Pentari:First Light Demo Review

I might as well get several things out of the way first, so that we're all coming from the same place with this. I don't like Howard Sherman. I think he's a horrible arrogant condescending asshole who makes interactive fiction look bad. I find his willingness to denigrate -- or worse yet ignore -- the contributions of the community highly offensive. I consider the man a disgrace on the basis of his marketing tactics alone. I loathe his politics too, but let's not go into that. One other point: as the above passage might make you suspect, I'm unwilling to give this unpleasant individual $20 of my hard-earned money, so this is the demo version of the game I'm reviewing. Fair enough -- a demo's good enough to get a feel. But with that out of the way, let's get to the game. I was reluctant to review this game, since I hardly want to give the man any encouragement. But, hey, it's an instructive exhibition, and with no apologies, and with no pretense of impartiality, I begin:

I have a friend who gives budding young researchers a presentation entitled "How to Give a Talk". In this presentation, he makes eye contact with the audience only infrequently, doesn't project, and stands in the path of his own projector. The overall result isn't the prototypical "bad presentation" (he doesn't mumble or lose track of what he's saying), but is prototypically inept. Which is part of the point, inasmuch as the students leave there knowing what to do.

If it weren't so clearly in earnest, I'd suspect Pentari: First Light of similar motivations. It is not a Bad Game the way that, say, L.U.D.I.T.E. or Slacker X is. If it were, it'd at least be amusingly pathetic. More's the pity, it is merely inept. To highlight a particular aspect: most of the words were spelled right. It is the worst piece of writing I have ever seen with this distinction. Here's a sample of the text, not chosen at random:

Slipping on the wet ground, you struggle for traction as you hunt your quarry in the drenching rain. Obliterating a band of merecenaries, you now stalk their ring leader. He's your key to understanding the unimaginable events in Delphin. With disbelieving eyes you bore witness to the wholesale destruction of buildings and the entire army of Delphin decimated as anarchic wizards executed a coup of the government itself. Innocent people everywhere ran for their lives, their panic-stricken faces permanently burned into your memories. Never in the history of the Empire has native soil been bloodied. Your heart thunders in your chest as your legs pump to keep up with the fugitive, your rage fueling it all. Turning a corner, your mind races over the events of the past few hours; your unit abruptly ordered to Delphin to defend against an attack and the shocking visage of a city under siege. Training overcame feelings and here you are.

This is not good writing. This is the writing of a person who does not understand the effective use of language. The first two participial phrases are both placed awkwardly and weakly; the second implies simultaneity of actions which are, presumably, sequential. Every noun has an adjective, and several unnecessary clauses are included. The word "visage" doesn't work in that context at all. A lot of the phrases are trite (e.g. "heart thunders in your chest", "burned into your memories"). This is, to put it simply, the writing of a person who has never read the DM4's advice on writing.

I can hear you crying foul already. I said this was not a randomly selected passage, and surely I looked through the work to find the worst piece of writing I could and then nitpicked away at minor errors, right? Wrong. The above-quoted section is the first paragraph of the game. It is the first thing you see when you boot the game. I wish I could say it's atypical. The writing doesn't maintain a consistent set of flaws throughout, but it's a rare paragraph which isn't beset by weak writing and poor phrasing, and by the occasional misused word. All in all, it is execrably written.

So, moving on from the writing, what can we say about game mechanics? Well, it's got gems like this:

You feel a slight vibration on the ground beneath your feet.

>feel feet
You cannot see any such thing.

>feel ground
You cannot see any such thing.

>listen to ground
You cannot see any such thing.

>open crates
You must tell me how to do that to some shipping crates.

An absurd number of objects are unimplemented, and if I were betatesting this that would take up a good page or so. I learn the name of a character without any reason. There are points which can be scored twice. The few NPCs respond only to very limited responses (including a guess-the-verb, and a few guess-the-nouns). What is implemented is done so adequately, but the lack of synonyms, clues, and scenery makes for a sparse work mechanically.

And that brings us to plot and characterization. Characterization is thin if only because the characters themselves are thin, with an added veneer of cliche: the defiant rebel, the depraved rock-musician, the upright conservativesoldiers, etc. The plot is also fairly workmanlike from the little seen, but that much really can't be divined from the demo.

I would not recommend Pentari: First Light. I am amazed that anybody would. It is poorly written, poorly crafted, and poorly conceived.

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