IFReviewed by David Whyld
on 2005-11-06 07:13
And after many years of commercial interactive fiction being just a pipe dream or a fondly remembered memory, along comes a new one. Okay, I'm aware of the Malinche games but given their less than flattering reputation in the IF community and the general 'Malinche as black sheep' feeling that hangs over them, I'm happy I've decided to avoid buying them thus far. But Future Boy tempted me. Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for superhero games or maybe because I'd played a previous game by the same author (Guilty Bastards) and liked it a lot. Or maybe it was just sheer curiosity that got the better of me.
I approached Future Boy wanting to like it. Really wanting to like it. As someone obsessed with the idea of writing his own commercial interactive fiction one day, the coming of Future Boy was like a gift from the gods themselves. Could this, I wondered, finally be the rebirth of commercial IF once more?
I eagerly popped in the CD, installed the programme, tapping my fingers impatiently on the edge of the desk whilst doing so… and then, once I got to the game itself and started playing it, I found myself a little disappointed. Which isn't to say that Future Boy is a terrible game. It isn't. It's good, very good in parts. It's just that, for a commercial product, it's a lot less polished than I expected it to be. I've played free IF that has been far smoother than this, so if the free stuff can hit such high standards, why can't the commercial stuff? After all, we're paying for something that is bug free and better than anything else, right? Wrong.
As the name implies, Future Boy is a superhero game, a genre I've always been particularly fond of, despite (or perhaps because of) its overly cheesy idea of people in silly costumes fighting other people in silly costumes. On the downside, you don't actually get to play the superhero in question which struck me as a strange direction for the game to take, akin to playing a Superman game and getting to control Lois Lane instead of the Man of Steel himself. Or the recent Matrix game in which you don't play Neo but some of the minor characters from the film that you probably blinked and missed. So Future Boy is basically a superhero game in which you don't get to play a superhero. Hmmm…
There's a playable demo available, which was what I came to first. Was I overwhelmed with the attention to detail and impressed with the depth of story and interaction? Yes and no. Future Boy certainly starts off strangely - you're falling through the air and about to hit the ground - and I'm not sure this was the best way for the game to start. Why not Future Boy putting the smack down on some vicious supervillain? Future Boy saving the world from darkest evil? Future Boy stopping a derailed train about to plunge into a deep precipice? Etc etc. Instead we have Future Boy falling? Not quite the same thing. As it happens, the falling part is actually a dream (hope I didn't give away too much there) and the game moves to the introduction properly once you awaken.
I wasn't too keen on the introduction, either. Two strikes against the game. After the falling sequence, I was expecting something a bit more interesting than simply ambling around my apartment. I wasn't able to leave which clued me to the fact that there was still something that needed doing beforehand. What needed doing? Simple: I've got to wake up my lazy flatmate. Once that's out of the way - and the realisation that you're sharing a flat with a genuine card-carrying superhero (unfortunately this realisation is handled pretty poorly) - you're on with the game properly. Does it get any more interesting then? Well… The next part begins with you delivering some laundry bags to the prison. Wow.
Around this time (I was still playing the demo), I began to wonder if the writer of Future Boy had made something of an error in judgement in the way the game begins. The falling sequence isn't very interesting, the events of the introduction aren't either, and delivering laundry bags to a prison? Well… let's just say that I was in two minds over whether to purchase the full product when I reached the end of the demo. In the end, I went ahead and bought it anyway. While the demo is certainly flawed, and considerably less polished than I might have expected, it was nevertheless very well written and I've always been a sucker for superhero games. And then there's the fact that I really, really, really want the commercial aspect of IF to emerge again. And then there was the fact that, on the whole, what I'd heard about the full game from various internet message boards and newsgroups was on the whole positive.
There were a few strange annoyances about Future Boy which I was surprised about. This is, after all, a commercial product and that generally means a higher level of testing than something given away for free*. One of the first things I typed was X YOU but was told THAT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE! However X ME works fine. As the game constantly refers to the player as "you", I found this unusual to say the least.
* In theory anyway. I've played enough commercial games over the years, both IF and otherwise, to know that just because the companies making them are charging money, it doesn't necessarily mean they've bothered testing them. Hopefully we'll soon see a 'patch' available for Future Boy which takes care of these annoyances. If, indeed, it's even possible to apply patches to IF games in this way.
One thing Future Boy has, and has in abundance, is a large number of puzzles. And some are hard. Unfairly so. And, worse, they're not even very interesting puzzles. Take the prison cell you find yourself locked in during the early part of the game. While I suppose it's possible to figure out on your own what you need to do to get out of it, it's such a longwinded and, overall, boring series of events that I just didn't have the willpower to even try. Added to that was the truly frustrating way I kept passing out every few moves and then having to wait several more moves before I was able to do something - was the writer actively trying to make me type QUIT?* Thank god for the hints, which told me exactly what I needed to do. And thank god the demo version of the game ended before dumping the player in the prison cell because I doubt I'd have bought the full version if faced with that sort of thing.
* Actually, the passing out bug is one that, according to the hints, can be avoided. However, I never figured out how so escaping my prison cell took about ten times as long as it should have done. I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't paid for Future Boy I'd have thrown the game in the recycle bin at this stage.
Future Boy takes places in various parts of the city where you work as a laundry bag delivery man. Access to the different parts of the city is via the subway system, which does an effective job of moving the player from one part of the city to another without the necessity of introducing large numbers of filler locations. I wasn't overly fond of the subway system, though. Maybe it was the hassle I had over finding my subway ticket (I'm apparently the sort of really poor chap who never carries around enough loose cash to buy a subway ticket) or maybe the annoying graphic that runs every time you board a train. Or maybe it was that the subway can only take you to four different places in the city and three of them are pretty empty. I like to explore in games, wander around and see what there is to see. Personally I think I'd have preferred a city filled with several dozen more locations for me to explore, even if they weren't directly relevant to the game.
In many ways, Future Boy strikes me as a strange game to make a stab at the commercial side of things. It's not an especially user-friendly game for a start. People familiar with IF games will obviously have an easier time with it than complete newcomers to the scene (although as I've been playing IF for over twenty years and I struggled greatly with it, that might not be the case). While no one really wants a game to be too easy - where's the challenge in solving easy puzzles? - no one really wants a game to be as frustrating as this one often is. A fine balance needs to be made between what is easy and what is hard, and Future Boy seems to step over the line into too hard frequently.
Some of the problems might well be with the system used to write the game, Hugo. I haven't played enough Hugo games to tell for certain but with over half the screen taken up with the graphics, the text tends to get bunched up in a very small, non-resizable window at the bottom. And as Future Boy is quite a wordy game, this meant that most of my commands ran off the screen and I seemed to be forever seeing the prompt telling me I needed a press a key to see the rest of the text. Often when I did this, the text jumped up the screen so quickly that I had to spend a second or two finding my place again. Personally I'd have preferred an option to either increase the size of the text window or, better still, just turn off the graphics altogether. They're nice graphics, and they do add to the overall feeling of the game, but sometimes I could just have done without them. There is an option to turn off the graphics but as this just left me with a large blank space at the top of the screen, I decided in the end that I was better turning turn them back on again.
Another thing that bugged me, minor though it was, was the way when moving from one location to another I would often find myself sitting down and have to STAND. It might seem a really small thing to do to just type STAND but it's a pain all the same. Wouldn't it have made more sense to just have the player standing by default? Particularly as little can be achieved with you seated?
In other places, the dreaded guess the verb rears its ugly head. Yes indeed. I'd hoped that with this being a commercial game, it would have been tested through the roof to eliminate any kind of guess the verb struggling that might otherwise have resulted, but sadly a few little swines were overlooked. I had great difficulty getting into the police impound to recover my van due to the game not understanding most of what I was trying to do and being very particular about exactly what it would accept. Especially annoying was THROW BLANKET OVER FENCE which got me WHAT EXACTLY ARE YOU HOPING FOR? I thought it was pretty obvious what I was hoping for - to throw the blanket over the fence. COVER FENCE WITH BLANKET and COVER BARBED WIRE WITH BLANKET (there being barbed wire over the top of the fence) resulted in BETTER START WITH A VERB. Funny. I - and the dictionary - think that 'cover' is a verb but apparently Hugo knows better. By the time I hit upon DRAPE BLANKET OVER FENCE I was beginning to wonder if some hideous bug had crept into the game. Why the needing for the word 'drape' when 'cover' or 'throw' would have worked just as well? Beats me.
One thing I disliked about the game, and which got increasingly more annoying the longer I played, was how the solution to some of the puzzles seemed unnecessarily longwinded. Often I would uncover some vital clue and yet the process of actually doing anything with it was never as straightforward as it seemed. At one point, I found the hideout of the evil supervillain, yet no one seemed to care and my attempts to tell Frank (the civilian version of Future Boy himself) about it just elicited an unhelpful response. More and more often I seemed to be resorting to the hints just to make any kind of progress and whenever I tried to reason something out for myself, the game just refused to play ball. While I can appreciate that if Future Boy was an easy game, people would probably feel they hadn't got their money worth because it would only take them a matter of hours to complete it, at the same time I'm not convinced that throwing hard puzzles at the player is going to make him like it any better. While some of the puzzles are reasonably easy, others aren't. And some are downright nightmarish. At least a few require you to revisit locations you have been to before and not found anything worthwhile in, and then to wait around for something to happen. While I guess it's possible you could hit on the solution to these puzzles by sheer dogged persistence, or pure luck, it seems likely that a good number will baffle most people. I'm not even sure why some of them were included at all. Yes, they make you really think about things but after battering my head against certain puzzles for a while, only to realise that the solution was in a completely different location that I had already visited, just at the wrong time, I would have been happier with a more puzzle-free game.
Aside from problems with the difficulty of some of the puzzles (the computer in particular), a good number of them are just downright tedious. Even when armed with the hints, I found myself struggling with the computer puzzle. Not so much to figure out what I needed to do, but to keep my enthusiasm for the game long enough to actually keep playing it. Now maybe it's just me - I'm not a fan of overly complicated puzzle games at the best of times - but I'm sure that most people don't find that kind of puzzle interesting.
Then again, some of the puzzles are pretty inspired. I particularly enjoyed the time travel puzzles associated with the large and small orbs (once I'd found them that was, which I doubt I'd have done without the hints telling me where they were; and once I'd figured out how I was supposed to use them (again, the hints came to the rescue)), even though I'd have definitely preferred if using them was made somewhat easier. The first time I managed to successfully activate the small orb and travel through time, I wasn't even sure what had gone on and it wasn't until I'd done it a few times that I realised the truth of the situation. A smile lit up my face then at a genuinely decent twist in the game. If only all the puzzles were this good.
Fortunately, there's an excellent hints system in place for the many times when the puzzles might get the better of you. Did I say excellent? Well, it's certainly excellent in the sense that it helps you steer past the hardest of the game's puzzles, and without it I'd probably still be stuck in that cell right at the start of the game with 95% of it still to go. But the way the information is presented is a downright pain. Type HINT and the screen clears and you're faced with miniscule text in the middle of the screen which you have to navigate through to the relevant hint. This is cumbersome to use and having to bang the ESC key to move back out each time you've finished, and H to reveal another hint doesn't help matters either. Worse still, a good number of the hints are red herrings. I spent a while trying to figure out how to get inside the supervillain's hideout with a hot air balloon only to find, when I resorted to the hints again, that there wasn't a hot air balloon in the game. Ho ho. How I laughed then. In fact, I laughed so hard that I almost deleted the frustrating game and tried something else.
Yes, it's ultimately a frustrating game. Genuine brilliance shines through in a few instances - the time travel aspects in particular - but all too often the game annoyed me so much I regretted ever buying it in the first place. I didn't want to be annoyed. I wanted to be entertained. I didn't buy the game to see how much it could annoy me. Which is a shame, because if that was the reason I'd bought it, I'd have certainly got my money's worth.
Another point against the game is the multi-coloured text used for various dialogue options with the NPCs. Multiple colours looks gaudy and, worse, some of it isn't especially easy to read. Text all of the same colour would have been my preference.
The conversation system is another point against the game (yes, another). Usually I'm a fan of conversation systems that use the dialogue options way of doing things because selecting what you want to say from a list of displayed options is a lot easier than trying to figure out what you need to ask people about. Here, alas, it's handled poorly. The conversation system is awkward to use and moving between the dialogue options slow and fiddly. A few times I selected the wrong option by mistake because the cursor had moved on to the next option without me realising it.
No superhero game would be complete without a supervillain. Here we have Clayton Eno. Clayton Eno? Hmmm… the supervillains in the comics I read as a kid always had cool names like Dr Doom, Ultron, Magneto, Dr Octopus and so on and so forth. Clayton Eno just doesn't seem to have the same ring to it. Nor does he really get up to the kind of villainous deeds that supervillains are famed for: no world domination for Clayton Eno. Nope. He's planning to get himself elected mayor and does this by blocking off a bridge. If Future Boy was meant wholly as a parody of the superhero genre (and maybe it was and I just missed the signs), it would probably get away with this sort of thing, but as it seems intended more as a straight superhero game, it suffers badly from a poor supervillain and his poor schemes. Getting yourself elected mayor just isn't the same as a diabolical plan to blow the world up. And he doesn't even cackle insanely.
So... worth playing? Yes. Worth buying? No. Future Boy is certainly one of the better IF games I've played over the past year or so, but it's got so many rough edges that I'd be hard pressed to recommend buying it to anyone. A couple of free games I've played recently - City Of Secrets and Varicella - were considerably smoother and a lot less buggy. A lot more user friendly as well (Future Boy has a sarcastic parser that often makes fun of the player for trying out perfectly normal actions.) If this was a free game, I'd definitely recommend people try it out as there's a lot to like about it. As a commercial release, you're probably better off playing one of the others I've just mentioned and hoping Future Boy one day becomes freeware.
In some ways, I feel bad about giving Future Boy such a harsh review because it's not a terrible game and it's obviously had a considerable amount of time and effort expended on it. Maybe it's a sign of the times. If this had come out in the 80's when interactive fiction (or text adventures as they were known back then) was 100% commercial, it would certainly have held its ground against the majority of the other games around at the time. Heck, it might even be remembered these days with the same kind of fondness as The Hobbit and Zork. But IF has moved on in the intervening years and with 99% of it being free these days, for a commercial product to succeed it has to be the best of the lot. And, sorry to say, Future Boy isn't anywhere close. It's good, just not that good. 6 out of 10