Progress Quest (PC) review
"Have you ever played an RPG for two hours and not managed to get anything done due to trying one more fight before your next save, or just losing your way in a maze, winding up worse off than you started? Perhaps you've spent frustrating time trying to break into a top-ten score list in a shooter or puzzler. Well, with so little guaranteed in this crazy world there are still things you can rely on. Simple things. "
Have you ever played an RPG for two hours and not managed to get anything done due to trying one more fight before your next save, or just losing your way in a maze, winding up worse off than you started? Perhaps you've spent frustrating time trying to break into a top-ten score list in a shooter or puzzler. Well, with so little guaranteed in this crazy world there are still things you can rely on. Simple things.
Like Progress Quest(PQ). It has long since passed the critical-mass for goofery to ensure that it will be a good joke for a while, and it's the most fun I've had since I found a link to a complaint-essay generator. It's like watching your sports team play a game and knowing that you'll perhaps worry they'll lose, but they won't in the end, but managing to fool yourself every time so it keeps fresh. The most complex part is how a third-party program compresses its executable so you can't just hack in there and find all the item, monster and spell strings and find out everything that could really happen in the game.
Brevity is the soul of PQ and perhaps you have glanced at the scroll bar to the right and are wondering why I need to bang on so long. What good would a short review do? It would be preaching to the converted. No. So much on the Internet is an inside joke, inaccessible. The message inherent in PQ must be brought to the people: the people who complain computers are too confusing, even the games. The yutzes who can't even win at FreeCell.
PQ is an RPG without any of the major boring parts. In fact, if a part was potentially boring, the authors probably cut that out, too. They just focused on what they could do best. True, PQ left out some good parts too, but if you argued against a refined devil's advocate you'd be hard put to show which. Certainly the enthusiasm to try for one more level or quest before you shut the thing down is there. PQ makes deep cuts--it removes the agony of decisions and learning what the F-keys do or if you saved your game or any of that. Yes sir. After all, computers were meant to make your life easier and with all the frou-frou and disk space and hardware requirements that goes into SOME RPG's, PQ harkens back to a simpler time and helps us bask in old-school goodness we didn't sit down to take the time to enjoy.
And best of all, it's free! A simple 300K download, and you too can indulge. And at some place called www.buck-a-download.com, you can feel guilty not paying for a lousy character hacker that's more complicated than the game itself. And maybe if you're lucky you can sell your character file on eBay. The license agreement doesn't seem to restrict it, and I know someone who bid 19 cents for one(he lost. The winner bid thirty.) For something with a strategy as shameless as telemarketing, and even more patently and boastfully useless, PQ does provide substantially more enjoyment.
When PQ says you don't have to do a lot, you don't. You'll have plenty of time to sit back and figure what simplistic rules you can, and if they port to a console(I would foresee low overhead--they just need an eccentric millionaire to bankroll it) rest assured--there'll be no navigation menus where you hit SELECT instead of START. You can hold the mouse over the blue bars tracking your quest--they accumulate to get a percentage value--or you can mess with the menus, or you can even change the color motif, but since the game is just a big fancy pop-up window it doesn't count as most of that is internal to Windows anyway. After you create your character(the Dung Elf Puma Burglar just felt so ME, and I even got to backtrack to a very favorable statistical dice roll. Not that statistics are that important) the major interactivity you use will be closing the program and saving your file. Because the computer does everything for you. It decides what quests to go on, what monsters to fight, and what you buy and sell. A big blue status bar at the bottom of the window fills and vanishes constantly(a clever satire on load times and long combats--without being tedious itself,) and each time it gets to the end others fill up. It brings back the magic of seeing my first old status bars on the MAC but it's in color--wow!--and it's at least as exciting as installing a game you're pretty sure you'll like.
And it's a faithful little program and works for you even when you're not watching. Why, even with the program window hidden, it'll go through the motions of executing(yes, there's no chance you'll lose--tougher monsters cause the progress bar to go slower) various monsters. Each one coughs up an item worth the same amount of gold, but the names have definite variety. They'll keep any poor fool who thinks he can run the game in the background from doing so for too long--oops, gotta check for corny jokes in the items. Some are subtle like mummy gauze, others are painful anachronism puns like sprite can or just absurd like octopus beak. And the various giants and golems are well worth a few hours' wait. But the best ones are from when you execute a passing adventurer of a class or profession you didn't choose. The items follow a formula that pops up stuff like Grandiose Scabbard of Loyalty, which floated by just now. But killing these enemies has a point--each one gets you closer to checking a box for the latest quest in the list in the lower right(like Placate the Cheese Elementals or Fetch me a Bucket,) and sometimes you pick up odd spells or even a statistical point.
And I can tell you the equipment is the best part of the game. You'll find your own favorite niche of weird items early on, but you'll also be exposed to some bizarre medieval terms--how many old-school games just said armor and shield and maybe gloves and helms? Well, PQ finds some rubbish terms no-one who refers to himself in the first person really knows any more unless they do an Internet search(the monsters also help with vocabulary) and gives all sorts of adjectives to describe them. With eleven mostly random pieces of equipment there's more chance you'll have several that are funny. This creates a certain strategy to the game: how should you organize your desktop windows so you don't miss any funny equipment, and how often should you check your loot to see new slain enemies and their special items?
I've gotten pretty far along in the game but I still look nostalgically back at my garbage can lid, a -4 moth eaten chamois dearer than a security blanket(such things get chucked aside when you turn Level 3,) or how replacing mildewed burlap with -1 macrame brought me down a peg, or my pride at finding +1 studded lace. In fact the whole macrame bit fully healed a traumatic memory from Boy Scouts of my mother telling kids in my patrol how I'd know knots because I knew macrame(Low shot. She hadn't forced me to for ten years.) It also fully healed my bad memories of Wizardry, which never had close to the cursed items this game seems to have--not that it wasn't cursed. Wizardry didn't even have close to the graphics.
Yet PQ's mockery of RPG stereotypes extends to a caring about NPC's, too. Leprechaun wallets, eel sashimi, and fighting homunculi are all good but big-picture ideas must work out, too. Despite being a retro game it sands over some rough spots epidemic to early games. Some games today still don't force you to worry about food. But PQ drops a sweet little adjective in for the monsters. 'Undernourished zombie.' 'Sick wraith.' 'Preadolescent Cub Scouts.' It's so easy to forget that monsters were kids once and have feelings and ailments too, even if they do wrong! It gave a sort of human touch to it all, especially since *you* don't have to worry about food as you bash about accumulating experience and gold--the focus is thus largely on the monsters' needs. It almost made me regret all those games where I burst into towns in a continent I was supposed to save, wasted everybody, left and reentered, and reloaded. Plus it's much cleverer than simplistic Final Fantasy Q quotes I have seen in far too many game board signatures.
The only major deficiency I can see is the experience bar. It doesn't expand as fast as the other blue bars that add action to the game and would be better replaced by something even more visibly arbitrary describing how much experience you need to get to the next level, i.e. 1285341/5412305 to go. Just for a little variety. As it is I have to hover my mouse over it to see how much is left. It's always fun to check your experience needlessly in RPG's no matter how close you are until the next level and that's one of the few things the Progress Quest folks really could have intensified. I had some other ideas, such as being able to translate windows to ALL CAPS, Leetspeak, or that spiffy Wingdings font, but that would force a bit too much interactivity and ruin the game's purity. Finding suitably frivolous and unobtrusive new features to add is not as easy as it seems, but look what the authors have done already. One can but hope.
Yet though PQ will hit the thinking person with a wave of realizations, I also found that after I was unable to pull myself away for the first few hours and when the randomness began repeating(how disillusioning to have to deliver that second chicken and realize the plot and quests were not rigidly constructed) I could finally get around to my original intent--checking up every ten minutes doing another project while still having a game to tinker with. And for all you dullards whose net surfing has hit a cul-de-sac, let it be known that PQ updates more often than your average weather or soccer web page.
But if that's not energizing enough, I believe it also has the power to change everyday lives; you see, I run test scripts at work and often sit in anticipation. 'Wow! 1337 of 2400 files successfully processed! Go go go!' Yet until Progress Quest came along I felt something was missing in my life. Progress Quest is so much more fulfilling, I don't even worry that it doesn't pay my bills. Mammon, begone! And if I get caught I can truthfully say I'm not really playing anything. And when I took the save file at home and ran the program, what a treat it was! The Internet connection flaked out, but PQ remained steadfast. A testament to faith indeed! And it also proved me right in another respect. My friends and I once made a random insult generator in BASIC on a TRS-80, the sort derided by pedantic teachers yet ultimately vindicated by PQ--even if our Apple port had superior sound(thanks CTRL-G!) to the mute PQ.
10 FOR I = 1 TO 10: READ INSULT$(I): NEXT I
20 PRINT ''WHAT'S YOUR NAME, LOSER?''
30 INPUT A$
40 PRINT ''THAT'S A DUMB NAME, '';A$;''. WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM?''
50 INPUT B$
60 PRINT INSULT$(RND(1) * 10)
70 DATA *ahem I forget*
Oh, some will say PQ's minimalism is just as snarky. They can go back to their canned newspaper articles(and they have just as much control over which general stories will pop up each day, or the details mind you,) rubbish popular novels with endless dialog or description of technology or fashionable clothes, of detailed second-rate shallow ruminations you figured the characters felt anyway. I say PQ is a testament to what we can do. And anyway aren't computers about getting stuff done faster? Why shouldn't that include leveling up and just plain fun? PQ epitomizes this return to the basics of life. It's the closest thing a computer has to performance art or the self-image of postmodern-by-necessity playwrights who parade writer's block as an indication of succinct vision or...dare I say poetry? And it's as funny as comedians who rely heavily on simplistic dialog and facial expressions think they are. With just a bunch of text and basic Windows programming, it leaves you on the edge of your seat watching various blue bars creep across.
This leaving me plenty of time to feel, 'Hey! I know how to do that! Maybe I can do more in the future!' Which leaves a warm spot in my heart for the authors, and although the game is freeware I hope they one day get their dues when they sue a successful yet totally unpoetic fantasy author for using one of their items in a book--unintentionally copying or not, and even if it's a satire novel. I'd feel a sense of justice over that. Until then I'll download the new version every few months to see the new anachronisms, puns and general satire on overdone fantasy elements(I'm hoping they throw in some gratuitous anime jibes,) not to mention quests and spells and classes I know they'll come up with. There'll be new jokes I'll laugh at being in on or looking up. Ah, but first, I will savor the appetizer: the stripy progress bar appearing after clicking the download link, which acts as a lesser harbinger of great things to come.
Heed my populist plea. Follow in my path. Experience variety without risk. Download Progress Quest now.
Community review by aschultz (April 15, 2009)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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