Sons of the Cherry by Alex Livingston
Expectations: I’ve got no beef with CYoA games. (Oh wait, Victor said we can’t call them that anymore. How about… Choose a Choice and then Read What Happens Until Another Choice Is Offered Fiction. Hmm, too wordy?) I have fond memories of CYoA, Time Machine, and yes, even the Which Way books. And just a few years ago I wrote a celebrated Let’s Play of the first two Lone Wolf novels. So yeah, I have some love for the crazy things.
As for this particular game… yeash! That’s a bad title. What does it mean? What can it mean? The solemn tone of the “Sons of the” chafes against “Cherry,” which reads as “Cheery.” I can’t but help picture a smiling cartoon cherry, surrounded by his offspring, all of them very serious. If this game is actually about the somber Cherry family then highest marks! Otherwise, I’m afraid that Sons of the Cherry is in the running for worst title of the Comp.
A word about spoilers: I’m of the opinion that to properly review a game there needs to be an open discourse. You can’t get to the heart of a game if you limit yourself to only talking about certain parts of it. Spoilers, I got ‘em! I can and will gleefully spoil all aspects of the game: from plot points to puzzle solutions to endings; I won’t hold back. Of course, I won’t do so needlessly. I’m not going to spoil a big twist just ’cause. But if it’s pertinent to my review I won’t kowtow away from it. You have been warned.
Alright, so Sons of the Cherry is about an American Revolution era chap who falls in with a group of mystics who call themselves The Sons of the Cherry. Presumably because they’re nature guys and cherry trees are a part of nature. But so is everything else ever. “Cherry” seems an awfully arbitrary choice when you have all of nature to cull from. Also, “the” cherry? Is there a specific one? A magical cherry from which all mystic powers flow? Sadly, we never find out. Okay, enough digressions.
You play this kid who’s framed as a witch. Spurned by his country men he joins up with the Cherries, who promise him revenge if he performs some small tasks. Such as assassinating George Washington. That’s pretty awesome. I like the central premise: that there’s a group of mages working behind the scenes to ensure the “mythology” of America. That’s a great idea for a game. It’s really disappointing that Sons of the Cherry doesn’t do much with it. You rescue another Cherry who’s been trapped in Benjamin Franklin’s print shop. Why has she been trapped? Shrug. And you try to kill Washington. Apparently, he’s an enemy of the Cherries because they’re not Christian. But I thought we were trying to promote the American mythology and Washington is one of the central figures. Wouldn’t killing him go against our cause? Maybe I’m thinking too hard about this. Or maybe Alex Livingston should have put in a little more thought. Sons of the Cherry is chock full of little bits where things don’t quite add up.
For example, when you find Washington he’s a jerk and hates those damn Cherries so. Alright, so maybe he really is a bad guy and for religious freedom to foster in America he has to die. We’ll go with it. You’re given the choice to let your partner shoot him or intervene. Washington survives either way (choices that don’t matter is a running theme in this game), but the outcome of your relation with the Cherries changes depending on your choice. However, if you let your partner fire you end up breaking ties from the group and setting out on your own path, and if you attempt to save Washington you stay with the Cherries. Isn’t this backwards? My interpretation of the choice was that by choosing to kill Washington I was agreeing with the Cherries’ philosophy and following their orders. So wouldn’t I want to stay with them? Likewise, stopping the assassination means don’t agree with them and don’t want to be part of their organization. Maybe some code got flip-flopped and the two outcomes were accidentally switched. I don’t think so. It’s incongruous as all hell, and that’s par the course with this game.
Others have pointed out the anachronisms in the setting. They’re indicative of one of the main problems with the game: the setting doesn’t feel real. It takes place during the revolution but it might as well be in generic fantasy land. The bits of Giantomania I liked best were the little details that authenticated the setting. I feel like I learned something about Russia from that game. There’s plenty of little details in Sons of the Cherry too, but they aren’t authentic. They feel made up. Like the author took what he remembered of the revolution from middle school and bad historical movies and put them in his game. A little more attention paid to the setting and the details of the plot and Sons of the Cherry might have been an engaging little game. As it is, it’s too inconsequential and I was never truly engaged.
I didn’t care for the writing, which creeps towards the violet. Some of the descriptions just feel off and the dialog is overly formal and unnatural.
You have been sent here to find a woman, a member of the society who has not responded to summons, either paper ones or the magick kind. (Ottone informed you early on that ‘magic’ was to be spelled with a ‘k’ in his presence.)
Ugh. “Magick.” I wouldn’t spell it that way even if he told me to. But I’m not in Ottone’s presence and I’m not writing it down (presumably I’m thinking it), so why bother with the “k”? Clumsy writing like this is all over the place.
I did like the parts of the game in which my choices mattered. Most of the choices led to the same result. Try to ignore a girl’s cry for help? The game takes you to her anyway. Stay to fight off a mob? Might as well have selected “run” as that’s what you do anyway. However, there is a point where you can choose to reject the Cherries’ offer of magic. Doing so doesn’t end the game but let’s you bumble your way through the tasks until you’re finally gunned down by Washington. I like that the game was committed to the choice. If only there were more like it.
And at the beginning of the game you are asked a few questions that determine some stats. They didn’t seem to have any bearing on the choices and I was wondering what the point was. But on replays I started changing my answers to these questions and found that they significantly altered the text. Depending on your stats you’ll have 1 of 5 different magical powers. And while the story and choices remain the same, a lot of detail and flavor is dependent on which magical camp you fall into. This is rather impressive and must have taken a lot of work. I wish it had been a little more clear that your answers mattered. I’ve got a felling that a lot of judges aren’t going to bother to replay the game and so will miss out on its most accomplished feature.
Sons of the Cherry is almost a good game. In fact, it’s right on the cusp. With a little more work in all areas–writing, research, design, and story–and it would have been a tidy little game. As it stands, I just couldn’t get into it enough to care.