Developer: JimJams Games
Publisher: JimJams Games
Reviewed on PC (Steam)
The Bottom Line: If you want to relive the early days of gaming, warts and all, this anachronistic adventure is definitely worth your attention.
Of the games I’ve covered on this blog thus far, The Eye of Borrack has forced me to question my priorities as a reviewer like none before it. I’ve already felt conflicted about posting a few less-than-glowing reviews for games that weren’t bad, per se, but that didn’t excel enough for me to outright recommend. This time around, however, I’m faced with the opposite conundrum. The Eye of Borrack is a game with many flaws, yet in spite of all its little imperfections it kept me engaged for the entire journey.
Released in 2019, The Eye of Borrack is an anachronism. It’s a text-parser adventure game, like the kind your granddaddy played on his mainframe. Just as in games like Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork, The Eye of Borrack describes its world through passages of text, and you, the player, interact with it by keying in text commands. See an apple? Type “pick up apple” and it’s (probably) yours. Want to wash that dirty sheet? Take it to a river, enter “wash sheet,” and you’ll get it as clean as the linens at your local Motel 6, give or take a stain or two.
If this sounds rather quaint, that’s because it is. Yet in a world dominated by AAA titles that often seem to be locked in a race to the bottom of the uncanny valley, it’s refreshing to play a game that feels like it’s reemerging after hiding in a vault for 40 years.
Revisiting the Spectrum
While The Eye of Borrack itself is a new game, its developer, JimJames Games, is no stranger to the text adventure genre. Having authored ZX Spectrum classics such as StarMaker, Wizards Warrior, and Stranded, JimJams’ lead developer Dave Hawkins is back after a long hiatus, and he’s still making games like the 80s never left. (As a Yank, I personally have no experience with the ZX Spectrum, but my understanding is that it was a huge hit in the UK and it was the system on which many influential studios such as Rare got their start.)
The Eye of Borrack opens with one of the classic adventure clichés. One moment you were on your way to work; the next moment you awaken in a mysterious hut with no idea how you got there. It’s up to you to explore this unfamiliar world and find a way back to the contemporary joys of cramped cubicles, unpaid overtime, and yesterday’s coffee. While it won’t win any literary awards, as an excuse to solve puzzles the story does its job.
You’ll set out into the forest, moving around the world by entering commands like “go north east” and “go down.” The first area, limited to a few rooms with puzzles that must be solved before you can proceed, serves as a tutorial. Each time you move to a new space, the game provides a description that points out interesting objects or people, as well as the exits to other rooms.
After I solved the first few puzzles, I opened up access to a much wider playing area. Soon I found myself wandering beaches, scaling mountains, and crossing plains on horseback in search of clues. While some puzzles could be cracked by combining nearby resources and a little ingenuity, others required items from distant corners of the world. Given the scope of the game, I quickly realized that if I wanted to finish it, I would need a map.
Old Problems, New Solutions
True to its old-school ethos, The Eye of Borrack lacks an in-game map. In the 80s many gamers would’ve drawn their own map by hand on graphing paper; I instead turned to Trizbort.io, an online tool developed specifically for this purpose. Every time I entered a new room, I’d draw it on my digital map, mark all the exits, and take note of any special items or clues. Doing this not only helped me track of my progress, but also kept me from getting lost as I navigated the world.
A surprise perk of this map-making endeavor was that it helped me understand how much text adventures have in common with other genres. As I explored the world, making notes about obstacles I found and items that could potentially assist me in overcoming them, my map began to resemble one you might find in Super Metroid or Ori and the Blind Forest. Just as in those games, I was gradually uncovering new areas and expanding my horizons. But instead of relying on abilities like wall-smashing attacks and the ubiquitous double jump, I had only my wits and a handful of text commands at my disposal.
Speaking of text commands: Sometimes when playing text adventures, you’ll know what action you want to take but will find yourself totally stumped about the specific word or phrase the game requires from you. The Eye of Borrack is relatively fair in this regard, with most solutions hiding behind common verbs, a list of which you can find in the PDF manual. A few of the puzzles, however, do require very specific verbiage. One early-game puzzle in particular sent me scrambling to the forums in search of answers. In the 80s players relied on real-life friends and pricey calls to the Sierra hint line; now it’s itch.io comments and Steam guides.
Nuts and Bolts
How does The Eye of Borrack fare on a technical level? Let’s just say it’s serviceable. Graphics, for instance, are limited to still images that accompany a tiny fraction of the rooms. Sound, while equally sparse, does an admirable job of enlivening the environment; insects buzz in the background and birdsongs will occasionally serenade you as you meander through the world. The stark atmosphere extends to NPC encounters, as well. The characters you meet essentially function as vending machines that happen to speak. Offer them the correct item and they’ll give you something useful in return. While players looking for robust character development will find this disappointing, to me it reinforced the classic vibes.
Finally, I can’t conclude this review without bringing up the dreaded b-word: Bugs. Players allergic to typos and glitches may wish to give The Eye of Borrack a wide berth. The typos, while somewhat frequent, are generally minor in nature and didn’t significantly impact my enjoyment. The technical issues on the other hand … well, let’s just say none of them ruined the game for me. The interface is rough around the edges, and I found that trying unrecognized commands sometimes produced strange results. I also encountered inventory issues – “drop all” sometimes wouldn’t drop all of my equipment unless I entered it multiple times.
While I didn’t encounter any game-breaking glitches, I did a find a bug that let me sidestep certain obstacles. This particular bug was a blessing, because when one particularly difficult puzzle blocked my progress, I ended up using this glitch to bypass it. Judging from Steam achievement statistics, the puzzle I circumvented is the hardest one in the game, so I don’t feel too guilty about cheating. I am still curious about how to correctly solve it, though!
Will you enjoy the The Eye of Borrack as much as I did? If you hate text adventures, this one will do nothing to change your mind. If you’re on the fence, there may be better games for getting your feet wet. But if you’re looking for a portal back to the good old days, The Eye of Borrack is the ticket. So fire it up and embark on a throwback adventure. And please do be careful with your faithful robot companion Randle – he’s more fragile than he looks!