The Pawn

Reviewed by John Sweeney


Issue 28

Jul/Aug 87

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Magnetic Scrolls/Rainbird
XL/XE 64K Disk

Price 19.99

If you have any interest at all in adventures then you will almost certainly have heard of The Pawn already (unless you have been stuck down a really nasty dungeon for the last year!). The ST version of it was released last year amidst a great flurry of advertising praising its wonderful graphics and "revolutionary text-handling system which allows input of complicated sentences and complete interaction with characters". It is now available for the XL/XE but the bad news is that the graphics aren't as good on the 800 XL as on the ST, and that its understanding of English isn't quite as good as they would like us to think (I tried some 'complete interaction' with the Princess and it didn't understand at all, still I suppose it IS intended to be a family game!!)

The inferiority of the graphics is, to be fair, the hardware's fault and in fact the graphics are very good for an 800 XL if you stand back from the pictures they are really quite impressive. There is also an excellent facility for scrolling the pictures smoothly up the screen with the SELECT key, so that you can use as much of the screen as you want for text. And there is plenty of text.

The descriptions of locations, artifacts and people, the results of your actions, and the responses to your attempts to converse with the many inhabitants of the game, all give you plenty of interesting and often amusing text. The text within the game is further supplemented by the fifty page booklet which comes with the game and details the background to it. 'A Tale of Kerovnia' introduces you to many of the characters in the adventure, including the King and his daughter, Kronos the Wizard and his pet dragon, Harry (who is supposed to be afraid of people but didn't seem so when I met him!), and Gringo Baconburger, a dwarf who hopes to overthrow the King by democratic means!

'The plot unfolds slowly and deviously'

You start the game on The Path. Initially you have no idea of what your objective is, but if you wander around the immediately accessible area you will soon discover plenty to do. Getting rid of the annoying Silver Wristband which has appeared on your arm, finding a way to persuade the guards to let you into the palace, and working out how to get Honest John to part with some of his goods, are just a few of the goals you will soon set for yourself. And various characters will probably have jobs for you as well, assuming you can persuade Kronos to stop flying away on his stone platform long enough to have a chat, or the Guru to stop laughing so that you can get a word in edgeways!

The plot unfolds slowly and deviously. New characters appear, and you slowly find ways of reaching new and intriguing places. There are plenty of interesting problems to solve and most of them are pretty logical. The game gets especially nasty when you discover that there are multiple ways of solving some of the problems, and also multiple uses for certain single-use artifacts!

Choosing the right route to take through all this is not at all easy. You are aided here by two things. Firstly you should keep your eye on your score. It appears random as to whether it updates this on the move when you deserve it or on the next move. If you think you just did something clever but got no score for it, then perform some simple command (I or L) to check the real score. Secondly you can Save and Restore quite efficiently. Note that even though the documentation states that the Save Files are not in DOS format, the diskette must have been formatted by DOS, and to enhanced density, sorry did I forget to mention that you must have a 1050 diskette drive to play this game?

Once I had finally sorted out all the devious red herrings and subplots, and achieved the prime objective which I had set myself, and even encountered a character who told me he was going to celebrate my finishing the game, I thought perhaps I had finished, but I had nowhere near the full score. I did a few more things I knew about which gave me more points, however I was now completely stuck. I read all the cypheric hints in the back of the book, but I still couldn't get the last few points. I have since found out how to get the full score (yes! it is possible), but the game still doesn't end in any obvious way. I enjoy the feeling you get when you get the final message from a game and know that you have well and truly succeeded and definitely completed it. I still haven't found one in the Pawn if YOU do please let me know!

Apart from that minor disappointment and a couple of little bugs (e.g. always GET anything before you UNTIE it or it may disappear forever!), my only real criticism is that it doesn't really understand as much as one might expect from the advertising. During a conversation it will attempt to respond meaningfully to any old garbage so you can't tell whether it understands or not. It is a trifle inconsistent in demanding additional information e.g. if you say UNLOCK THE DOOR it asks WITH WHAT? and responds similarly for giving, buying and numerous other activities, but there are some sentences which appear quite correct and reasonable, and which are critical to finishing the game, to which it instead responds with phrases such as 'YOU CAN'T DO THAT TO THE ...' or 'I DON'T FOLLOW YOU' when it should, to be consistent and fair, respond with 'TO WHAT' or 'WITH WHAT' or 'ON WHAT', or at the very least give a sensible response which might encourage you to try and experiment further in that direction. I occasionally found that the responses to certain requests were actually incorrect, either grammatically or just plain wrong - I think these are mainly attributable to its attempts to respond to sentences even when it doesn't really understand either all the words in the sentence or the grammatical construction you have used. It assumes full stops which you don't want (e.g. GO NORTHEAST WITH THE WHEELBARROW gets turned into two commands).

'The Pawn's ability to understand . . . is truly amazing'

The end result of all this is that the poor adventurer can occasionally have solved a problem but not be able to get the computer to understand what he wants to do - the game degenerates into trying to guess how the computer wants the request phrased. In general, however, The Pawn's ability to understand and respond correctly to some extremely complicated sentences is truly amazing and a demonstration of the game by someone who knows its capabilities could, I am sure, be a very impressive demonstration of Artificial Intelligence. Unfortunately the qualities which enable good demonstrations are not necessarily those required for good playing! Please don't misunderstand -the game really is excellent - just be aware that if you are stuck it may be the game's fault and not yours!

Other excellent features of the game include: the ability to key ahead; the ability to recall the last command, change it or correct an error in it, and resubmit it; excellent responses for a game of this sophistication; impeccable packaging, including a twelve page booklet on how to interact with the game; very few spurious locations and lots of fun - do examine the rats in the fountain!

For a company's first release to be so good shows great potential. If Magnetic Scrolls can keep up this level of quality then we should all look forward to their next adventure - The Guild of Thieves -with great relish. I thoroughly enjoyed The Pawn, despite a few minor frustrations, and have no hesitation in recommending it as excellent value for money.

P.S. Loved the maze!