IF Comp 2014: Arqon: A Criminal’s Journey

Arqon: A Criminal’s Journey (H.J. Hoke) is a fantasy CRPG-like, parser-based and made in Inform 7.

I played Arqon – unusually for comp games – in a small group which included someone who had played before, and was therefore wise to what the game wanted. This smoothed out some of the more glaring issues with the early game; the group gave up on it after we died in combat early in the dungeon, and I replayed alone to completion (though looking at the walkthrough, apparently there is a thing with a hermit whom I completely missed.)

Arqon depicts a generic fantasy world with an emphasis on wizards. The protagonist is Tobiah, who’s described as a criminal – though it’s never entirely clear what his previous crimes consisted of, and the game doesn’t involve any of the sneaking, backstabbing, pickpocketing and climbing usually associated with RPG rogues. Mostly you’re a kind of fighter/mage.

“Dear Tobiah (Criminal), I hope this letter finds you in good health (and good fighting condition, as well). I have sent to you a variety of vials and a scarcity of scrolls… but enough with my audacious alliterations, your mission is… to kill… An extremely stealthy warlock from the southern empire of Glort. Before you embark, I must see if you are tough stuff. You know what they say, ‘Charity starts at home’? I want you to assassinate the mayor of Gilwin, mister Dryelle ‘long hammer’ of Daigoth. After he is dead, you may embark on your mission to Lemarda. Goodbye, assassin.”

The game doesn’t extend to the bit where you kill the stealthy Glort warlock, but you do get to wander around the mayor’s dungeon (of course the mayor has a dungeon) killing random monsters until you kill the mayor – who of course lives at the bottom of a dungeon, as mayors do. The dungeon is pretty straightforward: one monster per room, wander around leveling up until you find the boss.  Possibly through luck, I didn’t have to grind in order to get high-level enough to manage victory.

Long ago, back in the primeval dawn of 2006, when Inform 7 was a hopeful monster craning its oddly-proportioned neck through the tree-fern forests of IF, Graham Nelson wrote an example game called Reliques of Tolti-Alph, a number-crunching game about combat, magic and loot. Reliques is not an awesome game – it was a proof-of-concept more than anything – and Inform 7, as it turns out, is not actually all that great a platform for CPRG-like things. Some experienced designers have used it to made some very respectable pieces (Kerkerkruip, Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom) but they represent substantial and savvy divergences from orthodox roguelike or CRPG design. Nonetheless, a steady trickle of first-time authors show up with the firm intention of making an epic CRPG in I7, and are generally disappointed to discover that a) it’s really fucking hard to make an epic CRPG in any platform, and b) I7 is really not designed for that purpose.

Arqon uses the Woodpulp & Wyverns system created for Reliques. Graham Nelson is a man of many talents, but he has never been accused of amazing combat design; even so, I don’t feel that the system was put to best use here. As a combat game, the balance is on the easy side. You get given a whole bunch of spell scrolls, but aside from the one which you need to open the door to the wizard school, you can safely ignore them all and soldier on through the dungeon. (Indeed, learning magic seems like a bad idea, since it costs hit-points to learn each spell and more hit-points to cast it.) Combat takes place automatically: you step into a room and are greeted with an explosion of combat numbers, which will continue to spew out every turn until one of you dies. You can usually just wait around for the fight to play itself out. I died in the final fight once, so I hit a single UNDO, tried again and won.

I don’t pretend to know much about combat design, but: if the player can completely ignore combat and still do fine, you don’t really have a combat mechanic so much as a combat annoyance. Probably it’s a good idea if combat involves interesting decisions involving calculated risk offset by planning, and so forth, but ‘the player needs to actually pay attention’ seems a more fundamental requirement.

The writing is in seriously rough shape. At the most basic level, there’s a heaping pile of punctuation and grammar issues. (The author mentions having impaired vision, which makes it hard to catch this: this seems like a good reason to seek out help for a full proofread of the text, rather than relying on a fairly small set of general testers.)

Style-wise, there’s a mixture of high-fantasy language and casual modern idiom. The author is obviously invested in worldbuilding of the Tolkienian geography/history/conlang sort: there are even two supplemental text files included to explain more about the setting. This sort of thing is fun to construct; plenty of us have spent long, happy hours noodling around with maps and chronology charts for an RPG campaign-world. But – as anybody knows who has taken their minutely-constructed world and tried to run a campaign in it – it takes something more to get players interested in the same thing.

The game includes music. It has a suitable fantasy feel, though it feels more like the music you’d get in the scenic overland journey, which isn’t ever a significant feature in Arqon; still, it avoids being obnoxious, which is no small feat.

Score: 2

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