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A swift ascent

  • NTC3
  • 02/13/2017 11:57 AM
  • 1378 views
The Swallow’s Descent is a detective game in a grounded fantasy setting. It was made by a team of mjshi, KatanaHiroshi, psy_wombats and InfectionFiles for the last year’s McBacon Jam, and completed in a month. It was left largely forgotten since then. Given the level of execution here, this, to my mind, is a mystery to rival one at the core of the game itself.

Gameplay

Again, this is a wholly story-driven title, like many I've played recently. As such, you don’t do anything much more active then walking around, and it’s all about the enormous volume of the dialogue and the item description. I’ve already noted the ability of psy_wombats to write description well in the Guild Raider!, but he and his team have really outdone themselves here, and so just about everything you find in the rooms is described, from cracks in the walls and exposed plaster prompting comments on the building’s age and/or the (lack of) skill of the resident architect, to the character-expanding notes on others’ belongings and all the way to those jokes that only make sense in games. You know, those which subtly mock you for trying too hard, without being too obnoxious about it (contra Sore Losers or Fragile Hearts saga.) Jokes like “And here we have another specimen of a very fine pillar. Just the finest.” or “Full to the brim with air and empty space.” about various empty crates. The team even managed to come up with entertaining comments for those RTP paintings you always see around the place in VX Ace games:



Understanding how much all this writing contributes to the experience, and how frustrating it might feel to find a plot-advancing event “too early”, the game actually makes an extra step towards such players, and presents you with the option to “Move on to the next scene” or “Keep exploring”, just in case there was more stuff you wanted to check out. It’s this kind of consideration for the player you tend to truly value after encountering countless games with needlessly obscure or poorly thought-out mechanics.

Aesthetics (art, design and sound)

The OST and sounds are largely RTP and the Presence of Music/Eric Matyas resources, which is entirely understandable for a contest game. It’s used pretty well, which is all that matters. Visually, the menu screen doesn’t give the best of impressions here, being dominated by the rendition of protagonist’s face which looks rather crude due to its very thick linework. I would rather suggest changing it to a rendition of the titular swallow, or the like. Thankfully, the actual in-game portraits are much nicer, using both finer lines and softer colours. Characters' expressions also change believably after practically every line, often making them a joy to look at. Their artist, mjshi, had really contributed a lot to the feeling of this project.



As expected, the mapping is VX Ace RTP, but it’s used notably well here. On the micro level, we get a few screens that really sell the idea of this being a monastery, rather than any other VX Ace mansion/palace thing. On the macro level, the overall area design does a lot to make the monastery feel believably large, and larger then its maps actually are. From every corridor on the ground floor having a door going into the central courtyard, to the story-related secret passages opening up further areas when you start to get tired of what’s already on offer, to the ability to enter a watchtower near the end, for no real reason besides getting some fresh night-time air and taking in some nicely contrasting visuals.



Storyline

The camera pans down from the mountain peaks to the snow-covered pines around the mountain road below. Said road is lonely, save for a single stagecoach. This opening is reminiscent of The Hateful Eight, and likely intentionally so. Moreover, the trio inside the carriage are only on somewhat friendlier terms with each other. On paper, they’re the diplomatic mission of Salemsvall, heading to the neutral St. Hyssmark’s monastery to negotiate continued peace with the neighbouring Ytteria, a nation with a swallow as its crest. In practice, Ambassador Belgrave has absolutely no interest in peace, much to the frustration of the junior diplomat Krissa, who is dismissed as an idealist in spite of Salemsvall conclusively losing the last war. It seems he doesn’t dare to call for a war outright only because he doesn’t want to lose his comfortable station and unearned reputation as a result, and would rather let it all fail through inertia. He also clearly enjoys the resulting duplicity way too much, even when it doesn't go too well for him. Here's an example:





Once he actually meets the Ytterian representive, though:





Yeah. Belgrave is about as suitable for the job as the British Foreign Secretary.

To be fair, he does have reasons for thinking that way. However, they certainly don’t justify his overriding propensity for kissing up and kicking down. This is highly unfortunate for our protagonist, William Byske, who is a field agent of Salemsvall's secret service, ARC, assigned as Belgrave’s bodyguard while being disguised as a cook (apparently, caps with chevrons on them are just what Salemsvall cooks wear.) Nevertheless, said disguise gives the Ambassador a blank cheque to insult him however he likes, and justify it as a way of keeping his cover story credible. Of course, while the Ambassador might praise practically everyone and everything with sufficient influence before their face, he’s still bound to disparage them soon after they leave his earshot. Sometimes, he shifts uneasily between the two opinions within the same conversation, probably fooling no-one. Yet, as you learn more about the Ytterian delegation and the “hosts” at the monastery, you’ll soon find they’re playing the same game, and are only somewhat better at being subtler about it.

After all, while the inevitable Ytterian counterpart to William’s role, Sylvia Saro, might’ve been luckier than him at being assigned a higher-class role of a scribe (which means she gets to sleep in the guest quarters and not eat at the servants' table, among other things), she still lets slip rather revealing remarks like “That’s my job.” when he questions her desire to know more about various weapons, etc. present around the monastery. He makes his fair share of mistakes, too, so they identify each other soon enough. Meanwhile, the Ytterian “Ambassador” is literally a general who won the last war for his country, and cares little if they resume again. Monastery’s Cardinal Kol and Ytterian Ms. Zweibrucken have by far the most experience at keeping up friendly demeanors, but neither is wholly successful at suppressing less-then-fortunate rumors. Meanwhile, Holsten Tott, a painter/architect/poet/novelist, is both a variably-skilled artist and a variably-useful tool for several people’s agendas, whose position allows for the sort of friendly, earnest, yet also out-touch demeanor that leads to gems like “If your work is artistic, delicate, divinely-inspired…Even you will find something for you in life!” as an advice to our “cook”. Only “Brother John”, the worst monk ever with a scar, a ruffian’s accent and an inability to read, doesn’t try to hide his bad demeanour to anyone at all. It sticks out way too much at the start, even for a red herring, but he has reasons for it as well, even if they take a while to surface. He gets a few good lines too, like “Every old monk can puke up words onto a page. Show me another who can cook!”

In all, you can already feel a few clear rifts even as everyone tried to respect the formal spirit on each and appear friendly to each other. This all boils over after our Ambassador is in fact murdered, and has the titular swallow (Ytteria's symbol, remember?) stuffed down his throat. This gruesome touch was clearly meant to either send a message by the Ytterians, or to frame Ytteria for committing the crime, much like the last murder of its kind was. William is thus forced to reveal his role and show that A in ARC stands for “Arcane”, as he places a shield over the entire monastery making it impossible to go in or out for the next 12 hours. Thus, he denies a chance to escape for any assassin, and makes it possible to locate them. However, it still doesn’t block magical communication through enchanted gemstones, and so both Salemsvall and Ytteria begin pulling troops to that place as soon as William and Sylvia alert their respective high commands, with neither country really wishing to waste a good pretext to go to war. You get the updates on the situation in the outside world from your superior officer, Anna (who is just as believably flawed as everybody else in the game), which is a decent way of building up tension as you struggle with investigating what actually happened.

The rest is probably best discovered on your own. I’ll just say that while the investigation narrative might lack the tightness and constant tension of something like Shine, it makes up for that in its greater warmth. It also stays wholly coherent through the volumes of conversation, as the characters guess at just about every functional possibility on their own, and almost immediately find the reasons why those wouldn’t work, and then double-guess the veracity of said reasons. By the end, you’re allowed to make a guess of your own, through choosing out of literally every single possible scenario, before you’re shown the true resolution regardless. The ending is fine in the moment, and it makes more sense as you think more about it. There’s even an unexpected irony in that the culprit’s plan might not only have worked, but led to a pretty good outcome for both them, and everyone else, if it wasn’t for the tiniest mistake made. Afterwards, there are also the humorous ending slides for every character, just like what Guild Raider! had, and which end the whole thing on a pretty good note.

Now, typos for the developer team (it might seem like a lot, but bear in mind there’s a lot written in this game):

“Frederick Belgrave. I can’t wait to work with (you?) on this
“Saluations! Welcome one and all!”
“I’m pretty sure he’s (not?) interested in peace at all.”
“Artisnal cheese.”
“Ms. Zweibrucken has is the smart idea”
“Well I’m afraid the ambassador has they key, now doesn’t he?”
“No one strangles themself, eats a swallow, then bashes their own skull in.”
“probably has probably already called the Ytterian military.”
“I would buy more then few drinks”
“For some socalled socialite you’r pretty shrewd”
“I guess being a monk is (not?) all hymns and reading all the time.”
“A bunch of works on metallurgy and leathworking. Tedious.”
“St. Hyssmark’s could use some maintenence.”
“While this would clear my sinuses, it’s not particularly interetsing.”
“Sylvia, why do you look so angry?”
“Roughed up a few bignosed men”
“Even if ARC agents assassinated the ambasador”
“I was sent her on a peacekeeping mission”
“No-one will mind a barkel missing”
“Look, Sylvia, I know you don’t (want?) war either”
“This poor guy is gonna be out of commision for a while”
“Looks like this spiggot hooks up to an underground well.”
“Strangley enough, no records exist”

Also, here are a couple of passability bugs I found:





In the second screenshot, you can get up there if you walk into the Cardinal room's door without pressing "Enter": you'll instead just move through stone.


Conclusion

I felt like giving my first five to some deserving game for quite a while now, and my 53rd review (50th out of ones that are easily viewable) is as good a time as any. Yes, it’s not truly perfect et al, but my reviewing system is more about judging how much of its maximum potential the game had fulfilled, relative to what it was going for. Given that this was made for a contest, it was reasonable to expect an upper bound on the potential quality due to the development time restrictions, and Swallow’s Descent had very much met and surpassed it.

Posts

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InfectionFiles
the world ends in whatever my makerscore currently is
4318
Oh wow, good job guys! We've pleased NTC3 :P But five stars?!

All the credits go to the other team members, they made this project great in such a short time span. It really is incredible!

Also, amazing and insightful review as usual! (not biased at all here)
author=InfectionFiles
Oh wow, good job guys! We've pleased NTC3 :P But five stars?!


I was actually surprised to see this review. Now I know why I immediately woke up at 3 AM (other than to study for an upcoming quiz).

Good job, guys! Even so that my time got rekt because of requirements (and that was just the first quarter!).

author=NTC3
This opening is reminiscent of The Hateful Eight, and likely intentionally so.


The opening just came out from my mind, though XD. Thanks for the review! I still think that the typos are influenced because of me. (English ain't my first language)
mjshi
Jack of Most Trades
6324
@NTC3: Thank you very much for the review!

During the McBacon Jam, I was so busy drawing the character busts and title screen that I never really played through the game until it was released here xD The first time I saw the game in its entirety was actually when Liberty streamed all the McBacon Jam games.

I like to say that with games, the art draws you in, and the story keeps you playing. And psy_wombats is phenomenal at story-writing. I'm really happy with how this game turned out-- well done, team!

NTC3, I'm glad you enjoyed the game, and thanks again for taking the time to write this review!

edit: ooh, and while I was digging through my old McBacon sketches, I found this early concept thing I did. I'm not going to post it in the game images because I don't want to put an unrelated, unfinished thing there, but if you're interested, here it is: http://i.imgur.com/ZPA8TTI.jpg
You can see the beginnings of Astrid and the Cardinal there :D
Well, all your hard work has certainly paid off now, hasn't it? Again, great job guys! And yeah, that sketch was nice to see too; thank you, mjshi!
Wonderful work team.
Thanks for taking the time to review, this was a fun project. My only regret is not working in some sort of tracking to get stats on what everyone guessed in the end haha.
author=psy_wombats
Thanks for taking the time to review, this was a fun project. My only regret is not working in some sort of tracking to get stats on what everyone guessed in the end haha.


No problem! Just a question, though: can we expect the typos I found to get fixed eventually? That would certainly be nice.
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