First posted on 15 January 2013. Last updated on 15 January 2013.
|The manual contains a short list of verbs and suggestions for input.|
|Getting Dog to do the simplest of tasks is obtusely difficult.|
|The introductory text explains the dark story and setting of the game.|
The game is available at Zodiac.
Standard Edition, Collector's Edition, Deluxe Collector's Edition
The game comes in 3 different editions that differ in the amount of feelies included (the feelies are advertised as "Digital Ready-to-Print" content). All of the editions are available only as digital download. The hintbook is available in the Collector's Edition and the Deluxe Collector's Edition but not the Standard Edition.
Cypher (also known as Cypher: Cyberpunk Text Adventure) is a hybrid text adventure game created by the Cabrera Brothers, an indie game development team consisting of real-life brothers Carlos and Javier Cabrera. A self-confessed labor of love, Cypher is an attempt to revitalize the commercially defunct genre of interactive fiction by incorporating subtle audiovisuals and a ton of feelies—once common in Infocom games—like a lavishly produced hintbook, city map, documentary materials, and soundtrack. Unfortunately, Cypher suffers from a woefully inadequate parser that ruins the core gameplay, making the game a difficult recommendation even for diehard fans of the genre.
Cypher is set in a cyberpunk universe obviously inspired by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and William Gibson's Neuromancer. Your character is named Dogeron, a data smuggler who has a secret code hidden in his synapse—a code that makes himself a target with others who also want to possess this code. As expected from a cyberpunk dystopia, the world of Cypher is quite dark, though with traces of black humor. Dogeron, or Dog as he is better known, is a classic anti-hero, concerned with nobody but himself and who has no compunction about breaking the law (or even the bones of police officers) to get what he wants. Unfortunately, he has managed to get himself into a predicament with the wrong mob, and it is all he can do to outrun their henchmen (called Retrievers) as he tries to figure out why he has been targeted by the criminal gangs.
To make matters worse, Dog does not know a word of Japanese, despite living in NeoSushi—the city formerly known as Tokyo. According to the game's backstory (as explained in the game manual), Cypher takes place after a catastrophic collision of the moon by a giant asteroid, spraying the earth with poisonous dust and killing billions around the globe. While NeoSushi seems like a pleasant place for the rich and well educated, the less fortunate like Dog must live in constant danger from criminals and intense pollution.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Cypher is the way in which the developer tries to update the classic interactive fiction genre with audiovisuals. The texts are presented in a window on the left half of the screen, while the audiovisuals are shown on the right half of the screen. The visual elements amount to a subtly animated profile of the main character, usually puffing on a cigarette. In front of him are the items you manage to collect and a small image and map showing your current location. The audio elements add to the immersion with appropriate ambient sound effects (rain, traffic, distant conversations) and occasional music. While interactive fiction purists may object to these additions, I think they add greatly to the gaming experience of playing an otherwise pure text adventure.
Unfortunately, while all of these enhancements are skillfully produced, the aspects of the game that matter most—namely, the text and the parser—are terrible. Text parsers for adventure games have progressed a long way since the days of Infocom. Modern interactive fiction authors have amazingly sophisticated tools to work with (an example is Inform 7), which can make contextual sense of a wide array of text inputs. Cypher, on the other hand, is like a text adventure game created during the earliest days of the genre, in which any input but a single exact wording returns an unhelpful error message. Even conventions like typing "n" to go north are not acceptable here; instead, you must consistently type "go north". This rigidity extends to the introductory screens, which require you to type out "more" instead of simply pressing Enter or the spacebar to advance the text. Even for veterans of text adventure, just figuring out how to get Dog to exit through the window of his apartment is a trying task.
As if the crude parser is not bad enough, the in-game text is riddled with errors. It seems inexplicable that, given the lavish attention paid to creating all of the feelies, the developer has chosen to skip over the need for a qualified editor and proofreader to go over the text. It appears as if the developer has decidedly taken on the wrong set of priorities when designing the game.
Fortunately, the hintbook (part of the feelies) provides much of the information needed to make progress in the game. In fact, this hintbook is a necessity for making much progress in the game. While some vague hints are given in plain language, more specific solutions are encoded in a real-life cypher that you must decode on your own. Although I have found it fun deciphering these messages, a few of the message are just too vague to be of significant help if you are truly stuck.
All in all, Cypher is an intriguing experiment that seems to have good potential to revitalize the classic text adventure genre. The developer has an obvious passion for text adventures, but it seems more enamored with the feelies and extras than what is really important in a text adventure game: careful writing and a halfway intelligent parser. Unfortunately, an awful parser and the lack of basic copyediting stymie any but the most persistent efforts to appreciate the game. I cannot recommend this title to any gamer but the most tolerant and forgiving fans of the genre.