A Crimson Spring (***) by Robb Sherwin

A Crimson Spring is Robb Sherwin's first major effort since "Chicks Dig Jerks" -- the enjoyable but programmatically diseased 1999 competition entry -- and is by far his most ambitious work yet. The experience and maturity Robb has gained from the past year are immediately evident. CDJ started at a seedy little nightclub and ended in a cemetary. Now while ACS also begins in a seedy little nightclub, Robb turns the tables on the unsuspecting player, and finishes the game up at... well, at another cemetary. But there's lots of other cool stuff in between, too, so- hey, wait, come back. This is a positive review, I swear.

ACS is the story of your average everyday super-hero in Gotham City, dealing with the tragic loss of his hot super-hero girlfriend. He is pissed. Now, you and I, when we get pissed, we have a few drinks, drive a car into a telephone pole, and generally wallow in misery for a few weeks, stopping only very occasionally to shower, change underwear, throw empty beer cans into the trash, etc. When a super-hero gets pissed, he goes out and beats the crap out of everyone until he gets to the bottom of things.

This is your charge, as you step into the aforementioned nightclub, and the story takes off from there. ACS, right from the start, has a lot of things going for it. First of all, it's a Robb Sherwin game, which means you are guaranteed to get:

ACS has more of all of these than all of his previous games put together, and as such should appeal instantly to anyone who enjoyed CDJ, the mini-comp entries, or even his writing of the non-interactive style. This is the game's greatest strength. But I liked a lot of other things about it too.

I liked how the game was written in the first person, and was done with such panache and skill that it didn't suck, and even enhanced the sympathetic nature of the relationship drawn between the player and the PC. You aren't forced to feel the rage and despair of the protagonist, but you are compelled to understand it. Very effective.

I also liked how the game explores the off-hours relationships between the super-heroes, the super-villains, and the tangential characters in their lives. Most people understand that super-heroes go out all day and kick super-villain butt and save the world, but perhaps fewer realize that once the work is done, they also go home and sleep, and wake up, and cook breakfast for each other and sit around the kitchen table, recovering both physically and emotionally. Now, as I have never personally known a super-hero, I cannot vouch for the veracity of these descriptions, but I was convinced, and you probably will be too.

But the thing I liked most about ACS, which charmed me out of my chair, is that it is most definitely a labor of love, and this comes through at every turn. The hand-drawn art supplementing the textual descriptions, the original music from Robb's band and whichever friends were available and willing to donate their own tunes, it all just makes the game feel like the author really liked putting it together, and as such I really liked playing it. And I swear, one of those tunes is just amazing. Somebody ought to give that man a recording contract.

The game is also less troubled by technical issues than last year's effort, a fact made more impressive given the much greater scope of the game. However, there remain a few annoying problems, most of which could be cleaned up in a week or two if the author was so inclined to release a version 2.0. Specifically, many of the rooms and situations feel unfinished, with items mentioned specifically in scenery descriptions left out in the cold. This is particularly frustrating while trying to solve a puzzle in the same room, as seen in this paraphrased-from-memory scene:

Next to the bed is a dresser and a mirror.

I don't know the word "mirror".

See, like that. Additionally, a few more synonyms, especially in crucial puzzle-oriented situations, would help. At one point I was forced to refer to the walkthrough due only to the fact that an object could not be referred to by the very word that the game itself used to describe it.

Various other technical problems generally fall into the nitpicky variety; inconsistent spacing (!), improper short names ("You cannot push computer."), inconsistent descriptions (at one point, you are both north of, and south of, an important spot, depending on who you ask), and an occasional typo.

The use of music, I thought, was a very nice touch. However, I've decided that using songs with vocals in them is less than desirable for an IF game. Occasionally, I was sidetracked while reading the words in the room descriptions because the singer was singing other words at the same time, and I couldn't stay focused. This is a personal thing, but if I am not alone (which I suspect I am not), then I would recommend sticking to instrumentals, if you're going to add music to your IF.

The puzzles themselves, though there are few, range from clever to irritating, with one bordering very closely on guess-the-verb (or rather, guess-the-noun). The truth is, the puzzles are not the reason to play the game anyway. More fun to just read, let the author draw you into the world he has created, and get off on the high-energy exuberance with which it's presented. That's the part I like most about IF anyway, so it worked for me.

A Crimson Spring, in the end, is a fun game, a vast improvement over the author's previous works, and plenty good enough to make me look forward to the next one. As long as Robb digs writing these things, I will dig playing them.

(And I will dig writing reviews which are actually positive ones, even if half of them are nothing but complaints.)



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