The Problems Compound is a classic-IF parser-based puzzler by Andrew Schultz.
Schultz’s name is probably familiar to those of you who have been following the comp for several years. He is also the author of Ugly Oafs and Threediopolis, among others. (Those link to my reviews, which do have spoilers.) In the spirit of disclosure, I also beta-tested another of his games in 2014. The Problems Compound can be played online here while the comp is still going on. I downloaded the October 4 updated version and played it using Spatterlight.
Review with spoilers after the cut.
Schultz’s specialty in the past has been wordplay and puzzles, and both elements are present in The Problems Compound. Unlike the games I’ve played previously, though, thie one had significantly more plot mixed in with the puzzles. In a situation inspired by The Phantom Tollbooth, the PC is a socially awkward student who suddenly finds himself transported to a land where common phrases of speech are inverted to become real places, characters and objects. For example, shortly after arriving, you find yourself in “A Round Lounge” in “Broke Flat.”
The ultimate object of the game is to overthrow a despot, but first you must appease a wide variety of characters who stand in your way, often by finding an object that will solve their problems. This is a classic game setup, but it’s a classic for a reason. I enjoyed figuring out what each character needed and how to find it. Interspersed with the standard find-objects-and-do-a-thing-with-them gameplay were occasional logic puzzles. Some of these, including the one I would consider the hardest,* were strictly optional.
Overall, I had fun with this game. It’s a standard-style, but done thoughtfully and with humor. The setting, characters and props were sometimes surreal to fit the joke, but they were woven together more completely than in other Schultz games I’ve played like Ugly Oafs. The plot was light but cohesive. The NPCs were generally information-dispensing machines and problems to solve rather than fully fleshed-out characters, but the latter wouldn’t have been appropriate. I don’t always love dialogue by numbered option, but it worked well here.
I have a few minor quibbles. The ending felt a little anticlimactic – I wasn’t honestly sure if I’d gotten “the good ending” until I checked the walkthrough. I’m also bemused by the object that serves sort of as a sledgehammer to bash your way through most of the game without solving any puzzles – I found this object on my first play-through, before even encountering any of the puzzles. I’m not sure about the rationale behind including an object that makes the player not experience the game, but if there is such an object, I think it would be better to be slightly more hidden.
I was also a little disappointed when I realized this was not going to be much of a wordplay game – there are constant word jokes, which I enjoyed, but the author gets to make them all, not the player. It would be quite a different game that centered around coming up with the puns/reversals myself, but I would really like to play that game! But I can’t blame a game for not being an entirely different game.
I think The Problems Compound could still use a little more polish, but it was the kind of game I thoroughly enjoy encountering in the comp. Well done.
*The one I mean is found in The Belt Below, and I think it is actually wrong. Serious spoilers made invisible – highlight to view. The instructions given were pretty minimal. Specifically, there is no instruction that the solution must be unique. There are multiple combinations of answers that are logically consistent, then. I found one and input it – no dice. Problematically, when I put in an incorrect answer, the error message I got did not say something like “That’s not the right answer” but just “That isn’t a recognized verb…” I went to the help page, and got more confused. It starts by claiming that “Question 7 must be C.” I don’t see any reason why that has to be, though, since it was never stated that the solution is unique. Even given that 7 is C, however, there’s not a unique solution. Both ABADFACE and ABADAFCE are logically consistent – and if both of them are solutions, then the logic of why 7 must be C falls apart. I went to my best puzzle-solving friend and he also worked out that the puzzle is problematic… I’m not 100% sure if it’s due to unclear instructions or if the author made a mistake in the puzzle itself.