April 17, 2004

Plundered Hearts review

An unusual game for Infocom, and a good introduction to interactive fiction.

Note: The following is a cross-post of a review I wrote on MobyGames of Plundered Hearts, an Infocom interactive fiction / text adventure published in 1987.

The Good

This is the only Infocom game I’ve played so far (with the possible exception of Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur) in which I actually felt like I was "playing a role" other than myself–partially because the main character is female and I’m male, but I think there’s more to it than that. The protagonist actually has personal interests in the game–she’s trying to rescue her father from the clutches of an evil villain, and there’s romance between her and another character, which implies that (if the story is to be immersive) the player needs to identify with the main character to a greater extent than they would with, say, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

As such, that’s one of the things I liked best about this game–the character wasn’t just a generic placeholder for myself. The protagonist is also quite independent and believable, making her one of the few good female role-models in modern computer games, putting her alongside the ranks of Grace Nakimura of the Gabriel Knight series and April Ryan of The Longest Journey.

The plot was also good, albeit formulaic–if you’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s a little bit like playing the role of Elizabeth Swann as the main character, only without the funny parts. I thought the conclusion, in particular, was pretty exciting, and the puzzles are logical and satisfying.

The Bad

The beginning of the game, located on a ship, features some room descriptions that don’t give you all the directions that exits are located at, which was annoying, especially given the fact that the navigation system was a little unfamiliar because you’re on a ship.

Being a "period game", I thought a few descriptions were a little terse. A lot of objects you look at have the generic "you see nothing interesting about this object" type description, which is fine when you’re looking at say, a screwdriver in a contemporary setting, but not when you’re looking at an unfamiliar and exotic object in the 17th century. For the most part, though, the game still provided a good sense of atmosphere.

A few of the NPC’s were a little wooden–this was one of the big challenges of the game, I guess; since it’s not a comedy or a "cartoonish" game like many of Infocom’s other games, because of the heightened level of realism and character relationships, the NPC’s need to be very interactive to be believable, especially the characters of your love interest and your father. Unfortunately, the game falls short a little here, and 99% of the things I tried to talk to them about resulted in a bad generic response like "He fails to notice you’ve spoken" or a very terse one like "I despise that man."

The writing, although generally good, wasn’t quite up to par with that of other Infocom authors like Brian Moriarty. There were also a few contrived events that took place to reveal information about the plot, such as when your character overhears a character talking to himself at length about his evil plans, which just seemed kind of silly.

Finally, the romance between your character and her love interest feels a little, uh, "forced" at the beginning, in a very trashy-romance-novel sort of way, but as the game goes on I either got used to it or it started feeling a little less forced, I’m not sure which.

Like most Infocom games, just because you’re still alive doesn’t mean you can actually win the game from the point you’re at; fortunately, this game gives a good indication of when you’re doomed, and it’s short enough that even if you have to replay it from near the beginning, it’s not that big a deal. As long as you save frequently (and under different filenames), this shouldn’t be a problem and will prepare you well for the harder Infocom games, if this is your first.

The Bottom Line

This was the second Infocom game I won, after Wishbringer. As such, it was a good level of difficulty for a newbie to puzzle-based IF; slightly harder than Wishbringer, but not as difficult as many of Infocom’s "standard" difficulty level titles like Hitchhiker’s and The Lurking Horror.

Its flaws aside, I think that the game is actually one of the most memorable of Infocom’s that I’ve played so far; it’s a very standard genre piece, the characters are all archetypical (with the exception of the strong female protagonist), but it’s also unlike any other Infocom game I’ve played and it’s well-executed. Just about everything in the game gives you a pretty good sense of satisfaction, from solving the puzzles to defeating the evil villains and saving those you care about.

© Atul Varma 2020