Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst review
Adventure Gamers Awards
If there’s one name that’s become practically synonymous with “hidden object” casual games, it’s Mystery Case Files. From Huntsville to Madame Fate, even branching out to the Nintendo DS with MillionHeir, the seek-and-find titles from Big Fish Games have developed quite a popular following in recent years.
So why on earth are we reviewing the latest one at Adventure Gamers?
It’s ironic, really, that while an increasing number of adventures are adopting a more casual approach to streamlined gameplay, casual games are now seeking to inject more adventure elements to broaden their own. From added emphasis on storylines to better puzzle integration, the once-easily-distinguished line between the two “genres” has become more and more blurred of late. And now Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst has pretty much wiped it out entirely. The question, as always when competing interests collide, is whether such a new hybrid represents the best of both worlds or a compromise that does full justice to neither, and in this game at least, the answer appears to fall somewhere in the middle.
A sequel to 2006’s Ravenhearst in premise if not necessarily gameplay, Return to Ravenhearst sends players back to the haunting (and haunted) Ravenhearst Manor. Having resolved the centuries-old tragic tale of one tortured soul in the original game, it seems we didn’t delve quite deeply enough, as the deceased resident nursemaid and her family may also be eternally connected to the house and its deranged former owner. And so it’s once more back to the remote English coastline and the eerie mansion that is far more (and more dangerous) than it first appears.
It would be overstating to say that the story plays a major role in Return to Ravenhearst, but it does provide a much stronger, more tangible framework than its predecessor. Instead of simply moving from one distinct level to the next, with no discernible connection apart from convenient diary pages that fill in all the blanks, here there’s a very definite sense of discovery and progression through a narrative that builds as you go, slowly and at times disturbingly revealing the fates of the home’s previous inhabitants. You’ll even encounter a few other characters in your travels, though most are spectral and none allow for interactive dialogue. The first-person playable character remains silent and unseen, though a handy journal frequently records interesting observations and all relevant clues.
The word “travels” may seem an odd choice, but it’s entirely fitting, as perhaps Beyond Ravenhearst would have been a more accurate title. Rather than simply limiting you to various rooms in the house itself, you’ll get the chance to explore the manor’s extensive grounds and its even more extensive underground. Like something half-borrowed from Verne, you’ll soon find yourself plumbing the cave-like depths of the earth to – naturally – such locations as a schoolhouse, a general store, and a functional train car. I don’t think it’s all meant to be underground, but let’s just say the game seems a bit hazy on the geographical detail. It’s all to the player’s benefit, in any case, providing a welcome sense of scale that previous MCF games have lacked.
Mind you, first you’ll need to get into the house itself. Right from the get-go, you’ll realize that Return to Ravenhearst is going to make you work for every significant advance. And by “work” I mean solve puzzle after puzzle after puzzle. You like puzzles? Welcome to Ravenhearst! From sliders in many various forms to pattern matching exercises, jigsaws, and (simple) math formulas, there are more brain teasers in this game than most modern adventures. Some of these include multiple stages to complete, and others incorporate twists on traditional designs, like a timed Concentration game where the tiles shift in mid-game. Strangely (and disappointingly), none of the puzzles are the Rube Goldberg-type that characterized the first Ravenhearst title.
There is also the occasional reflex challenge like a troll version of Wak-a-Rat, though most puzzles can be skipped entirely with the “hints” feature. Hints are plentiful if not infinite, and the only consequence for using one is an increase to your total time calculation, otherwise presenting no practical concern. If there’s a drawback, it’s that it takes a while (in real time) for the next hint to “reload” to prevent you from using them successively. This shouldn’t pose much of an obstacle, however, as most of the hints you do get are simply blatant giveaways or total puzzle bypasses. Actual hints with a certain degree of subtlety would have been far more welcome, at least as an option. Even so, don’t be surprised to find yourself using them on occasion, as the game’s puzzles can be very difficult at times. If "casual" usually means “easy”, remember that Return to Ravenhearst defies the established norm.
Of course there are hidden object sequences as well, requiring you to find a seemingly random list of objects from cluttered locations for no particular reason. But these are far fewer than you might expect, or at least far less prevalent in terms of overall gameplay. In fact, I’d venture to say that the distribution may be too far skewed the other way, as an extended sequence of standalone logic puzzles can sometimes bring the game’s pace to a screeching halt. It doesn’t help matters that many of them are so blatantly contrived. It’s an issue that casual titles and pure puzzle games don’t concern themselves with, but by incorporating them into a more adventure-like format, such arbitrary obstacles work against the game’s credibility. Yes, there’s a demented madman conceptually at the root of everything that happens at Ravenhearst, but suspension of disbelief flies out the window at the first sign of a dominoes-based door lock.
The notable exception to this trend in Return to Ravenhearst is its inventory puzzles. That’s right, just like any ol’ adventure game, you’ll be collecting items as you go, with upwards of ten or so objects at any given time. Sometimes items are collected from a hidden object sequence, while others you simply find by interacting with the environment. You can’t combine inventory items and object use is generally straightforward, but it adds a nice layer of personal involvement to the proceedings. Instead of a chapter-end pat on the head as the game propels you forward, here you’ll need to earn your ongoing keep through careful exploration. I could have done without one cat-and-mouse puzzle whose solution felt at least a little distasteful, but thankfully the Ravenhearst cat is the restrained type.
Inventory puzzles aren’t the only type that force you to pay close attention to your surroundings. More than a few clues are located somewhere other than where you’ll need them. It’s usually fairly obvious what’s important, and with one intentionally misleading exception, the journal will put all doubts to rest. But it’s not always so obvious what to do with them until you’ve progressed further. The game is semi-linear, preventing you from moving too far ahead too early with obstacles you can’t master, but periodically opening up new areas to explore.
Unfortunately, it’s not always clear what’s interactive and what’s not. All hidden object challenges and some hotspots glitter visibly onscreen. And some don’t. Even after finishing the game, the reason for this discrepancy is completely unclear to me, but the bottom line is that it’s an unreliable indicator. A smart cursor will change when mousing over all hotspots, however, so in that sense it’s no different than any other point-and-click adventure. Navigation is also similar to first-person slideshow games, though with generally fewer directional options at any one time. The one oddity is the “down” arrow, as instead of turning you around, it simply moves you backwards to the previous node. While often used in games for exiting out of close-ups, it’s a bizarre feeling to continually move backwards from one environment to the next. There’s no in-game map for quick transportation, which can be a little annoying, but clicking on exits instantly moves you to the next location, so it’s never too tedious to move around manually.
The scenery in Return to Ravenhearst is fairly appealing, albeit in purposely creepy ways. There are no jump-out-of-your-chair moments, but the hand painted artwork is just stylized enough to give the game a slightly surreal feel. Small touches of animation help support the unnerving atmosphere, like a spider descending from the mouth of a broken doll, or even the face of kitten appearing at a hole in the wall. Yes, dolls and kittens are chilling; laugh now, agree later. The game uses a slightly higher resolution than older hidden object games, though you’re still limited to a default that isn’t as crisp as it could be. I was a bit disappointed in some of the item placement in the hidden object sequences as well. It’s one thing for items to be deviously concealed, but I got hung up a few times on items so obscured that I’d have had trouble identifying them even looking right at them.
For the first time in the MCF series, there’s even a cinematic introduction to Return to Ravenhearst, along with the occasional FMV clip interspersed throughout the game. Fully voiced, these sequences straddle the line between spooky and hammy, but ultimately tip the scale in favour of increased immersion. You can’t help but be touched by the plight of the ethereal twin girls, even if they get a little too close to The Shining for comfort. Music also plays a big part in establishing atmosphere, as the soundtrack consists of fully orchestrated scores from the Deutsche Film Orchestra in Berlin. It’s high quality stuff, though it occasionally overdoes the dramatic effect considering the sedate pace of the gameplay
If there’s one other thing that hurts the game’s mood, it’s the tone of the player character’s observations. Attempting to use the incorrect inventory items results in really obnoxious text commentary like “Is your mouse broken”, “You are an intellectual colossus”, or “Is this fun for you, Clicky-pants?” It’s clearly meant tongue-in-cheek, but it’s not only needlessly insulting, it’s completely out of sync with the circumstances of the game. Even in a standard casual game, this smart-alecky sentiment wouldn’t have been appreciated, but here it’s just wrong on every conceivable level.
At the end of the day, which could take anywhere from six to ten hours to reach (depending on how liberally the hints option is used), it’s obvious that Return to Ravenhearst isn’t your typical adventure game. Like a modern day 7th Guest, it offers up a host of familiar puzzles with a splash of hidden object sequences that provides an engaging diversion without being too overbearing. The added exploration, expanded storyline, and improved puzzle integration, meanwhile, adds just enough light adventuring to provide a welcome depth over standard casual fare. Its limited scope and over-reliance on arbitrary challenges do limit its appeal, but for those seeking something a little different, you may just find a visit to Ravenhearst worth a closer look.
You may not want to live there, but the return trip to Ravenhearst offers a little something for casual gamers, puzzle lovers, and adventurers alike.