Puzzles Without Clues
Really while there's a lot of to love about Sivion, there are also quite a lot of moments where Mothingos fails to demonstrate decent game design. There are puzzles without clues scattered throughout the game which I'd only discover upon getting stuck at how to proceed.
The most notable issue of all happens before the game can even begin! The main menu locks away the ability to play the game without entering a password! This isn't a sequel to a prior game. You wouldn't download Sivion thinking that there was something you'd need to play first, but for some bizarre reason Monthingos decided to prevent people from playing the game they already downloaded.
The password is to enter the name of a character from Allison Parish's Fred! Episode 2: Ffreddiannia. The only connection between these two games is that both were published under the ZZT company FILTERware. Fortunately, Fred! 2 is a darn good game as well, but the password requirement is the strangest decision I have ever seen in a game.
The answer is "BARNEY", as in the dinosaur. The same dinosaur who appears in so many ZZT games of this era as some weird early Internet culture being a shared hatred of Barney the dinosaur. You can encounter him on the second board of Fred! 2 so thankfully solving the password doesn't take that much, but my goodness I can't get over that this is an actual thing in a ZZT world, let alone a _good_ one.
I'm not sure how widespread ZZT's cheats were at this time. Anybody familiar with them could simply ?ZAP their way to the game and carry on. Anybody who wasn't, might try their luck with the editor...
Alas, the game is locked. There were no external editors at this time to simply ignore locks, so instead you'd have to have an unlocker program to be able to open the game up. You could also use ?+DEBUG to activate ZZT's debug mode and ignore the lock as well.
But that still wouldn't be enough. Sivion is also super locked. Super locks rename every board to !c;LOCKED FILE and purposely corrupt the last board of the game. Thanks to ZZT making good use of reusing code, this renders the board title in the editor as a hyperlink, and when selecting the board, rather than opening that board, it instead jumps to :c, which is what the final corrupt board is renamed to.
I remember trying to open these corrupt boards causing ZZT to throw a runtime error, but in DosBox (assuming that's the culprit) I just saw some garbage text. Thankfully even super locks are broken as pressing escape instead of enter will load the board the cursor currently has selected. Still, editing Sivion in 1995 requires a lot of specific knowledge about locks and how to defeat them.
And even then, whether via ZZT or a modern external editor, it's still frustrating since every board has the same name, and every passage and board exit will show the same name when you look at passages and exits. Super locks are the sole reason the Museum of ZZT file viewer includes a numeric index for board titles.
Normally the locks would be a nusiance, but the all too common need to investigate object code makes opening the game in the editor something almost certain to happen.
For example, one of the first locations Rook can visit is a cave west of Bespin. This cave is dark without cheats, and requires some extremely precise manuvering of boulders in order to hit a switch to destroy the boulders and allow access to the red key.
In the dark, you won't realize there's even a puzzle here! You're almost certain to make it unwinnable before even seeing that there's a switch, let alone knowing what it will do. Without cheating or editing you'll never see that this is where the red key is either. There's only a small hint with one of the villagers mentioning that somebody saw a key west of Bespin. It's incredibly easy to break this puzzle and render the game unwinnable very early on. (I did!)
Another one of the keys is very easy to miss as well. After defeating the djinn and claiming the shop as his own, the last customer will walk out if you overcharge for some arrows. Pick the cheapest price and they'll be short on money but offer the key as the rest of the payment. There's no indication at all that this person has a key unless you correctly pick the lowest price. It's a nasty trick.
Another easy softlock comes from when Rook has been captured after discovering Dulcis's plans and locked in a supply closet. There just so happens to be a wall shared with the room where Lord Charles is about to be killed, and a bomb tucked in the corner. My first instinct was that I'd use the bomb to blast away the wall, but in reality trying to use the peephole to spy on the next room is what causes it to collapse.
Once the wall is knocked down, Rook gets in a fight with the assassin who just so happens to be invincible against arrows. The player is meant to use the bomb here, but if they've already lit it or miss, it's game over.
Speaking of bombs, late in the game there's a bank whose vault needs to be broken into in order to get enough money to pay back a loan shark. At first glance there's nothing to be done in the bank itself. The teller says he can't access the vault while the bank's flooded and attemping to shoot at the teller does nothing.
But if you shoot at the leftmost teller window which has nobody behind it and displays the same message as all the others when touched, a bomb appears? You then have to quickly light it before the teller surrounds it with walls to diffuse it.
Doing so causes the explosion to destroy one of the other windows and allows the player to access the vault.
And once you're in the vault, you'll have to enter the correct combination in darkness. This is no different than the bank vault seen in Town with the single exception of the fact that I could not find a single mention of the combination or a clue to figure it out anywhere. Like the boulder puzzle at the start it seems like you're supposed to simply guess blindly until you luck into the correct solution.
Wait no, that's not quite right. One thing I managed to not figure out how to do was get to the second prisoner in the jail. Inside his cell is the correct value for two of the numbers. So that information might be in there somewhere, but I'm going to complain about how hard it is to find it!
Oh, and I nearly forgot:
The object that opens the vault is bugged and you have to cheat your way inside anyway!
The cryptic and often breakable puzzles are pretty bad to deal with, but there are still a few minor issues that get in the way in general. Mothingos _loves_ ping pong paths where the player has to take winding steps to cross rooms without any danger. The forests are full of these and it makes navigating the world take a lot longer than it needs to, which can be made worse by other complaint of how things advance.
There's a ton to do in Sivion, djinns, trolls, mines, pubs, hidden houses, and all of that is what makes the game so memorable and noteworthy. Unfortunately, the order for these things is very vague. The player will frequently find themselves having to recheck everything hoping they've arbitrarily done whatever it is to advance the game's state. It's not much of an issue at first because there's so much of Bespin unexplored, but as the number of things Rook can do begins to narrow, it's easy to feel as though you've run into a dead end until you discover that _now_ you can go into the museum or get past the tree to the magicians house. There's nothing in the game that indicates these obstacles are no longer present and wandering aimlessly is what inevitably ended my attempts of playing this game to the end as a child.
Lastly, there's the timing of this game's release and its relation to the ZZT clone MegaZeux. When MegaZeux became seen as the future of ZZT to many people, it led to a lot of thoughts that ZZT was a waste of time due to its significantly stricter limitations. All throughout Sivion Mothingos interjects little messages about how Sivion for ZZT will pale before Sivion for MegaZeux, and how you really should be playing MegaZeux and not ZZT. Look at this!
It's absurd, and comes off extremely dismissive of both ZZT and Sivion. Meanwhile the MegaZeux version of the game of course was never finished as it fell into that same trap so many MegaZeux games did of expanding massively in scope because so many of ZZT's limits were effectively removed. It's probably MegaZeux's most infamous vaporware.
I really like the one about MegaZeux Sivion being significantly longer because quite frankly, the entire Daroquin half of the game feels so uncessary. Had Sivion ended with that first fight against Aprithia it would've had a better better lasting impression. Instead, you get this whole second half that has all the size of Bespin, with none of the purpose.
Now that I'm finished railing against the game's many flaws, I can say that they're all things that can be dealt with. Sivion stretches itself a bit thin, but its first half is one of ZZT's finest. I wouldn't recommend you beat Sivion, but I would reccommend that you play it. It's amazing how large and detailed the world is, and few games come close. There are stories being told here in addition to Rook's and it makes for the most memorable town in ZZT since Town of ZZT.
It has the usual troubles of a massive project in ZZT. You can see the apathy kick in as the game progresses. The dialog begins with very detailed (possibly too much so) writing, and ends with Rook making "Not!" jokes. Bespin is lively with so many inhabitants, and almost none which feel like props to keep Bespin from feeling like a ghost town. The characters have names and jobs and Rook is the vessel to let the player interact with them.
What isn't time spent with villagers tends to be time spent in caves fighting typical ZZT baddies. Mothingos has a good sense of balance here and most fights are quite reasonable for the player to tackle. The only thing to really fear is saving the game in an unwinnable state. Were it not for these few poor design decisions and game breaking bugs, Sivion would really rise to the top. It's quite nearly the kind of game that would serve as an excellent entrypoint to fan made worlds to somebody who's only played Tim Sweeney's official releases. It stumbles enough that it can't take on that role, but to anybody with a bit of experience with ZZT's nuances and the sort of issues you'll come across in amateur developed games, it really stands out.
Sivion is a solid game with some issues that should have been caught, but it's Bespin that you really need to experience. Play until you start feeling like you're hitting walls rather than making progress, and you'll wind up with a memorable if incomplete experience. Play the game from start to end and you'll wind up with a game that's just a little too big for its own good.
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