REVIEW: Interstellar Terra

Interactive fiction is one of the few forms of entertainment media that provide the opportunity to explore imaginary worlds of original design, where the storyline is directly shaped by individual decisions and personal preferences, resulting from an eagerness to take risks and investigate possible threats. This narrative ‘in the mind’ nature of gamebooks subsequently gives rise to unique environments without visual limits, where the scope can be grandly enterprising, taking place well beyond simple reality and the everyday occurrences of modern life. This creative freedom often results in the creation of uncommon settings – curious places where the unusual is rather ordinary, and strange ideas appear to be in endless supply.

John E. Kirk’s Interstellar Terra certainly delivers a distinctive sci-fi world. It’s utterly alien in a way that can become uncomfortably overwhelming, featuring a never-ending series of challenging concepts and scientific possibilities; surreal locations replete with phenomenal atmospheric anomalies and geographical oddities, and a variety of terrestrial organisms of extraordinary design.

You play as the scientist Jarral Aqqoll, a resident of the planet Terra, which exists in a universe parallel to Earth. Aqqoll is a highly intelligent scientist, accomplished in many disciplines, and has discovered a cold, sunless planet in the interstellar void. This mountainous, volcanic world is almost without atmosphere, and is ringed by frozen particles. It’s also very dark, so you name it ‘Blacksphere’.

You have also recently discovered how to teleport large objects, including yourself, along wormholes via an advanced spacesuit of your own design. With no need for spacecraft you can secretly study this alien world in person and then automatically beam back home, without revealing your exciting discoveries. Additionally, your talent in nanotechnology has led to the development of microscopic brain-spying transmitters, which can allow access to all information stored within someone’s mind. Injected unknowingly into the bloodstream, this impressive technology may come in handy during your exploration.

The beginning of your adventure features a series of puzzles set within a sizeable dungeon, and as I rarely enjoy nor possess much patience for such tests of perception and calculation, I found this opening section to be somewhat slow, dull and unrewarding. Determining the correct answers for some isn’t easy, so I’m sure these tests will cause a bit of grief for numerous readers. I’d much prefer to solve a puzzle mechanic such as the Trial Master found in Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon, which adds greater character and consequence into the calculation. Thankfully, the adventure immediately improves upon exiting the dungeon complex, as you now explore the bizarre environments outside.

The spectacular landscape of Blacksphere is one of wonder and weirdness. After initially finding yourself under water, you discover a shadowless environment lit by a horizon-wide glare, where fascinating vegetation surrounds you (razor-leaved plants, jewel-like yellow berries, etc.) and an inverted cone of cloud, appearing like an incandescent tornado, stretches toward a vast lake. You’ll soon witness a wide variety of amazing sights: volcanic geysers; a magma-lake; kilometer high lava-jets; pink fog; a crystal-pillared volcano; sudden reversible wind blasts; and a dark, insulating ribbon of cloud peppered with holes. It’s grand world-building backed by enough convincing science to be accepted as a possible reality, providing the backdrop for an unfamiliar journey into the unknown.

The gameplay mechanics of Interstellar Terra incorporate 4 Attributes: Attack, Skill, Strength and Fortune. Your STARTING-ATTACK score is set low to reflect the fact that you begin your exploratory mission without a weapon, believing that the planet is lifeless and therefore without significant threat. Locating a weapon, such as a Laser-Sword (which can be upgraded in power and range), will then give you an increasing PRESENT-LASER-ATTACK score to more effectively deal with any troublesome opponents.

Tasks and challenges encountered during your adventure will often require a check (Skill, Strength and Fortune) to determine your ability to successfully deal with situations, and you must also deduct TIME units when carrying out certain activities. The length of your journey is restricted by an automatic beam-back time, which counts down at a varying rate due to a malfunction; you must do your best to survive until you can be teleported back home.

Resolving combat is a simple process where both opponents roll 2d6 to determine a round winner, and then compare PRESENT-ATTACK scores: these scores determine the amount of damage inflicted. When fighting more than one opponent you can attack them in any order, with your PRESENT-ATTACK score reduced by 1 point for every additional foe still facing you. As you defeat opponents, you regain any deducted points.

Your opponents are genuinely inventive, abnormal and dramatic, such as: the airborne VACUUM GLOBES/BULBS, which are omnivorous creatures with dark, tooth-filled orifices and long tails; the eyeless, tunnel-lurking BELLOWS LUNG, possessing a long nozzle-like snout; the container-bodied INWARD BEING, that attempts to squeeze you to death; the dagger-fanged DOOMETRODON, with a huge, sail-like structure upon its back; the two-headed FALSE-TRACK SERPENT, with yellow eyes and long, white fangs; the hefty, 5-legged, spider-bodied PENTAPOD, with 8 tentacle-arms; and the enormous, worm-like LASER-SNAKES, able to emit a laser beam from their huge, black ‘eye’.

There’s a lot of trekking through strange environments, with some backtracking to a central hub, from where you can choose to head off in different directions. The gameplay is at its strongest as you explore and gain a greater understanding of this imaginative world, and you’ll eventually locate a source providing information about the self-proclaimed God of the planet, Syrar Zuuxastar – an evil, power-crazed ex-Terran who resides in a radiant palace built upon a vast water-ice-plateau.

The book is dense with information and details, but Kirk’s overuse of unnecessary, incorrect punctuation, and the frequency of successive adjectives to describe the world’s features, only results in lengthy, broken sentences that can be quite difficult to decipher. The strange atmosphere generated by the many bold ideas and Kirk’s descriptive writing style is admirable and often very effective, however, these habitual errors, together with a lack of much-needed editing, combine to make the reading experience somewhat ponderous. I reread many sections to fully comprehend my surroundings and direction of travel, and to correctly understand the important gameplay implications of events taking place, which quickly became a tedious undertaking that slowed progress, diminishing my immersion and enjoyment.

Additionally, there are numerous uneventful options and way too many dead ends in Interstellar Terra, which although adding further background information about Blacksphere and its odd inhabitants, fail to progress the story in any meaningful direction. These sections seem to exist only to pad out your journey, and therefore make travelling a bit of a hit-and-miss experience, where dull and purposeless wandering often fails to reward adventurous play.

Also, there are many instant deaths. Moreover, most of these occurences are wholly unannounced, so careful observation and prudent decision-making will not warn you of coming danger. Added to the difficulty level of the puzzles, and the requirement to have already located needed items to survive some tricky situations, Interstellar Terra is very much an old-school adventure, where unexpected failure may appear at the turn of a page. I prefer to enjoy a gamebook where choice and consequence are fully implemented into the story, rather than the arbitrary ‘challenge’ of a sudden demise and the requirement to play again and again until all unknowns are revealed. This game-ending practice effectively extends the life of an adventure, but it also irritates in a way that soon highlights structural inadequacies and takes a lot of fun out of the experience.

If you’ve grown tired of medieval fantasy and are looking for a different challenge that mixes an old gameplay concept and new ideas into a unique package, then Interstellar Terra may deliver a memorable adventure worthy of your time. Although marred by mistakes and at times difficult to both read and play, it’s a book that will remain in my memory for some time due to the impact of its imaginative features and encounters, its peculiar tone and rich atmosphere, the many problematical quirks and issues, and the otherworldly nature of your exploration.

STORYLINE: Explore a new world and reveal its many mysteries, satisfying your scientific curiosity and desire for adventure. Despite your mastery of technology, the journey across the spectacular landscape of Blacksphere will be perilous, with many native and ex-Terran opponents to overcome. You’ll ultimately encounter Syrar Zuuxastar, the stern ruler of Blacksphere; a cruel, sneering man who protects himself with an army of human slaves and heavily-armed humanoid robots. He’s a traditional mad overlord lusting for unopposed power, setting fiendish traps and concocting plots against all who threaten his authority. Overcoming Syrar is both a pleasure and a pain.

GAMEPLAY: The atmosphere of Interstellar Terra is excellent and worthy of praise, but the frustrating text errors that plague the book will likely dilute your enjoyment. For all of its strange eccentricities the book’s structure is traditional and very familiar, and is subsequently loaded with excessive death paragraphs, with further complexity added by the numerous brain-twisting puzzles that provide a considerable test. I enjoyed the abundance of odd occurences that highlight the alienness of your adventure: intensely glowing air, exploding ‘black’ potatoes, football-sized hailstones – each reminding you of the challenges you’ll have to overcome within this confusing world of attractions and extremes. If achieved, your survival would not have come easily.

PRESENTATION: Overall presentation is generally neat but underwhelming. The weirdness of your surroundings is visually matched by the book’s illustrations, however, these sketched images aren’t exactly accurate (based on Kirk’s detailed written descriptions), and their execution is not at a standard desired by most gamebook fans. While they undoubtedly add to the strangeness of your adventure, their inclusion does little more than to break up the sizeable quantity of text – something I normally welcome when the execution is of genuine interest and value.

REPLAY VALUE: A chunky gamebook consisting of 777 sections (many of them long and with numerous options), Interstellar Terra certainly offers plenty of content to explore. Players are able to progress through the book following different paths, with the many available choices and item pick-ups allowing for different solutions to the brain-teasing puzzles, and when devising your approach to the many problematic situations encountered. It’s highly unlikely that the correct pathway will be found on a first attempt, and any single playthrough will bypass a lot of interesting content, so there are many hours of replay value to be had here if you initially fail or simply wish to visit unexplored areas.

Review by Michael Reilly

7 thoughts on “REVIEW: Interstellar Terra”

  1. Thanks, Michael, for this review. The star rating is better than I would have expected.
    I have been sorting out the punctuation, and hope to finish the work within the next month.

    John Kirk

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