Review: Cythera

Official Cythera web page. Cythera produced by Ambrosia Software.

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Very good
Good in the background, but doesn't support the storytelling
Writing and dialogue:
Pretty easy
Very bad to very good
Forgiveness rating:
Numerous ways to get stuck via minor mistakes

An unusual review for me, here. If you're used to my chronic outbursts about graphical adventure games (and I hope you are), you probably ought to adjust your expectations. Cythera comes from a different branch of the computer gaming tree: the computer role-playing game (CRPG), top-view and graphical. This genre inherits most familiarly from the Ultima series, started by Lord British in the early Eighties.

To add to your discomfiture, Cythera is available only for the Macintosh. If you're a PC-only gamer reading my archived reviews, feel free to toss up your mouse in disgust and skip to the next web page.

Why am I breaking out of my usual rut? Well, I did play the game. (I haven't played through any of the other modern CRPG offerings on the Mac, but this one sucked down several days of my time.) And Cythera's focus is more to the storyline, adventure gaming more than CRPG -- to me, at least. (More on this below.) And also, it's a major release. Ambrosia are considered heavyweights in the Mac game-design world. If they want to get into the IF arena, I figure I owe them some commentary. Or, perhaps, I just figure you-all deserve the illumination of my opinions. (Otherwise, Bog knows, anyone might wind up guiding the Concensus Decision. Heaven forfend.)

So, what have we? Opening text explains that you're snatched out of our world into Cythera, a country ruled by the Land-King Alaric. His magical bond with the land is weakening, a disaster that will plunge Cythera into plague and famine if it's not reversed. You (of course) are the one for the job.

The introduction to the game is quite smooth. After the initial conversations, you wander around Land-King Hall, meeting a host of major and minor characters -- Hadrian the guard-captain, Magpie the fool, Demodocus the bard, and so on. The game uses a keyword conversation system, so you can spend a fair bit of time drawing out information, at your own pace. And reading the books in the library, of course. You get lots of fragments of history, several hints of mysterious underpinnings, a couple of tasks to undertake, some leads on people to seek out, and a travelling companion or two. You also get an Event: an earthquake damages part of the castle as you explore, revealing some secrets.

So you set off across Cythera, armed with all sorts of possible Things To Do Next.

Cythera takes the form of a CRPG, as I said. You have hit points, skills, and stats; you can gain weapons and armor, and a list of D&D-style spells. On the other hand... the core storyline has almost nothing to do with these things. The authors insist that you can finish the game without ever indulging in combat. I don't quite buy that -- a bit of experience pumped into spells and defense makes the game much less frustrating -- but the path to victory does not run from hackfest to larger hackfest to hackfest of climactic proportions.

Mind you, you can play that way if you want to. There are many areas where fighting prowess is darn convenient, and a few where you'll need serious firepower to win through. But the point is (and the authors are very good about this): the things you can do in Cythera are a much wider range than the things you have to do. If you fight through the army of liches, it's not for a vital piece of the plot-puzzle. It's for a magical sword, or shield, or crystal ball -- something which makes the rest of the game easier, but which a less bloody-minded player could live without.

In fact, most of the game is structured like this. Many plot-threads branch out. I'm pretty sure I saw most of them, but I'm certain I didn't see them all, and I didn't finish up every one I saw by the time the game ended. Some require fighting, some require exploration, some require talking to characters, some require solving puzzles or riddles. A few of these threads form the critical path of the story; but most lead to new skills, spells, party members, artifacts, or just pieces of knowledge about the world of Cythera. The authors do not take the attitude, nearly universal in adventure games, that you're damn well going to take the complete tour before you win. It's a refreshing change.

(I'm not sure whence comes this change, either. Maybe it's the relative amount of effort that goes into plot design in this kind of game. In a graphical adventure, every scene and image is days of work, budgetted and paid for, and one can hardly afford any that aren't vital. In a text game, scenes are text and far cheaper to produce, but then the overall budget is smaller -- text adventure authors work in their spare time these days, and without expectation of much profit -- and the writing is anyhow all of the work that does go in. But in a CRPG-style game, the engine and artwork soak up a great deal of work. Designing the scenario isn't an afterthought, not by a long shot, but it's still a smaller proportion of the total job than for "pure" adventures.)

(Or maybe the authors of Cythera just have more willpower than I do. Sure as heck, I'm never willing to let a player out the door without swimming through every droplet of my game-designing sweat. If Ambrosia doesn't have that character flaw, more power to them.)

Now, I still had some trouble with the way the thing fit together. Some of the threads are very tricky to get into. You have to talk to the right person, and mention the right keyword, with just the right preconditions. Since there are many non-mandatory quests, you'd think this wouldn't be a problem; a player should stumble into some threads and not others. But it doesn't always work that way. You can often see dangling plot pieces that you have no way to resolve. Sometimes they never will be resolved, not unless you start the game over and follow somebody else's walkthrough.

(This is the downside of the won't-see-it-all design. Murkiness and mystery is a fine thing halfway through a game, but when you reach the end, anything that still hasn't connected is just an annoying hole.)

Quite often you're stuck in a quest, and you have no idea whatsoever how to proceed. The bit you need can't be unstuck without three other bits, from entirely different quests, and everything's so cleverly intertwined that you don't know what else to work on. Yes, the underlying connections between threads are going to be clear in retrospect, but that doesn't tell you what to do now.

And sometimes there aren't any underlying connections. You can explore an entire cave; then come back much later, following a clue, to find that a convenient earthquake has opened up a new hole. Well, great. You can walk into an area and get instantly killed, because you don't have the item you need to advance the plot. Even better -- especially if you don't understand what it is you need.

It can be even harder than that to decide what to do. The difference between a jammed plot point, and a piece you just haven't solved yet, can be completely obscure. One character says he's researching something magical, and won't be finished until he figures out a particular ingredient. Every time you talk to him, he says to come back later. In fact, he'll always say that -- unless you find the ingredient yourself. But this is not obvious. This happened to me all too often: some character wanted information, and I could not for the life of me tell whether I didn't yet have it, or just hadn't figured out how to pass it along. The keyword conversation system can easily devolve into random guessing, trying to prove that my protagonist knows what I've figured out long ago.

You can get stuck. This was a big problem. I don't mind adventure games where you can get stuck, or make disastrous mistakes; even if you don't know they're mistakes until later. But that's the adventure UI, particularly the text adventure UI; restarting the game has to be quick for that to work. In a graphical game, where you have to sit through long cut-scenes and image load-delays, it's awful. In a CRPG, where you've put in hours of exploring and fighting and conversation, it's worse than awful.

And it's clear in Cythera that the authors don't want you getting stuck entirely unawares. If you slaughter the townsfolk, the plot falls apart and the game becomes unsolvable. That makes perfect sense. But if you leave a vital item on the table in your room in the castle? It vanishes -- the servants are tidy, or something -- and you're screwed. You're supposed to store things in your dresser. I was lucky; I only lost replaceable items learning this lesson. And then, how do you know what's replaceable? The authors claim this isn't a pack-rat game; and indeed most items you acquire can be thrown away without a second thought. But, of course, you only know that in hindsight. While you're playing, you have to hold onto at least one of everything, and preferably some spares. And the inventories get awfully crowded.

(In hindsight, again, even some of the valuable items are really replaceable. There are lots of backups and secondary options hidden among the branching threads. But -- if you don't know about them, they might as well not be there. This is where designer of a game has to step back and consider the poor player's half-formed, inconsistent view of the universe. The clues in the game point to intended solutions. Alternatives are there if you stumble across them. But if you screw up the primary path and don't notice the backups, you stop dead; there's nowhere to attack the problem now, nowhere to look.)

I'm not going to get much into the interface here, because it's even less relevant to my usual adventure reviewing. I found a lot to be confusing, but they've rewritten the documentation since then, and I haven't had a chance to compare the versions. Once I got used to it, I didn't have any trouble. Except for picking up large stacks of coins.

The plot. I liked the plot. Really I did. It was strange and fraught with complication; it delved; it had politics; the ending tied into the beginning, and resolved. It was a good plot, not just "good enough for a computer game." However:

(...Yeah, you knew there was a "however" coming...)

The game's implementation of the plot was frustratingly inconsistent. Some touches were well-done -- even brilliant. (A plot thread early on, entirely commercial and mundane, spreads out and deeper until it's the crux of the ending. Very good.) But others just fell flat. It was something about the timing, or the presentation. When a shocking revelation is presented in dialog boxes, the same as every other conversation you've seen -- and then your party walks away -- it's hard for the sense of shock to really come through. It takes brilliant writing to handle this, and the writing in Cythera really is "just good enough for a computer game."

(Graphics can do it too, but a tile-based top-down view is a much clumsier medium than fully-rendered scenes. I'd seen just about every tile of art in Cythera long before I was finished. And it's not like combining letters to make surprising new sentences, or colored pixels to make images. A bunch of tiles forming a cave are, pretty much, just more tiles forming a cave. Okay, a bigger cave is impressive, and you can find stuff down there. But there's no atmosphere to it.)

The ending, in particular, was very anticlimactic. The authors elected not to make it a huge and difficult battle; that left solving a puzzle, finding a new item, or figuring out an important bit of the Way Things Work. All of these, in fact, went into the ending. But -- for me at least -- the timing was off. I found the item in the course of getting something else -- two plot threads coming together, as ordained. That's fine, but it left me thinking, gosh, I guess I can win now. The dialogue said that vast forces would now be arrayed against me, but in fact I walked across the island and did the final thing, and that was it. Run closing text (intended to give a shiver, but didn't manage it) followed by closing credits.

Oh well. Overall: The whole mess kept me intrigued enough to play for a bunch of hours per day, for a bunch of days. Some of that time was frustrated wandering around and trying things at random, and some was dealing with bugs (mostly fixed now); but quite a lot was continuous exploring. And I'm not going to argue with a game that has that much explorable stuff in it.

Availability: On Ambrosia's web site. It's $25 shareware; without paying, you can't get past a certain point in the plot, and you can't learn healing magic (which will slow you way down, trust me).

Macintoshness: Designed by Mac people for Mac people, and they did an acceptable job of it. Although that font is a little hard to read, in the smaller point sizes.

System requirements: MacOS 7.6.1; 10 megs free memory; 256-color display.

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