Review: The Guides

By Kelsey Rinella 02 Sep 2015 0
Your clue is "mellon". If a clue is more obscure than the puzzle spoiled, that's okay, right?

When reviewing a game which consists of a series of obscure clues and simple cryptography challenges which gradually reveal a still-sketchy story, I owe my readers a confession: I've never played a Simogo game. I know! I deserve the tomatoes, but remember, it's your own screen. So, while I love puzzle games, I don't have the most obvious context by which to judge The Guides. I'm also not as smart as I'd like to be, so I used brute force tap-everywhere tactics on a few puzzles. In the large majority of cases, though, careful attention and informed guesswork is your path to quite satisfying solutions to The Guides' fifty puzzles.

These fifty puzzles often follow a pattern: find in a document a series of symbols and decrypt them using some relatively simple cryptographic scheme. Some puzzles reference earlier ones, either by replicating mechanics or picking out specific data from their documents which may not have been relevant to the earlier solution. This contributes to the impression that The Guides is more cohesive and progresses more deliberately than most abstract puzzle games. It's also quite good about offering automated systems to do the tedious work of applying ciphers, once you know which ones to use on what. Handy and thoughtful, that. Lots of other puzzle structures are also present, but the more unusual designs tend also to be the simplest to solve, lending the harder puzzles a degree of familiarity. It's a bit unfortunate that they aren't the most thrilling style of challenge.

It's not intended to be noticed by fascist busybodies. The game hides information quite cleverly.

There's a thematic challenge inherent in any puzzle game which purports to result from a sensible story: what possible reason could there be to expect that some random character with no cryptography background will be able to read the messages, but the sort of malevolent being/highly-placed conspiracy/enigmatic force from which the messages need to be hidden will find them totally baffling? The Guides seems to be working toward an answer, and the fact that many of the cryptographic challenges involve virtually universally familiar context might be a clue. But it's still an awful lot like watching 2001 without having read the book: you know there's some strange stuff going on, but you have to hope it wasn't explained, because you missed it if it was.

This leaves me hoping that the promised third chapter resembles 2010--a much more conventional film which offers straightforward causal chains and helps make its famous predecessor retroactively comprehensible. Okay, so Bob Balaban as an Indian-American computer scientist undercuts that, but the dude played Orr in Catch-22, so he's aces in my book. Plus, it's got Omni Magazine, talking dolphins, and two countries able to send crewed missions to Jupiter by five years ago. If The Guides goes in for some wacky alternate history in chapter three, I am absolutely on board. Whew--managed to segue back from talking about 2010 again. Don't even get me started on moral ambiguity in The Karate Kid. Recursion alert: there is a guide for The Guides available as an app, The Guides Compendium. This apparently adds quite a bit of background, but I've held off on it and can say that, though somewhat obscure, the game stands on its own without.

The shots are of varying caliber, but all precisely centered. Probably not sand people, then. Someone's shot holes in this priceless art! Is this the NEW New Criticism?

My biggest gripe with The Guides, as with Lara Croft GO, is duration. With some of these puzzles being quite quick and the story so bashful about revealing itself, the game really feels like it's just getting started when it ends. The promise of further additions via later update must reflect an unpleasant truth about monetization in the app age [all future content updates for The Guides will be free - ed.], one which is unfortunately likely to be quite hard on games which lean heavily on memories of prior levels, as this does. Contrariwise, a relatively minimal commitment on a game likely to stretch the dendrites may suit many of our schedules well.

A strong sense of mystery, puzzles which are either inoffensively brief or intriguingly maddening, a considerate user interface, and a promise of future updates add up to a generally pleasing experience. I usually find decryption about as exciting as doing math homework (or maths, for our British friends, dialogue with whom can also feel like an exercise in cryptography), but The Guides both removes the drudgery and distracts me with suggestive hints. Not sexy hints, that is, more like the sorts of things you read in a Lovecraft story before things get openly bizarre. Should tentacles in unexpected places fill in the intersection of that Venn diagram for you, just imagine something unsettling--marmite-and-anchovy pizza, perhaps. The sort of thing a twisted gaoler might serve the inmates in a writers' dungeon, if there were such a ridiculous thing deep below Mount Hexmap, at the coordinates encoded in this review.

The Guides was played on an iPad Air for this review. There are no coordinates encoded herein.

Review: The Guides

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