Review: Hadean Lands

By Sean Clancy 20 Jan 2015 0
There's also a Hot Topic and an Orange Julius. There's also a Hot Topic and an Orange Julius.

Paper is the most important item in Hadean Lands. That's odd for a text adventure, especially one wholeheartedly classic in form. More important here than hidden keys, improvised rope ladders and hackneyed riddles are ideas—rituals and obscure geological information, specifically—and ideas are written on paper. (Ideas are also occasionally free-floating energy halls invisible to the naked eye. But you'll figure that one out pretty quickly.)

Hadean Lands is a game about alchemy, where progress is measured primarily through the acquisition of knowledge. The genre-standard march of soon-to-be-unlocked doors and “impenetrable” safes is nothing but a series of trifles next to the synthesis of pure elemental forms. Rest assured you'll need to assume sure-handed mastery over the elements in order to... well, unlock bigger, more impressive doors and safes.

This is to say that Hadean Lands' greatest thrills come from achieving comparatively minor tasks in convoluted, subtly magical ways. As a greenhorn junior alchemist--or “swabbie”--on the planet-hopping (possibly dimension-hopping) Unanswerable Retort, your unnamed avatar is hardly a skilled pseudoscientist. Fitting then that the first ritual Hadean Lands throws your way is a cleaning ritual, written as half-lesson, half-chore by some passive-aggressive superior who expects nothing of you but delight for an opportunity to follow instructions. And, strangely, delight you will, if only because there's much left unexplained between how a ritual should work, on paper, and how a ritual can work—especially when taken into account next to every other odd bit of information you'll pick up exploring the Retort. The best part of knowing the rules is being able to bend them.

Now in principle any given ritual is already solved once you have the necessary formulas and alchemical reagents. Speak the appropriate words (presumably mind-bending stuff like “the categorical imperative” or “the Hermetic sealing”) at an alchemical workbench (“bound”) or retort, while using the right ingredients, and, hey, now you're removing tarnish from a pair of calipers or setting hunks of gold on fire.

No, go to MosesHightower, of Police Academy fame. No, go to Moses Hightower, of Police Academy fame.

The devil's always in the details, though, and Hadean Lands loves to admonish you for forgetting the little things. Odor is key to many rituals, for example, but so are contaminating odors, which means walking around with ten different uncapped fragrances and reeking of a Yankee Candle store explosion will tend to bork up your magic, as will trying to perform certain rituals in areas which, you know, smell. Other niggling details to watch out for: not waiting for a potion to simmer, not performing a ritual within the right “environment” (which is kind of like, mood, man—stick some moon stuff around and it'll feel all... spacey), not remembering whether a ritual follows Greek or Chinese symbolism, not phlogisticating your electrum, or not speaking the word of entension before adding the saline solution even though your instructions don't mention that until you've already poured the stuff in and, oh, crap, now it's all worthless. Just... crap.

If Hogwarts magic, with its user-friendly single-word commands and ergonomic wand-based interface, is Mac OS, then alchemy as presented by Hadean Lands is definitely Linux, with a high barrier to entry and a somewhat elitist set of core users ready to laugh at you on Stack Overflow in the mechanica lab. (Oh, and Windows... is probably some sort of blood magic that bites you in the ass with ironic wish fulfillment.) But, taking this conceit a bit further, one realizes that Lands' alchemy—like a good shell script—is meant to be adaptable as well.

This is the core mechanic in Hadean Lands: modifying rituals to suit new purposes. The game can throw a lot of information at you at once, and much of it can seem useless until you realize that every minor fact or half-remembered lecture (rosemary generates a “resinous” environment, orichalcum has a planetary association with Venus) has the potential to interact with every other ritual and fact you know. A simple example might be modifying a brass-specific spell (yes, they're that specific) to work on iron objects instead. Or, reversing a key word in a ritual to flip its effect. Simple enough. But wrap your head around this one—direct quote here: “... that the form or structure of a thing may be joined to the spirit or essence, thus replicating the thing itself, is the foundation of modern practice.” Oh, yeah, sure, everyone knows that. It continues: “But to apply it recursively, parsing the structure and spirit of the spirit itself, requires the utmost care...” Well, sure, that makes—ahh! Why are my wood chips on fire? Kill process kill process, CTRL-C dammit!

Ah, yes, the hilarious "Master Rector" joke. Heh. Ha. (Alchemy students don't get out much, as you'd imagine.) Ah, yes, the hilarious "Master Rector" joke. Heh. Ha. (Alchemy students don't get out much, as you'd imagine.)

To be fair, it's hard to actually screw up badly enough in Hadean Lands to cause lasting harm. Make a mistake during a ritual and you're not going to conjure up some homicidal Fantasia brooms--your spell will fail is all, wasting some of the Retort's scant few resources, perhaps. This is where Hadean Lands' second main mechanic comes in: at any point in the game you can choose to reset, warping to the starting room with the Retort back to the not-quite-pristine condition you find it in at the game's opening. This isn't a cheat—rather, it's a side-effect of the odd magic affecting the ship, presumably the same bad mojo that's trapped the rest of the crew and blocked off sections of the ship with impenetrable “fractures.”

Furthermore, this reset is seemingly necessary to advance through Hadean Lands. The trick is that, while the ship and your inventory go back to square one, the knowledge you've acquired remains locked in your unnamed ensign's noodle. So if you burn through all the various wood chips in the pyrics lab trying to create elemental fire, yeah, you can reset. More importantly, though, you could exhaust a resource in order to get your hands on some ever-valuable paper with a key ritual on it, reset, and then use the same resource to perform the ritual you (past you?) just learned.

Hadean Lands is an endlessly clever experience. Clever not just in terms of the puzzles—though the few half-reported early-game examples above should convince you of that—but as a user experience as well. The game's parser tends towards generosity when it comes to performing basic actions, and doesn't get into the semantics of “place vs. put” or “jump vs. dive,” though it will quite humorously scold you for trying to “use” something. (A sample: “The command 'use' is vague. Try a more specific action. Notes are for reading, dials are for turning, levers are for pulling, and so on.”) Much more welcome is the game's allowance for auto-solving rituals and puzzles you've already completed. After your first breath-holding potion, you can just type “perform breath-holding,” and Hadean Lands will hook an alchemist up, no hassle. The same goes for rooms you're capable of visiting and items you're capable of finding; a simple “go to X” will suffice if you're retreading steps after a reset.

The eighth distilled essence of mineral oil. Eighth. As in eight. As in there are at least SEVEN MORE to memorize. The eighth distilled essence of mineral oil. Eighth. As in eight. As in there are at least SEVEN MORE to memorize.

Gosh, it's difficult though. And a game that, for all its cleverness, can still present you with those niggling text adventure dead-ends that aren't brought about by failing to understand a puzzle so much as failing to notice the mention of a (hugely important, unlocked) closet in the middle of a room's “look around” text. That's a minor complaint. The game is, again, just through and through clever. But... since Hadean Lands is already so challenging on its own terms, it really stands out when the ages-old idiosyncrasies of the text adventure genre clash with Hadean Lands' novel alchemy mechanics. If you're passingly familiar with text adventures and interactive fiction, though, those hang-ups shouldn't be too frequent.

Speaking of... this past year was a good one for interactive fiction. Specifically a kind of interactive fiction that, in form and content, distanced itself from the grues and “GO WEST” calls of text adventures past. Let Hadean Lands be the obsidian to something like 80 Days' marble, then, or the earth to its aither. While so many good, new interactive fictions deemphasize puzzles and “gaminess” in exchange for storytelling moments, Hadean Lands is an faithful attempt to perfect a genre born in 1974 with ADVENT. You could say all text adventures are interactive fiction, but not all interactive fictions are text adventures, and Hadean Lands is a big “T”, capital “A”, state-of-the-art Text Adventure. GO TO: PLAY.

Review: Hadean Lands

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