The Real Texas - Staff Review  

Cowboy Songs
by Zach Welhouse

Less than 20 Hours
+ Mysterious, humorous atmosphere.
+ Unique boss battles.
- Inventory management.
- Interface could use more polish.
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   The cowboy walks a lonely path through two worlds: England and the extra-dimensional landscape of Strange, Texas. The people of Strange have problems, and the cowboy has a gun. More importantly, he has a sharp mind and the can-do-it frontier spirit to set things right. The Real Texas, his game, isn't perfect, much like the cowboy himself. It has issues, both mechanical and grammatical. He has a martyr complex and questionable fashion sense. These warts don't get in the way of Texas's delightful idiosyncrasies. Instead, they say, "This is its own game. It stands apart from its fellows, come hell or high water." Despite this distance and its own take on retro-mechanics, it cares for other games. It cares about you. Texas is worth a visit for its thoughtful story and surreal environments. Although it starts out ridiculous and disjointed, by the end it gels into a memorable story of a community and its problems. The poems in the EULA and the credits are an added bonus.

   Answering all of the story's questions requires exploration. NPCs aren't always direct about what's going on or what needs doing, but there's a strong internal logic connecting the cast of aliens, cowboys, English castles, and ghosts. Saying too much about how, or the role of the reoccurring motifs would steal the excitement of connecting the dots. Talking to NPCs sets up most of the puzzles and draws the player into the Strange community. Conversation is handled with a keyword system like in Ultima VI: The False Prophet. Typing in keywords (including "Name" and "Job") push the conversation. The game automatically highlights important keywords and adds them to a queue. Hunting down unlisted keywords for deeper insight into situations makes the mystery-solving elements of conversation really pop.

   Most of these conversations take place in one town, Strange. Despite its small size, Strange's citizens keep it fresh. Strange is a central hub that bears repeated exploration. One of the true joys of Texas is wandering the town's streets and getting to know its citizens. Like Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, the citizens follow routines. They spend time with their families, work the fields, and get up to mischief. The effect strengthens the illusion that stories and lives exist for the characters outside the game. Some of their problems are solvable through sidequests, while others are part and parcel of the crazy rodeo called life.

Fig 1.1: Bald cowboy surrounded by children, ghosts (as seen from rear.) Fig 1.1: Bald cowboy surrounded by children, ghosts (as seen from rear.)

   Movement and combat are similar to a Legend of Zelda-style action RPG. Replace walking with the hypnotic wobble of an awkward wooden toy, and the comparison becomes more exact. Monsters wobble and hop across the overworld until the hero mows them down with real-time firearms or flees the scene. Each of the six ranged weapons handles differently and excels in different circumstances. Before they can be used, they need to be drawn and aimed. Drawing a weapon requires right-clicking the mouse or hitting the spacebar. Any movement causes the weapon to be resheathed. Essentially, every weapon operates on the quick draw principle. The cowboy whips out his Colt .45, fires six shots, holsters it, and runs to a better position. When combat is going well, the flow between drawing, aiming, shooting, and moving on is an enjoyable one. Being stunned and juggled is less fun. Other interface quirks add to the mechanical issues; for example, targeting items for pickup requires careful placement. The camera pans automatically, occasionally obscuring useful items behind building walls.

   Manipulating the limited number of inventory slots can become tedious. There are lots of curious items that can be manipulated and carried. Why would a game allow for processed chicken cutlets or dazzling evening dresses if they didn't have a purpose? Without careful inventory management, these creature comforts quickly pile up. Containers for carrying additional items are available after a certain point, but arranging everything requires navigating several windows. Thankfully, this problem is most apparent to fussbudgets who need to carry one of everything. Items can never truly be lost, as the world keeps track of where they're dropped. Copies of essential items like keys can be repurchased from conveniently placed shops and storerooms once discovered.

   One could argue the stun mechanic is meant to encourage a healthy fear of bullets. Sometimes being a man is knowing when to run away and when to stay, vomiting blood all over your cube-shaped boots. Money is plentiful without killing everybody, so maybe running is a valid lifestyle choice. The way of the peaceful warrior has many rewards. On the other hand, there's no point having an arsenal of cowboy guns if they weren't meant to be shot at one time or another. Boss fights are the best time for shooting. These challenging vignettes are different from one another and press the boundaries of the engine. Unlike the other action segments, boss battles require reflexes and pattern recognition to persevere.

Kenrich appreciates bowls. Kenrich appreciates bowls.

   When the cowboy isn't fighting bosses or meeting the NPCs, he's solving puzzles or exploring dungeons. Since many of the puzzles are keyed to Strange's residents or a static castle, they don't need to be solved in a set order. Puzzle content is varied, but draws from many traditional RPG wells. Fetch quests are common. What will stop ghosts from haunting Strange's children? Where can you find the gasoline necessary to power an automobile from the future? Dungeons are more straightforward. They’re auto-mapped affairs with switches to flip, devious monsters to fight, and keycard puzzles--including a particularly clever one involving radioactive frogs. Dungeons are large and revisited several times for different purposes.

   It's possible to complete version 1.3-chili of The Real Texas in just under 20 hours--longer for fans of classical music and optional quests. Reviews don't tend to mention version numbers, but it's important in this case: the designer is quick to respond to bug reports, leveraging the personal touch of independent games and using them to expand the game’s community. Updates like this extended the postgame content as well as removing earlier bugs. This is a weird game, but it's not for weirdness's sake. Rather, it's a tiny world that gives the impression of being a personal work, warts and all. It does its own thing and asks a few questions along the way.

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