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Casual adventuring: cross-genre franchises

Casual adventuring 3
Casual adventuring 3

Adventure game protagonists sure have been busy lately. From Hercule Poirot to Sherlock Holmes, from Mata Hari to Leonardo Da Vinci and even Nostradamus, wherever you turn, you can’t help but find their latest exploits in games like Death on the Nile, The Mystery of the Persian Carpet, or Secret Missions

Oh, these weren’t the games you were expecting?

I can’t blame you if you were expecting such titles as Evil Under the Sun, The Awakened, and Mata Hari. If you tend to follow only adventure game news, you may not realize that these prominent characters have been moonlighting lately in casual games. We’ve seen it once from Sherlock already, and recently the CSI New York crew and Nancy Drew have followed suit. It’s all part of the ongoing casual invasion that’s happening right before our eyes. Or perhaps happening while we’re not looking.

Rest assured, however, that Adventure Gamers has got your backs. In order to avoid further confusion between standard adventures and casual games among popular franchises, it’s time to take a closer look at the various "lite" games that might at first appear to be full-fledged new adventures but really aren’t, perhaps appropriately for the “hidden object” games that some of them actually are.

If you'd like to skip ahead, the following are included in this feature:

Page 1: Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot

Page 2: Sherlock Holmes

Page 3: Mata Hari

Page 4: Leonardo Da Vinci

Page 5: Nostradamus

 



Agatha Christie


And There There Were None: 2005 Adventure

Murder on the Orient Express: 2006 Adventure

Evil Under the Sun: 2007 Adventure

Death on the Nile: 2007 Casual

Peril at End House: 2007 Casual


Last year was the first since 2005 that we haven’t had a new Agatha Christie adventure whodunit. That void was quickly filled by Death on the Nile, the first of two Hercule Poirot hidden object games developed by Floodlight Games and published by Oberon. Originally released for download in 2007 and followed by Peril at End House, the subsequent boxed version of Death on the Nile can easily be mistaken for a new full-fledged adventure. It’s not.

Death on the Nile sends players aboard the S.S. Karnak, a luxury ship travelling the famous river in Egypt. Poirot’s knack for being in the right (wrong?) place at the right (wrong?) time prevails once again, as a jealous wife wounds her husband with a gunshot before being killed herself in her cabin that night. Being a Christie yarn, naturally your fellow passengers are an oddball sort who all have something to hide, and so it’s your job to scour the various areas of the ship in search of clues.

Of course, those clues are mixed in among an abundance of other junk. As a hidden object game, you’ll not only be looking for incriminating evidence, but lots of stuff with no use at all. It’s a completely traditional seek-and-find exercise: you’re given a timed period to sift through numerous cluttered screens to find every item on a pre-defined list, most of which are entirely arbitrary. The artwork is pleasant, the object concealment generally fair, and the activity fairly straightforward, although the game tends to rely a little too much on finding multiple items of the same type. Your list may look manageable enough until you realize you need to find six ducks or twelve ripped pieces of paper.

In each of the game’s eleven chapters, you’ll have five “hints” that identify a remaining object on your list, and while it’s unlikely you’ll fail a round as a result, you may find yourself using more than you think. As with most hidden object games, you’re out of luck if you simply don’t know what a “Calabash” or “Henna Hands” are, but you’ll also find yourself looking for undefined items like something that “rhymes with three”. Some of the objects are even part of the game’s few animations, which may seem either clever or unfair at the time. On other occasions, you’ll need to drag items into a sequence on-screen, but it’s often unclear where the items should go, and even the hints won’t help.

There are also a handful of other puzzles to round out each chapter. Most are either small jigsaws or match-clues-with-characters exercises, though there is the odd combination to crack and object to assemble, along with a few other standalone types. I found several of these poorly clued, but as a last resort, you can opt to skip any of these entirely with no penalty.

Naturally the murder mystery is a central component of the overall game, but only a peripheral element of the gameplay itself. A few comic-style, sepia-toned cutscenes move the story forward occasionally, and key plot points are fleshed out in random notes and articles conveniently left for you to discover. There is a “clue room” where you can review important items you’ve found (which the game determines for you), and a “salon” where you can ask questions of the ship’s guests. The latter makes for a nice change of pace, but it’s a little too sporadic to make the narrative very coherent. Even though the whole game only took several hours to complete, I was already forgetting who did what and why by the end. Luckily, the final reveal excused my confusion with a rather anti-climactic process of elimination task (which seemed a bit beneath Poirot but suited me fine).
 



Peril at End House is virtually identical to Death on the Nile, with only the details changed to suit the plot. This time around, Poirot is joined by his friend Captain Hastings, not to solve a murder (at least at first), but to prevent one if possible. The owner of the modest “End House” on the Cornish coast has been the near-victim of several suspicious incidents, and although her acquaintances all have skeletons in their closets, there seems little reason to wish harm on the likeable young lady, so the vacationing Belgian detective determines to take up her cause.

Gone from the previous game are the clue room and suspect questioning, replaced here by periodic “clue cards” which pop up whenever you discover an important item or piece of information. These can be reviewed at any time, but I missed the direct character interaction of Death on the Nile, however limited, as here I felt even less connection to the characters or the storyline. As a result, with so much revealed in so short a time, it proved even more difficult to follow the details unfolding.

There are no significant changes to the hidden object gameplay or hint system, though the chapter-closing puzzles in End House include more pattern matching and dialogue fill-in-the-blanks exercises than its predecessor. Production values are similar as well, displaying attractive but limited-resolution artwork, light and often jazzy background music, and no voice acting of any kind.

If you like one of these games, it’s a no-brainer to suggest you’ll like the other as well, and as far as hidden object casual games, they’re pleasantly diverting fun. But if you haven’t tried either, bear in mind that neither should ever be confused with the Agatha Christie adventure series. There is no exploration, story integration, inventory puzzles, or personal freedom, and no matter how hard you look, these are just about the only things you’ll never find.

Up next: Sherlock Holmes...


Sherlock Holmes


Mystery of the Mummy: 2003 Adventure (soon to be ported to DS)

The Case of the Silver Earring: 2004 Adventure

Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Time Machine: 2006 Educational children’s game

The Awakened: 2006 Adventure (re-released in Remastered Version in 2008)

Nemesis: 2007 Adventure (also known as Sherlock Holmes versus Arsène Lupin)

The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes: 2008 Casual

Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Persian Carpet: 2008 Casual

Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper: 2009 Adventure (not yet released)


The Mystery of the Persian Carpet isn’t the great detective’s only foray into the casual realm, but it’s far more likely to cause genre confusion than The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes. The reason for that is simple: it’s by Frogwares, the driving force behind all the new full-fledged Sherlock Holmes adventures. As a result, not only does the game look like its adventure game counterparts in most screenshots, it’s probably the least “casual” title of those examined here. That’s not to suggest it’s best considered an adventure after all, but rather than being developed from the ground up as a hidden object game with adventuring elements added in, Persian Carpet feels more like a would-be adventure that’s been stripped down to suit the casual market. Unfortunately, it stripped out a lot of the fun in the process.

The story centers around a murdered young artist who’s found wrapped up in the eponymous Persian carpet, but with no people to deal with directly and only text documents filling in the many blanks, the unfolding plot presentation is too sparse and too rushed to create any real cohesive focus. At no point did I feel I had a grasp of the events playing out, and with each new independent revelation from Holmes, I echoed Watson’s sentiment of “for my part, I am no further ahead.

And that sense of cluelessness comes with the “deduction board” exercise which concludes most of the game’s seven chapters. Theoretically, this is a great idea, requiring links to be drawn between victim and suspects from all the relevant items and information discovered in your investigation. The reality, however, is that the connections can be incredibly vague, and the interface in this section is so obtuse that it creates more confusion than it resolves. You can use any available hints still left over from that chapter’s allotment, but otherwise expect some blind guesses and trial-and-error to supplement your “detective” work.

Of course, getting to the deduction board isn’t easy to begin with. Each level sends you to several different locations to find a bunch of pre-determined “evidence” first. Rather than adopt the standard hidden object formula from other casual games, though, here the gameplay comes straight out of the adventure game pixel hunting manual. Yes, pixel hunting, exactly as it’s come to be known and despised. It starts off promisingly: the screens are beautifully rendered in high resolution, they’re uncluttered by excess objects, and the items you seek are shown as silhouettes, so you’d think the task would be simple… but no. Many objects are so concealed that you’ll be hard pressed to find them all. Good luck locating a small sprinkling of ash, tiny scratch marks, or a single strand of hair. The cursor doesn’t even throw you a bone by changing over collectible hotspots, removing even that advantage from adventures. You can use your hints here as well, but the more you use, the fewer you’ll have for the rest of the chapter. And while sometimes a hint will clearly highlight an item itself, other times the only help you’ll get is a highlight of where to click for a new close-up screen. Gee, thanks Sherlock.

A few items can be used as basic inventory in their own environments, but the majority of puzzles arbitrarily thrown in your way are the standalone logic variety. Among numerous others, there are jigsaws and math puzzles, sliders and codes to break, sometimes more than once in succession. Aside from one enjoyable 3D spatial puzzle that I’ve never before encountered in a game, most are variations of puzzles any experienced adventure gamer will have seen before. Some are very easy, like the rudimentary clue “analysis” back at 221b Baker Street, while others can be very challenging. Rather than offering hints, there are entire puzzle skips available, but you have only a finite number to last the whole game, so you can’t use them indiscriminately. Your enjoyment of these challenges will depend solely on your appreciation of puzzles, as they’re rarely justified in the storyline, serving mainly as contrived obstacles (and consequently, as pace-killers).

There are three levels to choose from at the start of the game, including Casual, Detective, and Adventure, the differences being the degree of puzzle difficulty and number of hints and puzzle solutions available. The game also displays a timer, though any of the three options can be played in untimed mode, and I can’t imagine anyone willingly choosing the timed version, as the game is punishing enough without such limitations. The Adventure mode promises a “freedom of investigation” option, but really this just lets you move between the occasional screen if you’re stuck, as the game remains entirely linear and progress on one front has no bearing on another.

Whatever the mode chosen, The Mystery of the Persian Carpet can’t be considered Sherlock Holmes’ finest hour on PC, and it’s anything but “elementary” overall, taking a good six hours to complete the first time through (hint use varying mileage, of course). While qualifying as a casual title, it’s far more demanding and less rewarding than most hidden object games, while far more streamlined and less substantial than most adventures, so its appeal will be limited. Ultimately, perhaps its value is more as a light puzzle game – a deduction supported by the option to replay the main puzzles on their own after completing them.

Up next: Mata Hari...


Mata Hari


Secret Missions: Mata Hari and the Kaiser's Submarines: 2008 Casual

Mata Hari: 2009 Adventure (not yet released)


While the first full-fledged adventure starring the exotic Dutch dancer still awaits, the double-crossing spy has quietly been working the casual game scene already in Secret Missions: Mata Hari and the Kaiser's Submarines. Sneaking a new protagonist in between Holmes mysteries, this game is also a Frogwares creation, released several months after Persian Carpet. Fortunately, they were clearly months well spent, as the new title is a significant improvement over the great detective’s not-so-great endeavour, though a few of the same weaknesses still linger at times.

Avoiding any reference to those pesky "German spy" allegations against the real Mata Hari, the game's story centers around Mata's attempt to find plans of a German sub attack in 1916, as such proof will draw the Americans into the fray and turn the tide in favour of the Allies. To do so, she’ll need to patch together loose pieces of a map conveniently scattered around Europe that display the location of hidden U-boats. It’s a very lightweight premise, and the storyline is almost a non-factor, serving mainly as an excuse to traipse around the globe from France to Spain to Switzerland to Germany (all in the blink of an eye), scour each new location, and get all dressed up.

Yes, in an exercise that has “prime casual game demographic” written all over it, Secret Missions has players dolling Mata Hari up to suit her seductive purposes. Each of the game’s seven supporting characters has weaknesses to exploit with the proper attire, and players must sift through three levels of wardrobe choices (hair, body, and accessories, each filled with many possibilities) to best effect. It’s a perfectly legitimate task, though the game’s two difficulty settings have a hard time finding a happy medium: the easy setting essentially solves the puzzle for you, while the hard setting offers no feedback at all to where you’re going wrong, and the clues you’re provided are often too vague to pinpoint the problem yourself.

The other key change from Sherlock comes between most of Mata Hari’s fourteen missions. From her hotel room, she’ll need to stay in touch with spy central by sending and receiving encoded messages. Receiving messages means solving a three-part, somewhat-Mastermind-like colour-coding sequence, while sending messages requires a complex wire-connection puzzle, always done twice. Each task ramps up in difficulty the farther you go, and though the higher difficulty setting doesn’t seem to make the hardest ones harder, it does ensure they get more challenging more quickly.

The rest of the game follows much the same pattern as Persian Carpet, but enhanced here in small but important ways. Static locations are filled not with lots of random junk, but only the few extra things you’re required to find in each. Your search list again shows silhouetted items, and some can only be found by switching to a close-up view or solving a self-contained inventory puzzle first. Fortunately, this time any item that can’t be found immediately is indicated, preventing you from wasting your time fruitlessly. Less fortunately, the game still imposes some frustrating pixel hunts, sometimes for items and sometimes only for “action” cursors. Back on the plus side, this time hotspots become highlighted when you pass the cursor over them, and sometimes you can get lucky. (I’d tell you to get your mind out of the gutter, but Mata does get plenty of offscreen action, so it’s probably right where it needs to be.)

Each mission includes one standalone puzzle to solve, and most of them are pretty entertaining, though for some reason instructions are never offered unless you click the “Help” button (this after some rather intrusive tutorial message boxes dominating the early stages of the game). You’ll encounter the likes of facial reconstruction assignments, pattern identification, a jigsaw, Sudoku, and a few tile-based minigames, plus a boring click-and-slowly-drag (and drag is right) exercise to uncover hidden images carried over from Sherlock. Some puzzles are identical even on the harder setting, while others increase the difficulty somewhat, though always manageably. Any puzzle can be skipped entirely, however, and if there’s any limit on the harder setting, I didn’t reach it.

Unlike Frogwares’ earlier title, there are no limits to item location hints, either, only a short recharge period for the hint function. This is a much better idea, discouraging over-dependence but not punishing players who need more help than they thought they would at the start of the game. There is no timer running throughout Secret Missions, even during one simulated bomb-defusing sequence, so players can take as much time as they’d like. A score for each mission is tabulated, taking time and the number of hints used into account, but this seems to have no bearing on the game itself.

Production values remain typical Frogwares, with nicely designed period locations (although repeated a few times too often) and wonderful orchestration supporting the experience. There are no voiceovers at all, a few too many typos made the cut, Mata's dancing is only ever alluded to between scenes, and the story takes some rather absurd leaps near the end in its haste to seem more substantial than it is, but it’s clear that Frogwares felt more comfortable with the “casual” nature of this game, and the result is a definite step forward. The entire game took me only three hours to complete, but the Kaiser’s Submarines managed to deliver twice the enjoyment in half the time of its Holmesian predecessor, so it may just be worth a look if you’re up for something "lite" to tide you over until the main Mata Hari adventure still to come.

Up next: Leonardo Da Vinci...


Da Vinci


The Da Vinci Code: 2006 Adventure (or Action/Adventure hybrid)

The Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript: 2006 Adventure

Great Secrets: Da Vinci: 2008 Casual


Both the action-tinged take on Dan Brown’s conspiracy thriller and Kheops Studio’s historical puzzler sent players following in the footsteps of the enigmatic Leonardo Da Vinci, but DayTerium’s casual approach puts gamers right in the shoes of the Renaissance man himself. Only in the most superficial way, mind you, and ironically for a game based on such a progressive thinker and inventor, Great Secrets: Da Vinci makes no attempt to experiment with the standard hidden object formula. Fortunately, Leonardo’s influence as a brilliant artist plays a more significant role in what still manages to be a mild but pleasant, thoroughly traditional seek-and-find experience.

The game begins when Leonardo is simply a young master, not a grand one, listening to his favourite uncle’s tales. The story then follows the main travels and exploits of his life, ostensibly in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone, which seems an odd choice as a premise. Some events are historically accurate, while creative liberty seems to have been taken with others. Nevertheless, it all adequately provides a loose framework for visits to such places as Florence, Milan, Rome, Athens, the Far East, and France. The narrative is revealed only through journal entries between each stage of the game’s fourteen chapters, and while these serve their basic purpose, suffice it to say that no one will be confusing these writings for anything from Leonardo’s own hand.

In each chapter, the gameplay is broken down into four distinct sections: one sees you looking for random objects, another has you identifying comparative differences from a split-screen, and a third requires you to collect sets of one type of item (birds, keys, bottles, etc.). If you’ve played any hidden object games before, you’ve likely encountered each type already, and there’s nothing new here at all. The fourth stage switches between simple Concentration-style card matching, a super-simple tile-swapping jigsaw, and an ultra-simple tile-rotation puzzle. The operative word there being… well, simple to figure out. Each individual task is fine on its own, but over the course of the game’s 3-4 hours of play time, a little more variety would certainly have been welcomed.

It’s unlikely anyone will require much more than that, as Great Secrets is definitely not a difficult game. It is timed, and the number of items increases throughout the game from ten to as many as thirty, but the consistent ten minutes per level are usually far more than you’ll need. The more the items, the easier they often are to find, after all. The only potential challenge will come from the random object stage, which lists only five objects at a time and won’t let you scroll ahead manually. Clicking randomly will cost you a time penalty if you do it often enough, and you can’t “find” unknown items accidentally, as only the items visible on the list are active on the game screen. Even so, I routinely finished these stages without ever feeling remotely pressured for time.

When you do inevitably hit those one or two stubborn items that are too well concealed (or just eluding your attention, no matter how obvious they are), there are unlimited hints available to show the location of a missing list item. The hint system needs to recharge over time, so you can’t rely on multiple uses in a crunch, but it’s more than sufficient for what you’ll need. Object concealment is generally fair, with only a few instances of undue vagueness or imprecise item description (helpful hint: a “sandwatch” is an hourglass, not something you eat).

Like many hidden object games, the artwork is attractive but fairly low resolution, leaving you wondering what you’re looking at on occasion, let alone what you’re looking for. The scenery is nice, though, mainly displaying lavish indoor settings of Leonardo’s benefactors, and wisely the game avoids having you search for modern items that wouldn’t suit the turn-of-the-16th-century décor. The bonus, however, comes from the use of famous works like "Mona Lisa", the "Vitruvian Man", and "The Last Supper". Only the latter provides the basis for hidden object gameplay, the others simply offered up in standalone puzzles. Still, it’s always a kick to see familiar famous works, even if they are underused.

The orchestral music in Great Secrets is cheerfully upbeat, offering a pleasing background environment. At least, for the first hour. As with the game’s other elements, the soundtrack begins to get repetitive, and would have benefited greatly from a bit more variety, but the volume can be adjusted if it does begin to wear, and there’s certainly no complaint about the quality of the tunes offered.

Overall, Great Secrets: Da Vinci plays the hidden object game about as safely as it can, and does so decently. There are no innovations here, no bursts of genius befitting its brilliant protagonist, but it does a solid job with the traditional seek-and-find elements. Given its relative ease and lack of tougher logic puzzles found in many casual offerings, this title is perhaps best suited to hidden object novices, or simply those looking for a peaceful, unassuming afternoon with Leonardo. And hey, it’s a lot cheaper than a trip to the Louvre.

Up next: Nostradamus...


Nostradamus


Nostradamus: The Last Prophecy: 2007 Adventure

The Hidden Prophecies of Nostradamus: 2008 Casual

Cassandra's Journey: The Legacy of Nostradamus: 2008 Casual


The final adventure game protagonist to make his presence felt in the casual market comes as something of a surprise… at least, to everyone but himself, presumably. It’s Nostradamus, noted 16th century astrologer and prophet who was first featured in another Kheops historical adventure, The Last Prophecy. Although only a peripheral figure in that game, he’s actually even less relevant in the two casual games to bear his name, cited mainly as a hook for popular attention. The two games in question are both solid enough little hidden object titles, but be forewarned that they bear little resemblance to the life and times of their namesake.

The Hidden Prophecies of Nostradamus, by Cat’s Eye Games, requires players to uncover fragments of a crystal ball locked beneath a series of Tarot cards. A few poetic rhymes move the “plot” forward between each of its fifteen levels, but really that’s about it for the entire story, and since neither element has any relation to Nostradamus, it plays out more like the hidden prophecies of Zoltar. In fact, it’s not even historical. Locations throughout the game don’t seem to have any factual significance, and while the building interiors are perhaps reflective of the Renaissance period, the many hidden object screens are filled with modern day items.

Aside from the inexplicable Nostradamus references, what we’re left with is another extremely traditional seek-and-find game. Each level has you visit three different locations on a map, which begin with 12 or 13 hidden items per screen before ramping up to 20 or so by game’s end. You can switch between them if you’re stuck, but you need to find every item in every location, so you’ll have to return to any that aren’t yet finished. The allotted time in “Sorcerer mode” (because, you know, Nostradamus was renowned for his witchcraft – argh!) gives you 45 minutes to complete a level, while a relaxed mode gives you double that. Either should give you more than enough, however, as the hint system works the same as Da Vinci, in which the hint bar refills after use, giving you lots of help if you really need it, just never in rapid fire sequence.

The item list also works exactly the same as Great Secrets, revealing only five objects at a time, and progressing only as you find each of those. There’s a time penalty for random clicking, and occasionally you’ll be required to find multiples of the same object, but never any more than two. The artwork is fairly clear, however, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself pressed for time, or even tempted to overuse the hint feature.

Each level also contains a single standalone puzzle, which break down into two or three repetitions of six basic types: there’s a lengthy “hangman” exercise to fill in Nostradamus’ recorded prophecies, Tarot Concentration, piece-switching jigsaws, a Bejeweled-style matching game, pathfinding around obstacles, and perhaps the world’s lamest minigame, in which picture tiles change when you slide the cursor over them, and again when you back off. I absolutely blew through each puzzle in almost no time, and I don’t consider myself a great puzzle solver, so that’s saying something. If for any reason you do get hung up, or just loathe that blasted tile-changing puzzle as much as me, there are three puzzle skips available in both easy and normal modes.

There is no voice acting throughout the game, not because it’s a casual downloadable game (though it is), but because there aren’t even any people in the game. The quiet is relieved only by the game’s soundtrack, which is pleasant enough when it plays, though there are periods of silence between scores. What’s truly bizarre, however, is that between songs, you’ll occasionally hear a throat being cleared or a page being turned, as if you’re listening to a live concert. That’s not written into the game in any way, so it’s a curious choice. Either that or someone just forgot to hit the “off” button in the sound studio.

All told, the gameplay in The Hidden Prophecies of Nostradamus is diverting enough for the 3-4 hours it’ll take to finish. It adheres faithfully to the tried-and-true, so the experience is utterly predictable, even without Nostradamus’ soothsaying talents. It’s a shame that so little effort was made to prop up the story framework, but anyone looking for a little more narrative oomph mixed in with their fortunetelling does have another option available to them…
 



Cassandra's Journey: The Legacy of Nostradamus, by JoyBits, takes just as many liberties with its historical subject matter as Hidden Prophecies, but at least the famous seer is actually in this one. At least, his spirit is. Set in modern day, players follow Cassandra, an aspiring mystic who’s visited by a woman whose brother has mysteriously disappeared. Inexperienced as she is, help comes unexpectedly in the form of Nostradamus, who guides her in finding a magic family ring to increase her powers. Her travels take players to rather unexotic locations like her office, a park, a pawn shop, and the depths of her own purse, though she does take a couple time-baffling trips to Nostradamus’ back yard. Not much of a journey, really.

But wait a sec… Magic ring? Here we go again. Yes, magic is repeatedly referenced throughout the game, though Nostradamus was never involved with magic in any way. Mind-reading, too. Is even a cursory glance at a history book too much to ask? Sigh. In any case, Nostradamus’ role in the game is as mentor only, appearing on occasion to spur Cassandra on in positive directions (and conveniently moving the story forward in the process). He’ll even speak a few words of wisdom to you, as this game is one of the few casual titles to include voice acting, limited though it is.

As with all hidden object games, of course the story is just an excuse to set up the gameplay, so narrative gaffes aside, Cassandra’s Journey is another traditional hidden object game. Theoretically it’s broken down into forty different “levels”, but it treats each individual scenario and even standalone puzzle as a level in its own right, so the entire game can be finished in under three hours quite easily. Naturally, searching for concealed items is required, but this task is fairly evenly split between finding randomly listed items, collecting large sets of the same object, spotting items displayed as silhouettes, locating differences between two and even three similar scenes, and spotting the answers to riddles you’ll first need to solve. Not surprisingly, the latter provides the hardest challenge, as some riddles can be a bit too vaguely clued, but you’ll also be hard pressed to find the smaller differences in the comparative scenes as you split your attention three ways.

Fortunately, help is plentiful, providing you work for it. Each hidden object scene contains jewels that you can then use to “shop” for different types of hints. The best (and costliest) hints specifically highlight an item, while the lower-priced hints show either a general (but large) vicinity of an object or a glowing cursor. You can also buy extra time in one-minute increments, though these apply only to the current scene, and for the most part your allotted ten minutes will be plenty. A “relaxed mode” is also available if you really like to play at your own leisure.

There are several other puzzle types to overcome along the way as well. Besides the familiar obstacles like piece-switching jigsaws and more Bejeweled, there are a few lesser-seen assignments, such as a word search, a variation of Solitaire, and an unusual grab-the-moving-text activity, each of which you’ll do a couple of times. Also sprinkled in are several “tricks” from Nostradamus, which he claims are magic but are obviously mathematical in nature, however impressive they might be on the surface. You can’t fail these, although there is a quiz attached to the optical illusions shown, which are sure to blow your mind even if you know you’re not seeing what you think you are.

Really the only evident purpose of these tricks from Nostradamus is to unlock different means of fortunetelling from the main menu. Whether by cards, stars, or crystal ball, Cassandra will tell your fortune, but her revelations are little more than fortune cookie-type platitudes. The current date is recorded, and you’re only allowed to visit once per day, but if the developers wanted repeat visitors, they probably should have made a longer game.

In fact, even a complete game would have been nice. In focusing on Cassandra’s pursuit of the magic ring, the story ridiculously forgets all about the missing brother until the end, at which point it’s suddenly reintroduced and then punctuated with… “to be continued”! Now, flimsy storytelling like this won’t be leaving anyone anxiously awaiting the outcome, but it’s still a bit of a slap in the face to be deprived of the actual mystery the game seemed to promise. So, despite the presence of Nostradamus, you won’t be leaving any wiser than you begin, but you should have a fairly enjoyable journey for as long as it lasts.


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Comments

Scott Nixon
Apr 27, 2009

If I’m 100% honest about the Agatha Christie switch, it upsets me most because I’m proud of the adventure game series (I know many hated it) but now whenever I mention I worked on an Agatha title the assumption is that I worked on a HOG game.  Not that there’s anything wrong with working on HOG games, but the confusion is a little jarring.  Selfish, I know, but there you are!

Banderwocky
Apr 27, 2009

I looked the Agatha Christie games up on Moby and they both credit Jane Jensen as designer.

AndreaDraco83
Apr 27, 2009

As far as I know Jane Jensen used to work (still works) with Oberon, and she designed some of their games, like Inspector Parker. As far as I know, thought, she was merely responsible for the writing of the dialogues on the two Agata Christie casual games.

DaveGilbert DaveGilbert
Apr 28, 2009

I saw Jane Jensen speak about “Women’s Murder Club” and Hidden Object Games at GDC.  She has nothing but love for the genre, saying that she was making games that she really wanted to play.  She said one very funny thing, which was that since she is a middle aged woman she had a lot of clout when it came to pitching projects for the casual market..

AndreaDraco83
Apr 28, 2009

Jane did a great work of A Darker Shade of Grey, the second WMC game. She also implemented a basic dialogue system, which was quite entertaining (if a bit too straight-forward).

Marian
Apr 28, 2009

And now there’s going to be a Hardy Boys hidden object game, as well:  Hardy Boys The Perfect Crime, published by Dreamcatcher, and supposed to be released sometime in May.

DaveGilbert DaveGilbert
Apr 28, 2009

@andrea another funny thing Jane said.  The Hidden Object mechanics of the first WMC was an afterthought, thrown in at the last minute to appeal to the Hidden Object fans.  Then when the second game was released, the biggest complaint was the lack of hidden objects!  I believe in the third one they are going to reinstate them.

Scott Nixon
Apr 29, 2009

@Marian: And there’s the irony… I wrote the Hardy Boys project you mentioned, as well as the adventure game version (Hidden Theft) that came before it.  So the two series (Agatha and HB) I’ve worked on have both transitioned into the casual HOG market…

Jackal Jackal
Apr 29, 2009

We’ll be looking at the Hardy Boys casual game when it’s out. Scott, I didn’t realize you were involved in either version. Interesting. I’ve also encountered that confusion about the Agatha Christie titles. I was discussing them with another developer recently, and there was miscommunication all over the place until we realized we were talking about entirely different games. Grin Funny, the talk here so far has been about the writing/storytelling, but truth be told, I’m not honestly convinced that story adds that much to casual games. No disrespect meant to Scott, Jane Jensen, or any other writer, as it’s not quality I’m talking about. Just its relevance. Sure, it’s the “hook” to draw people in, but like I said for some/all of the games in this article, mainly it’s just window dressing, and it’s often shoehorned in so abruptly that I’m barely following it by the end anyway. That’s not to say a good story can’t be important, just that it would have to be integrated a bit differently (read: better) than it often is now.

Scott Nixon
Apr 30, 2009

I hope that isn’t the case! I’ve written several HOG games in the past year or so (Hidden Mysteries:Civil War, Elizabeth Find, M.D., Lost Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle, Real Crimes: The Unicorn Killer and Hidden Mysteries: Buckingham Palace) and was trying in each to not only force in as many adventure game elements as I was allowed (answer- not many) but also keep the overarching story at least interesting enough to warrant OCCASIONAL reading of the blurbs. I’ve no doubt the majority of the players skipped right through all the text rigmarole, but at least it was there as a kind of codex for those who were interested in WHY they were collecting a bunch of unrelated items. Again, I’m clearly biased - I am *NOT* a fan of HOG games - my motivations are to steer them towards traditional adventures as much as I am allowed to, and to pay bills until such time when the melding of the two genres (which, Jackal, I thought your previous article summed up brilliantly) makes the entire point moot.  I also suspect Jane Jensen’s remarks about WMC not intending to be a HOG game until the ‘last minute’ were hyperbole.  It might not have started out that way, but unless she redesigned that game from the bottom up, it’s ‘HOG’ness was clearly intended.  Redesigning a game from the ground up doesn’t warrant the phrase ‘last minute’, IMO.

Jackal Jackal
Apr 30, 2009

You’ve been busy, Scott! I haven’t tried any of those games, so I can’t comment specifically, but I still think you’re referring more to quality, which I didn’t mean to diminish in any way. I read everything in games, and the stories are often interesting enough in their own right. My issue is more that they just don’t feel all that relevant to the game, mainly because they aren’t integrated very well. They’re more like book dividers for “the gameplay”, with the one frequently not having little to do with another. Read a blurb, spend half an hour looking for stuff, solve a puzzle, get another blurb, lather, rinse, repeat. Walk away between chapters, and you’ve forgotten all the blurbs by the time you’ve come back anyway. It’s not always that way, and casual games are evolving, but I’ve encountered quite a few like that so far.

Marian
Apr 30, 2009

Scott, I just finished Real Crimes: The Unicorn Killer a few days ago, and I want you to know that I read each and every line of text and actually wished that there had been more, as I was actually more interested in the details of the case than I was in the game mechanic/play.  Having said that, I have read comments in the past by HOG players that they “don’t like a lot of reading,” and my sense is that Jack is correct in saying that (at least at this juncture) story may not add much to casual games; that doesn’t mean of course that things may not change in the future in that regard.  By the way, I noticed right away upon starting the game that it was an AWE Games production, and wondered if this might also signify that AWE was not going to do another full-length Agatha Christie adventure game, and I also wondered how the AWE group felt about that, so your posts are very interesting to me.

Scott Nixon
May 1, 2009

@Jackal I totally agree. When the gameplay mechanic is so divorced from anything beyond the most abstract connection to any sort real-world analogue (even one with absurdly convoluted logic) then, right, where’s the motivation to care about context? There really is none, unless your writing compelling enough to make people care about this story being told in parallel that doesn’t really have any (or much) integration. I don’t consider myself a writer at all, much less one who could keep people reading a story devoid of contextual relevance. I TRY to consider myself (on a particularly self-confident day) a game designer who just wants the writing to not be completely horrible - to as least be passable or not stand out as awful.

@Marian I’m glad to hear you say that! I’m not associated with Awe Games anymore, that game was something I wrote during my last month or so with them (December of last year.) A large part of the reason for my disassociation stems from my growing disappointment in the Agatha Christie debacle—it was my opinion that each installment was getting better - I thought ATTWN had the story and mood, and to some extent the good puzzles, but was hamstringed by sub-par character models, weak animation controls, etc. I (personally) loved MOTOE, I thought the animations, character models, and backgrounds were a real step forward and I think we lost sight of the gameplay a little bit as a result. The idea for EUTS was to keep the graphic quality of MOTOE with the ambience and puzzle latitude of ATTWN. Unfortunately, by that point, certain parties (the ones that wear suits) were no longer interested in investing the time and money to allow that to happen and I think (personally) that EUTS was the weakest installment as a result. Then it became clear to publishing that the cost vs. return on the HOG Agatha games was better than the Adventure versions, and that was all she wrote. Just to be clear, none of this disinterest was on the part of AWE, we were all interested in continuing as much as possible, but when budgets and dev cycles decreased with each consecutive installment, it was just hard to keep morale high. As a result, I joined the Bethesda Softworks family to work on MMOs for a while Smile

colpet colpet
May 1, 2009

Thanks for the rundown. I will probably be buying the Mata Hari game, as well as SH Persian Carpet.
I find it interesting that the game developers are trying to put more story into these games. I play them for the puzzles, and would rather they focus on a wider variety of types of thinking puzzles (vs. arcade style) including an increasing gradient of difficulty. (More like Pandora’s Box,  the Jewels games, or Entombed Enhanced.) I must admit that I don’t pay much attention to the story at all, except in some games that force you to pay attention (Dr. Lynch Grave Secrets).

Panthera Panthera
May 4, 2009

Thank you for the article Jack :o) I’m very fond of hidden objects games, and especially the ones that take a turn towards adventure, like Womens murder club, and also the two ravenhearst games. I’ll definitively be checking out Mata Hari, and maybe also some of the Agatha Christie games. Will you be featuring more “reviews” of casual games? I know you don’t see them as adventure games, but I’d very much like to be kept up to tabs on what’s happening on the casual adventure market. The new womens murder club game is very good, though I could have been without the “dodge the janitor” sequence.

Jackal Jackal
May 4, 2009

Well, we won’t even begin to try to keep up with the casual games. There are too many, and we don’t want them detracting too much from the main site focus (namely, adventure games). But we will continue to take a look at any we might think are of particular interest to adventure gamers. Either familiar crossover properties like we’ve covered so far, or those that may be more adventure-like than most. (The problem is, finding out which ones are, when they pretty much all claim to. Tongue)

crabapple
May 5, 2009

I don’t consider myself a major HOG player, but I have played a few. The ones I like best are those that allow you to place objects back into the scenes (like Mortimer Beckett and the Time Paradox, Magic Encyclopedia, or Crystal Portal), those that have a variety of different puzzles besides the hidden object parts (Azada, Ravenhearst), and those with the best stories (Women’s Murder Club, Dr. Lynch, Agatha Christie, Lost Secrets Bermuda Triangle). Good dialogue can really help with the story by making the characters likable (Lost Secrets Bermuda Triangle). I really don’t care much if the story is separate from the gameplay. In my experience with adventure games, the most enjoyable puzzles are often the abstract ones. Given a choice between boring puzzles that fit with a storyline and fun puzzles that don’t, I’ll choose the fun puzzles every time.

But story is important with HOGs, whether it integrates with gameplay or not. If you check user reviews over at Gamezebo, you can see that there are many HOG players who appreciate a good story.

I’m sorry to hear there won’t be more Agatha Christie adventure games. I thought Evil Under the Sun was the best of the bunch gameplaywise.

Jackal Jackal
May 5, 2009

Sure, like I said, story is important as the hook to make people interested, and it’s always better to have a solid story framework than not, so it’s very useful in that regard. I’m just saying the actual implementation isn’t particularly relevant to the gameplay experience in terms of motivation. Rarely do the stories lend themselves to players thinking “ooh, I can’t wait to get through this sequence to see what comes next in the story!” The better the integration, the more relevant they are, and the more important they become. Some games are starting to do it better, though, including most of the ones we’ve covered here. Mortimer Beckett is also on the AG agenda, and I appreciate the other suggestions, as it’s kind of a crapshoot otherwise.

crabapple
May 6, 2009

Samantha Swift is another one you might look at. Actually there are two Samantha Swift games now. I’ve only played the first one, but the second one looks like it has similar gameplay in the Big Fish preview video.

Jackal Jackal
May 6, 2009

That idea is so good, I already have the game (first one) sitting on my desk. Grin (Geez, I think I’ve telegraphed our entire next feature already.)

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