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February 2023


Platform(s): PC
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Cowleyfornia Studios
Developer: Cowleyfornia Studios
Release Date: Jan. 28, 2021

About Lauren "Feffy" Hall

I am a freelance writer based in Canada, where it's too cold to go outside; therefore, we play a lot of video games. I'm an expert zombie slayer (the virtual kind), amateur archer (for actual zombie slaying and general apocalypse purposes - it could happen), and a work-in-progress wife and mother (IRL). My claim to fame: I completed the original MYST without looking up cheats. It took several years. What other accomplishments does one need in life?


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PC Review - 'Sarawak'

by Lauren "Feffy" Hall on June 29, 2021 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Sarawak is a short narrative adventure that takes you from the spires of Oxford to the jungles of Borneo as you make interactive choices and solve puzzles in a story that blurs the boundaries between narrative games and conventional literature.

Taking interactive storytelling to a more literal and artistic level, Sarawak, by indie developer Cowleyfornia Studios, is a piece of art and a literary masterpiece rolled into one simple, breathtaking point-and-click narrative mystery. Headed by only two Oxford-based creative souls — one, a software developer, the other, a writer — Cowleyfornia Studios creates games that lovers of mystery, adventure titles, interactive novels and puzzles alike will thoroughly enjoy. Sarawak was the first in its game developing endeavors, and it'll follow up that success with another eye-catching, point-and-click narrative adventure later this year, titled We'll Always Have Paris.

I'm sensing a travel-fueled theme in the developer's games; Sarawak is, obviously, set in Sarawak itself, as well as a stint or two in Oxford. Sarawak, a Malaysian state of Borneo, is known for many things: it's the largest state in Malaysia, for one, and is home to multiple ethnic groups. It's also full of rugged rainforest and countless beaches, and with tons of festivals and tourist attractions that make it an ideal travel destination, it's not surprising that our main character, Mia, is there for the majority of her story.

Mia's time in Sarawak is not one of pleasure, however, as she is sent there after reading a mysterious letter containing important information about her mother's recent arrest for murder. The soon-to-be-discovered personal nature of the dead man on the steps of the university in Oxford, where Mia's journey begins, hints that Mia might be the only person who can solve the mystery that her mother is currently on the hook for.

The morbid scavenger hunt sends Mia to Borneo, where she unravels the clues to the murder and to her mother's mysterious past. Sarawak starts you off without a doubt of the length of the game; the menu is literally a table of contents that lists each chapter of the story you'll embark upon. Eleven chapters walk you through a tidy, beautiful game, and it should only take an hour or so to complete.

The game plays out in such a way that this review may as well be a book review, with a few artistic and gamified alterations. Length is often a topic for discussion in both book and game reviews, and in that realm, this game is on the short side. It took me a hair over an hour to play through this game, which is the shortest game that I've ever played.

True to form, the plot plowed forward at breakneck speed, and not only were characters introduced as quickly as they were made irrelevant, but the conclusion also came to a close rather abruptly for my taste. A short story is great, but this story began slower, with more of a flow, and it seemed to resolve quickly in the end, without much consequence from any of Mia's actions.

The length of Sarawak (or lack thereof) is my only significant complaint; the game and the story are beautiful and engaging from start to finish. The pages of your virtual book even look like actual paper: expensive, handmade paper that you'd find in old hardcover books that are buried in the shelves of a dusty library. Each chapter unfolds using a specific color scheme, and the unique art and the way it is implemented is a huge part of this game's charm. As you scroll down the pages (which is virtually the only aspect of gameplay evident in the game, apart from the occasional mouse click), the images slide into your screen space with a fluidity and purposefulness that is both functional and easy on the eyes.

Along with the art, intentional, quality music punctuates the story nicely, whether it's strategically placed cafe music or a singular stroke of a piano key. The word that continually comes to mind about this game is "tidy," which applies to the choices and placement of the music as much as any other aspect. Nothing is out of place; nothing is chaotic. Much like the calming effects of sitting down to read a book, this title left me in a peaceful state that only a well-made narrative game — or a book — can do.

A narrative game can also take you places that a book can't, however, and in Sarawak, that's partly thanks to the incorporation of puzzles and riddles. The puzzles weren't headscratchers, but as they were essentially colorful checkpoints throughout the game, their overall simplicity kept the story rolling.

Sarawak, part puzzle and part visual novel, contains more than just rich prose, distinct art, and a variety of music; it also holds a smidge of nostalgia. Vintage gamers will recall their early days of reading through heavily text-based games, scanning through blocky text on equally blocky monitors for hours at a time. Sarawak doesn't have blocky text, and you can run it on virtually any computer, but the recent resurgence of text-based narrative games is welcome to veteran literary game fans.

At $5.99, Sarawak costs barely more than a fancy, barista-crafted masterpiece at your local coffee house, but the price might still be a bit dear for many, considering the content you get — or the lack thereof. At an hour, or perhaps an hour and a half if you take your time, it's a short playthrough. It's not just a visual novel, however. The beautiful art, clever (and relatively easy) puzzles, and compelling dialogue choices certainly add to the value of this narrative game. The good news is that if you remain undecided, there is a free demo available on Steam, so you'll be able to see if it's your cup of tea before paying for the entire game.

I noticed toward the end of my playthrough that there is a significant lack of options, although for me, that was an omission that I didn't find myself lamenting. A lack of options can be frustrating if you want to adjust the graphics or you were hoping for the convenience of a windowed mode option. The audio is a bit touchy at times, and there is only a single slider in the options to adjust that preference. In my playthrough, I found little to complain about in regard to any of the above. I found the simplicity of the interface and gameplay to be refreshing; so many games today have multiple options menus and complicated mechanics, so it was a welcome change of pace.

Narrative game fanatics who enjoyed such masterpieces as the sultry Vampire: The Masquerade or the noir-esque A Case of Distrust will find similar entertainment with Sarawak, complete with several dialogue choices and interactive art to spur the story along. Despite the lack of extensive character development, the main character is one you happily root for, and she would not be out of place in a typical mystery novel. The story is as engaging as it is brief, but the story length does not have to be considered a flaw, as a shorter game can be a welcome break from the usual 20- to 50-hour gaming marathon. Sarawak is not perfect, but it is a great game to pass an hour or so, and it's ideal for those who don't have the time for an extensive read or playthrough. After all, not all great stories are back-breaking novels; sometimes, a short story says as much as a story that's 10 times longer.

Score: 8.0/10

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