Goetia

Originally posted 28 Apr. 2019

Note: This review contains spoilers for some puzzle solutions.

I loved Goetia as a work of horror fiction. The Gothic atmosphere, supported by the art and subtle but evocative soundtrack, was great, and the game did a good job not only of doling out breadcrumbs of story through various documents, but ensuring that it didn’t matter much what order you read them in. It also found an angle on World War II that I hadn’t seen in fiction before, which is hard to do with the amount of WWII fiction out there.

Most stories about the Blitz are London-focused and, though horrible, mostly give the impression that people are grimly carrying on in the certainty that Britain will prevail in the end. Goetia, however, takes place near Coventry, which was bombed so severely that the Nazis later called successfully destroyed cities “Coventried.” Throughout the documents in the game, there’s a sense of fatalism–people believe that Germany is about to invade and whatever future Britain has won’t be one worth having. This contributes to the oppressive atmosphere, but it’s not just window dressing: this belief leads directly to the game’s central horror/tragedy. Tying this real-life horror in with the supernatural horror grounds the game and increases its emotional punch.

However, as an adventure game, Goetia has significant problems. First of all, after the first demon is banished, a huge amount of the map opens up to you at once. This means that you get a whole lot of new puzzles, some of which you can solve now without banishing any more demons and some of which you can’t. There’s no indication of which puzzles are the latter, so you can spend a lot of time bashing your head against something you don’t have all the pieces of yet and won’t until much later. Another problem with having so many puzzles at the same time is that there’s little signposting of which objects/codex entries apply to which puzzles, and it’s not practical to try things on multiple puzzles until you find where they fit. This is exacerbated by having multiple puzzles involving number combinations, usually four numbers, which can lead to a wild goose chase trying multiple locks not realizing the code unlocks a thing you haven’t even found yet.

The lack of signposting is a problem in and of itself, even in the early game when there are fewer puzzles. For example, at one point you need to take an object out front of the house, but the front door is locked. (The back door isn’t, but taking it out that way doesn’t work even if it logically should; this world is 2D.) You’re supposed to take it through a hole in the wall, but inspecting the hole only tells you “This hole must lead somewhere.” There’s no indication that “somewhere” is outside (much less the specific outside you need to access.) Once you’ve taken the object out and placed it, you get a key which you’re told is to a piece of furniture. But the furniture, a cabinet, has no visible keyhole and inspecting it gets you “This book looks important,” referring to a book you can see through the glass door. I was expecting to have to find something to lever the cabinet open or break the glass. This could have been easily remedied by having the PC say “A breeze is coming through this hole” and “This book looks important, but the cabinet is locked,” but it feels like the developers were intentionally leaving these things out to lazily create difficulty.

This information withholding continues throughout the game. Later, there’s a puzzle that’s obviously a cipher, but as far as I know you never get any kind of key to it. Since it’s a Caesar cipher, you can brute-force it by shifting the alphabet by one repeatedly until you get the right answer, but it’s tedious. Again, this would have been easy to fix by having a book on ciphers with a note on it saying “P = I” or something like that. Since this is an optional puzzle needed to get the “good” ending, the devs may have felt that it should be very hard, but “hard” and “tedious” are different things.

And then there are the “read the devs’ minds” puzzles–e.g., how was I supposed to know that turning a photograph right side up would make the writing on the wall change into completely different writing?

There are some good puzzles as well, including some that are complex but fair. I particularly enjoyed finding the combination to a briefcase by cross-referencing several codex items and making some logical connections, and repairing an organ and memorizing + replicating a tune. I didn’t need walkthroughs, didn’t have any “how was I supposed to guess that?” moments, and felt accomplished when I was done. (There was also a puzzle with learning how to construct sigils that I liked, but this was immediately followed with a “read the devs’ minds” puzzle also involving sigils, which soured me on it a little.) This made the poorly designed puzzles all the more frustrating–I could picture a version of the game in which all the puzzles were as good as those, and wished I were playing that instead.

In addition, the game needed more playtesting. If you drop a small enough object on a stretch of floor that sigils are blocking you from passing through, you can’t pick it up again because the sigils won’t let you get close enough (even though they’re only supposed to prevent you from going through the floor, not near it). Fortunately, the puzzle I needed that object for didn’t need to be solved before banishing the demon causing the problem, but I can see this soft-locking the game in other circumstances. Something that can definitely soft-lock the game is that it’s possible for a particular item to, when dropped, clip through the floor into the exact location that requires that object to unlock. Because the game autosaves constantly, each save overwriting the previous one, I couldn’t undo these things. Also, while it’s my computer’s fault that the game crashed while autosaving and corrupted my file, forcing me to start over, this wouldn’t have been a problem if the game had kept a couple backup saves, giving me the option to load an older one.

There are also some quality-of-life features I wished the game had. I would have really appreciated possessable objects being marked on the map once discovered, and having names of rooms appear on the map on mouseover would have been great–I had trouble with a puzzle because I had no idea which room was the “smoking room.” Making the “you are here” indicator less subtle would also have been good; half the time I couldn’t see it at all. Also, the text in text boxes was very small, and the handwriting fonts were often hard to read.

It’s hard to say whether I recommend the game or not, because there were aspects of Goetia that I loved, but it is also seriously, deeply flawed as a game. Ultimately, yes, I think it’s a story worth experiencing–but unfortunately, it’s one best experienced with a walkthrough open.

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