Author: Robb Sherwin
Development System: Hugo
Cruelty Rating: Tough (save frequently and you’re fine)
Length Of Play: 2-3 hours
My Rating: 5
Awards: Best Individual NPC — 2004 XYZZY Awards
I fell in love with New Haz and its universe while playing Sherwin’s Fallacy of Dawn. The story in Necrotic Drift occurs mostly in a nearby town with an entirely different cast, though frequent references are made to the events in the first game. And while this entry into the series is more focused, I unfortunately found myself missing New Haz and its citizens.
You take control of Jarret Duffy, a D&D and fantasy buff who is in his 20s and aimless (a Sherwin staple). You are introduced to your mostly grade-A lowlife friends and your incredibly patient yet frustrated girlfriend Audrey. She comes dangerously close to being a manic pixie dream girl: kind of quirky, attractive, always available to Jarret despite their numerous breakups and his utter lack of maturation, and her existence here seems mostly to highlight the protagonist. We barely get to know anything about her despite a lot of opportunity. And we are continually told that Jarret is the only guy that has made her happy, even though we are never really shown (or told) why outside of his ability to make her laugh with referential humor. We get to know her a bit better in the epilogue as a person outside of Jarret’s world, but it still winds up being framed around his journey.
Drift has a slightly more mature story than its predecessor, though it plays like it was already written (dialogue and all) and then puzzles and conversation trees were shoehorned in anywhere and everywhere. The game is divided into four chapters, and the first three are more or less on rails. There is very little to do outside of talking to other characters and picking from very limited conversation topics. Objects highlighted in room descriptions or the game’s pictures are routinely not implemented (e.g. the photos in your bedroom). And during this time the characters we get to know the best are incredibly disgusting and are then never mentioned again.
So I was inpatient by the time the fourth and final chapter rolled around and we finally got to the game’s plot: a séance gone wrong at the mall where you work has dumped a horde of fantasy genre baddies in between you and the exit. Using your fists and your wits, you need to dispose of each creature in succession.
While I love this idea, the execution is really lacking. Jarret and his friends mostly underreact to the Pandora’s box around them, showing brief flashes of emotion before just sort of moseying around some more. Ergo, the tension that should be there is non-existent. While Audrey and your friends occasionally chip in with advice or support, it’s pretty much the Jarret show as he gets to save Audrey again and again while she gets a bit turned on. The monsters don’t interact with each other and generally stay put, allowing you to look around for the obvious key that unlocks their death. For example, you are explicitly told that a wraith can be killed by silver, and in the same room you encounter the wraith, the only object not locked down is made of silver. Puzzles do get a bit better as the game goes on (I especially like the solution to defeating the poltergeist), but by that time my interest had waned. And there’s a soft inventory limit that, while not a significant barrier to anything, is difficult to gauge and does nothing to serve the puzzles or the story.
Sherwin certainly made improvements with this game. I didn’t discover any bugs while playing. There were no confusing room exits. The parser understands more commands. And puzzles are better clued, if not over clued at times. And I likely would have forgiven the game’s faults if I had been entranced by the writing. While Sherwin characters have always been acutely clever (and do a lot of their self-reflection in parentheticals), it gets too much for me even at times. Admittedly, I am not a fantasy genre fan and have never played D&D, so the characters didn’t speak to me like the 80’s video game buffs in Fallacy of Dawn. But more than that, the characters rarely have genuine moments as they’re too busy trying to out-clever one another, and it gets exhausting. That being said, the writing is still above-average. I laughed out loud a few times and enjoyed the turns of phrase. My favorite example is when Jarret describes Audrey as having been in “various states of flabbergastation with me.”
The ending and epilogue really push hard for the genuine moments (with some huge text dumps) that were barely present in the main game. But as I wasn’t really invested in the characters, I wasn’t moved like I was with Fallacy of Dawn or Sherwin’s most recent game, Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are familiar with and enjoy the fantasy genre. Meanwhile, I look forward to playing Cryptozookeeper, the final game in the series.