The Daring Mermaid Expedition is a new piece of interactive fiction published by Choice of Games LLC. Written by Andrea Phillips, the plot lurches along like a drunkard staggering home from the world’s longest pub-crawl. The fact that it was published under their own games label indicates serious issues with their editing process for this to have released in its current state.
The game begins immersed in a book – ‘shortened’ to TALATOARGMS – that your character is reading, but you are soon dragged out of your experience as a Royal German Marinological Scholar into the real world. There, you are a child on a boat, soon to have a chance encounter with a mermaid. Following the incident, you decide to devote the rest of your life to finding more about them, applying to become a Marinologist as you do so.
‘Decide’ is a strong word, though, as the jumping, childish thoughts of your character don’t go very far in explaining why you made the decision or why you can’t simply look for them yourself, bypassing any societies who hold no regard for acronym length. In fact, for interactive fiction, the range of choice available is abysmal.
When you reach the Marinological Society, you are able to impress a patron to help you on your journey – which is to investigate reports of mermaids on Broken Shell Island. These patrons also happen to be potential love interests and each is impressed by a different set of actions.
The story itself has an interesting premise, but it’s ruined by narration that never seems to age with the character. You’re stuck in the mind of an infant child for its entirety. Perhaps, you think, you can take refuge in the actions and behaviour of other characters? Not so. You spend a pitifully small amount of time interacting with any one of the people you meet and their characters are so neglected that important decisions involving them devolve from meaningful to downright confusing. There’s just no chance to get to know them and their actions are often poorly-explained and sometimes nonsensical.
As for the patrons, who apparently hold such sway over the course of your academic career… Well, there’s not much reason to care about them. While they’re well differentiated at the beginning, as soon as you set sail to Broken Shell Island their conversations and actions merge into one barely-distinguishable lump. The same words are said by the same mouths in the same setting with just the tiniest amount of variation. For characters claimed as so different to be shoeboxed in this way is a grave sin. You never even get a proper conversation with them before you have to choose which to impress.
This ‘text likeness’, the fact that choices seem to have very little impact on the story, continues throughout the rest of the game. What might seem like a massive choice may only affect one small passage on the next screen. A completely different moral path may lead to a suspiciously similar ending. The whole story may just pass you by without giving any sense of its ownership. This is most obvious when you have to side with one of two arguing characters. Whoever you choose, the consequences are exactly the same.
There aren’t even that many choices, so sheer complexity can’t be used as an excuse. Despite plenty of situations which could have been used to great branching effect – such as being able to choose for yourself what supplies to take on your journey – whole pages pass you by without any meaningful decisions. As in many Choice of Games titles, there are sometimes places where you can decide what to do to pass the time. Unfortunately, apart from in one instance, this game always lets you pick every option. There are no ‘you only have time for two of these’ moments to make the decision you make mean anything in the slightest.
As with other Choice of Games titles, your character has attributes which change over the course of the game based on your choices. Here you can waver between passion and academic rigour, persistence and spontaneity. These can have consequences later on and, while this is true – character stats do indeed change your available options – the exact points where they get added to or taken away from don’t often make sense. This isn’t helped by the fact that the stat names aren’t direct opposites and discerning which is which from the text is difficult as a result.
You can also accumulate injuries in the course of your playthrough, which is an interesting mechanic in concept, but the way its effects are executed tend towards being nuisances rather than genuine causes for concern. If the text varied more when you were injured, it would be easier to remember and the fact that it limits you later wouldn’t come as so much of a surprise.
Any attempt to convey a sense of time between certain events is met with abysmal failure. Most notably at the beginning of the game, you end one paragraph as a child, click a link and start the next as an adult with little effort to make the transition less jarring.
You’ll then find yourself dragged from place to place before the plot can fully develop. The stint on Broken Shell Island is the most grounded you’ll feel over the course of the game and it’s really the only chance to get to focus your full attention on what’s going on rather than where you’re being jettisoned to next. Everything winds its way up to a point where you feel the story’s climax brewing on the horizon and, perhaps, you look forwards to bringing your findings home.
But of course, that’s not to be. The game describes the ending well enough itself, granting you the achievement ‘well that was anticlimatic’ for finishing the game. It’s not just anticlimactic, though; it’s not really an ending. This is a story with two beginnings and a middle that manage to blend into each other and create a fine sense of being emotionally ripped off for you to enjoy when you realise you’ve invested in an unfinished story.
Perhaps, though, this happens to be a literary great, a masterpiece of writing the likes of which we’ve never seen before? Perhaps its many problems can be overlooked in favour of an intoxicating narrative? Not so. The writing style lacks any form of polish and, while by no means poor, may make your eyes twitch if you’re suspicious of dubious grammar and overused exclamation marks. In many places (as you can see in the quote below), it’s obvious where words are controlled by decisions and where they’re set in stone. Here, a character repeats herself, with the overall impression of a broken record:
Lucy rolls her eyes and turns away. “I really don’t have time for this,” she says. “Make them walk the plank.”
Lucy’s jaw sets in determination. “I think that’s about enough. Let’s get on with the plank walking part of today!”
Of course, it’s important to note that The Daring Mermaid Expedition is only £2.69, which is a lot cheaper than traditional books. And, at 71,000 words, it’s about the same length (especially considering the lack of variation). It may not be a waste of money, but it most certainly is a waste of time.
Compared to Choice of Games’ other games, this is not a quality product. If you want true choice and a well-rounded story, play Choice of the Deathless or Choice of Robots – or any of the others, really. Even Choice of the Dragon, one of their early games, has far more replayability and it’s free. With any luck, Choice of Games will soon review their editorial policies so games like this can stand on their own two feet upon release.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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