Cypher is a parser-based text adventure that puts you in the role of Dogeron Kenan, a data smuggler who has just had a deal go bad. He has a passcode uploaded into his brain and needs to get it out before the bad guys capture him to take his head, literally. It’s Johnny Mnemonic meets Blade Runner with a smattering of other classic sci-fi settings thrown in. While other people might call it derivative or unoriginal, I found it to be a wonderful homage to the worlds I grew up enjoying but never got to be participant in.
The “parser-based text adventure” description probably needs some explaining. Cypher is a text adventure, meaning you’ll primarily experience the world through paragraphs of text that describe what is going. The parser-based part is how you interact with this world. Unlike other adventure games where you use the mouse to point and click your way through everything, in Cypher you need to type out your commands. So, for example, if you want to open a door you’ll need to type “open door.”
Sounds simple enough, right, but it gets frustrating in a way that only parser-based games can be. Most of your time won’t be spent figuring out what you need to do, but how to tell the game to do it. You can’t just throw any old sentence in there and be done with it, you have to phrase things in a way that the game understands. For instance, you can’t “turn on the light,” you have to “turn the light on.” It took me 40 minutes to figure out how to get into an elevator by using “step inside elevator” because “enter elevator” and its equivalents did not work. To be fair, however, the game’s manual goes to great lengths to explain these little quirks, I just forgot a lot of them while playing.
A bigger issue, though, is that the game really doesn’t offer up much in the way of hints. In a couple situations, you have to repeat a command multiple times in a row, but you’ll never know when this is required. So you might try to get into a police car, fail, and be stuck without any idea what to do next, when you’re supposed to try to get inside again. There’s also moments where you need to carry out specific tasks before you can move on but, again, these aren’t hinted at in any way. At one point, I needed to go through a door but couldn’t because there was something else I had to do first. Instead of hinting at that, however, the game just threw up a generic “you can’t do that” message when I tried to go through the door, making it seem like I couldn’t do that at all, even though I knew I had to eventually.
These issues had me banging my head on my desk in frustration as well as typing some colorful language into the parser, but once I worked my way past them the payoff was worth it. The journey that Cypher takes you on is deep and engaging. The writing is sharp and entertaining, despite the presence of many typos and grammatical errors. The Cabrera Brothers aren’t native English speakers, you see, and it shows. This might be a problem for those who think that text adventures should have the most perfect text, but I’ve seen high-profile American game journalists confuse “dual” with “duel” and “bare” with “bear”, so I’m willing to forgive a bunch of non-native speakers for their mistakes.
Like I said, the story is strong enough to make these typos seem inconsequential. It’s strong enough that once I got to the end I felt satisfied because the destination was worth the difficulty of the journey. It’s strong enough that I actually played the game a second time, just so I could experience it again. Few games manage to have that effect on me, and in case you’re wondering, the second run took me two hours to read through, so you’ll get a lengthy journey even when you know what you’re doing.
The game isn’t quite all text, however. Excellent music and sound effects go along with the actions being described, and your inventory is represented by beautifully painted images that slowly fill up the right side of the screen. An audio file you come across actually plays out loud with well-acted voiceovers but, sadly, isn’t captioned for the hearing-impaired. If it’s any consolation to those who can’t hear it, that audio file doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. There is another audio part at the very end, and that one is captioned, so those who have difficulties hearing won’t miss out on anything important at all.
The multimedia presentation also extends outside the game thanks to the inclusion of “feelies” in the form of PDF files you can print out and keep with you. These files mainly exist to add flavor to the world, providing background on the characters and places you will encounter; however, some are required reading and provide information essential to getting through the game, which is a wonderful touch that enhances the experience.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
Despite the parser-related annoyances, Cypher is a game well worth playing (and paying for) by adventure game enthusiasts. It’s frustrating enough that I can’t recommend it to people who aren’t interested in the text adventure genre, but it’s also entertaining enough that I feel confident in saying it’s an experience worth having by those who are. Do yourself a favor and spring for the Collector’s Edition in order to get the hint book, though. That’ll help smooth out the more aggravating moments and allow you to enjoy the game even more.