Review: KOMRAD13 Oct 2016 0
Released 13 Sep 2016
I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books when I was a kid. Being in the driver's seat of a story was awesome and I read all of them I could get my hands on, though many were published after I had moved on to the Dragonlance novels (Raistlin was so emo). One of the great pleasures of those books was exploring the different narrative paths and finding different endings. I would read through once and then go back, sniffing out every possible variation like a literary bloodhound.
A variety of video games have replicated that choose-your-own-adventure style, and many were contemporaries of the series from the very beginning, going back almost two decades to text-based adventures. Today, many of these spiritual successors can be found on mobile devices. The interactive-fiction genre has been growing in recent years. Games like the Lifeline series and a steady stream of offerings from Inkle have found success and caught the attention of mobile gamers. KOMRAD, the debut release from Sentient Play, is one of the latest examples in that genre.
The game kicks off with you minding your own business, probably reading a Pocket Tactics or maybe an article on the quadrennial American Presidential contest on your phone, when you get a series of anonymous messages. It seems that hackers have stolen your identity and used it for crime, lots of crime, very bad crime, putting you in a tough spot. The only way out is to converse with KOMRAD, an experimental Soviet military AI from 1985.
KOMRAD, a learning computer—whose name is roughly translated to COMPUTER MILITARY APPARATUS REVOLUTIONARY DAWN—is quite lonely, having had no contact with anybody for thirty years. I guess nobody taught it to play tic-tac-toe versus itself. KOMRADs mission is to guarantee mutually-assured destruction should the Soviet Union be attacked and its humans rendered unable to launch nuclear missiles. Your mission, and you have no choice but to accept it, is to wrest those nuclear launch codes from within KOMRADs memory banks and hand them over. This is the only way out of the mess you’ve found yourself in.
When you show up KOMRAD thinks you are Professor Ivan Chekov (tough to get much more Russian than that) his creator and only friend. One of your first choices is whether to play along, pretending you are Chekov, or come clean about your identity. The choices you make while chatting with KOMRAD will not only affect your life, but could have disastrous consequences for all of humanity.
The game is chat based like the Lifeline series. KOMRAD replicates a couple different interfaces. There is both a modern chat app, when you’re talking to your anonymous contact, and the green on black of old-school mainframe computers when interacting with KOMRAD. The two different UIs make it very easy to know exactly who you are chatting with during the story.
There are some built in delays in KOMRAD, though not nearly as many as in Lifeline and it will alert you when it is time to resume. The story is interesting and I really enjoyed my first pass. The pacing was well executed: I had moved on to other things while waiting for KOMRAD to compute its way through a task. When KOMRAD was ready to proceed we went from that hour-long break to break-neck speed as the plot thickened and snapped my attention back to what was happening. It's not a particularly long story, I played through it in just a couple of hours including down time, but it was entertaining.
Like in Choose Your Own Adventure books you're meant to replay KOMRAD many times to explore the different endings, and the game helps facilitate this. In the books you could stick a bookmark (or finger) where you made a decision and go back to it later to choose a different path for your adventure. KOMRAD lets you go back to the start of any chapter rather than the beginning, which is a necessity. There's also a speedy setting to move more quickly through the content once you've become familiar with much of what happens.
Unfortunately, it is on these multiple replays that KOMRAD breaks down. Many decisions are ultimately illusory and lead to the same place. One chapter in particular seemed to be a direct pass through. None of the decisions I made directed me anywhere else but the start of the next chapter. There are also a couple “quizzes” as KOMRAD is getting to know you. One is a “game of wits” and regardless of how you answer, I tried both full marks and obvious fail, the result is that the “SCORE NOT IDEAL BUT SUFFICIENT TO PROCEED.” I wouldn’t want the game to come to a screeching halt based on the results of the quiz but it would be a perfect spot to stretch things out a little bit or at least have a bit more variety in the responses.
This is to be expected to some extent of course, interactive fiction can’t really be a sandbox game. However, I would have liked for the narrative wild-goose chases to go a little further afield. Something to strengthen the illusion that I had a lot of options would greatly improve the experience.
In this type of game endings are key. KOMRAD has eight endings. Most of them are amusingly bad, especially for you. One is good and sets up a sequel game. While these endings were good I wanted more. Maybe I'm spoiled. Choose Your Own Adventure books had anywhere from twelve (when the franchise was winding down) to forty different endings. While I don't expect forty endings in a $3 game, more than eight certainly would have improved replayability.
The Cold War flavor and humor of the game is funny at times and KOMRADs songs (something you never got from the books!) made me laugh out loud. Ultimately, however, the lack of narrative depth diminished my enjoyment and caused me to lose interest quickly. I wouldn’t say the only winning move is not to play because I really did enjoy my first read and there’s some good stuff here. If the story was longer and still fun I would give this three stars, but a $3 game that clocks in under an hour (setting aside built-in breaks) and lacks strong replayablity just isn’t enough value. Interactive fiction die-hards might want to pick this up, but for everybody else I'd recommend sticking to Lifeline and Inkle titles.