VARICELLA / Adam Cadre / PC

If you want to enjoy Varicella, there's a bit of prep work you should do first. You should print out a map of the game and keep it handy; and you should also get a pad of paper and a pencil with which to take notes.

The reason for this is that Varicella is a complex, clever, and very rewarding piece of interactive fiction, but it's also one of the most obscure, unfair and newcomer-unfriendly that I've ever encountered. Appropriate given the setting, I suppose - you play in a sort of odd alternate timeline where Europe is divided between leagues of nations perpetually at war, as an Italian palace minister named Primo Varicella who seeks to become the new regent of the kingdom of Piedmont upon learning of the death of his king. Varicella is a Machiavellian schemer who will murder with no hesitation to clear his path to power, but he's in the midst of a group of rivals who make him look relatively benign by comparison - while Varicella kills only those he absolutely needs to to secure his position, you come to find out his rivals engage in everything from rape to child molestation to the mass murder of innocents. In this completely amoral mini-universe I guess he's about as close to a hero as we're going to get.

It's a tough situation, because you've only got a few hours (measured in gameplay turns, of which you get about 100) before the War Minister returns to the palace and has you executed. Dispatch him, however, and you'll find that one of the other rivals simply finds another way to off you - so the goal is to identify and dispatch them all before the time limit is up.

The main problem is that you don't know this at the outset of the game. In fact, all you really know - unless you read outside materials before playing - is that the King is dead, his 5-year-old son and heir needs a regent to rule in his stead until he grows up, and you're aiming to fill that position. You know urgency is required, but not quite what the time limit is. There isn't even really an inkling of how violent the game is until you spend a session pissing about and end up getting killed.

The lack of volunteered information along with the complexity of the game is a double-edged sword. It makes it fascinating to explore and replay, but it's also so massively frustrating at the beginning that it probably drove a lot of people off before they could get to the good bits of the game. The most frustrating aspect is that Varicella is in possession of a lot of key knowledge that isn't volunteered to the player in any way - you simply have to stumble about and randomly experiment to discover that Varicella has a massive hidden security system set up throughout the palace, for example, the use of which is key to dispatching at least one of the rivals. Varicella naturally knows of this at the outset, but the player is never told. The time limit is also exceptionally tight, literally just enough time to bump off everyone with maybe only ten wasted turns or so. The only way around this - other than using a walkthrough - is to take notes while playing and have the map handy so you don't waste any time blundering about confusedly in the wrong direction.

The game is ultimately worth the frustration and the replays - the depth and complexity are fascinating, the characters are great, and it manages to create a compelling universe while restricting you to maybe 40 screens or so of palace grounds. Makes me wish someone would design a larger-scale, graphical game using a similar concept.

Links :

* downloadable version
* full walkthrough
* map
* browser version

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