Trading Punches is a lovely piece of work, with a good story and a fine design. It’s also got some flaws, so let me tackle those first, and then I’ll move on to the loveliness. The first problem I had with the game may be more just an idiosyncratic reaction: I found much of its prose rough going. It’s not that the writing was error-laden or terribly awkward — it’s just that I kept finding myself wanting to skim over it, and having to concentrate to actually read it. The problem was most severe in long room descriptions and infodumps, of which the game has many. I’m not sure whether the prose was just too dense for me, or whether it was some question of style, or what. I know that’s an unhelpful reaction, but it was my reaction nonetheless.
One definite problem with the style is that the game goes way overboard on a particular gimmick for making things sound SFnal: word-mating. Thus, the PC wanders around a landscape of “mossgrass” and “elmpines”, watching the “peacrows” and then later drinking some “brandyrum” and “whiskeygin”. Yeesh! A little of this strategy goes a long way, and Trading Punches had way more than a little; it sounded pretty silly in short order. Finally, though the game was obviously tested, a few significant bugs made it into this version. For one thing, certain commands, like “score”, draw no response at all from the game. Even more seriously, there’s a class of locations with one exit that consistently thrusts the player into a formless void from which there is no escape. At first, I thought this effect might be intentional, but further experimentation demonstrated that it’s almost certainly accidental.
So yes, Trading Punches has some problems, but I still ended my play session feeling very happy with it. Why? Well, for starters, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, and aside from the excessive word-mating, the setting felt nicely realized as well. In general, the plot and the game-world felt reminiscent of the work of Orson Scott Card, which I like very much. I don’t know if the author of Trading Punches is familiar with Card, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that influence on this game. It’s got plenty of Card’s hallmarks: bitter rivalry within a family, affecting the larger world and universe on a grand scale; a gifted protagonist with a strong moral center who has a significant impact by helping (or trying to help) others; and strong familial bonds offsetting the deep familial schisms elsewhere.
The aliens in the game feel original and well-imagined, and lend themselves to symbolic use as well. I also appreciated the design of the game — its central story of sibling rivalry is told through chapters that don’t hammer the point too hard, but still make it quite clear how the enmity grows between the two brothers. By skipping forward in time to the most important incidents in their relationship, the game develops the character of both the PC and his brother quite satisfyingly. Situating the chapters within a frame story works very well to knit the disparate pieces, and the game does an excellent job of weaving revelations about the frame story into the content of the chapters and vice versa. Unfortunately, two hours wasn’t quite enough time for me to get through it, partly because of my denseness around one of the puzzles. However, a glance at the walkthrough shows that I was most of the way through, and I felt regret at having to stop the game and write this review, which is clear evidence that the story had me hooked.
Even aside from the story and the design (and its bugs and prose tics notwithstanding), Trading Punches boasts an impressive amount of craft. Especially noteworthy are the game’s cool multimedia components. Each chapter (and each return to the frame story) begins with a full-screen graphic. These graphics are quite lovely, and do an excellent job of establishing the landscape. I found this especially helpful as I struggled with the dense prose’s attempts at scene-setting. The illustrations look as though they were created in some kind of graphics rendering software, and consequently have a bit of a Myst-like feel to them, which is a good thing.
Also effective is the game’s music, a synthesized soundtrack which loops constantly in the background. The music is generally quite effective at enhancing the mood of a particular scene, though some of the musical pieces don’t have enough melody or complexity to withstand the constant looping. No matter how good an eight-bar tune is, it’s bound to get a little grating on the hundredth repetition. The game itself is quite solid, too — it’s clear that a whole lot of effort went into this project. Aside from the few bugs I mentioned in the first paragraph, I found the code pleasantly error-free, and the same goes for the writing. The puzzles worked well for me, and the game did an excellent job of providing cues to help me know what I ought to try next. One item in particular was not only quite well-implemented, but also provided an excellent emotional through-line for the story.
Trading Punches still has a few details to clean up, and the word-mating has to go, but I’d recommend it without hesitation, especially to fans of dramatic fantasy games like Worlds Apart.