Review: Shivers

Sierra (creators).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Pretty good
Adequate, though small
Mostly good
Very easy to very hard
Writing and dialogue
Forgiveness rating
You can never get stuck, but you can get hurt and lose progress if you make mistakes. Save frequently.

I'll try to keep this short... as if that ever works. But Shivers is an old game. 1995, if I read the copyright dates aright. I picked it up, used, on a whim. And wound up having a lot more fun than I expected -- although I certainly had to make allowances.

The big problem is the obvious one: Shivers comes from the era when graphical game designers knew for a fact that the puzzles were everything. The same murky pool of game-stuff as The Seventh Guest. This time the puzzle-obsessed lunatic built a museum, not a mansion, but you know it's going to have soup cans in it somewhere. Or something.

The wind-up: your annoying teen friends dare you to spend the night in Professor Windlenot's haunted museum. That's all. Naturally you find your way inside (by solving puzzles). And then this thing rears up out of the underground pool and... attacks you. Drains your life essence. And then you knock over a jar and start to learn what's going on...

Well, it's not complicated. I'll leave the background to your own exploration, but the structure of the game is this: ten ixupi, evil Mayan spirits, are lurking around the museum. There are also ten pots and ten lids. Find a matching pot and lid, and you can capture the associated ixupi. (Ixupus? Never mind.) Capture all ten, and you win.

It's a classic plot-token game, but it's put together more cleverly than you might think. There are twenty major puzzles, hiding the twenty tokens, but they also pace your exploration of the museum. Many of the puzzles give access to new areas, or clues to other puzzles, with the pot or lid along as a bonus. That works well -- much more motivation than if every puzzle gave you an identical reward, checkmarks on the plot tally.

In addition, there's a strong random element. The pots and lids are arranged randomly. Also, the ixupi move around; a spot may be safe one time you pass by, and dangerously inhabited the next. (You can usually guess which ixupi is nestled in a particular place, both by the location and the distinctive sound... but I won't give that away either.) If you disturb an ixupi, you get hurt; if you try to capture the wrong ixupi with a given pot, it's snatched and hidden elsewhere in the museum. I won't say there's a whole lot of replay value -- most of the fun is puzzles, which are invariant -- but there's a sense of looseness and flexibility that most other, more narrowly-plotted games lack. The ending channels down quite naturally, with only a bit of hand-of-god plot manipulation, so that the last ixupi is always captured in the same place and leads straight into the end-scene.

The environment is a lot of fun, too. The outside grounds, where you start, are a bit crudely done, even for the era. But the inside is charmingly rich and detailed. It's big and complicated. It's got secret passages. It's a museum of mysteries, strange phenomena, and folklore -- pure crackpottery, in fact. Professor Windlenot was a credulous loon and a showman, a P. T. Barnum who believed his own stories even as he faked up exhibits to describe them. His personality is the best-developed aspect of the game, gesticulating cheerily from every corner of the four-story folly that he tried to inflict on the public. Yes, yes, I liked it. You get the idea.

The puzzles themselves range from genuinely original ideas, to interesting variations of standards, to a couple of really moldy classics. (A maze. Mastermind! Even in 1995 they should have known better. The jumping pegs puzzle, fer cryin out loud. You can bet I went straight to the Web for a solution to that.) A few were seriously challenging; a few more were trivial; most were in between. There are clues piled on clues in places; clues scattered everywhere, in every medium. Given that and the broad, explore-everywhere structure of the game, you wind up having to keep the whole game in your head at once. There are always large pools of puzzles and clues to be matched up. Yum. If you're going to have a puzzle-fest, that's the way to do it.

On the down-side... I don't know who came up with the inventory management, but he or she should be slapped. You can only carry one object at a time -- a pot, a lid, or a matched pair. So every time you find a new token, you have to put down the one you were holding. Back where you found it, or in another hiding spot. You can't gather them all in a convenient place. (Not even the exhibit hall they originally came from.) This is annoying and stupid.

It also exacerbates another problem: the place is fun to explore, but by the end you've spent a lot of time just going back and forth. Some secret passages speed up travel, but not enough. Some sort of "go straight there" option would have helped a great deal, although I don't see an obvious place in the interface for it.

The manual is pretty awful as well, although I suppose I shouldn't be paying it much attention. You shouldn't either. It explains the story background outright, spoiling the careful pacing of revelation that's in the game itself. And the "getting you started" walkthrough is about the clumsiest piece of info-dump narrative I've seen in many a game. "I found a strange-looking earthenware object... perhaps this was one of the talisman lids he had talked about? I took a closer look by clicking on the eye on the toolbar." Cringe.

I'd guess I spent fifteen or twenty hours on Shivers. More than I usually do on graphical adventures, even the modern multi-CD extravaganzas. On the other hand, a lot of that was flailing around, battering myself against puzzles, or trying to find more clues. I got seriously annoyed more than once. (I nearly microwaved the CD when I hit the jumping pegs puzzle.) But, in the end, I enjoyed it. And the ending left a couple of ends cunningly loose. I'll be on the lookout for the sequel.

Er, assuming the sequel was ever published for the Mac.

Conclusion: Worth grabbing if you see it in the remainder bin.

Availability: Ha.

System requirements: System 7.1, 68040 or better, 5 megs free RAM (8 on PPC), 256-color display. Yes, that old.

Macintoshness: Terrible. No menu bar; the options for saving and restoring are modal, badly designed, and don't use Mac file dialogs. Feh.

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