Victorian London has been a strange place ever since the ground opened up and swallowed it whole. For starters, nobody seems to die any more – oh, sure, you might get stabbed fifty times in a dark alley, but you’ll hop up five minutes later feeling none the worse for wear. Maybe it has something to do with all that mushroom wine you’ve been drinking? Or perhaps the Rubbery Men – ambulatory cephalopods - have something to do with it. Suspicious folk, one and all. Still, the tangled city streets are a land of opportunity for a resourceful person such as yourself.
Let’s get this out of the way – to play Echo Bazaar, you need to log in via Facebook or Twitter. The game will post to neither of these accounts (unless you explicitly tell it to), nor harvest data beyond telling you which friends/followers also play the game, so you don’t need to worry about that. Paranoid? Make a throwaway Twitter account just to log in – it’ll take you 30 seconds, although it will reduce the number of social interactions available to you with other players.
Echo Bazaar is a casual, narrative-driven browser RPG. Those familiar with the pun-laden Kingdom Of Loathing will find something familiar, but also very different here. As a potentially new (you don’t know much, beyond that you begin in prison wearing a fetching velvet mask, and they don’t make much effort to stop you leaving) inhabitant of Fallen London, you’re largely free to do as you please in exploring this vaguely Lovecraftian setting, meeting strange characters, enhancing your four key traits (Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous and Persuasive) and investigating the many self-contained story arcs on offer.
It plays out like a grand, spidery Choose Your Own Adventure, minus the surprise deaths around every corner. In fact, death – and even failure in general – can lead you down new and interesting roads of their own. Spend too long gazing at potentially secret-laced demonic graffiti and you might find yourself stricken with seemingly meaningful nightmares. You can try to cure these night-terrors, or delve deeper into them, seeing just how deep that particular rabbit-hole goes. The most interesting secrets might just lurk within yourself, after all. Your character stats and possessions affect what challenges you can undertake (and your chances of success) and where you can go, and there’s been a lot of content added since the game first went live some time back.
The only real limit on what you can do – aside from accessing a few special story arcs, which are for paying players only – is that you can only perform ten actions at a time, with a new action being added to your stock every ten minutes. $5 a month (give or take) allows you access to a new region of the city and bumps up your maximum stock of actions to 20. Beyond that, the game is free, and beyond the occasional infrequent nudge, it never really tries to get money out of you.
What makes this game all worthwhile, and not just a number-grinding experience, is the writing. It’s fantastic for the most part. Despite there being a multitude of different writers, it all seems to come together as a coherent whole. Descriptions are just vague enough to let the imagination fill in the blanks, and detailed enough to produce some vivid imagery, and the whole tone of it is resolutely gentile, even during the most violent of actions. You’ll find coy euphemisms and linguistic tomfoolery used to avoid modern profanity where needed, and a monocle-popping sense of humor employed at some of the most unusual times.
As an example of the writing, here’s the result of one action I just took in-game, after deciding to investigate the ‘Beneath The Neath’ ride over at Mrs Plenty’s Carnival, one of the more relaxing (yet still potentially dangerous) places in the undercity. Luck was on my side, and my character came away from the experience with new insights, although things really could have gone either way.
“The gondolas (which started life in a mine) are loaded and noisily lowered into the black depths. The first parts of the ride are decorated as underworlds. First a classical Hades filled with young gentlemen and ladies in rather filmy veils, a dispirited-looking Charon without a river and a Tantalus who looks a little too well-fed. There follows a genuinely unsettling Hell decorated with smoky red grease-lamps and brass cages. The whole thing seems to you in very odd taste, considering the proximity of the real thing. And are those real devils? They seem to be having a hard time keeping a straight face. Then the ride descends deeper. The clammy throat of the earth closes round you.
Deep, deep, deep. Even for one used to the Neath’s dimness, the darkness is palpable and oppressive. You are suddenly very aware of the stone above you. What do they say? That London’s a mile under the earth? You’ve long been used to that, but you feel it again now. Deeper still. Phosphorescent slugs the size of ponies pulse in the darkness. The leaves of aeons-dead ferns preserved in coal glint in their light. Almost too low to hear, a deep slow rhythm throbs. The heartbeat of some immense creature or a feature of the air moving in the chasm?
You are not entirely sorry when the gondola starts moving upward. For the briefest moment when you rumble into the ‘open’ air of the Carnival, brilliant with glaring white carbide lamps and the flare of gaslights, you expect to see sunlight.”
And that’s just the tip of an enormous iceberg of prose. If that sort of thing catches your fancy, you can’t go far wrong in giving Echo Bazaar a look. While the game is officially in Beta still, it has been live and doing solid business for quite some time now, and has grown impressively large, with the content taking players up to rank 120 in each of the four character levels. It’s a pleasant surprise in general, and an entertaining way to spend 20 minutes a day, possibly several times a day.[Echo Bazaar]
This article originally appeared on sister site DIY Gamer, written by Dominic Tarason