Friday, March 1, 2013

Cypher: A Cyberpunk Text Adventure

I've always had a love/hate relationship with text adventures. I love them so much I even began to program one when I (briefly) learned how to code a little bit in Python. Alternatively, I hate them so much that, to this day, I think I've only completed one and it was a very, very short one. So what was I thinking when I bought Cypher, a modern cyberpunk text adventure that costs $15?

This is what I was thinking: I already own practically every game imaginable on Steam. I needed something new, something different, and something utterly mind-bending in terms of complexity. I know, I know: all of the older gamers gripe about how easy games are today, but I'm about to, too. I recently replayed System Shock 2 and wondered exactly why games are so stupidly easy these days. Even its spiritual successor, Bioshock, was considerably simplified. Simplified means, in a nutshell, less freedom.

And that's boring. I'll take getting stuck for several minutes, even an hour, as opposed to the usual gameplay that seems to mimic the tutorial stage from start to finish. And button prompts: WHY?!

a gameplay vid

So of course Cypher's promise that you can do anything you want appealed to me the way tabletop RPGs appeal to the people lucky enough to have friends willing to play them. I gladly paid $15 for the promise of a video game experience like no other. I don't regret spending that money, either, even though the game's far more complicated than I expected. And I do mean complicated. Like, you have no idea how complicated it is.

Here's the deal: you're a data smuggler who lives in a rundown building in the corporation-city NeoSushi. I don't understand why it's called NeoSushi, but there it is—deal with it. As far as evoking the feeling of cyberpunk I can think of no other video games that compete. Yes, it comes perilously close to the world of stereotypes, but damn it, as far as video games there really is nothing as perfectly cyberpunk as this.

Which leads me to the first "problem." This is a game with a very specific audience in mind. Chances are you're not that audience. I'm barely even that audience even though there have been entire months I have eaten, slept, and breathed cyberpunk fiction.

Before I go any further I want to tell you about all the things I liked: it looks great. This game is sleek and the artwork is fantastic. I love the "feelies" (advertisements and brochures from the game universe that you can print out for added flavor) and the overall feel is great. When you're not struggling with how to phrase something you want to do, the game really is hyper-immersive. Even so, it's hard to flat-out recommend it because most people would have no desire to play it. (No, this isn't a "I'm better than you" argument. If this game had come along just a few months earlier, I probably wouldn't have been in the mood for it either.)

What this game needs is a firewall for potential players. I'm here to provide you one. If, at any time, you answer "no" to the following questions, just go ahead and close this tab and go play System Shock 2 instead. This may sound harsh to the game itself, but damn it, I really want the people who would "get" this game to try it. I also want the people who won't get this game (that's pretty much everybody) to save their money so they don't give it a bad review.

Cypher firewall:

1. Do you like to read... a lot?
2. Do you like cyberpunk worlds, a la Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic?
3. Do you have a mother lode of patience?
4. Can you deal with the fact the developers' native language isn't English and this will make for a few grammatical errors and typos?
5. Can you deal with the fact that the text parser is extremely unapologetic at times? For example, I got stuck for several minutes because I couldn't figure out the exact phrase for getting through a window. Then I found myself stuck hanging from a hover car for several more minutes.

If you answered "yes" to all of these questions then you should probably check out Cypher. I enjoyed it a lot. It really is unique and not just because it's a modern day text adventure. But damn, it really is insanely hard.

I'm warning you.

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