Cypher – Review


developed by the Cabrera Brothers

Disclaimer: The following review may get nostalgic at times.  The opinions expressed in the review belong to the author.  If you don’t like these opinions then please feel free to piss in a windstorm.  This review is very much based on and about my experiences with other text adventure games, as much as it based on my experience with Cypher.  Keep that in mind, and remember, all reviews are subjective.

It shows that I’ve been gaming for quite some time when I mention that I’ve played through quite a few text adventure games.  The Text-Adventure is a genre now, but the truth of the matter is, all adventure games on a Personal Computer were Text-Adventures “back in the day”.  There were no sub-genres, no action / adventure, and in the earliest days, no graphics, or even sound.  We’re talking so far back that computers had to be plugged into an oven outlet and cost exactly one years worth of salary.  It was a time when games were still considered something you play outside with your friends (preferably in the neighbors yard), and when the “video game” was looked at as a thing that kids played and only strange adults who spoke in tongues, dabbled with.

Yes, there were some arcade-y platformers as well during this time, but the plot was usually an insignificant afterthought, and the gameplay focused on a knobby-pixelated character sprite forced to search for a damsel in distress, which involved constant running and jumping in order to avoid pits, hazardous traps, and impaling your balls on row of razor sharp spikes.  As fun as those platformers were, they didn’t engage the player, nor did they have an engrossing and memorable story.  The simplistic by today’s standards design of text adventure games, made storytelling, atmosphere, and truly engaging gameplay possible.

What you were left with back during the 80’s and the Apple ][+ / Commodore 64 / Tandy /  Amiga era, was a type of game that relied heavily on the players imagination and aptitude to read, and the ability to type in logical one-word commands, or short command phrases.  These command phrases would allow for game-world exploration, puzzle and problem solving, and ultimately, story progression.  The idea was relatively simple in it’s execution, especially by today’s standards, but it opened up a whole new world in terms of video gaming and interactive entertainment.  As computers became faster and more sophisticated, some of these text adventures even contained static, but still effective, low-low-res graphics.

I’ve played through my fair share of classic text adventure games, some good, and some not-so-good, but I still find the idea fascinating, even today.  However, the text adventure is still very much alive and thriving, though in a smaller niche sort of way.  They still contain that familiar feeling of adventure and intrigue, but they are much less popular than other genres today, especially due to the availability of more exciting and colorful games.  What with the 9,428-bit graphics, and 27.1 Dolby-Dobly-Digital surround sound, holographic 360-degree televisions, brain-matter embedded in every computer processor, and hardware working with software to crank every single pixel, polygon, anisotropic, particle, and anti-aliasing effect up to “11”.  It’s no wonder they aren’t as popular as they used to be.

Still, you can’t hold a good game type down.  Even today, though most people don’t refer to them as text adventures and instead opt for a category called “interactive fiction”, which is an accurate description.  People still create and play this long forgotten game type.  Until recently though, production values in the text adventure genre, while being better than they were “back-in-the-day”, are for the most part low-fi or minimal.  So when I learned about the Cabrera Brothers extremely slick and polished looking sci-fi thriller and graphical text adventure game called Cypher, I was excited and eager to dive back into the original game genre that got me hooked on computer games in the first place.  Beauty, as we all know however, is only skin deep.

First let me start by saying that it’s obvious that the Cabrera Brothers have put a lot of time  and effort into creating Cypher.  It’s clear that this was a project built by a couple of guys who are passionate about their work on Cypher and who have their own fond memories and a love for the text adventure genre.  The amount of content, the graphics, and even the sound are a testament to how much effort has been put into Cypher.  That’s why it’s so unfortunate that Cypher is riddled with grammatical errors and poor spelling throughout the game.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the gameplay itself is convoluted and, it consists of overly complicated command phrases and an odd way of making trivial matters an illogical exercise in futility as you attempt to figure out exactly how you should be wording those command phrases.

It’s a shame that these problems stand out so much that they take away from what could have been such an awesome game.  The sci-fi atmosphere is just right, the hand drawn graphics are impressive, even the subtle music and sound effects add a much needed ambiance to this text adventure.  No matter how polished and shiny Cypher looks on the surface though, the story and gameplay ultimately fall flat due to the inconsistent writing, the abundance of  improper spelling and bad grammar, and the unfriendly use of it’s text parser.  It’s a very odd contrast to all of the positives that can be said about Cypher, with it’s sharp looking user interface, the detailed backgrounds, and the portrayal of a rich sci-fi world set in the 21st Century, and one that looks like a hybrid of some of the greatest cyberpunk stories such as Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic.

Let me just say that Cypher is a sci-fi text adventure filled with tension, mystery, betrayal, and murder.  None of this can be conveyed properly though, because while reading through the story I found myself having to re-read sentences three or four times due to poor syntax.  When games contain a few small errors here and there throughout the entire game, it’s not really a big deal since I can overlook some of the mistakes.  I’m no grammar-nazi, and I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes while writing or trying to convey the simplest of thoughts.  However, when a game, particularly a text adventure game, includes these problems that seem to occur with every other page of written text, that game then becomes much less absorbing and much more distracting than anything else.  It’s a little frustrating and even tedious having to deal with the amount of errors and guesswork involved in using the correct command phrases.  The engaging story and atmosphere become lost because of this, and due to the fact that the gamers focus and attention start to shift toward noticing these problems.

If reading through the generous amount text in Cypher is a mere problem that can be worked around and overcome with time and patience, then entering command phrases and working your way through the contrived text parser is Cypher’s Achille’s heel.  The shame of it all is the sheer amount of effort that was put into the writing and interaction is easily apparent.  This was to be a game made for text adventure enthusiasts and those curious gamers with a healthy imagination.  It could have been the greatest text adventure game, but instead flounders due to it’s poor localization.

The graphics and sound effects in Cypher’s are its saving grace.  In fact, they’re so good that they’re awe-inspiring.  This isn’t a comparison to next-gen graphics or sound, but for what might just seem like a text adventure, Cypher looks absolutely brilliant.  The entire game is a treat to look at, and although there are many times where the text fails to properly convey Cypher’s captivating atmosphere, the graphics and subtle sound fx make up for it in spades.  It’s a gritty, dirty, and dangerous portrayal of a not so distant sci-fi future and this setting is brought to life by the detailed artwork.  The music and ambient sounds have their place as well, and they do add another layer of depth to engross the player further into Cypher’s game world.

I really wanted to like Cypher.  The truth of the matter is, I still do.  There is a gem of a game here, though the gem itself is more of a Zircon than it is a Diamond.  There is a lot of style, and even a lot of substance to Cypher, but that substance lacks the lustrous appeal when compared to it’s style.  It’s hard to recommend Cypher as a text adventure.  A lot of work went into creating the game, but the most important parts of the gameplay is where the Cabrera Brothers should have focused more attention, at least before fully releasing the game as a commercial product.

With that said, I believe that there is still time to fix Cypher.  With a little more work, some additional spit and polish, and perhaps the hiring of a strong proof reader, Cypher could easily be the kind of a game that would receive a 9 out of 10 rating.

Text adventure games can be challenging while remaining fun.  Playing this type of game demands decent writing though, and the actual gameplay should be simple enough to get into, even if the game world itself presents problems and puzzles that prove to be more difficult than a point and click adventure.  Due to the obstacles found in what should be a simpler form of adventure game, I can only give Cypher a rating of 4 out of 10.

I truly hope that the Cabrera Brothers stay focused on Cypher and continue to improve it’s text parser while hiring some outside help to alleviate most of the problems found in it’s text by thoroughly proof reading the entire game and incorporating a more user friendly syntax for the command phrases.

Cypher is available for both PC and Mac users.  You should visit the Cypher homepage for more detailed information and to see why it’s a game that definitely deserves more fine-tuning and the kind of TLC that could make it an unforgettable adventure.

[  4  /  10  ]



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