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Shallow and sediment-filled

  • NTC3
  • 01/05/2017 09:22 AM
  • 293 views
I think it’s safe to say that Potomac is a game with an unconventional premise, especially as far as Western games go. Fictional depictions of “the oldest profession” generally keep it at the margins, due to the obvious matters of moral, ethical and legal controversy that inevitably permeate the discussion. Thus, there’s enough untapped ground for a skilled artist to make something engaging, thoughtful and generally worthwhile. Unfortunately, Potomac, named after the river running through its setting of 19th century Detroit, is not that work, and nor is it a good game in general.

Aesthetics (art, design and sound)

Potomac greets you with what I assume is an era-appropriate black-and-white photograph, and a somewhat clashing black-and-red title over it, while a suitably melancholy old-timey track plays. This is a remarkably accurate first impression, as the game then continues to use black-and-white photographs for its backgrounds, scored by the various classical tracks (including compositions by Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky) which are unsurprisingly great, or music in their style. Unusually, the School and Police Station locations themes are full vocal, the former being a song of the schoolteacher and his female pupils learning alphabet, the latter some sort of the British constable hymn that is really good.

However, there’s been practically no effort to stylize the menu elements to make them fit the setting, and what’s worse, the default RTP sounds are kept when you select options, which rather detracts from the whole thing. Moreover, these default sound effects are used whenever a game judges an event outcome to be a “victory” or “defeat”, which is annoying in such a real-world setting at best, and outright disastrous at worst, as you’ll see below.

Storyline

It’s basically absent. The “Visual Novel” tag refers only to the way the entire game takes place within various menus. You know nothing of your character besides this most basic description you get by clicking on the “Health” option:



No real narrative emerges. Both the random events and the actions you perform surprisingly have little-to-none flavor text, usually only using a single-line description of the outcome, and thus have the emotional impact of an accounting sheet. Moreover, the random events remain random, in that one will not affect the other (only your stats and items can do that), even where it would’ve made sense, thus further destroying any connection to what happens.

Gameplay

When you begin the game, it asks you if you desire to use the Evaluation Mode, which sets your character to maximum for testing purposes. Of course, I wanted to have the full experience at maximum difficulty, and hence declined the option. If you do end up playing the game, I don’t advise ever using it either, because once you’re aware of all your options, you’ll have to be actively trying to actually lose.

Still, the game does a rather poor job leading you in. The first thing you see from it after it tells you the controls is a screen telling you there is 0 Infamy and 9 weeks left. From that, you can infer the game can end prematurely if Infamy goes too high, and that you need to last 10 weeks (since you start at Week 1)…because what? Nothing is said about the reason for this goal and what makes it special, even when you do reach it, which is actually happens faster then you would think, because while you have quite a lot of options on paper:



Most of them take up half the week: first you choose the action that’ll occur in the daylight hours of the week, then the night-time. There are also the free actions like visiting the shop, which offers you the choice of the following:



You’ll never see any other items in there. Also, note a common spelling error here.

The bottom six items all provide modifiers to make the relevant actions safer (Condoms/Safety Hat, Mask), more effective (Work Gloves, Crucifix), or both (Pistol). They’re probably also all single-use, as my experience employing the Crucifix shows, even though it makes little-to-no-sense. Bread and Whiskey, however, are simply the equivalents of health and Mana (called “Wits” here) restoring items, and thus are not needed on their own if you do not engage in combat (more on that later). This disappointed me, because I assumed food would be needed on its own, to simply survive, like a normal person would need to. I’ve taken this screenshot on my second week (hence the 84$; you start off with 5$). Afterwards, I decided to try and break the game in the crudest fashion possible: I simply kept pressing the “End Week” button, to see whether it’ll still be possible to finish the game by not taking part in any of its activities. Well, there was then a rent collection at the end of Week 4 (it might’ve been nice to mention this at one of the several introductory screens, but the developer had other ideas), where the unseen landlord demanded 300$ Margaret did not have. After giving the suggested 58$ (for some reason, 058 is the default number that screen is set to), this happened:



After taking this information in, and pressing skip, the default defeat sound played, and the event was never brought up again. Yeah. Draw your own conclusions. Nevertheless, I’ve decided I might as well continue “playing” the way I did before. The supposed sickness failed to manifest itself in any way, but the next rent check did occur predictably at week 8, and it demanded the same 300$. This time, though, giving the remaining money elicited a “You’re safe in your apartment” message, complete with a fucking midi victory jingle. With nothing left to do, I just skipped the last two weeks, and then got an event in the form of a gang robbing some old man with the police trying to stop them from doing so, where you can either intervene or go past. None of this was relevant to Margaret at all, so I wisely chose to avoid interfering. (Later, though, I learnt that this event IS NOT random, and will reliably crop up every time Week 10 starts, in spite of having nothing to do with Margaret.) Then, this rolled out:



So, there you go. I’ll just remind my readers that the current description states “you must try to survive in the mean streets of the 19th century Detroit.” Somehow, I really doubt the outcome of that first game fits with the developer’s intention. I would’ve even said it made a mockery of the whole “survival” aspect, if it wasn’t for the unspeakable act above. Moreover, we STILL didn’t learn what was so important about those 10 weeks: they remain an arbitrary goal with an arbitrary function.

Next time around, I tried attending the school, which was apparently both possible AND free for a 30-year-old woman at the time, and which worked equally well during both night and day? Somehow, I really doubt it, and the game failed to provide any relevant historical documents to back it up. Either way, it has a purely mechanical function of raising Margaret’s stats by 5-15 points: History buffs charisma, Science does likewise for Intelligence, and Math somehow gives Luck (I suppose better understanding of probabilities could count as having improved luck, but it’s still hard not to raise eyebrows at the choice.) The above three options are gained by choosing “Go to Class”; choosing “Gym” instead provides you with the choice between Baseball (Dexterity), Weight Lifting (Strength) and Swimming (Constitution). Just as I finished trying out these six options, next rent check appeared; Margaret gave her only 5$, and according to the text “You are perfectly safe in your apartment. However, the landlord was not clean, and you got sick.” I’m kind of unsure why cleanliness was on the landlord in that instance, but rolled with it, and then simply spent next two weeks on math alone, which paid off when the “Sell Patent Medicine” option went from giving nothing in my first playthrough, to 172$ from selling an opium tonic to some weirdly rich addict. That was week 6, Daytime; assuming robberies might happen at nighttime (though later experience failed to uncover any meaningful difference between undertaking the same activity at either night or day) Margaret studied math again, then sold more medicine, this time getting 155$ and thus covering rent.

Thus encouraged, I simply chose to trade tonics at day and study Math at night; there were downs (Week 9 had “slow business”, which again sells nothing for both day and night), but then the 86 Luck Math lessons gave Margaret Howard paid off big time as she “sold valueless tonic to a sucker” for a whopping 526$. This was the second-to-last action left. Satisfied with having enough money to cover two months of rent, Margaret spent the night-time of Week 10 was spent in simple prayer for the fools who paid for their addictions, both having her illness cured by God and getting Work Gloves from a stranger. With the game thus concluding satisfactorily, I decided to try another run using a similar schema: learn Math for the first 3 actions, then try selling “Medicine” for another 3 to cover the rent, then earn enough to cover the second rent and do whatever in the meantime. It sort of worked: I learnt that “medicine”-peddling is not wholly risk-free, as there was the time police ended up beating her up and wrecking the cart, thus giving her 20 Infamy. That was a good idea design-wise (even though the supposed beating had no impact on the HP, but oh well): unfortunately, the other new design quirks I discovered were wholly on the WTF side. For instance, giving the full amount of rent can STILL give you the “Safe in your apartment but sick because landlord didn’t clean (why can’t you clean yourself!)” message, or even more ludicrously, “sick because he turned off the heat” message! Worse, another response to the second rent check was nothing to do with the landlord and his reaction and instead “Thieves broke into your apartment, stole 1000$.” Putting aside the fact THERE WASN’T A 1000$, it makes no sense how this is connected to paying rent in any way. I tried using the “Report Crime” option in the Police Station to see if that would address it, but apparently, that is simply a mechanic for reporting any generic crime which exists as the way of losing Infamy, though it has a chance of failing and doing nothing. (There’s also a Bribe, which is probably more reliable, but I never needed to try.) Still, this was the worst, design-wise:



This was in response to a "Confess Sins" option.

I understand the principle behind random selection of responses to (some) events: it shows that some events, particularly the behaviour of unknown people, are often out of your control. However, I draw the line when MY OWN CHARACTER does the OPPOSITE of what I’ve just told her to do for virtually no reason. Perhaps it would’ve even made sense to include that option if Margaret had previously engaged in “thieving” (one of the other options available on The Streets, besides Medicine-selling and begging.) but that was just ridiculous, to the point I reloaded the save, refusing to accept it happened. I tried “Volenteering” instead, assuming it might lose her Infamy, but instead got a 139$ fee, which kind of isn’t what volunteering is supposed about but then again, she is not a typical well-off volunteer. (Though losing infamy without any monetary gain in this way is also possible, although it’s not as efficient as reporting crimes to the police.) In all, I ended that run with ~200$, -4 Infamy, restored health and a Loaf of Bread (again result of a successful prayer). It wasn’t as good as the last run (which ended with ~500$, Work Gloves and much higher Luck, though without negative Infamy), but certainly far better then the first, which had Margaret with no money, sick, and raped earlier on. The game itself, however, didn’t see much difference between these drastically different outcomes, as evidenced by the final scores: 50 ; 123 ; 108. Apparently, it was unhappy with me failing to uncover any of its characters, or gaining the “unique” items besides the said Loaf of Bread/Work Gloves, completely ignoring that its central character would likely not care about either.

With its system of values so divorced from the actual human reality it supposedly wanted to represent, I had no reason to care about getting a high score, so I didn’t bother, but I ended up stumbling into it regardless, getting 913 on my next and last run. Turns out, all it takes is forgetting anything about the premise and the setting and trying to treat it like a wholly typical RPG! To do so, I’ve again spent the first 3 actions in School, but this time went to the gym, raising Constitution through Swimming once and Strength through Weightlifting twice. Then I went to box at the saloon, and enjoyed the horribly balanced fights, done through the typical battle interface. Sure, I did raise Margaret’s stats: however, I doubt that accounted for the sheer disparity when she hit her opponent for 150-200 damage while the poor girl barely hit back for 6-12, even though she was level 2 to her level 1. This victory immediately boosted our character to Level 5 AND gave her 595$, which was obviously enough to cover the rent (though that asshole turned off the heat regardless.) Moreover, this wasn’t a fluke, as later fights gave her even more money.



The fighting arena – a rather poor image choice to say the least. In clashing colour, AND far too full of pest life for 19th century?

Image above was fight 2, which was equally easy. Fight 3 introduced a complication, as though the opponent wasn’t much stronger, she still dodged the first 3 attacks in a row. I was unsure if it was a fluke or not, but grinded Dexterity for a while regardless. Next battle was against a (weirdly green-tinted) man who actually did decent damage for once, though he wasted many turns on rather useless Outwit skill (decreases MDF, which didn’t seem to do much at all). Next and last arena battle I engaged in was very similar, so I stopped competing (I had 2204$ at the time AFTER buying that Crucifix + a Pistol + some Bread and Whiskey, so there was literally no need for more money.) and spent the time before the inevitable bandit encounter at the start of Week 10 Swimming for Constitution, with occasional strength training through weight lifting thrown in.

That scripted bandit battle itself was a fist fight against three guys: even though their leader Tom Manin kills a policeman with a pistol whenever you choose not to interfere, and even though Margaret had a pistol after I bought it earlier, neither was used. It was actually surprisingly tough at first: Margaret had ~1100 health at the time, but then started receiving ~180 damage while dealing comparable amounts in return. I thought I might even fail it and need to reload the last save to stock up on 500 HP-healing bread… but then I realized 3 4 things: 1) The Catch Breath skill, which I assumed was only a slight buff, actually healed ~200 health, as evidenced whenever bandits used it; 2) All Out Attack skill, which cost 15 Wits and targets all enemies, might’ve been designed for that fight alone (no other group fights to my knowledge), but it sucks regardless, because it deals halved damage of ~80, which is only half of what their Catch Breath heals; 3) Practically all the damage came from the leader’s Uppercut, as it ignored the meticulously levelled Constitution: whenever he or the other two toughs tried Attack/Double Attack, they dealt a big, fat zero; 4) The Drink Rum skill is also useless; you get it after the second boxing match and it gives immunity to Cold damage (!!), which was nowhere to be found even in this battle. Thus empowered, I was able to defeat them, though I still wished I had bread with me to make it less tedious.

Since I won this fight, I got ~5000$, as well as items to permanently raise both Luck (Rabbit’s Foot) and Constitution (some manual), not that I needed either on the last week of the game. Yet, even though Margaret had literally saved a policeman’s life (which, to his credit, he acknowledges), she was not given any negative Infamy at all! Again, not that I needed any, since prize-fighting never results in Infamy, but still, it’s the thought that counts. Having two actions left, I decided to head back to the Saloon; not to fight, but to use the other two options. First, I chose Drinking to celebrate the achievement: what actually happened, however, is that the guy named Edward Dowd showed up, and pointed an easy target for pick-pocketing to my character! When Margaret refused, he got angry and swore to charge more rent (so, apparently he owns the Saloon, and the room we’re renting is in it, which might’ve been nice to find out earlier), losing me the now-irrelevant 500$. It literally makes no sense he would even offer that to her after knowing she earns so much more through fighting (and that he would risk her, and potentially himself, being caught, losing all that revenue), which ties in to my point about no random events ever being connected to each other. That night, I simply tried gambling, which was straightforward: bet the amount you want (I went with the suggested 1207$, since I could afford it), and let your Luck stat handle it (it worked fine.)

Hence, I haven’t tried playing the game anymore, since the winning strategy is now so obvious. Maggie only resorted to the titular oldest profession once, at the very start: like with other menu options, you get a choice of 3 between Variety Shows, Street Walking and Brothel. The former has Infamy punishments, which the Mask is meant to protect her from, the latter has obvious risks of getting Infamy from being caught by the police et al, and the latter had no adverse effects that one time, but still subjects Margaret to the mercy of the Johns, and the same risk of getting pregnant. (Plus, the 79$ dollars is laughable in comparison to the boxing money.) I didn’t care enough to try the other “exciting” options, either. They are aforementioned Begging and Thieving, with their obvious randomness and Infamy risks, as well as Honest Work, split simply into Tedious, Dangerous and Humiliating Work. The former pays low, another could hurt or kill you and the latter likely gives Infamy: I glimpsed this much from the descriptions for the shop items meant to alleviate these problems (Work Gloves, Safety Hat, and Mask, respectively.) You can earn money from volunteering at the Church, though it’s not much, and randomly given, or selling the items strangers randomly give you (using the Crucifix once led to Margaret receiving 4 Hard Hats!)

Conclusion

When it comes to the games I’ve already played on this website, Potomac reminds me the most of Live to Tell the Tale. Both have a decent premise (though here it’s obviously more unusual), and while they did some work to develop it from the obvious basics, that expansion only made the game broader, and did nothing to make the game deeper and more compelling. Potomac’s aesthetics are inconsistent at best, it portrays nothing worth getting invested into, and its gameplay, “designed like a Euro board game”, is laughably easy to break. Something worthwhile may yet happen here, but it would require a significant overhaul. In the meantime, it offers little but the classical music and the relative novelty of the premise.