Commercial Reviews

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom celebrates the fundamental goodness woven into some very bad things, and it does so for a very specific niche audience the Encounter Critical gang. But during its commercial release, a lot of the writings on ToaSK came from the Interactive Fiction community: the crew keeping the text-adventure torch burning bright (with hundreds of new games each year), and who take it (as a rule) a lot more seriously than ToaSK does (or at least, more seriously than ToaSK admits to). Hopefully, folks will continue to find, play, and review this game for good or ill, but here's what they had to say during the game's commercial release (in approximate chronological order) ...

Nitku's Review:
IF or Nethack? (2 Stars out of 5)

I might not be the best person to review this game since I have no experience of the retro-hack'n'slash RPG scene the game apparently parodies. Some people might enjoy playing this more than I did.

Calling the game interactive fiction could perhaps be questioned. The Z-code parser has been reduced to six commands; gameplay consists mainly of primitive randomized combats and moving around the map; the story is nearly non-existent; items have rarely any descriptions (on the plus side there are many library messages so the items look like they were described). It felt more like playing a low-end Nethack clone than a work of IF.

Humor is absurd, even surreal (try talking to your bag) - mostly I didn't get it but as I said before, people with RPG experience might be laughing their guts out. The accompanying material is extensive and at a glance looks exquisitely made so an additional star for that. One might ask if the material was made to support the game or is it the other way around?

This article is copyright © 2007,2008 by Juhana Leinonen, and appears here by permission.
Originally appeared at the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB).

AmberShard's Review:
Utterly Pointless (1 Star out of 5)

Every so often, I come across a game that I cannot understand why it was made. TOASS (how's that for an acronym?) is one of those games. First, the underpinnings are gimmicky. IF based on an RPG from an alternate universe? Why? Second, the game is far too difficult. I heart RPGs majorly, but nothing sucks more than a game which you can't get past the first monster. TOASS is one such game. Third, the writing style is purposefully worse than an overdramatic grade-Z drive-in flick. It's not humorous because it's everpresent and unavoidable. Fourth, well, I don't even have a fourth, but my heart goes out to the author. Some people miss the mark by accident, but some miss the mark on purpose. To say that TOASS is worse than a Paul Panks adventure is probably not sufficient, because Pank's work at least had a sort of innocent incompetence about it. TOASS is bad on purpose, and is sufficiently well-designed so that you can't miss the point. People who enjoy RPGs won't enjoy this as it's like being slapped repeatedly. People who don't like RPGs will find it insufferable. TOASS seems designed to drive away anyone interested in playing it. I suppose there's a challenge in that and only people who won't let a game have the final word will survive this game.

This article is copyright © 2007 by AmberShards, and appears here by permission.
Originally appeared at the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB).

Emily Short's Review

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom tears down all the standard rules of design in its chosen medium, piles them in a heap, hacks the heap to splinters, burns the splinters to ash, and scatters the ashes on a blood-red sea.

The results are pure awesome.

In form, this is interactive fiction. Over the course of amateur IF development, there's been a movement towards more complete implementation and more literary story-telling: more descriptions of objects, more actions for the player to use on everything and sundry, more plausible settings, more logical solutions to puzzles, greater concern for literary values in story, and so on.

There has also been a compensatory school of authors and players who reject the literary nonsense (deeming it pretentious), and who prefer obvious puzzles and unsubtle implementation as more essentially fun. These are often the same people who dislike the term "interactive fiction" and consider "text adventure" more honest, or at least a better description of what they want to play.

Even by the standards of the latter group, though, ToaSK is decidedly retrograde. It gets rid of most of the standard IF vocabulary in favor of five major verbs chosen for their archaism: REGARD, SEIZE, USE, PARLEY, and ASSAIL. One can also JOURNEY in compass directions, and there are commands like PILLAGE and SHED to speed up the task of picking up and putting down objects. One might USE OIL WITH FENCE, USE COIN WITH MERCHANT, USE HEALING SPELL WITH ELF: USE is all things to all inanimate objects. (And some animate ones, too. USE VIRGIN means exactly what you think it should.) There's usually not too much doubt about whether to PARLEY or ASSAIL, either, since people are usually easily divided into the friendly and the hostile. As for REGARD, sure, you can look at things, but quite a few things have no individual description. Most of your time as a player will be spent traveling, USEing, and ASSAILing, with just the occasional PILLAGE and PARLEY for spice. In terms of interaction, this game is really really focused.

The result is two-fold. To start with, of course, we lose much of the freedom and unpredictability of a parser-based game, which can be either wonderful or annoying depending on your personal preferences and the thoroughness of the implementation. Second, we drastically simplify the puzzles, to the point where they're functionally equivalent to puzzles in point-and-click adventures. USE is like clicking on something; USE WITH is like clicking an inventory item and then clicking on something. It's possible to wander around in confusion because we haven't yet found all the necessary props, but it's relatively hard to get confused about what to do with a critical item. Because the answer, naturally, is always to USE it.

So this isn't about grand story-telling, and it also isn't about complex puzzle solving -- not really. Where does the fun come from?

Well, here we have to back up. Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom is set in the realm of Encounter Critical, a parodic RPG universe that makes a shameless smoothie of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Conan the Barbarian, with a little dash of Tolkien and probably quite a few other references I'm not geek-literate enough to recognize. There are wookies. There are "Klengons". There are demon gods, sea monsters, and magical telepathic witches. Do not look here for consistency or reason. One runs into a couple Frankenstein's-monster sorts of creatures, and I think they stand as an emblem of the whole world: it's a crude patchwork of all the most memorable aspects of a dozen other settings. Encounter Critical predated S. John Ross's experiments with interactive fiction, which may at least answer the question of why someone would write a game that (falsely) purports to be a 1980s commercial work based on a (fake) role-playing game.

So what's fun about ToaSK and it is very fun is wandering around a setting that makes no sense and rips off lots of stereotypes, while solving largely straightforward puzzles and engaging in frequent semi- random battles with monsters of every kind.And what makes *that* work is the complete and utter confidence of the writing, the smoothness of the game experience (I encountered no bugs and quite a few clever responses), the vividness of the action sequences, and the more or less ceaseless entertainment that both the player and the author are having at the expense of the protagonist. While you move this witless wonder of a barbarian around the map, occasionally powering up by finding a super new suit of armor or an even more macho sword, you're really also having a conversation with the author. It's a friendly, backstage conversation, probably conducted over some sort of malted beverage, about all the stories that you both enjoyed so much as kids and secretly still do enjoy. And because you and the author get pretty well in tune about what sort of ridiculous genre-tale this is, you're willing to manipulate the protagonist as the story and setting require, sending him into the most foolish dangers and the most obvious traps. The goal, in short, is not to sympathize or identify with the protagonist (as in a great deal of more serious IF) but to make him play out the role assigned for him.

ToaSK is probably not for everyone. The author, when he sent me a copy of the game, also said sheepishly that he was a little worried what I would think of its treatment of women. This is a metal-bikini-and-furs universe, in which women generally wear more oil than clothing. I might have found this annoying if it were taking itself seriously, but since it really, really is not...

It's strange and wonderful. It's also fun, well-polished, and written with considerable skill. If you're an IF aficionado, you'll probably find that it takes you a few turns to get used to the interaction, which is quite unlike even the oldest text adventures. It's entirely its own thing, and that's why it works.

N.B.: Unlike most IF, the full version of this game costs money ($12.95). The download link is to the demo version.

N.B.: ToaSK was built using the Z-machine, an interactive fiction engine originally created by Infocom. To play the game, you need to install a Z-machine interpreter on your machine, and download the game file. We link to Z-machine interpreters for PC, Mac, and Linux above--you can probably find them for other devices, too.

This article is copyright © 2008 by Emily Short, and appears here by permission.
Originally appeared at PlayThisThing! in March, 2008

James McNeill's Review

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom is a text adventure of sorts by S. John Ross. It's likely to offend the sensibilities of Real Interactive Fiction lovers, as it pares down input to a handful of commands. I love this because I hate "guess the verb" gameplay. Treasures also features simple stats-"n"-dice-based combat, which puts some people off. On the positive side, it's a giddy pulp pastiche of Conan, Star Wars, and more. Atomic dinosaur? Sure! Give him a light saber! The writing is frequently hilarious. The game is solidly designed: the environment is fairly small, the inventory is kept to a manageable size at all times, and you can't really get stuck.

I discovered the game through Emily Short's excellent (as always) review over at Play This Thing. I really can't add much to her review, so head over there to read it.

Treasures does a good job of making memorable non-player characters. You actually feel like you've got a relationship with them. I think the limited input vocabulary helps here as it keeps you from getting frustrated trying to interact with them.

The full game costs $13, which I think might be slightly much for the amount of gameplay. I got through the game in under eight hours, although I made fairly extensive use of the crypto-clues offered in the instruction manual, to the point of writing a Python script to decode them for me. However, I spent the entire time playing the game with a big grin plastered on my face and laughed out loud on several occasions.

There's a free demo that lets you play the first fifth or so of the game. Try it out and see if it agrees with you. You will also need a Z-machine interpreter to run the game; Gargoyle is a very nice-looking one.

James McNeill

This article is copyright © 2008 by James McNeill, and appears here by permission.
Originally appeared at PlayTechs: Programming For Fun in June, 2008

Jimmy Maher's Review

How much meta-fiction is enough? How much is too much? Your answers to these questions will likely have a lot to do with your perception of Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, as will your age and cultural background. If you are a person of a certain age who played tabletop RPG's like Dungeons and Dragons and its derivatives during their commercial peak -- in other words, if you are an aging nerd -- you'll probably know just where this game is coming from. If not, you might just be utterly baffled by it. Luckily for Mr. Ross, many of us in the IF community are indeed aging nerds, and while that is perhaps a problem for the community's diversity and longterm health, it certainly gives this game a nice ready-made audience.

So, then, let's try to unpack the layers of this thing. Mr. Ross, a veteran independent tabletop RPG designer, has invented a sort of alternate nerd timeline in which a game called Encounter Critical was published in the late 1970's, just in time to catch the big tabletop RPG wave. Encounter Critical is much like Dungeons and Dragons, but worse, at least from a worldbuilding point of view. It takes place in a generic fantasy universe with a healthy slab of science fiction slathered incoherently over the top, thus allowing the young nerd to get both his Conan and his Star Wars fixes in the same place. Treasures is a computerized game based on the Encounter Critical rules in which the player, as a buff but not terribly bright barbarian, attempts to defeat the evil overlord from whose slave pits he has just escaped. More importantly, he also gets to slaughter hordes of monsters, build up his statistics, and even work in a little hot and heavy action with a certain delicate doxy who embodies the male adolescent dream of the nubile female.

Treasures, then, as Mr. Ross himself has not been shy to tell us on its website and in the newsgroups, is very, very bad. And yet, for the right player with the right background, it can be very, very good. The writing rises to dizzying heights of innocent Eye of Argon-esque splendor. Here's the PC's description, just to give a bit of the flavor:

You have the savage bearing of an upland tribesman, quick like a THESKIAN MOUNTAIN CAT and cruel of eye, though 'tis truth that your heart is not unkind. Your mirth is as mighty as your gloom, and your ire as potent as your warmer passions.

The game's technical implementation, at least at first blush, is as adolescent as the writing. Most of the standard IF verbs have been stripped away, leaving you only a bare handful with which to work. You can REGARD (i.e., examine) something; you can USE something; you can SEIZE (take) something; you can DISCARD (drop) something; and of course, and most importantly, you can ASSAIL (attack) someone or something. Other than the usual movement commands and meta-verbs, that's pretty much it. While guess the verb problems certainly aren't likely, anyone who is completely invested in IF as a serious literary form is probably shrieking at this rejection of the last thirty years of progress.

Those who are willing to take themselves and the form a little less seriously, though, may soon discover something else: for all its aggressive surface awfulness, Treasures is a superbly crafted little game that contains none of the usual annoyances of games of its (fictional) age and genre. You are provided with a clear map of the game's logically laid-out terrain; the puzzles are, fair, neither too difficult nor too trival, and surprisingly clever in light of the limited parser; and even the randomized combats are crafted in a logical stairstep pattern that means you will never have to fight an opponent who is too difficult to defeat. You will die plenty of times, but when a powerful monster kills you you can feel assured that the time is simply not yet right to fight him, that you should explore elsewhere and come back when you are stronger and better equipped. The monsters in fact play the role that locked doors do in much traditional IF, blocking access to those parts of the map you are not yet allowed to visit, and getting past one even carries with it the same little thrill of satisfaction. You can of course also attempt to game the system by saving before each combat and trying again and again for a favorable series of die rolls, and the surreally ridiculous ease of doing so is even part of the game's general ambience. Soon enough, though, you begin to have faith in the game's design and quit bothering.

There's of course no real literary value whatsoever to any of this, beyond a hazy, affectionate nostalgia for a bygone era in gaming. The central question thus becomes: is it fun? For me, yes, it is, surprisingly so. There is something hugely, childishly appealing about watching random numbers scroll over the screen, wondering if you or the deadly lizard maiden will run out of hit points first. Mr. Ross even manages to inject a surprising amount of variety into the simple combat formula by giving the later monsters a variety of attacks beyond the basic hack, slash, bite, and claw.

Treasures is unusual among modern IF in that it carries a price tag. Fortunately, Mr. Ross has made a demo version of the game available, which should be sufficient to judge whether it is indeed your cup of tea. If it is, you will find the full version a surprisingly lengthy adventure. I'd estimate I spent a good eight to ten hours on it. The last few were perhaps not quite as enjoyable as those that came before, as there does come a point where the jokes have all pretty much been told at least once, where the many combats start to get a bit tedious, and where the whole thing flirts dangerously with becoming an all too typical cRPG slog. Before that quite happens, though, everything is wrapped up in a suitably rousing, over-the-top final combat.

Treasures is the sort of game that will inevitably only appeal to certain people. If it does resonate with you, though, you can feel confident that you are in for a big, well-designed game from an experienced creator. Much as I enjoyed Treasures, I would be even more excited to see Mr. Ross bring his talents to something that doesn't have to live and die by its irony. And yet, and while I'm not particularly excited about games like this turning into a long-term trend in IF, and could even point to its retro-gaming fixation as one of the things that still painfully hobbles the form today, I can't deny that Treasures kept me entertained. I can perhaps best describe it as a Paul Panks game that is actually competently designed and implemented. If such a description appeals to you, you're going to have a lot of fun with Treasures; if it doesn't, stay far, far away.

This article is copyright © 2008 by Jimmy Maher, and appears here by permission.
Originally appeared in issue #52 of SPAG: The Society For the Promotion of Adventure Games.

Adam Thornton's Review:
Sidesplittingly Funny (5 Stars out of 5)

This game is one of the most brilliantly implemented things ever.

It comes to us from an alternate 1979, one much like our own, except that Gygax and Arneson had been cowed by the madness that is Encounter Critical, and Infocom never existed but CogniKING did.

Beautifully paced, tough-but-fair, and, well, it makes me want to go wallow in Blue Box Basic D&D again. Read the docs, and then read the Encounter Critical rulebook. If you're not giggling, then walk away and play something else. If you are, this game is worth every penny of its price.

If you think the combats are too hard, walk away from them until you're stronger. If you get stuck on the verbs, you are in trouble. This game is like huffing paint and watching Heavy Metal only without the brain damage. It's like rocking out to Black Sabbath in a mildew-smelling basement while eating Cheetos and fantasizing about Farrah Fawcett.


This article is copyright © 2008 by Adam Thornton, and appears here by permission.
Originally appeared at the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB).

Cumberland Games | Encounter Critical | ToaSK | S. John Ross
(if these links are broken, your favorite search engine knows the way)