Sunday, 24 April 2016

Not Quite Review Corner: Fallen London (Failbetter Games)

Welcome, delicious friend! I can see by the fetters on your ankles and the threadbare quality of your clothing that you are a recent arrival to our moonlit shores. Let me tell you about our famous, forsaken and Fallen London, in which you now reside. Pull up a chair - mind the weasel, he bites - and take some honey, if you please. You may be here some time.

Failbetter Games' Fallen London has been doing great business as a browser game, but this week it opened up for business on the App Store, for those of you with iPhones, iPads, and iMushroomWine. I was a big fan of it on browser, but I dropped out a while ago, so when it reappeared on the iStore I figured it was worth a return ticket to the Stygian Depths. Now here I am to tell you about it, like an explorer returned from savage shores.

Fallen London is a story game. You are a new-fledged inhabitant of this subterranean copy of London, a shadow of the magnificent city that was, dragged underground long ago by devils. Or possibly cats. Opinions vary. In any case, here you are, and the question is, what do you do about it? Vagrancy is a punishable offence, so to avoid prison you'd better find a place to live, which means better clothes, which means some kind of career ... and before you know it you're deeply mired in the plots, politics and tragedies of this Victorian Gothic, Steampunk-ish (heavy on the ish) nightmare realm.

It's entirely up to you what you do with your time. So far, to give you a taste, I've written a well-received book about mushroom cultivation, followed it up with a short story and a commissioned piece about the delights of honey, seduced a honey-sipping heiress (it did not end well), caught cats to learn their many secrets, and dealt decisively with two monster rats that had been terrorizing the populace and eating small children.

I prefer a sedate life, so I've taken up rooms above a bookstore - having paid for it with secrets won from the aforementioned cats - and currently wander the streets, humbugs in hand, looking for adventure, and inspiration for my next masterpiece. Also, I need wine. The 1882, if you please, for in secret I'm an amateur cracksman of the Raffles variety, and I'm on the track of a diamond as big as your head. I've hit a stumbling block; my contact demands payment if I'm to carry on in my quest, and will take nothing other than a crate of 30 bottles of the 1882. So far I've won 10, thanks to my honey-sipping heiress, and though I could buy the remaining 20, I prefer to get it for free if I can. The search continues.

It's a Dreamlands-style Gothic RPG, and Keepers looking for inspiration for their Arabesque Bookhounds games need look no further. Or just looking for a few minutes' diversion. It's the kind of thing that can easily drag you in and keep you there, mainly because the quality of writing is superb. This really is a winding, crafty, engrossing epic. The teaser I gave you doesn't cover the half of it, not even the smallest crumb, the slightest mite.

Pity about the mechanics, then, because they do their best to spoil what's otherwise an enjoyable experience.

You play by spending a series of action points, deciding which of the many plot threads to follow. It's usually one point per plot decision; sometimes a little more, but not much. You get 20 action points total, which refresh at one point per minute or so back up to 20. Though there are other important mechanics I'm going to focus on the action point system, because this - combined with its eternal desire to sync - is where Fallen London really lets itself down.

Everything has to sync with Failbetter's server. That means when you boot the app it takes about one to three minutes before you can do anything, as it checks for new images, new sounds, and so on. I'm not entirely sure why. If Failbetter was producing new content every hour on the hour it might make a little sense, but I'm pretty sure it isn't. So nine times out of ten the sync gets no new data, but that doesn't stop it eating one to three minutes worth of time before you can do anything fun.

My pet peeve is that it syncs for new sounds. I have this on my iPad, and one of the first things I do is mute the sound for nearly every game I own. This is because I play iPad games on the go, it being a mobile device and all, and I don't want it bleeping and burbling away when I'm, say, at the pub. It's not as if the sounds are absolutely integral to the experience, like Left4Dead, when the difference between you living and dying can depend on you picking up audio cues. It's just a nice-to-have, and it irks me that each time it boots the game spends thirty seconds or so trying to find new sounds that I will never, ever hear.

Moreover if your connection isn't that great - and mine isn't always, particularly when there's atmospheric interference - the game can quietly die behind that loading screen. Never syncing, it just tells you to wait. And wait. And wait. As I write this, the app has spent the last two hours syncing. Eventually it will realize something is wrong, and reboot. In its own sweet time. And then it will want to sync again.

Once in, the sync then interferes with the action point system. You see, the action point refresh doesn't depend on time passing, or at least not just on time passing. It also depends on that sync, I suspect because the home server and not the mobile device's internal clock tells it when the action points have refreshed. This may mean that ten minutes will go by, or longer, with no refresh, because the home server hasn't told the app that you have points to spend.

When I first downloaded the game, I had to work out a way to trick the system to get it to refresh action points. Since then things seem to have changed in the last update, for there is an actual, honest to Murgatroyd, Push This Button To Sync Your Progress button. Allelujah. It's a bit well-hidden, though. Hint: tap the candle icon, and you'll bring up a menu. That menu will lead you to the Promised Land. Better late than never, and no, I don't know how you're supposed to figure that out on your own.

Speaking of figuring things out on your own, how much cash does my character have? Not the foggiest. I know what I can afford, because a little Buy icon flashes up whenever I go to the shops and see something I might be able to purchase. But I never know how much is in my wallet, so I don't know how much I need to save or earn before I can buy the thing I want to buy. Or how much I will have left after I've bought something.

Here's an odd one. The other morning I sold some gear and purchased a mask. Then I went into town to get some work done, and while there I stopped to check my account. Mask? What mask? It's not in my inventory. Where can it ... oh. Not only is the mask not in my inventory, but the rubbish I sold to get the mask is back in my inventory. The thing must have forgotten to tell the home server what I did this morning, so now I have to do it all again.

Or my current home, my rooms above a bookshop which I had to interrogate cats to be able to afford. I was so pleased to purchase that key from the land agents, but despite purchasing it, I had no key in my inventory. It existed; a trip back to the land agents confirmed that, but the land agents wouldn't let me activate the key from there. I had to activate it in my inventory. But it wasn't in my inventory. I'm still not sure what happened, but I think that because I bought the key while I was in the middle of a story the app couldn't put the key in my inventory until I backed out of the story. Then it allowed me to take possession of the key I'd bought ten minutes earlier, and I could move in. Guess how I spent those lost ten minutes. No, the answer isn't "having fun."

I can just about understand why Failbetter wants the game to constantly link to the home server. It must make it easier to craft the ongoing story and update the plot threads, as well as keep track of the player base.

Even so, I'm having a lot of trouble understanding why Failbetter wanted the server, rather than the app, to handle most of the admin side of things. It adds a layer of frustration to the experience that almost makes me want to quit the game. After all, this is a text-based experience, with some basic random number generation mechanics. Surely the app could have handled most of this on its own, without screaming for mummy to tie its shoelaces every five minutes.

I can only think Failbetter preferred total control via server because this is what Failbetter is used to, but hosting most of the day-to-day on the mobile device rather than the server seems to me at least to have been the better option. Even if it meant having what amounts to two separate player groups, one on the server and one in the mobile space.  Better that than have the mobile space continually feel like the red-headed stepchild.

Frankly, if the story wasn't masterfully crafted, I'd have quit a long time ago. It's a testament to Failbetter's writing team that I want to fight past this dilemma, but the game badly needs a fix. Other games get past this with weekly updates. If it only sync'd with the server once a day, and did it automatically like a podcast update without waiting for me to activate the app, would that really be so bad?

Incidentally if you think I'm being harsh, trust me when I say I had a much harsher review all written, but that the recent update mollified me somewhat. Otherwise this piece would have involved much more swearing, and possibly a burnt building or two.

Honestly, I want you to play this game. When it works, it's the best kind of fun: engrossing, well-crafted, thoroughly entertaining. It's Flashman crossed with Sherlock Holmes and more than a dash of Doctor Moreau, with all the addled dreamscape a Dali or Brunel could wish for. Moreover it manages the rare trick of being a social game without pestering you for all your contact information, demanding money with menaces, or insisting that you invite friends to get the best experience. As a browser game, it's brilliant. But then, as a browser game it's got a direct connect; it doesn't have to sync with the mother ship every time it tries to use its brain.

It's just heartbreaking. If I didn't like Fallen London as much as I did, I wouldn't be as frustrated by the app. Things have improved since launch, but in spite of the improvements I would be very wary about recommending this title.

Wait a week. Possibly two. Then have a go.

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