Review: The Real Texas
There’s something to be said for truth in advertising. One of the goals of marketing is to try and sell a product to as many people as possible. This is all well and good when someone is hawking laundry detergent, but with art it’s a dicier proposition. There is not an art piece in existence that will be worthwhile to everyone who engages it, yet when we hear of a new video game, it’s often sold to us in the broadest possible terms: “Epic battles! Engrossing narrative! Stellar graphics!” At best, this is a shallow interpretation of something distinct; at worst, it’s indicative of a game designed to fit a generic market, a game whose target audience was “everyone” and thus will likely please no one.
So I was a little surprised when The Real Texas was exactly what its website promised. “The Real Texas is an action adventure game that plays like a mashup of Zelda: Link to the Past and Ultima VI,” it declares, and I couldn’t think of a better description. It’s a niche game if there ever was one, but The Real Texas manages to imbue enough heart and wit into the ancient design of its predecessors that I can’t help but want to pitch it to every gamer in the world.
Stranger in a Strange Land
The player is cast as Sam, a Texas rancher who’s opted to take a vacation at a bed & breakfast located in a renovated English castle. Upon arriving, the player will find the place deserted; the only sound comes from a glowing blue portal located in the ballroom. It wouldn’t be much of a video game if you didn’t hop inside, so – in the grand tradition of the Ultima games – Sam is whisked away from modern-day earth to Strange, Texas, a curious town that more than lives up to its name. Before he knows it, Sam is recruited to fight monsters, solve puzzles, and generally fix all of the town’s problems, armed only with a Colt .45, a set of (removable) clothing and the world’s cutest walking animation.
Initially, the mechanics draw the most attention. The first surprise is that all non-combat interaction takes place using…a parser.
This is a delight. Generally speaking, all the verbs you need will be provided for you from a menu, but you can experiment, and the developer has done a fantastic job at anticipating commands and providing satisfying responses; at one point, I typed “kick” in response to a particularly belligerent parking meter, at which point it swore loudly and sent two gasoline pumps to murder me.
Equally satisfying is talking to the game’s colorful cast of characters. In its most explicit throwback to the Ultima series, the conversation menu initially prompts you to ask each character his or her Name and Job, but doing so will inevitably unlock more options from the menu. This would be a little too static if the player weren’t able to enter his own questions in the parser, but as you learn more about the family, interests, and history of these characters, you’ll come up with novel conversation topics, creating a sense of genuine interaction that is lacking in the dialog trees ubiquitous in today’s RPGs.
Shootin’ Varmints and Solvin’ Brainteasers
The combat is noticeably less retro. On a surface level, it’s very similar to Zelda, with Sam taking on bandits, slimes, and exploding owls in real-time. In place of a sword our hero wields guns (and, in one instance, a magic wand), but he cannot move and fire at the same time. The player is forced to draw his gun and attempt to stave off the enemy, even as the gun’s recoil pushes him backwards, often out of range of the target. Positioning ends up being just as important as reflexes, and the game’s decision to do away with hit points or a health bar encourages the player to avoid attacks rather than soak up damage. When hurt, Sam will keel over in pain and generally stumble around, and in the middle of a battle this can lead to a quick death.
Hundreds of quick deaths, in fact. It’s all too easy to get swarmed, and if enemies are able to spam attacks Sam will become locked into his ‘barfing blood’ animation. The greater issue is that some enemies are immune to certain weapons, but there’s no easy way to switch; you have to open the inventory menu mid-battle, drag your current weapon out of the equipment slot, and drag a new weapon in, all while enemies continue to pummel you. I died from weapon-swapping more than every other cause of death combined, and while eventually I accepted it as one of the game’s idiosyncrasies it never ceased to be irritating. The rest of the game displays so much attention to detail that I can’t believe this is an oversight, but whatever the creator was trying to accomplish was drowned out by my constant swearing.
That said, combat makes up no more than half of the game. Scattered throughout the game are elaborate puzzles that you’ll need to complete to progress, and at the end of the day there were always the most fearsome foe.
The puzzles are never unfair, and they don’t ask the player to perform the sort of mental calculus required by the likes of Space Chem. What makes them difficult – and distinct from the sort of puzzles sprinkled throughout most contemporary RPGs – is that there is absolutely no hand-holding. If you get stuck, well, too bad. Think harder.
Initially this struck me as rather obstinate, hardcore for the sake of being hardcore. But as soon as I completed the first really difficult puzzle – a quest to navigate a “garbidge mine” to collect five radishes to feed to a deranged compost heap – I felt such a glow of pride that all of the frustration beforehand seemed trivial in comparison. It wasn’t that I had overcome particularly difficult odds (unlike many retro games, The Real Texas does not set out to be punishing), but that the game had enabled me to do so on my own, using cognitive powers I didn’t know I had.
I say “near-perfect” because there were a few times that I got outright stuck. In the days of Ultima VI I would have had to call a pay-per-minute hint line, but the creator set up a free “Inter-Player Game Help-o-Drome” for players seeking assistance. In other words, a bulletin board on the game’s website.
It may seem odd to mention this forum in a review, but I honestly believe it’s integral to the game’s design. In an age of ubiquitous tutorials, it’s generally considered bad design to allow any situation in which the player may need to seek outside help, leading most modern adventure games (and remakes of old ones) to feature built-in hint systems. Yet the hint system in an adventure game is akin to fast travel in the latest Elder Scrolls; the temptation to use and abuse it is so great that most players won’t last long before they take the shortcut. The forum, while always available, is a slight inconvenience, and this ultimately benefits the game. There were countless times where I would have broken down and clicked the hint button were it available, but instead opted to continue exploring my environment and thinking of new solutions. The forum is the perfect safety valve; there if you need it, but never present in the game, giving me a genuine sense of self-reliance. Like a cowboy.
The Real Real Texas
The most memorable aspect of The Real Texas is its flavorful narrative. The plot is never particularly complex, but it continually introduces the unexpected, and these surprises – whether it’s a new location or a particulary inventive set piece – are consistently rewarding. I’ve been intentionally vague on the details, because the game’s best parts are those that are least expected, and to write them up here would spoil the joy of discovery. Suffice it to say that The Real Texas always avoids taking the obvious path. It would have been easy for it to be a Zelda clone with iguanas in place of octoroks, or a heavy-handed satire of Texan culture.
Instead, it takes all possibilities and compresses them into a grounded whole. There are plenty of moments of weirdness, the sort of goofy villains and absurdist puzzles I’ve alluded to earlier; but they’re always explained with such earnestness by the townspeople that they don’t seem that far-fetched. The residents of Strange aren’t native to its plane of existence, and are fully aware that their reality is far from normal. As the game progresses, the humor is increasingly balanced with something approaching pathos, and it is here where the game’s title comes into the fore. The ruminations on the spirit of Texas are always restrained, to the point where I wasn’t sure what was being “said” by the author and what I was simply interpreting from abstract elements, but they are there, and the imagery provided is powerful and thought-provoking. I’m not sure what it means that I had a conversation with a giant stone wolf amidst pumping oil derricks, but it’s a moment I won’t soon forget.
The Real Texas doesn’t try to sell beyond its target audience because, I’m convinced, it doesn’t have one; this is simply the product of one man spending years to make the game he wanted to play, and hoping that others share his passion for the adventures of discovery embodied by the game’s inspirations. I entered the game with trepidation, not knowing what I was getting; but by the end I had fallen in love with The Real Texas, and never wanted to leave. For the first time in my life, I’m seriously considering a trip to the Lone Star State.