Review: The Daring Mermaid Expedition

By Martijn Schuth 24 Feb 2016 0
You like art in your games? This is it. You like art in your games? This is it.

When Dave gave me The Daring Mermaid Expedition as my first assignment for Pocket Tactics, it came with an curious warning: if you’ve never tried a Choice of Games book before… well, be ready. They’re a bit different. I hadn’t, but my curiosity was piqued. On top of that, its theme definitely appealed to me: Pirates! Adventure! Mermaids! All set in the claustrophobic confines of the academic world. Oh yeah!

The premise of the game had me hooked from the start. I’d be taking on the role of a young scholar whose mission it was to gather evidence and to convince the academic society of the existence of mermaids. Being the scholar that I am in real life, I naturally decided to jump into character right away and do my own research. Not on mermaids, but on the people responsible for bringing this work of interactive fiction to our electronic devices.

This 71,000-word interactive story was written by Andrea Phillips, a transmedia storyteller and game designer who has worked on the “narrative pedometers” Zombies, Run! and The Walk, among other things. On her website you can find examples of her fiction; short stories abounding in all sorts of fantastical creatures, many of them quite dark in nature. The Daring Mermaid Expedition (TDME from now on) is an altogether different affair. Its tone is lighthearted and could even be suitable for a young adult audience. In fact, it takes place in the Lucy Smokeheart universe; a Kickstarted book series of twelve episodes about a female pirate on a mission to save her brother and secure his treasure. [a series my 10-year old son loves, by the way -ed.] While TDME uses characters from that universe (including the protagonist herself,) you don’t have to be familiar with Lucy Smokeheart to be able to enjoy TDME.

Lord von Tubingen was my nickname in college. Lord von Tubingen was my nickname in college.

Research completed, it was time to move onto the game itself. As I noted earlier, your mission is to present evidence for the existence of mermaids to the Royal Society. In this case the Royal German Marinological Society, an eclectic (and conservative) bunch of dusty scholars among whom four stand out. These four have distinct personalities and part of your effort should be focused on gaining the favor of one of them to become their protégé. Having such a powerful patron will surely help you in your quest, right?

Your mission can either be a purely scholarly pursuit of truth or turn into a more passionate and personal affair. It is entirely possible to put aside academic ethics and solely indulge in your infatuation for these mysterious creatures. It’s a fine line you have to walk and an interesting concept for interactive fiction, potentially increasing your options and adding replayability, especially considering the game has ten different endings. Apart from this, you should also focus on collecting solid evidence to be able to convince the Society of the existence of mermaids. Again you have the option to use a scientific approach or to play it by ear and follow your intuition.

Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more! Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more!

And speaking of these mermaids, these are not your run-of-the-mill creatures of the Ariel kind. Instead, they are ferocious sea monsters whose greatest joy is not to be part of your world, but to tear the flesh right off your face. This was actually refreshing for me, after countless viewings of The Little Mermaid and episodes of H2O: Just Add Water. Those of us with pre-teen daughters [and some of us with pre-teen sons -ed.] know all too well what I'm talking about.

All of this sounds great. These shifting and conflicting interests, combined with an interesting premise should, in theory, make for an entertaining read with plenty of options and interesting choices. In theory, because I found the overall experience a bit too shallow. The writing is really fast-paced and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, in this case I would have liked it to be a bit slower with more time and space to flesh out the world in greater detail.

The same applies to the characters. The story moves along so fast you don’t have the time to get to know the characters and to connect with them (and therefore care about them). With hardly any background, some of the characters actions or reactions are just plain odd. The potentially interesting patron system is never really worked out in much detail and the same goes for research opportunities and data collecting. There is just not enough story to work with.

The choices you are presented with throughout the game don’t help either. Most of the time they are generic and have no real impact on the story. Sometimes I spent minutes trying to decide on the best course of action but on a subsequent playthrough it turned out that the opposite choice had exactly the same result. The game does have ten different endings though, so it is possible to change the storyline and outcome with your choices. It’s never really clear however when these pivotal moments present themselves.

What if I have a passion for academic rigor? What if I have a passion for academic rigor?

All this results in a very short experience. My first playthrough took me about an hour and a half, and each subsequent playthrough about 25 minutes. Aside from the ten different endings, the game also has 32 achievements which encourage you to play the game in a different manner, supposedly adding replayability. I have to be honest, I haven’t found all ten different endings and kind of lost interest after four playthroughs. I suppose that’s what the word “daring” in the title refers to: a challenge to find all endings and unlock all achievements. In my case I wasn’t up to it.

The app itself is sparse, as I gather is the case with most, if not all Choice of Games books. I realize we’ve been spoiled by the likes of Sorcery and 80 Days, but a little more attention to detail would have been nice. Apart from the loading screen, you won’t find a single graphic or illustration here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing of course, and I’m sure it has to do with the style of Choice of Games. At least the interface doesn’t get in the way of the reading experience.

I don’t mean to sound all negative about TDME. It is a pleasant and cute title with at times witty writing, although I much prefer Phillips’ short stories found on her website. It is a good option if you’re looking for an entry-level work of interactive fiction. I’m sure it’s a perfect fit for on the bus to work, but I guess I had expected a bit more in terms of substance and depth. In spite of the interesting premise, it failed to turn into a grand, sweeping adventure. For me, “cute” and “pleasant” are not enough in this case. I am however interested in trying another Choice of Games title, so maybe I should try one of the favorites around Mt. Hexmap. Choice of Robots and Champion of the Gods get bantered about quite a bit.

All things considered, I would recommend The Daring Mermaid Expedition only to diehard CoG fans, to someone who is looking for a light, entry-level gamebook or who doesn’t have a lot of time on their hands to really delve into a complicated and multi-layered story.

The Daring Mermaid Expedition was played on an iPair Air 2 for this review.

Review: The Daring Mermaid Expedition

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