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.Continued on the next page...