Review: Safecracker

Official web page; Daydream (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Writing and dialogue
Very good, if you like puzzle-hunts
Pretty good
Pretty good, except that you can lose objects
Forgiveness rating
You can lose objects, or fail to take them, and thus get stuck

I was wrong. I lay my mistake for all to see. "A big fat pyramid stuffed full of traps," I said (of Secrets of the Luxor). "What could be a better setting for a puzzle game?" ...Nothing, I was certain; nothing.

Oh, Z of little faith. A better setting for a puzzle game: what about the offices of a puzzle-box company? Huh? How about that?

Safecracker is an older game -- first released 1996 or 1997, I believe. Dreamcatcher has now picked it up, presumably to accompany Traitor's Gate, the new release by the same designers. But Safecracker, like Shivers and The Seventh Guest, comes from that Brass Age of adventure games: the era of clockwork. Little mechanical puzzles, piled together with the most joyous disregard of storytelling. You gotta love it.

Or... well, you don't actually gotta love it. Okay. But if you have a lingering fondness for it, as I do, you know what's coming.

The challenge is simple. Crack open every safe in the offices of Crabb & Sons (Safe And Security). It's a gentleman's bet; they invited you in, and if you make it into the T-1001 Master Safe in Crabb's private office, you'll find a job offer waiting for you. Or the One Ring, or the Key to Time -- who cares? Bring on the safes.

Unfortunately, the safes aren't really up to the weight. Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed playing. Some thirty-five safes are scattered around the mansion, each containing clues (or pieces of clues) to others. Running around, scribbling notes, trying this puzzle and that -- Safecracker very much captures the spirit of an interlinked puzzle scavenger hunt. But none of the puzzles, by themselves, seriously blew my mind.

Consider: I walked in the front door, turned right, and there was (WAIT FOR IT) a 15-puzzle. Yes. Hmm, let me see, 1996... nope, no excuse. For a game designer to put a 15-puzzle in an adventure game, even in 1996, is evidence of congenital hydrocephaly.

(To do it any time past 1998 is evidence of sexual impotence. Enough said.)

Really, most of the safes in this game are either opened with keys, or with combinations. The goal is then to find the key or combination in another safe. A couple of them went beyond this, into actual puzzles. A couple were based on common knowledge (although you could find reference texts around the game, reducing that back down to combinations). And -- the combinations were hidden or disguised or invested in all sorts of interesting ways. It wasn't dull. It just wasn't very challenging, either.

I liked the environment. The Crabb mansion clearly received much love and care and fun from the design team -- more than the safes, perhaps. If you were a puzzle-game designer building a house, you'd put in secret passages and hidden staircases and clever places to hide the cheese, right? And the offices of the safe-designers brightly reflected the personalities of the safe-designer-designers, if you see. I could feel them in there, hanging around in the corners. A nice place to explore.

One serious flaw is that you can screw yourself over, and not in a way the designers intended. You can only open each safe once. When you do, you'd better pick up everything inside -- or you lose it. There's no trickery here -- just click until the safe is empty -- but it's still a flagrant hole in the gameplay. A few resources can simply run out, too. Similarly, you can lose some keys by putting them into keyholes and then walking away (neglecting to either retrieve the keys or open the safe). Don't do it. The game has a time limit, too, but it's twelve real-time hours and I didn't come close to it. If you're worried, save after every safe-cracking, explore, and then restore to make your next move. You won't waste any time at all that way.

I look at the string of "pretty good" ratings above, and I wish I were recommending Safecracker more strongly. I got a kick out of it, and I feel like the weak puzzles were a minor flaw in a generally strong design. But that's silly. (And not silly in a deeply true way, either.) I think I'm just reacting to the designers' sense of what they wanted to build. If the clues had been more subtle, or the puzzles more intertwined, they would have rung the bell.

Look at -- the best inspiration here are the great puzzle-books of yore. Masquerade and the bee book by Kit Williams; Maze and The Practical Alchemist by Christopher Manson; Nick Bantock's Egyptian Jukebox. Recently, Planetarium, the web-game that I reviewed.

Some of these are easier, some harder; some give more explicit rules and some are entirely obscured. But they all manage a degree of... unexpectedness. The clues relate to each other in a surprising way. They have to, because without interactivity, there's no natural pacing of testing your guesses. Anything which is obviously right is immediately obviously right.

And that's the failure in Safecracker; it relies too much on the suspense of things that are unsurprising, but which you just haven't tried yet. When you get the third key for the three-key safe, you can say "Yay! Now I can go open that safe!" Which makes a good game, but not a great one.

(The flip side -- you can get stuck on a great game for years. The revelation is lightning, but how many people solved Masquerade? Game companies are selling entertainment, not frustration. But... you could sell a great game with hints. Everyone already sells hints, right?)

I suppose the conclusion I draw for myself is that I should buy Traitor's Gate next. For you folks: Safecracker is an engaging but basically straightforward way to kill a few hours on a weekend. Look everywhere and take notes, and you'll come out of it with the satisfaction of a mansion well searched.

Availability: Dreamcatcher's on-line store. Twenty bucks, as usual. Separate Mac and PC packages; get the right one.

Macintoshness: No problems.

System requirements: PowerMac, MacOS 7.5 or later, 6.5 meg RAM (8 recommended), 15 meg disk space, 4x CD-ROM. PC-side, that's Pentium 100 and 16 meg RAM (24 recommended).

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