Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull review
Inside a sprawling, decrepit manor set amidst a once-beautiful lawn, young Magnolia Lawson sits curled up against her father, listening with rapt attention to a bedtime story about notorious pirate Phineas Crown. Her eyes widen with alarm when he reads that Crown’s ghost lurks in the swamps to this day, waiting to punish those who dare seek the fortune he has hidden there. She asks if ghosts are real, and is reassured to hear a firm ‘no’, even as an unseen entity storms into the house, heavy footsteps clambering up the steps to her room. As a terrified Magnolia looks on from her hiding spot under the bed, her father opens the door, the edges of which are now aglow with an unearthly brightness. A scream shatters the quiet of the night, and then he’s gone, sucked into a blinding wall of light.
And thus the action shifts from the icy, abandoned Celtic village of Dire Grove to the foggy, rain-drenched bayous of Louisiana for the latest episode of the Mystery Case Files series, 13th Skull. A chat with Sara Lawson reveals that her husband Marcus was obsessed with finding the lost treasure of Crown, who’d retired to the estate after a life of brutal pillaging. Investigating the rambling manor and its unkempt grounds reveals numerous mysterious contraptions that crank out keys, documents and pieces of Crown’s treasure map. Meanwhile, the game world expands to include the rundown town and reptile-infested marshes edging the estate, as well as a medley of cantankerous locals. This allows for a lengthy, interesting blend of intriguing story, attractively-stocked hidden object screens, intelligent standalone and inventory puzzles, and interactive conversations with ‘real’ characters, all set in an indolent, haunting Southern ambience. As the case unravels over more than a hundred unique, exquisitely-drawn screens, the simmering swamps belch out long-buried secrets, exposing the truth behind the legendary treasure, though you’ll also need to trudge back and forth through some less-inspired busywork along the way.
At the start of the game, Sara hands over the tattered treasure map that Marcus had been trying to decode. A tutorial on locating the other pieces scattered by her dog eases the player into the game, covering the basics of collecting loose inventory items as you explore, as well as searching hidden object screens, each of which yields one useful item to take with you. Once the map is reassembled, you’ll need to begin interrogating other characters. Questioning the housekeepers leads to both mundane tasks to be performed and invaluable clues to the secrets of the ignominious past that the manor still jealously guards. Rooms, furniture and various artifacts are all rigged to hide elements critical to locating the treasure, a quest that is intrinsically linked to discovering what seemingly unfortunate fate has befallen Marcus. The map illustrates the layout of the neighbourhood and is essential to the resolution of the mystery, but it cannot be used to navigate the expansive game world, thus lacking a functionality which would have greatly reduced the considerable backtracking necessary.
The quirky housekeepers insinuate that Marcus may have fallen prey to dark magic or hungry critters, while Magnolia maintains solemnly that her father was abducted by the ghost of Crown. Clues around the manor make it impossible to dismiss outright either the lore of the treasure or the existence of the supernatural, though as indications of foul play emerge, it soon becomes obvious that there is more than a curse at work, adding more names than just Crown’s to the list of suspects. A motley crew of locals, including a benevolent voodoo priestess, an attractive dive bar owner, a smarmy gambler and a discontent hick couple, are drawn into the case, which they help and hinder as they please. Most often, they trade information for practical favours that suit their personal interests, leading the protagonist to eventually grumble about the lack of any evidence of ‘Southern hospitality’ whatsoever in that area.
The interactions with these locals, however, count among the most interesting aspects of this game. For starters, all the characters are played by real actors, their video footage embedded seamlessly into the illustrated game world. This live-action feature elevates the game’s immersiveness above that of its casual peers, and even most full-fledged adventures. The conversations, while limited in topics and specific order of enquiry, aren’t purely passive either. Often the characters interact directly with the player, handing over or taking quest items in a pleasantly realistic fashion. The acting is decent and the cast well-suited to their roles; besides the Lawsons, who have recently moved from Ohio after inheriting the estate, the rest are distinctly Southern in speech and attitude, suspiciously derisive about ‘outsiders’ and downright smug about their mystical heritage.
13th Skull is extremely structured in its short term goals. At any time, there is only one core objective listed at the bottom of the screen, along with depictions of any objects required to complete it when applicable. Initially the game is quite linear, with exploration limited to inside the manor, but even this isn’t as restrictive as it seems, as the entire game world serves as an inventory repository, with various items becoming active hotspots as new objectives are begun. This requires paying attention to each scene and keeping mental notes of objects that may become useful in future, a demanding task given the length and scope of the game. Over time, as the story and puzzles become more complicated and there is greater flexibility of exploration and item collection, the game shakes loose from the confines of being a ‘hidden object adventure’ to compete almost directly with the traditional genre.
The inventory challenges range from serious to trivial to downright ridiculous, including cleaning a choked toilet. A number of tasks, particularly those done for the housekeepers, are unimaginative and unnecessarily prolong an otherwise sleek game. Several hidden object screens are also repeated to procure objects that may just as easily have been collected from the main environments. Besides these, there are numerous standalone puzzles, clever and attractive in design and mechanics, and usually clear in logic and definition. Many are assorted jigsaws: tiles, sliders and disjointed pieces to be set in sequence. Then there are math challenges, Minesweeper-like logic tasks, as well as complex inventory-and-logic combinations.
Many puzzles use randomly-generated numbers and patterns, and difficulty levels vary noticeably. A few are really simple if your investigation has yielded the relevant information, while some, like a full-blown game of checkers or a rotating puzzle with five balls to be set in certain orders, require considerable expertise to conquer. Not all obstacles are intellectual; at least one – de-weeding a garden – demands some dexterity that may frustrate players who don’t enjoy rapid-action games. There are a couple of obscure puzzles in the mix, more due to vague or missing instructions than actual difficulty, such as one involving the keys and chords of a piano, or another using chains and coins. All puzzles can be skipped, though that eliminates the possibility of winning the ‘award’ reserved for completing all of them.
The game features a beautifully designed diary that lists the important details of the case, some of which are essential to solving puzzles – unless the data is in the diary, the player cannot ‘assume’ to know the information. While its attractiveness makes the diary a pleasure to leaf through, towards the later stages, rifling sequentially back and forth through forty pages of information is a bit of drudgery. Occasionally the diary pre-empts your progress: for example, in an entry about a task for the housekeeper before she reveals clues to further the quest, it divulges the entire chain of events the moment the task is received. But this is a minor annoyance given the generous amount of information available throughout the game. For additional assistance, there is also a rechargeable hint button that identifies unfound items on hidden object screens and highlights any interactive areas available on a given screen (or tells you if there aren’t any), sometimes giving fairly blatant tips to solve the current objective. The Collector's Edition also includes a Strategy Guide as an omnipresent inventory item, which contains a screen-by-screen walkthrough for the core objectives.
There are three text commentary options available, depending on how insolent you prefer your game to be about your missteps: Normal, Southern, and Snarky. The Normal commentator keeps things to the point ("nothing happens", "better luck next time"), while the Southern one is a master of poor puns like "you can take the horse to water, but you cannot make him think." The Snarky version is, expectedly, downright rude, with comments like "maybe it’s time we hired a different detective." Unfortunately, no matter which version you choose, the commentary is misleading in places. A carton of knick-knacks is dismissed as "random junk" early on, though it contains something you’ll need. At other times, similar items like tools may be available at different locations but accessible only at a particular one. As the cursor has a single icon for all interactive items that may or may not be collectable, and not all items are available at all times, there is a fair amount of pixel hunting and wasted clicks to go around. Another problem is that although there is substantial dialogue, conversations cannot be revisited after you close the dialogue window, and they aren’t transcribed anywhere for future reference; at best, a gist is sometimes noted in the diary.
As a production, 13th Skull feels almost like a living, breathing entity. Every scene is painstakingly crafted with realistic hand drawn art, lifelike animations and superlative sound effects. The fading beauty and macabre charm of the crumbling estate and the stifling conservativeness of the deadbeat town are captured soulfully in the incessant drizzle, the muddy reflections and scurrying critters, and the stubborn crankiness of the ‘riverfolk’ who inhabit the banks of the Mississippi. Each animation, from raindrops being gently absorbed by the pages of the diary to contraptions coming to life when activated, is expertly rendered. The hidden objects screens are well-designed and logically placed in their settings, the occasionally oddity being chalked up to the junk collected in the nooks and crannies of the estate and town over time.
Several FMV cinematics intersperse the story to supplement the considerable realism, and the Southern influence seeps both subtly and jarringly into each screen. The manor is replete with creaking ceiling fans and gently cooking jambalaya, and newspapers refer to exotic pastimes such as catfish noodlin’ and toilet seat toss competitions. Accents, slang words and grammar are delightfully localised, with the bar christened "Drink & Swaller" while the housekeeper berates you for jawin’ with her instead of attending to your chores.
The background music, composed mainly of eerie and often discordant tunes belted out by harmonicas, lends a woeful, spooky atmosphere to the game. Every sound, important and otherwise, is accounted for, from the ubiquitous bluster of inclement weather to the drips, creaks and groans of objects and events, both seen and unseen. Frogs croak and crickets chirp when out in the swamps, while the bar bustles with the laughter and chatter of (albeit noticeably scant) patrons enjoying Ladies’ Night.
Optional sub-quests to collect two different sets of insignias proceed in parallel with the primary investigation. The first task is achievable during regular gameplay; these scraps of paper are located either in normal screens or yielded by unlocked puzzles. The other insignias are another story, however – most are collectable only by unimaginably obscure methods such as making an absurd telephone call. There are ten awards for achieving pre-set milestones such as completing the case, doing so under ten hours, and finishing all hidden object searches without hints or penalties. One award, to find four hidden objects in two seconds, remained unachievable for me despite meeting the target multiple times. Indeed, the initial release of the game had a few glitches, most notably with technicalities like sound and activation, though a subsequent update has resolved some of these problems.
The Collector's Edition includes a short bonus section entitled “Last Rites”, which extends the gameplay beyond the resolution of the Lawson mystery. This brief episode includes all the elements of its parent: a few repeated hidden object screens, easy but rational inventory challenges, a couple of well-made standalone puzzles, and the most intricate logic brainteaser of the entire game. It picks up the story immediately after the end of the main game and finally resolves all speculation about the treasure and the legend of Crown’s ghost, providing a far more satisfying closure to the lengthy adventure. Without this epilogue, the standard version's original ending leaves players in a rather alarming lurch that will almost certainly feel like unfinished business.
Overall, Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull is an impressive mélange of solid storytelling, interesting gameplay and superlative production quality, and strives proactively to blur the line even more between casual and traditional adventure games. It drags at times with obvious contrivances meant to protract game time – the repetitive chores grate on the nerves and the exhausting backtracking without the benefit of a navigable map is inexcusable. However, the creativity and effort invested in its development is obvious, as is the conscious decision to push the boundaries of its core casual genre without compromising its basic tenets. This is a game made with great care from start to finish, and promises 5–8 hours of riveting entertainment for anyone who appreciates quality hybrid adventures.
Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull is an engaging, impressively produced casual adventure hybrid, though at times it’s slow slogging through the deceptively languid, charming Southern bayou.