I’m sure there are diehards who have sworn that you-know-what will freeze over before they ever go near a so-called “casual” game. Well, the devil might not be putting on his woollies just yet, but the lesser demons should be feeling the first shiver down their spines with the release of the most chilling Mystery Case Files title yet, Dire Grove. As the temperature drops in the most unexpected places (if not hell, at least northern England in fall), more and more players should find themselves warming to a series that’s blazing the trail for a new kind of “lite” adventure. Its hidden object leftovers may never appeal to everyone, and some lingering integration issues hold it back from taking that next step into the upper echelon of classics, but with impressive production values, a surprisingly expansive game world to explore, and an intriguing FMV backdrop to discover, this casual hybrid further establishes Big Fish Games as one of the hottest developers in the genre today.
Anyone familiar with last year’s Return to Ravenhearst has already travelled this road, though it leads in a different direction this time. Picking up after the events of that game, here the anonymous, unseen protagonist is forced off the road by what the radio calls the worst snowstorm in centuries. Arriving at the outskirts of the titular rural village, you’ll discover an abandoned car and the first of many scattered video tapes with fragmented recordings of a graduate student research trip gone terrifyingly wrong. Undaunted by this ominous sign (and trapped where you are), with people to save and a new mystery to solve, there’s no choice but to bundle up and blunder into the ancient, unnaturally frigid legend of Dire Grove.
The live-action video segments are perhaps the main point of emphasis in Dire Grove, and they do indeed offer up an intriguing story you’ll want to see through. Filmed via handheld camcorder in a manner similar to Blair Witch Project (minus the nauseating camera jostle), the tale recounts the plight of American Alison Sterling and her three friends, who came to visit the local Celtic ruins believing that a recently-discovered artifact is the key to understanding the truth behind a legend now considered nothing but folklore. There are twenty videos to collect in all, each contributing a piece of the story, and not always sequentially, though you can rewatch them at any time on your handy “crime computer”. Thankfully, despite the harrowing nature of the events that befall them, the four 20-somethings do a credible job of acting their roles, largely (if not entirely) avoiding the hammy, over-the-top deliveries that characterize so many FMV titles. Alison’s growing panic is palpable, and it’s unnerving to see the affable young woman increasingly tormented by something you know won’t end well. (Not a spoiler: she’s now missing, her film scattered – you do the math.)
Despite its early prominence and some rewarding moments of discovery, however, Dire Grove’s storyline soon becomes secondary, serving more as motivation to investigate than anything that actively engages you along the way. The real plot happened before you arrived, and your job is simply to learn it after the fact, with newspapers, notes, and select book excerpts helping fill in any blanks. This format suits its purpose here more than adequately; just don’t be fooled into thinking the game is an interactive movie of any kind. There’s a movie, all right, but you’re just a spectator. In fact, there are no characters to actually interact with at all in your travels, though a few do make a genuinely disturbing appearance at times.
You’ll certainly keep busy playing your part, of course, as you explore the areas in and around Dire Grove looking for clues… and a whole lot of other stuff. As with its Mystery Case Files predecessors, this game does feature numerous seek-and-find scenarios, periodically requiring you to locate a list of a dozen random objects from particularly cluttered screens, only one of which is tucked into your inventory for later use. The formula is tried-and-true, and Big Fish hasn’t tampered with it here. A rechargeable hint gauge highlights any object you can’t find, though this should rarely be necessary. Item placement is entirely fair, the visual design crisp and discernible, and there is no time limit adding pressure. Mind you, these sequences have nothing to do with the adventure at hand, often appearing magically (or annoyingly, re-appearing in the same place for no apparent reason) and providing no explanation for their existence. I’d have preferred at least a passing attempt at justification, but none is ever offered.
Though they still represent only a fraction of the gameplay, the hidden object activities seem to occur more frequently here than they did in Return to Ravenhearst. That may be bad news for puzzle fans, but it’s good news for the pacing, as Dire Grove rarely bogs down. There are still plenty of standalone logic puzzles anyway, from tile rotation to code deduction; from ring sliders to pattern connections, plus a significant multi-part riddle sequence to decipher. I was particularly enamoured of an alphabet-sequencing puzzle I’d never encountered before. Better yet, either I’m getting better at puzzles (doubtful) or the difficulty balance here is very good (likely). Only one tripped me up for long, as it’s clearly though perhaps too deviously clued, but for those who find any puzzle too difficult, there’s an ever-present puzzle skip option right at your fingertips.
While entertaining in their own right, as with the item hunts the one objection to these puzzles is their irrelevance to the storyline. Some at least make narrative sense, like connecting circuits to disrupt a power source or taking a roundabout way to locate a suitcase combination. Several, however, display no regard for circumstance, inserted merely as contrived obstacles just because they can be. Need a door lock? Make it a puzzle! Who needs a cell phone password when you can solve a brain teaser instead? No one in Dire Grove, that’s for sure. Casual game fans probably aren’t sticklers for context, and it’s easy to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment here, but adventures have been criticized for arbitrary challenges for years, and better integrating the gameplay and storyline is the next step in the maturation process for this series.Continued on the next page...