Avenue Flo review
We've seen the adventurization (new word; don't look it up) of hidden object games several times already, but now the genre has reached even further into the casual game market and touched Diner Dash. After five games spent waiting on tables, the star of the popular restaurant puzzler is finally able to break free from her customers for a breezy little adventure of her own in PlayFirst's Avenue Flo. Flo's branch-out debut is a whimsical and often charming excursion through the Dinertown neighbourhoods, but make no mistake: unlike the food she usually serves, this is an entirely "lite" offering that any experienced adventurer will devour in just a few greedy sittings.
The very premise of Avenue Flo sets the... uh... table for the lightweight adventure to follow. Dinertown is preparing for the extravagant wedding of Miss Big that afternoon, but something has gone drastically wrong. In fact, everything has. The rings have gone missing, the cake is destroyed, and all the other plans have suffered similar disasters. It's too much to be coincidence, so someone is clearly trying to sabotage the special occasion. Naturally, it's Flo to the rescue, restoring all the arrangements and exposing the perpetrator in the process. As plots go, "save the ceremony" isn't quite as epic as the many "save the world" scenarios we're used to, but in some ways it's all the more refreshing for the change.
Not surprisingly, just about everyone Flo meets in her travels has a hand in the wedding somehow, and many require her help. Whether it's Bobbi the dressmaker, who needs her bead machine repaired to finish the bride's gown; Walter the Pet Salon owner, who has to locate and then un-dye the Big family's now-garishly-coloured poodle; or Marco the florist, who must recreate whole new bouquets, there's a constant stream of tasks to solve before the wedding can go on. Others you encounter will offer some assistance, though usually demanding a favour in return, or at least making you do all the heavy lifting yourself. Using the gym's VCR may seem like a simple request until you're forced to lead the aerobics class first, while getting eggs from the local farm means finding just the right chickens first. Heck, even the prize hen needs help to lay the perfect egg.
Many of Flo's standard adventuring tasks are little more than inventory fetch quests easily resolved, though perhaps not right away, as some require several steps to complete in full. In between, on each screen you'll also need to collect butterflies (ostensibly for the wedding arrangements) and loose bottles for recycling. The latter can be traded in for bus and subway tokens that allow movement between the three main neighbourhoods, though only one is usually available at any given time. You'll collect other items as well, from torn memos to wind-blown money to scattered lugnuts. That doesn't make Avenue Flo a hidden object game, however. Item collection is just one of the many tasks you'll spend your time performing.
Most of the meatier challenges come in the form of standalone tasks. At various locations you'll need to really roll up your sleeves and finally don your thinking cap to help you through a sequence of puzzles. These range from organizing displays with strict rule requirements to various spatial conundrums for packing experts, from colour-sequence patterns to a tile-rotation challenge. There are plenty of other adventure game oldies as well, including simple mazes, musical Simon sequences, riddle-based code deductions, a quiz about the neighbourhood, and even some environmental sliders as a grand finale. There's only one minigame demanding any kind of dexterity, as a rhythm-based exercise has you matching moving notes across the screen, but it's far from hectic and shouldn't prove much of an obstacle for anyone.
It'd be a stretch to call any of these puzzles particularly hard, but a few deceptively fiendish ones certainly require some reflection and thought (plus trial and error). Each type generally has its own difficulty progression, as just about all of the puzzles are repeated multiple times. In fact, in one of the game's more questionable decisions, most of these standalone tasks must be done as many as six times in a row. The concept is sound: easing in with a simple introduction before ramping up the challenge. But six is six, and often feels like too many consecutively. The puzzles can actually be quite fun, but such repetition tends to bring the game's pace to a screeching halt before letting you move on. For a game called Avenue Flo, it feels more like stop-and-go traffic at those times. Even splitting each task into two separate groups of three would have been a much wiser option. If you do encounter any unwelcome difficulty, a hint option is always available, though its specific function depends on when it's used. I tried it only for testing purposes (genuinely, for a change), so don't expect any need to rely on it much.
Part of the reason for the game's simplicity is its incredible focus on accessibility. Here is where the game's casual roots are fully on display, and for the most part the results are vastly superior to traditional adventures. Some of it is overkill, but I'll never blame a game for offering too much. The features themselves aren't new, mainly in the form of a notepad and map, but the presentation of each is superb. The notepad is constantly adjusted with updates shown onscreen, as new objectives are added and completed tasks scribbled out accordingly. There are even reminders built in to point you in the right direction should you need it. While many games offer journals of some kind, here it genuinely looks and feels (written on a napkin, no less) like a "To Do" list really would. Similarly, the map is automatically filled in with details of who you've met and what was discovered at each location you've visited. Because Avenue Flo is fairly short and quite easy, I rarely found myself consulting it, but its user-friendliness is unsurpassed.
Strangely, the one thing the map doesn't provide is a quick travel feature, forcing you to walk through each neighbourhood solely on foot. That's easily enough accomplished through the game's point-and-click interface, however. A left mouse click provides all actions, and a smart cursor shows all interactive hotpots and exits. Flo doesn't run, but she keeps a quick pace, so travelling between screens takes a matter of mere seconds. For the most part there's very little backtracking involved, anyway, despite being allowed a fair bit of non-linear progression though each stage.
The three distinct neighbourhoods consist of almost twenty screens each, with both streetside and indoor locations that include the likes of a bakery, the Sprout Girls cookie stand, and the spiffy but bureaucratic Big Corp office building. Every location is depicted with a colourful cartoon visual aesthetic that probably looks like it's for kids, but really isn't. There's certainly nothing here a child couldn't enjoy, further reinforced by its early tutorial and relative ease, but the game never resorts to childish antics or silly sight gags, even in its fully-animated cutscenes. (Okay, maybe a few, like one at the end involving a big glob of pizza dough.) It's simply a bright and cheerful game world that's a pleasure for any age group to explore. The same is true of the light, jazzy music that reminded me of a Charlie Brown television special, but it's repeated so often it starts to become overbearing after a while.
Along with the plentiful locations, the game is equally rich in characters, though none but the protagonist is given an extensive role. In your travels, you'll also meet up with Flo's old bookworm pal Bernie, Greg and Herb the laundry guys, and her stressed roommate Quinn, the overwhelmed wedding planner, to name just a few more from a lengthy cast list. Incredibly for a casual title with a fair bit of character interaction, Avenue Flo is fully voiced, and the actors do a consistently solid job throughout, not the least of which is Flo herself. Unfortunately, lines of dialogue have a tendency to be clipped off partway through, a problem afflicting Emerald City Confidential as well, suggesting it's something inherent in PlayFirst games that they need to address. Fortunately, the "speech bubble" subtitles still let you follow along, and you can click ahead if you want to speed things up. You'll need your mouse handy anyway, as the conversations aren't fully automated. There are no player choices to be made, mind you, so this effort feels like little more than busywork. The writing itself is as mild as the rest of the game, serving its purpose in keeping Flo's adventure moving forward briskly, but never probing too deeply into the mystery behind the wedding day mishaps. Just about everyone freely offers their suspicions, but none are actual leads to investigate.
Indeed, the story more or less resolves itself by game's end, which should arrive about four hours after you started. Identifying the culprit ourselves would have been a nice touch, but a "whodunit" this game is certainly not. Instead, it's a lite adventure snack between heavier gaming meals, which seems suitable given its Diner Dash origins. Is that fulfilling? Probably not, with its threadbare story, laughably easy quests, and repetitive puzzle sequences. But it sure is sweet. Its surprisingly rich production values, whimsical atmosphere, and generally snappy pace are the key ingredients of a tasty little appetizer that should serve as a great genre introduction to newcomers and offer experienced gamers just enough flavour for a bite-sized offering. It's casual adventuring, to be sure, but it just might hit the spot when you've got the gaming munchies.
Avenue Flo is a simple but charming little casual adventure experience, though it may be too "lite" to suit anyone's tastes ideally.
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