed, from a single click to a box which needs to be filled in and then a further button clicked to carry out the command. But as this doesn’t add any real functionality to the game, and instead just doubles the amount of clicks required to perform a command, I left it as it was.

If there's one problem with only a limited numbered of options being presented each time, it’s that more often than not the one thing you want to try isn't covered. Here, the writer has done a pretty decent job of anticipating what the player will type but, inevitably, there are times when you really want to try something and just find you can’t. Now in a regular text adventure, if you typed something the writer hadn’t covered you'd get a default message which varied depending on the system you were using. Here you don’t even get the option to try.

Mostly when this occurs, it’s when you come across an item you'd like to take with you, but find you can’t. I discovered a room full of interesting items – spears, swords, carvings, etc. – yet while I had the option to examine them to my heart’s content, I couldn’t pick any of them up. There were also a few locked doors I found which I’d have liked to have tried smashing down but, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

At the other end of the scale, there are the times when an option is presented to you that you might never have considered trying otherwise. In a text adventure, this would be the dreaded guess the verb. Here it’s just strange to say the least. While crossing the lawn outside Brackly Hall, I was presented with an option to take off my shoes and enjoy the grass between my toes. This I did. And received an item for my trouble. Would this have ever occurred to me to try in a regular text adventure? Nope. For one thing, it’s the kind of command that you're unlikely as heck to try. For another, I never even knew I was wearing shoes because they're not listed anywhere in my inventory. (Granted, it’s a fair bet I wouldn’t have gone to this Brackly place barefoot, but generally when items aren’t listed in an inventory which is displayed permanently on screen, it’s easy to assume you don’t have them.) Another location had me putting an item I’d found elsewhere on a mat*, which is something I never would have thought to try in a million years.

* I don’t really consider this a spoiler as the option to put the item on the mat doesn’t show itself unless you have the item, so it’s not likely you're going to visit the location with the mat, see that it’s possible to put an item on it, then go hunting for that item.

There is no load game facility here, just a save game facility for when you quit (and which over writes itself each time). Hopefully this means that the game is impossible to put into an unfinishable situation; if it is possible, then you'd end up having to replay the entire thing from start to finish every time you got stuck. Different save slots, to allow the player to jump back and forth between different parts of the game at ease, would have been a nice touch. As would a hints option. The game also suffers from the lack of an UNDO command, the basic staple of almost every text adventure system out there. There's a part in the game when you find a machine that will teleport you right back to the maze (more of this later) if you mess up with it – twenty or so locations away! This can happen quite a few times, at least it did with me, and the time it takes to backtrack from the maze to the room with the machine in seems longer each time. An UNDO command would also have been a godsend.

And a transcript command would have been nice. Of course, I could always copy the text off the screen and paste it into a Word document or something similar, but this is hardly practical. So my normal method of making a transcript while I play and then writing a review of the game based on the transcript couldn’t be done this time.

While you're able to pick up items, a great deal of items as it happens, you're not able to drop them – unless this is specifically listed in the text as an option, but that only happens if dropping the item is a requirement of the game and not just because you feel dropping it. Using items tends to be pretty much hit and miss: sometimes an option in the text will indicate you can use a certain item in a certain location (whether this had previously occurred to you or not is another question), yet if there's something you'd like to try out with an item that isn't covered, you're out of luck. In a way, this kind of game is an uneasy cross between roleplaying gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy and proper text adventures; it offers more variety and choice than a gamebook ever could, as well as the text changing depending on things you’ve done and extra options appearing if you're carrying a certain item, but lacks the true freedom that a text adventure offers. (Admittedly, text adventures don’t offer true freedom at all, but good ones can offer the ‘illusion’ of freedom, i.e. when you're able to type in pretty much any command you want and have the game give you a proper response to it, which is the next best thing.) Here, you're constrained by the limits of the system, and while it’s a clever system itself, its limitations become more apparent the longer you use it.

The game itself is a standard treasure hunt-type game, the kind of thing that has been done to death in the past but, if done well, can still be a decent game in its own right. You wander from location to location, pick up items, open doors (as is usually the case with games like this, there are a number of locked doors around the place but, fortunately, the keys to them are always conveniently around the place, too) and solve puzzles. Few of the puzzles you solve will ever seem by themselves to lead you closer towards the goal of the game, but bit by bit, if you solve every puzzle to come across, and use every item, and unlock every door, you'll get there in the end.

Repeated text seemed to be a problem at times, often repeated for things that really should only have happened once. A few times this happened in location descriptions, other times in commands I carried out. I found a knife in one location and then happened across a door and noticed an option presented itself to me to try picking the lock with the knife (this hadn’t even occurred to me to try, but anyway…). I tried picking the lock with the knife and got:

“You insert the knife into the keyhole. There is a tinkling noise as something falls out of the lock on the other side of the door. Uh, great. That was really helpful.”

When I tried this again, I got the same response. Apparently there are lots of somethings on the other side of the door which continually fall out of the door. A flaw in the system? Or just sloppy game writing? I'm guessing the latter because other locations showed me that the system can certainly display different text for repeated commands.

By far the most frustrating aspect in the game is its maze. Yes, a maze. The curse of all things text adventure finds its way in here and, if anything, is even more irritating and annoying than usual. What makes the situation worse, from my point of view, is the game’s constant comments that the maze is frustrating and how you don’t like mazes. It’s like the writer sat down one day and wondered what he could possibly include in his game that would be guaranteed to make as many people as possible quit. The answer was, naturally, a maze. “And,” he decided, “even more annoying than a simple maze, I’ll keep making reference in the text to how annoying it is. That’s sure to get lots of people quitting and ensure any review written of my game is far more negative than it might otherwise have been.” Now, if this had been a game by someone who clearly didn’t know what a terrible, terrible thing mazes were, it might just about be acceptable. But a maze by someone who knows how frustrating mazes are? And even makes a point of mentioning it again and again? You have to wonder at people sometimes. (As it happens, I’d be curious to know how many people quit playing this game when they came to the maze.)

But, anyway, I solved the maze. With a pen and graph paper and a lot of muttering and curses. As mazes go, on one hand it’s less of a pain to solve than some I've been through as the locations are different enough so that, if you keep careful notes of which location has which bit of scenery in, you ought to be through it without too much trouble; on the other hand, this not being a regular text adventure, the maze is made harder due to the tried and tested technique of not being able to drop items in certain locations to enable you to map it out more easily. But like I said, the locations differ enough that this doesn’t become too much of a problem. Of course, the maze doesn’t play fair. Paths through it wind around each other so if you head east then back west, you don’t necessarily find yourself back at the same location. Reading the text carefully in each location certainly pays off.

On the Rinkworks site, the game’s difficulty is given as 2 out of 10 which I assume is meant to be incredibly easy. Is the game incredibly easy? I wouldn’t have said so. There are no overly difficult puzzles to get stuck with, but the way the game is set up means that you'll spend a lot of time trekking back and forth and it’s very easy to miss significant things. Not to mention the fact that the maze is a pain to solve and even when you solve it, it takes a while to get from one side to another when you need to try something new out. Myself, I’d have gone more for 6 or 7 out of 10 for difficulty. Or is the 2 out of 10 difficulty rating meant to be in comparison to other Rinkworks’ games? If so, I’d hate to see what a 10 looks like…

Part of the difficulty is down to the fact that some of the game’s puzzles can only be completed after a certain amount of time has passed. Likewise, new items will appear in locations in later stages of the game, though there's little indication this will happen so most of the time it’s simply a case of backtracking over the same locations time and time again until you find that something has changed. A good example of this is the spade which isn't available to begin with but which shows up later on. I passed through the location in which it eventually appears several times, didn’t discover anything worthwhile, and so never thought there was any reason to return there later on. It was only as I was making my way to another location that I happened to pass through this one… and there, lo and behold, was the spade. The previous half a dozen times I’d passed through there, the spade wasn’t to be seen and yet now it was. (It was actually dropped by a gardener who had previously been using it to dig a hole so it’s not like it mysteriously appeared out of thin air but, even so, how was anyone ever expected to figure that out?)

The design of some of the puzzles, coupled with the game’s habit of only making options available when you're carrying certain items, adds another level of difficulty. Another level of frustration, too. Yes, I'm probably overusing the word ‘frustration’ when writing this review, but there are parts of the game (the maze can take a bow here, as well as the machine which teleports you back to the maze without any warning) that seem designed solely to frustrate the poor player. I got past the majority of the puzzles not by managing to figure out what I needed to do with them (although in my defence, a few I did actually manage to figure out… no, really) but by sheer repetition. A good number of puzzles I solved by the tried and tested technique of trying everything. When that didn’t work, I tried everything again. And again. And again… In the end, with there only being a limited number of options available, I got the better of the game.

There are some red herrings in the game which further crank up the frustration level. There's a chapel in Brackly Hall and several mentions by various NPCs that the vault you're looking for, in which rests the fabled treasure of Lord Brackly, is actually somewhere in this chapel. So I spent quite a while examining things, moving the cross one way or another, messing around with the candles (even receiving a hint that I needed some matches to light it), and in the end not being able to figure anything out. As it happens, you can’t do anything in the chapel and it’s there just to get you to waste your time on. Hmm…

There was less lag with this game than the previous Rinkworks’ game I play – “Escape From St Mary’s” – but the lag was definitely a constant factor the entire time I was playing. Sometimes it didn’t seem too bad – a brief flicker of the screen and the command was processed – whereas other times the delay was a second or two. That might not seem like much overall (after all, quite a few text adventures that I remember playing on my Spectrum and Commodore computers years ago had a similar delay due to their lowly processing powers), but it seems to slow the game down in places and, particularly when you're retracing your steps in order to try out a new idea, or navigating your way through the maze, it can often taken what seems like an age to get from A to B. A modern text adventure system would allow you to zoom from A to B a lot faster, and standard SAVE and LOAD commands would speed things up even more.

Despite the largely negative tone of the review, I actually found myself liking “The Mystery Of Brackly Hall”. Frustrating game though it frequently was, there was also a certain feeling of satisfaction from managing to solve a puzzle (even if the solving was either accidental or done through sheer dogged persistence as opposed to actually reasoning things out) and an even greater feeling when I finally solved the game. It took me a whopping 1,779 moves (Rinkworks has a neat Hall of Fame on its site which records how many commands you entered in order to complete its games), of which I suspect half was me wandering around that damn maze. Still, the maze aside and the game’s other frustrations with it, this wasn’t a bad game at all. I'm not sure I’d have the patience to play another game of this size, and certainly not one that was larger, but it was a likeable enough game in its own right.

6 out of 10

    David Whyld Profile

    IFReviewer Rating
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    Name David Whyld
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