Hadean Lands

Developer/Publisher:  Andrew Plotkin aka Zarf
Year Released:  2014

Review by Steve Metzler (June, 2015)
I first came across the name Andrew Plotkin over 15 years ago, back in the day when I was a reviewer and editor at Games Domain Review. GDR was one of the pioneering on-line games magazines, kicking off around 1995 or so. Andrew was a game developer even back then (in fact, Andrew has always been a game developer as long as I've known of him); though his schtick was interactive fiction (IF), whereas I was more into graphical adventures and RPGs at the time. But we shared some common ground in that Andrew used to review commercial games for the lolz, and I really enjoyed reading his reviews because they were from the perspective of a game developer. I could appreciate his viewpoint, and his inimitable way of critiquing games, being a software developer myself. And Andrew was reviewing some of the same games I was reviewing like Timelapse and Morpheus.

Fast forwarding to just a few months ago, I had somehow managed to get back into IF after a very long break from it. Having just completed 1893: A World's Fair Mystery (which had been languishing on my shelf unplayed for over 10 years), and with a renewed interest in the genre, I was looking for something else in the same vein to tackle. And then I stumbled upon Hadean Lands.

Hadean Lands came into being as a Kickstarter project, which began on 1st November, 2010. It hit its modest target of $8000 several hours later, and went on to eventually raise almost four times that amount. This allowed Andrew to give up his day job for a while to concentrate on IF, and IF tools, exclusively. The resulting game wound up taking four years to produce, and I'm pretty sure even Andrew was wondering if it would all be worth it in the end. But the game launched successfully at the end of October, 2014 - and Metz O'Magic is late to the party, as usual :-

As the game begins, you find yourself deep in the bowels of a starship that is apparently powered by... alchemy. But something has gone horribly wrong with the ship, and parts of it seem to be stuck in different places - or perhaps more accurately (and frankly, that's a bit of a stretch because I can't presume to see inside Andrew's mind) - different instants in time. In fact, the setting is reminiscent of that in one of Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels, in which a character has this incredible house where each room is on a different planet. Yes, I am digressing. But in these text adventures the visuals are all left to your imagination, and that's the place mine took me. Anyway, you are a lowly ensign, an apprentice alchemist, in some navy-styled military organisation. And it looks like it's going to be up to you to get the ship functioning again. So good luck with that, swabbie!

The puzzles in Hadean Lands take the form of alchemical rituals that you must perform in order to produce items that will get you past the game's various obstacles. These are not your ordinary obstacles though: cabinets that were in perfect condition just yesterday (well, according to the protagonist's memory anyway) are now so corroded they can't be opened, doors are covered in fungi, and other hiding places are locked tight with glowing alchemical symbols that you must figure out how to dispel. But someone is leaving bits of paper all around the place that tell you how to perform these rituals, and the various rooms contain all the necessary ingredients. It is up to you to figure out how to put it all together, and to get the damaged ship back in some kind of working order. A few of your crewmates are still on board, but they appear to be frozen in time and you can't interact with them - at least not in a conventional way. And what are these strange black marks scribbled all over the walls and ceilings supposed to mean?

As with all text adventures that are a cut above the norm, what draws you into the game the most is the care taken by the developer with how the environment is described - both for what it sets alive in your imagination, and also for what important cues it provides. The prose should be elegant, but not overly verbose. And I think Hadean Lands strikes a perfect balance in this respect. Here's a snippet from one of the rituals, early on in the game so as not to give too much away. The green text is what you're typing:

> recite simple sealing
You take a breath, trace the bound in your mind, and intone the simple sealing word.

The arc begins to glow palely around the brass pin.

> recite essential nature
You intone the word of essential nature. The metallic nature of the brass pin rises to the surface,
though with an indistinct shimmer.

But also, when you do something wrong, the game lets you know about it in an effective manner:

> recite elementary binding
You intone the elementary word of binding, but it echoes hollowly. There is nothing else in the
arc to bind the brass pin to.

If you make a mistake during a ritual, you can either recite an 'unsealing mantra' to power everything down, or even issue a string of UNDO commands to take you back to where you were before the mistake. Experimentation is encouraged by the game, and you can never get into any real trouble in Hadean Lands, in the sense of dying or anything. If you try to do something really stupid, the game will warn you about it and refuse to proceed. That's Andrew's manner of telling you that you'll need to find another way. However, there is an easy and consistent way to 'off yourself' in Hadean Lands, and it turns out to be an important game mechanic. There are some finite resources in the game, and once you consume them you will need to 'start over'. But the trick here is that you remember everything you have learned so far when you do this. And in Hadean Lands, knowledge is everything.

If you've played any IF at all, the first thing you will notice about playing this game for even just an hour or so is that it isn't quite like anything you've ever played before - and it couldn't be - for reasons that I shall try to elucidate. In most text adventures, you have to find things and pick them up, and in some cases drop things if you are carrying too much. In other words, inventory management is a chore rather than a feature. But not in Hadean Lands. You almost never have to pick anything up. Rather, the game remembers that you have visited the room where the item is located, and any time you require it to perform an alchemical ritual, you can ask the game to FIND it for you, and then TAKE IT. Once you are done with it, for the time being anyway, you can just drop it in any room and the game will remember that you did that.

But it doesn't stop there. The real power of this game is that it removes all the tedium that would exist if you had to perform all the steps of these rituals over and over again (you will recall that bit about 'start over' that I mentioned earlier). Say you had to do 50 different things to get through a particular locked door, including gathering the ingredients for and performing 5 different rituals. Well, the game remembers how you last did that and automatically repeats all those steps for you to take you beyond the locked door! Really, you need to see this in action to believe it. Pretty soon you'll be gallivanting all over the ship at will, trying to figure out how to unlock the next layer of puzzles. And layers they are indeed. Early in the game the rituals are pretty straightforward. But in the middle game, you will need to alter rituals in subtle ways in order to create something that you actually need from a ritual that gives you what you almost need. And in the final stretch of the game, resource management becomes paramount. You'll need to apply everything you've learned so far to make necessary substitutions in the rituals for those finite resources I mentioned earlier.

Andrew builds up such an incredibly believable, and consistent, alchemical world that at times you feel like you are really 'doing alchemy', and you become lost in the mythos of those bygone days (or in this case, perhaps it is future days :-) when people might have actually imagined this stuff was possible. It is simply one of the 10 best games I have ever played, of any genre. As embodied in Hadean Lands, the very roots of computer gaming - the humble text adventure - have come a long, long, way.

Stuck in Hadean Lands? Visit the Hadean Lands walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2015. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
I played using the Windows version, but it's also available for Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android (will run in Twisty interpreter).