Cantaloop Book I: Breaking Into Prison – Itty Bitty Bop

I – Introduction

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Fact sheet
Author: Friedemann FindeisenGrzegorz Kobiela
Publisher: Lookout Games
Illustrations: Kerstin BuzelanKlemens FranzJohannes Lott
Year published: 2020
Player count: 1 player
Recommended player count: 1 player
Length: variable per session, about 8 hours total
Set-up and teardown time: fast, 30 seconds
Mechanisms: point-and-click
Card size: 59x92mm
Copy obtained through: Retail

Cantaloop. The time has come to go back to the scene of your first crime. You have a feud to settle with somebody who’s pretty popular over there. Someone who became the Mayor while you were away. But no point in doing so alone. Problem is, you ARE on your own. First step before cracking a major theft is thus to gather a crew around yourself. Problem is, because there is another problem, the hacker you need is in prison right now. None of these are major hindrances for a theft artist such as you, luckily. 

This review was written after 7 plays.

However light I have tried to make them be, this review will include limited spoilers. For the best experience of Cantaloop, it is recommended that you do not read the spoilers. WordPress does not allow hidden text so they will remain part of the article.
It remains difficult to ascertain that thet will not bother a reader as we are all sensitive to them to a different degree.

II – A quick rules summary

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An entertaining approach to learning the rules.

To play a game of Cantaloop, the player must venture into an assortment of locations and use their decoder to read the encrypted text for the numbered code they have found by associating code halves with cards and locations.
They will do so until they win the game by unwinding the narrative to its completion.

III – A measure of Cantaloop

Pros:
– Cantaloop is easy to get into! Aside from an interactive tutorial there is really no added rules to go through before the player gets to immerse themselves into the story and the puzzles. Similarly, there is no setup time to play again after a save.
Cantaloop is faithful to its source material! The humour is omnipresent and so are ludicrous item associations and situations. The game constantly pays a successful homage to the Point-and-click genre of old.
Cantaloop is a short-ish campaign! Longer than escape room games and similar concepts, the Point-and-click remains shorter than dedicated campaign games, presenting itself as a middle-of-the-road product for those that want longer challenges that don’t overstay their welcome either.

Cons:
Cantaloop is just a third of the story! There will be no resolution at the end of the book, which merely tells you to purchase Book 2, leaving a sour taste after spending that much time trying to progress the story, which in itself isn’t progressing that far to begin with.
Cantaloop is inconsistent! Some puzzles are mundane while others are utterly impossible without spending hours and hours trying to think outside the box. The game starts off strong, then becomes too abstruse midway through, and simply drops the ball at the end, offering no challenge when there was too much prior.
Cantaloop is random! Not in the sense that randomness plays a large part, more in the sense that the game lacks direction and the player feels like they’re doing random activities for the sake of it. The general goal — revenge — is barely mentioned past the tutorial, and neither are the short term objectives, that are rediscovered through the help section.

IV – The wall of text (a.k.a. the Comboteur Fou’s opinion)

Gameplay

Introduction

Point-and-click games were huge in the 90’s, and the most fondly remembered of them are still praised today for their absurd humour, their challenging and nonsensical puzzles players could spend days trying to solve without the possibility to quickly browse the Web for a solution, and their colourful and cartoonesque graphics. This reviewer was particularly fond of Day of the Tentacle, which was to him the epitome of the above description. While the genre never died, its intended target having merely shifted to another kind of demographic, Cantaloop aims at porting this former glory to the boardgame medium while paying homage to the genre. Is the uniqueness of this endeavour enough to make the game worthwhile?

An Ordinary Day in an Unusual Place

One of the major constraints of porting that kind of game to a physical medium is dealing with the various situations inherent to the genre: a plethora of locations, a slew of items and interactions, hidden details, a complete cast of characters, all with their various lines and locked tidbits of dialogue, cutscenes… The task is daunting.
In that regard, Cantaloop deals with its chosen medium admirably well, all the while being severely limited by it. By having various types of components and presenting itself as a binder, the game can fully exploit its ideas. Making smart use of cards, the game can play around the limitations of a single page for a location and use said cards as an overlay to depict a change taking place: a character leaving, a door opening… No need to do a whole new page when a single little piece of paper does the trick in a discreet way, all the more harder for the player to suspect when it is anonymously hiding among what is otherwise mostly composed of items.

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I’ve been marooned on worst places.

As the source it pays homage to is famous for wacky item combinations, Cantaloop also includes a coded sheet for most of the possible combinations. Many of them will be variations of the character disagreeing with the player on their intended use of what is at their disposal, as will a good portion of the hidden text specific to locations. Impractical, this folded sheet fails to convince as well as the aforementioned cards. It quickly becomes fiddly and can be ignored for the majority of the game, as the number of items that can actually be combined is disappointingly low. It is also home to one of the most frustrating and unfair, although some would rather qualify it as “thinking outside the box,” puzzles in the game. In effect, the majority of the possible, story-progressing item combinations and interactions will take place in the binder’s pages, and the folded sheet ends up feeling more like wasted potential than an interesting addition to the game.
Two other loose sheets are also included, one of which is home to the second most frustrating puzzle in the game. Situations in the video games are often unlocked by the player previously achieving a given task and Cantaloop is no exception. To track these tasks, it uses a letter by number grid on which the player crosses off given squares they are later asked to check upon before they can advance the story. While this was probably the best way to deal with this mechanism, there is potential for problems there, as if a distracted player fails to cross a given square off when instructed, they will “break” the game and be unable to unlock the next step. Chances are low that they backtrack to the potential trigger. Luckily, a well thought-out help section is hidden at the end of the book and gives more sense to the highly unthematic grid by displaying all the squares in the chronological order they are supposed to be crossed off in. As it is divided in two main storylines and presented as a rough list of letters and numbers, browsing through the triggers is tedious, but the section is helpful enough and uses a 3 hints system, from vague to more precise, before providing the player with the actual answer to the puzzle. A good way to handle it considering the absence of replayability a puzzle has once the answer is known. Another, less austere way to present triggers, one that does not force the player to alter a game component, would have been preferred, though, functional as this one is.
The inconvenience remains minor and it is easy to proxy the page by simply photocopying it or writing down triggers instead of crossing them on the provided sheet. Doubly so as taking notes while playing could improve the experience, considering that, due to the game’s length, the player is bound to forget places where they have been told they need a given trigger, which they should revisit when the time is right. Given that the game needs some kind of surface to be played anyway due to the crossing off and card interaction, why not make the most of it?

Stop. Think. Run.

True to its source, Cantaloop will have some particularly tricky situations that will force the player to think out of the box and will make them try and retry certain combinations in hope of revealing a forgotten trigger requirement or an oversight. It even happens that the player gets excited to unlock a potential new path, until they realize it was but a red herring. An unfortunate side effect of the boardgame format is that, while revisiting locations with a mouse on a screen takes minimal time and effort, doing so with paper and cards soon proves fiddly enough, and certainly will not match everyone’s expectations of their board gaming time. When unsuspected components get involved, one might have an issue with the game and progressively lose interest. Or praise the designer’s inventivity. While the sheer absurdity of Day of the Tentatcle made for memorable enough situations, and the medium allowed for additional mnemonic potential triggers such as music, cut-scenes or acted dialogues to make more of an imprint the player could rely on to remember some triggers, Cantaloop remains an isolated island with little scenic variation and its medium can only rely on still images and rather anonymous dialogues, however inventive the designer was in their use of the components. Some information thus easily becomes lost with no memorable aside to imprint it, more so if two sessions are separated by a long time lapse.
Similarly, the game sometimes expects the player tosuddenly memorize a random piece of background information on the artwork or to use some components in some totally unexpected and unprecedented way, which is nice on paper but can be really frustrating when it has at no point been hinted at previously.
Luckily, and despite the fact that it is never mentioned, the included help section will basically solve every mystery in the game if needed, although one should be cautious about using it as mentioned above. Additionally, due to the rigidity of the somewhat cumbersome code system, it is easy enough to deduce at a glance which kind of item can really be interacted with or which code to try out on a safe just by checking all the entries starting with the first two characters of the intended item or bit of code.

Lie, Cheat & Steal

The coding and decoding system is a dated and rather fiddly mechanism. Red transparent pieces of plastic are not ones to effectively prevent the naked eye from accidentally reading “hidden” information, although they do so cheaply and without requiring too much effort from the player.
Fiddliness certainly takes its toll on the game, though, with the  box/red decoder/items as cards system forcing the player to manipulate their card deck to find the right item(s), then to arrange two boxes in order to generate a unique code, then to locate said code either on the left page of their location or on the double-sided, thrice folded sheet, before placing the red see-through plastic piece on the matching red square of text to finally have access to the consequences of their actions.
It also happens that the player must change page and place a card there, or read a specific code, before resuming their read, which can prove rather confusing. This may not seem as much and, as an isolated action, it is not. But since the entirety of the game revolves around that single sequence of actions, it quickly proves tedious, especially when stuck and reverting to randomly looking for a clue to the next step; particularly when said clue requires an unprecedented approach. The sheer size of the binder and the questionable way the notches were cut only adds to the cumbersome aspect of this often fruitless endeavour. While the designer managed to insert some enjoyable surprises in the card deck, it is regrettable that no mechanism is added throughout the course of the game, and that everything revolves around the same unique action. Again, true to its source, but rather underwhelming when ported to a boardgame medium.

Maiden’s Voyage

One of the main selling points of a narrative game is, presumably, its interesting synopsis, advanced through surprising developments and high quality writing, which may require employing writers specifically for the narrative parts.
In the case of Cantaloop, the synopsis is paper-thin and rather generic, a nondescript tale of heist and revenge for reasons barely outlined – the theft of something called an ITP, acronym that is never developed. There will be little in the way of surprises and twists over the course of the book, aside from Hook’s quirks and some sillier puzzles. But the player should not go in there expecting some groundbreaking revelation, as the game adopts a semi-realistic tone, focused on silliness but still following the tropes of an average crime story, from its setting (a prison) to its characters (an IT specialists, a jazz singer, a thief), bordering at times on cringe territory (the antagonistic, plus-size librarian, the exploitative bar owner, the lazy good-for-nothing prison guard, the sultry jazz singer) and relying partly on clichés.
Cantaloop is, overall, a well-written games, with witty puns and comical situations. It does not aim at total absurdity and tries to tackle a serious subjet matter on a light tone which it does with some success. The synopsis of trying to get revenge on a wealthy and popular politician and self-made man quickly gets forgotten and the player mainly focuses on the prison break-out, to the point where the second storyline, since they get reminded at some point that there is a second one, comes out as a surprise when checking on the help section.
This main storyline remains abstract and is rarely advanced, as most of the written text is about puzzle situations and jokes. Jokes mocking the player for their peculiar item combination attempts will be the more common, and most are not particularly inspired, akin mainly to “I don’t think so”. Some are pretty inventive or funny, though, and can easily make the player smile. Overall the global atmosphere prevails over single lines and the effect is succesfully achieved, giving Hook a tongue-in-cheek, slightly irreverant tone, albeit through mostly forgettable lines.
The writing is globally fine, if mundane and unremarquable, but the main story ends up feeling surprisingly weak, relegated to the background early on, to the point where the player can easily lose sight of their short term and/or long-term goals. The lack of proper and satisfying closing scene ends the game on a low and frustrating note. One particular scene feels like an unexploited opportunity the editor forgot to cut out, or that may have made more sense in the grander scheme of things, that is to say through Books 2 or 3.
One should not go into Cantaloop expecting strong characterization and a deep story. Hook remains at surface-level, being depicted only as a goofy, awkward male with close to zero relational, or even daily life, skills, when the player is told that he is actualy supposed to be some kind of thief wizard or prodigy, a fact that is difficult to believe or to identify with from beginning to end due to the tone employed in monologues or his lines during dialogues. These dialogues are forgettable for the most part. The characters very slightly feel like they have different voices and tones, which ultimately end up mostly being shades of snark, but do not get much chance to shine as, probably due once more to the paper format, the dialogue opportunities are rather rare. Unfortunately, this leads to the player never getting to choose an answer during a dialogue, the way they would in a video game, instead being encouraged to get triggers to unlock additional dialogue lines, as options would not properly describe the passive exchanges those are. Not that multiple answers in the video games ever lead to interesting puzzles, merely giving the writers more opportunities to confuse the player with silly lines and players more laughs, so this absence does not constitute a flaw here. The entirely scripted actions taken by the player make it feel like Hook gets by more by dumb luck than any kind of knowledge or ingenuity.
Although the pricepoint and the logistics would have been entirely different, Cantaloop would, both in terms of writing quality and puzzle variety and complexity, have vastly benefitted from having its three parts released as a single product, as it would have done away completely with the letdown that is this iteration’s absence of finale, would have given more sense to some of the items, given characters more opportunities to grow into more than two pages worth of hollow lines, maybe helping the player to develop an attachement to them, and would also have given a greater sense of mystery to locations that would then possibly hold secrets teasing and tempting the player until a final reveal taking place, maybe, only in the final act of the last book.
Astonishingly, the game completely drops the ball by the last quarter, both in terms of writing and puzzles quality, confronting the player with obvious puzzles, a limited number of choices, a rushed pace, and a restricted number of locations and items that quickly get locked out anyway, leaving no room for distraction. None of it feel easier because the player has grown to think like the designer does, which in itself can be considered lazy writing, as the designer would not constantly challenge themselves and the player; but because the last part simply presents, by design, less opportunities for following false leads, presenting the player with a restricted number of leads and options and then less opportunities to err, when one would expect the endgame to turn into an apotheosis of challenging options and witty, nonsensical challenges. These just feel obvious, both for lack of distractions and really obvious turns of events, feeling more like the designer stopped trying and was as tired of writing the game as the present reviewer was feeling playing it.
Of course, the low price point is an equally viable stance, as it means more players will readily hop in to try the game than if it was triple the content but double or triple the price a marketing strategy that has been at the center of all LCGs, and those can hardly be deemed “failures”. But where it works for games that do act as entry points and then get expanded with new expansions, in the present case it feels more like a design restriction when each iteraction is a stand-alone that must be self-contained and complete with its own puzzles, its own story, must have its own beginning and its own ending, etc. The price point could have made sense if the following two books actually made use of the items and locations found in Book 2, reusing underused items in new locations and presenting new twists for old locations with new items or, potentially, characters. Of course, doing so would have required another level of involvement from the publishing team altogether. But it has been confirmed that playing the previous iterations is not a requirement for Books 2 and 3, which in itself is customer-friendly but entirely defeats the purpose of a narrative game spanning over three Books, and further drives the point that the absence of proper ending in Book 1 was a big miss.
Hopefully, the next two iterations also do a better job at worldbuilding, as in Book 1 the island doesn’t feel like an intricate web of interconnected locations, but more like it hosts a random assortment of locations that are loosely related to one another sometimes, for mechanical purposes more than thematically.

Watermelon Man

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In for a little chat before starting the game?

The user interface consist of big numbered arrows denoting paths to connected locations and large boxes showing rather unprecisely the items that can be interacted with. These are divided in two categories, simple and complex. Simple items will have a single code while complex ones need to interact with a card, opening themselves to combinations and encouraging the player to be imaginative in their approach.
Because the left page is dedicated to the code and the right one to the location’s artwork, and thanks to the landscape format of the binder, they both get a chance to fully shine.
The artwork is reminiscent of the franco/belgian comic book style, with thick black outines and vivid colours. The different locations rarely feel empty, although some do and do feel like fillers, and are often filled to the brim with details. But, due to the “dialogue boxes”, the player is never really encouraged to attentively examine the place, as everything they can interact with is already obviously outlined. Location #20, for instance, could as well be a fourth of its actual size, as the player cannot interact with anything outside of a clearly defined portion of the page. As such, the player almost never has to do any detective work, and red herrings are few and far between, most of the time presenting but simple codes that are forgotten as soon as they have been read. Which makes it all the more frustrating when all of the sudden a random detail in the artwork is needed for a puzzle.
Dialogue scenes because they always are dialogues are simply text-like exchanges looking a lot like smartphone conversations, a white background with a representation of the speaking character’s head and expression. The chosen format doesn’t give much room for character expressing their feelings, although some of them successfully manage to with highly exaggerated facial expressions, such as the bartender or the librarian, usually when angered. Their small size and placement makes it easy not to notice them.
The item cards all follow the same template with a depiction of the item on a green background surrounded by two colons of codes for interacting with the environment and other items. They are mostly unremarkable, simply being the item they depict without fluff.

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The different card types.

The trigger sheet is blank and feels more like a last minute addition or an afterthough, a printed version of what was intended as a downloadable component which, as it happens, is not offered, and really should be. It is easily written on with a pencil, although the player should be warned that an eraser can permanently erase some of the ink. It is therefore strongly recommended to make a copy prior to playing.
Additional components are ingeniously stored in little pockets glued onto the binder’s cover. The cards’ pockets are difficult to close once they have been opened as the tab cannot reenter its designated slit without being manually led back into it, with the red decoder for instance. They’re made of flimsy cardboard and are rather fragile at the bottom, which easily ruptures should the player apply too much pressure when pushing the card stack back in. It can also be challenging to get the decoder and the two postcard-sized sheets out of their designated pocket, which is too deep for them and doesn’t open wide enough for a hand to go in.

Conclusion

Were it to be judged only on the first hour, Cantaloop would be a strong recommandation. Unique and magical, the beginning successfully triggers nostalgic memories for those who were lucky enough to play the old point-and-click glories of the 1990s. Sadly, after the initial burst of nostalgia, the game quickly fails to keep up in challenge and quality and starts falling victim to its chosen medium and will to remain financially tempting and accessible, a decision which severely limits the progression it allows the story to take. While the various prompts and one-liners issued by the character are reminiscent of its source material’s goofiness, the overarching story is lacking in direction and easily forgotten, both in terms of quality, and of being properly absent from the book. The tediousness of constantly repeating the one available action makes the game feel too long despite its relatively short length. Overall, Cantaloop sets an interesting precedent in showing what its take on the Choose Your Own Adventure system can do, but sadly lacks the creativity and writing talent to leave a strong impression by itself.

A strong start that weakly leads to an absence of payoff.

Cantaloop belongs to Lookout Games.

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