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Casual Collection - December 2010 releases

Casual Collection 4
Casual Collection 4

What looked at first to be a light month of casual games exploded in a hurry with a flurry of new hidden object hybrid adventures as the year drew to a close. There are recognizable names in this month’s lot, from Ebenezer Scrooge to House of Tales, and some familiar themes as well, including a Salem witch hunt, ancient Egyptian mythology, time-travelling, fairy tales and ghost stories. Whatever your preference, there should be something for everybody to like – assuming you don’t mind a bit of scavenger hunting to go with your lite adventuring.
 



Haunted Legends: The Queen of Spades

ERS Game Studios are quickly establishing themselves as one of the more prolific casual games developers. With successful series like PuppetShow and Dark Tales under their belts, the company is already right back at it with Haunted Legends: The Queen of Spades. Not surprisingly, the end result is once again a slickly-produced, often entertaining hidden object/lite adventure hybrid experience. The downside to cranking out content as fast as ERS, however, is that the games can start to have a rather assembly-line feel, with rehashed elements and cut corners that would have benefited from a little more attention, and this is certainly true of Haunted Legends. It won’t be enough to turn anyone off, but it does prevent the game from being the standout adventure it shows occasional hints of promising.

The premise is so very familiar: You’re a Victorian-era investigator called to an old mansion to look into the recent disappearance of several people. The manor once belonged to a Countess who possessed a deck of magic cards that rumours claim she sold her soul to acquire. It’s now your job to explore the grounds and nearby town to piece together what happened before you, solving puzzles, scouring hidden object scenes, and collecting a full deck of 52 cards along the way. The setup is just as conventional, as you gradually unlock new rooms and locations by overcoming obstacles both natural (collapsed chandeliers, broken boats, empty lanterns) and unnatural (bizarre brainteaser door locks abound). Hidden object screens are frequent but usually displayed in fairly close-up views that make your searches feel fair, though a rechargeable hint button will help you if necessary. And it may be on occasion, given the game’s annoying tendency to throw interactive elements at you out of the blue, leaving you looking for completely arbitrary items you can’t actually see yet. Inventory puzzles are straightforward, but standalone puzzles are often blatantly contrived, with no attempt at all to justify their presence or integrate them seamlessly. Thankfully, they’re generally rather clever in their own right. You’ll still solve many by lighting buttons uniformly, sliding tiles or rotating rings, but each has a small wrinkle that makes it feel a little different from the norm. Others, like reproducing a chemistry formula or rowing a small boat to safety against a strong tide, feel more organic to the storyline and are a welcome change of pace. All puzzles can be skipped, assuming you’ve acquired any items needed to activate them first.

Once you’ve opened up the bulk of the locations, there’s a fair bit of backtracking involved, as items are often located far from where you’ll need them, and hidden object screens can be triggered elsewhere without warning. This is where Haunted Legends begins to show cracks in its otherwise solid foundation. There is no map to move quickly between locations, nor any hints at all during the standard adventuring portion, or even an objective list to help you keep track of what’s in progress where. There is a diary, but it only records the most obvious clues discovered, not guide you in any useful way. While it never takes long to click through screens in reverse, the game’s deceptive linearity means you can expect to retrace your steps many times. If you choose the “Regular” difficulty setting at the start of the game, interactive areas will occasionally sparkle, but without any direction, often these simply alert you to what you already know. You may have four or five obstacles confronting you, but in many cases you can only solve one of them at a time, the others awaiting just the right item or trigger to finally allow progress. On the flip side, many of the hotspot text comments are blatant giveaways about what needs to be done, so the only real question is when you’ll finally be able to, not how.

Fortunately, this is a nice-sounding, great-looking world that you won’t mind wandering around in. Sound effects are crisp, from crackling fires to straining ropes to deep moans coming from afar. The orchestral music can get repetitive over time, and doesn’t always suit the mood (one tune had me swaying to its somewhat Spanish-style vibe), but the hand-drawn graphics are stylish, with a dark, muted colour palette to help establish the ominous atmosphere. You’ll see dead bodies and skeletons, and even carry a head in a jar, but these aren’t to instill “horror” so much as being creepy reminders of what’s at stake. There are some wonderful little animations as well, like fish jumping and dragonflies hovering as you slowly row across a lake. And then there’s the grouchy little imp who keeps appearing in front of you but always running away when you try to interact with him. Figuring out his role in the tragic events of the manor will stay a mystery until the end. You’ll meet up with him again in the Collector’s Edition, which adds another 40 minutes or so of new content. Picking up immediately after the events of the main game, the bonus segment opens up a few new locations inside the house and around town, offering more of the same kind of gameplay, just a little more streamlined with many of the old areas now blocked off. At the end of that comes the promise of an entirely new Haunted Legend in future, as if there was any doubt that we’d be seeing more of ERS Game Studios working their casual magic once again.


Awakening: Moonfell Wood

After being roused from a hundred-year slumber, Princess Sophia could get no farther than the palace entrance in Boomzap’s Awakening: The Dreamless Castle. (Not that I blame her; I’m not much of a morning person myself.) But she soon discovers that she’s the only remaining human in the land, and to find out what happened to her people, the princess must now venture forth into the fantasy world beyond the gates in Awakening: Moonfell Wood. What awaits her is a much more ambitious, lengthy journey than the original, filled with magical creatures, items to collect, and puzzles galore, not to mention the odd goblin with an affinity for card games.

 

While offering a much different landscape this time around, the sequel uses the same attractive hand-drawn, almost dream-like art style as its predecessor. Naturally, you’ll spend time in the woods amidst towering, gnarled trees, but you’ll also pass scenic waterfalls, cross ponds, delve crystalline caves, and ascend a witch’s tower. And you’ll do it all both night and day. Dubbed the “Light of the World”, only you have the power to pass through a portal that instantly alters time. This allows you to see and interact with the differences between night and day, which are so significant that it seems more like travelling through alternate dimensions than merely time. Rather than feeling repetitive, it’s a welcome opportunity to view the same environments again, only this time in the clear blue light of day instead of under starry skies and a bright, imposing moon (or vice versa). All the while, a soothing musical backdrop accompanies your quest. It’s pleasant, harp-heavy fantasy fare that you can almost imagine a minstrel playing, though it’s not nearly varied enough to carry the whole adventure. There’s little else to pick up the aural slack, either, as the only voicework is during the cutscene narrations.

You’ll soon stop listening to the music much anyway, as there’s so much else to occupy your attention. Whether you choose “casual” or “normal” mode to begin, Moonfell Wood is a fairly easy game for the most part, but it’s packed full of puzzles and minigames and tasks to perform. There aren’t many standard hidden object activities, and even those are varied. At times you’ll find lists of items, match pairs, and collect single-screen item sets, but usually you’ll have to find everything you need along the way. Some are groups of objects, like figurines for empty pedestals or acorns for territorial squirrels, while others are one-use inventory objects. The best inventory item is a little fire-breathing dragon that tags along until the end – no more hunting for matches! Most inventory obstacles have straightforward solutions: no stretch to know what a key or crowbar will do, though a few require more outside-the-box thinking to probe their far-fetched logic. If you need help, Mira the fairy once again serves as your hint guide, and will highlight interactive areas or offer tips on what to do next.

The rest of your time will be spent solving puzzles of all kinds. Or maybe not all kinds, as a heavy reliance on repetition begins to bog down the experience before you’re done. Still, there are jigsaws of different sorts (rotating tile-swappers, edge-matchers, broken part reassembly), sliders, a wide range of colour- and clue-matching patterns, and a host of conditional sequences to complete and arrange. Often you’ll need to find clues elsewhere before solving one, like identifying a rune code or discovering botany information to recognize flowers. Few are ever really rationalized, and it’s not uncommon to find as many as four different puzzles in single rooms. Yes, there are a LOT of puzzles in Moonfell Wood, though any can be skipped. You’ll also need to complete a few rounds of Tripeaks, a goblin card favourite that resembles a variation of Solitaire. It’s not a bad little game, and you can even replay it from the main menu, though chances are you’ll have had your fill by the end of the game. In fact, probably earlier than that. Awakening: Moonfell Wood is one of the lengthier, meatier casual games in recent times, but it would have been better served trimming some of the filler that mars the second half. Even so, it’s an easy game to recommend; compared to the many less ambitious casual adventures, the difference is like night and day.


Death at Fairing Point: A Dana Knightstone Novel

If you pulled Awakening: Moonfell Wood out of its fantasy setting and dropped it into the real world, it would probably look a lot like Death at Fairing Point: A Dana Knightstone Novel. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s from the exact same developer. Not content with merely one new release last month, Boomzap doubled up with the launch of a new series starring writer Dana Knightstone. Perhaps seeking ideas for her new novel, Dana arrives at a rural Scottish manor that offers her far more inspiration than she’d ever dare dream. Just after she arrives, a ghostly spectre of a young man appears and seems to be leading her somewhere, pleading for help. What Dana uncovers is a century-old tragic love story whose victims are still lingering until past wrongs are righted.

 

The manor is an old and majestic one, with an atrium, conservatory, and even a private “magic lantern” (19th century slideshow projector) booth to explore. But your investigation soon leads you to a pastoral town nearby, with stops at the local pub, stables, and cemetery along the way, and then on to England and France to pursue the mystery of two doomed lovers. The graphics are nicely drawn, but the lack of crispness that worked so dreamily in Moonfell Wood isn’t quite so welcome here. Still, Death at Fairing Point is a pleasant game to look at, with just enough touch of animation to make the world feel alive – or unalive, in the case of several ghosts who periodically appear to get your attention, then vanish into vapour. Several gentle piano and acoustic guitar-heavy tracks accompany the game’s seven chapters, but the soundtrack soon starts to feel repetitive. Sound effects are understated, but occasionally add a dash of ambience, like the rumbling thunder in a stormy night sky. The only voice acting is Dana’s occasional narration, but you’ll only encounter a few minor characters to interact with in your travels.

Apart from the setting and premise, just about everything else is carried over from the developer’s other series. Gameplay consists of a combination of light exploration, item collection, and a great many puzzles to solve. Only rarely will you encounter traditional hidden object activities, and even then you’ll more often be tasked with finding sets of themed items. Some are nicely integrated, like finding key images in a mess of old news clippings or spotting the differences between handwriting samples from an apparent suicide note. The same can’t be said of the numerous other obstacles, however. Some are fairly relevant, like repairing a bridge or fixing a fusebox, but there’s little attempt to justify the existence of most others. There’s really no rhyme or reason for what hidden compartment is hiding which item, or why these locations are riddled with brainteasers at all. Still, if you accept them at face value, they’re often entertaining diversions, though never particularly difficult. A task list keeps track of your objectives, the journal records all important clues (and little else), and twinkles will alert you to any active interactive areas onscreen. Some items in the main environments can be fairly concealed, but the rechargeable hint feature highlights anything you may have missed, or offers tips on what to do next.

The sheer quantity of puzzles and minigames is impressive, ranging from simple Simon exercises to Roman numeral math puzzles to weight balancing, any of which can by bypassed. Once again, however, the designers have relied heavily on multiple jigsaw variations, sequence arrangements, and colour-coded patterns. Fortunately, most are disguised well in context, so while you’ll often be solving the same types of puzzles, the game never feels like it’s fallen into blatant repetition. It’s not as long as its fantasy counterpart, clocking in under four hours, which makes the experience feel a little tighter, less padded. Of course, if you want more, there’s always the Collector’s Edition, which offers an in-game strategy guide and a bonus epilogue. The additional content sends Dana back to the original Scottish manor to learn what happened to the secondary characters in the original tragedy. There are a couple new rooms to discover, and a handful of additional puzzles to solve, several of which are ambiguously clued and needlessly difficult. There’s an extra hour of gameplay all told, but much of that is spent painstakingly searching for random tiny gems across the house, many of them barely visible. It’s more time for less value, then, but the core gameplay remains solid, and the teaser at the end already hints of more Dana Knightstone adventures to come.


Lost in Time: The Clockwork Tower

That finicky space-time continuum is on the fritz again, and naturally, only you can restore it. Of course, that’s only fitting, since it’s you who caused it in the first place at the start of Spark Plug Games’ Lost in Time: The Clockwork Tower. As feisty young Eliza, you inadvertently destroy your small town’s local clock tower, setting off a chain of temporal anomalies, including stasis fields trapping everyone you meet, disruptive time quakes that blend past, present, and future together, and both seasonal and night and day changes spiralling out of control. Oops! Lucky for you (and life on Earth as we know it), you’ll be assisted by a sentient, wisecracking pocketwatch, who has a firm grasp on what needs to be done to repair the damage you’ve caused.

Time distortions are rife with storytelling and gameplay possibilities, and while Lost in Time doesn’t take nearly enough advantage of the opportunity, it does add a few welcome wrinkles to a fairly traditional formula. The basic structure is the same as any lite adventure: you’ll roam around various environments, collecting items, accessing new locations, and solving puzzles as you go. Standalone challenges are fairly infrequent, but include the likes of jigsaws, sliders, ring rotations, and a fun little card game against a robotic toy. There are a few standard hidden object scenes, but they are rare and extremely easy, as each screen is limited in both size and clutter. You’ll want to keep a sharp eye open at all times, however, as every scene is littered with tiny diamonds or chunks of coal. Rather than merely being collectibles, these have practical value, as you’ll need to purchase key items at the general store. You’ll need a fair bit to buy everything, but there is no risk of over-spending, as you can convert coal to diamonds once you access a particular machine, and coal continually replenishes at the train station if you need it. You’ll actually buy almost as many products as you’ll need to find yourself, as the inventory is often limited to only one or two items at a time, and many are used almost immediately.

Much harder to find are the numerous gears spread across the village. Your unusual pocketwatch not only talks to you through its holographic head, it also has four different time-defying abilities, ranging from spotting invisible items in your current timeline to moving time back and forth in certain areas. To do this, you’ll first need to gather increasing sets of gears, then arrange them correctly to enable each new ability. It’s too obvious when to use these powers, unfortunately, as a colour-coded glow informs you exactly when one is needed. That’s a far cry from the lack of help offered otherwise. There is a task list with one clue per objective and a rechargeable hint option, but often these are surprisingly redundant. In many scenes the hint will simply tell you to look at your task list for clues, which tells you only what you already know. This can be frustrating, because it's sometimes difficult to spot interactive areas. The cursor does change, but only to a spinning version of its default state, which makes it extremely easy to miss when sweeping the screen. Given the highly streamlined nature of the game, missing one hotspot can ground you to a screeching halt, the useless “help” feature offering no guidance at all.

Despite making it abundantly clear that the fate of the world rests on your shoulders, Lost in Time is often content to pester you with busywork instead. Each person trapped in a stasis field inexplicably needs a favour done to free them, which will have you baking muffins from a recipe, picking dandelions for tea, or restoring damaged paintings. It’s much more interesting when the obstacles are organic, such as putting out a fire at the toymaker’s store. Eventually there’s a fair bit of backtracking, but once equipped with the right ability, you can quick travel between locations from a map. Several environments display an obvious time flux, such a street corner blizzard mere feet from the lush, springtime park. Each background is nicely if rather simply designed in a hand-drawn, slightly cartoony style. Music is equally pleasant, and all dialogues are competently voice acted, from the young British heroine to the American-sounding, pun-loving pocketwatch. There’s nothing here to dazzle you (though a live dinosaur in a museum is always a nice touch), but the presentation is certainly solid. In fact, the same can largely be said of the game overall. It’s a shame more focus wasn’t given to its unique temporal consequences and abilities, but it’s more than just another clone of so many other new releases, so it’s not a bad way to pass the time for a few hours.


Eternal Night: Realm of Souls

Ancient Egypt has been a common setting for both adventure games and hidden object titles over the years. Namco’s Eternal Night: Realm of Souls takes players back there once again, but this time it’s not to the sandy deserts, majestic pyramids, or opulent palaces, but rather to the Land of the Dead for a confrontation with the gods themselves. Set has imprisoned Ra, casting both worlds into an endless darkness in the process, and the Pharaoh calls upon his people for a volunteer to cross into the heavenly realm to restore light once again. As a mere mortal, you bravely agree to venture into this strange, surreal afterlife, where you will have to help troubled deities with numerous problems, create amulets to empower you with divine abilities, and of course scavenge for many needed items and solve a variety of puzzles along the way.

The change of venue is a welcome one, as it opens up a diverse array of imaginative environments. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a constantly-changing dream world filled with green flames, bizarre architecture, colourful flowers, flowing lava, and underwater pyramids built by ape-like humanoids. All of this is designed in a stylishly hand-drawn, slightly-cartoony way that lends an air of whimsy to its otherwise ominous setting. Then there’s the gods. You’ll encounter a steady procession of Egyptian mythological beings, from Anubis to Khnum, many of whom you can briefly converse with. Each is fully voiced with appropriate actors and often supplemented with clever effects. Set’s growly, distorted bass gives way to Hathor‘s melodious tones, complete with harp notes playing as she speaks. The soundtrack is simple and understated, but does a nice job of establishing a rather haunting, other-worldly ambience.

Many of your tasks come from the gods, who often need your assistance before providing you with theirs, but there is a wide range of environmental obstacles to overcome as well. Some puzzles can be solved with simple inventory application, but several involve combining items in inventory first. There are standalone activities as well, including an entertaining board-like “maze” (complete with traps and protective items to see you through) and a pattern-pairing pottery task, along with more standard logic puzzles like rotating rings into their proper alignment. The downside is, these puzzles are repeated, so there isn’t quite the variety there could have been. Any can be skipped, however, assuming all conditions for solving it have been met. Some challenges can’t be overcome by mortal wits alone, so once you’ve collected all the necessary ingredients, you’ll also build special amulets that confer powers like cold resistance and water-breathing. Completing an amulet involves a simple orb-collecting minigame, and can then be used in the appropriate place much like an inventory item.

Unlike many casual hybrid games, there are very few distinct hidden object tasks, and even these are quite different from the usual fare. Instead of finding all items on a single screen, at times you’ll have to rotate an urn covered in hieroglyphs to find the listed requirements. Other times you don’t get a list at all, as instead you must locate the items missing from a mural. This is far more difficult, as it’s often unclear what you should be looking for, though a rechargeable hint feature will help you out when necessary. Once these handful of items are found, you’re then asked to place the objects back into their correct spot in the image. While you explore the ever-expanding main environment, you’ll also need to keep a sharp eye out for sets of items needed for other tasks, whether runestones for a holy pedestal or crystals to activate guardian statues. This is no different from traditional adventures, just concentrated with more items in fewer locations. This makes Eternal Night a good option for anyone getting bored with the deluge of traditional hidden object hunting, yet even those who aren’t should find it a refreshing change from the norm. Who says ancient Egypt has to be tired, dusty, and old?


Curse of the Ghost Ship

Adventure gamers are used to seeing the names House of Tales on such games as The Moment of Silence and Overclocked. Now, however, the German studio has followed the likes of Frogwares, Kheops, and Deck13 in casting off towards casual game territory. Their first offering, a modern day supernatural mystery called Curse of the Ghost Ship, strands players aboard the Pride of the Atlantic, a luxury ship that sank 80 years earlier with a precious royal diamond aboard that was stolen by thieves (no, not the Heart of the Ocean). On each anniversary of its tragedy since then, the boat reappears to relive its final few hours. If you’re to escape the fate of its original passengers this time, you’ll need to find the diamond before disaster strikes, as only by returning it to the mortal realm will the ship be freed of its eternal curse.

Alas, if only the game displayed as much pride as the ship’s moniker. It’s clear right from the outset that Ghost Ship is a budget production. There is no voice acting at all in the English version, sound effects for key interactions are borderline unpleasant, and the blurry, washed-out graphics look badly dated. The art itself is better but doesn’t help much, as many screens are darkened displays of gloomy nighttime outdoor scenes or cluttered metallic passageways. There are splashes of colour as you make your way indoors to the passenger decks, but you’ll spend far more time in engine rooms, unlit cabins, and weathered walkways. Expect a lot of black, grey, and brown aboard this barren ocean liner. This could have helped create an oppressive, ominous atmosphere, but there’s nothing particularly eerie about the ship, so really it just comes off looking dull and uninspired. The music is nice enough to listen to, but even it undermines the supposed tension and urgency of the situation, at times sounding too playful, even cheesy under the circumstances.

Gameplay is what really matters, of course, but it’s not very smooth sailing in that regard either. There are some hidden object scenes, but rather than lists of items, here you’re given a specific theme. One may have you identifying nine objects that roll, while another challenges you to find things that need to be repaired. The variation is welcome, but the implementation is lacking. Some of the items are very small, and the hazy graphics make it even harder to find things when you don’t know for sure what you’re looking for. The answers are inconsistent as well. I’m pretty sure a book and an umbrella can be opened, but apparently the developers are not. A rechargeable hint system will help you through, but you may find yourself using it more often than you wish. Standalone puzzles are few and far between, but you will occasionally need to beat a chess challenge to open a box, complete symbol patterns to clean off a plaque or solve towers of Hanoi to unlock a safe (none of which have anything to do with the task at hand). At least a skip option is available for any puzzles giving you too much difficulty, and some may do that. Even a familiar activity like following tangled wires is exceedingly challenging when you lose sight of them completely in a brutally jumbled mess.

The bulk of your time will be spent exploring the ship and collecting items, some of which need to be combined in inventory before using. Most of these are fairly straightforward: rusty hinges and screws are overcome in predictable ways, as are the many locked doors – including one that requires a piece of paper and pointy object (I still can’t believe House of Tales actually went there). Occasionally the ship’s lone inhabitant, a ghost who claims he can only remember fragments of the past, will lend his ethereal powers to your cause, serving as an inventory item. It’s not at all clear what his powers are, but as he can only be used on the screen where he appears, it’s never too hard to figure it out. That’s not always true of the main objectives. A skimpy journal lists the main goals, but the hint feature often just highlights an interactive puzzle area, which is no help at all. Or maybe it is a little, as hotspots often cover ridiculously wide areas, so you’ll never be sure if you’re clicking something new or the same thing you just tried, resulting in a lot of repetitive clicks. The ship layout is confusing with no map to guide you, either, so expect a lot of disorienting backtracking along the way. There’s enough traditional adventure gameplay here to warrant a look if you’re in need of something lite and new, but not nearly enough to choose over other, better alternatives. House of Tales fans will want to steer clear, as this first foray into casual adventure waters is a disappointingly bumpy ride.


Lost Chronicles: Salem

Salem seems to be a popular destination for casual game developers these days. The latest to visit the puritanical New England village during its infamous 1692 witch hunts are Vast Studios and Nat Geo Games, who combined to bring us Lost Chronicles: Salem. The story is entirely made up, as players control the child of a woman arrested for witchcraft, and must now seek to clear her good name by discovering the real reasons behind her wrongful imprisonment. In a nod towards authenticity, however, the game is sprinkled with “real” people and places from the historical era, so you’ll travel to such spots as the Salem Common and Gallows Hill and meet characters like Judge Sewall and Tituba the slave. Encyclopedic entries about each true historical fact is recorded in your journal, giving the game a minor educational component beyond its entertainment value.

 

The game opens with a particularly dramatic, creative introduction. A fully animated cinematic shows a town in chaotic disarray, with villager turned against villager and buildings burned to the ground. Including yours, as it turns out. Just after being given your first hidden object assignment, it is abruptly cut short by a torch flung through the window. Thrust into the cellar for your protection, you must find a way to escape the angry mob at the door. Even when free, you’ll periodically need to distract, flee, or bypass dangerous townsfolk (though not all are against you), including a three-part maze-like stealth sequence that’s so simple you could almost do it with your eyes closed. All this is presented in an attractive hand-drawn graphical style, and supplemented by full voice acting (apart from hotpot commentary) and a rousing musical score, though the tracks don’t always seem to fit the scenarios that well.

The gameplay itself is a standard mix of hidden object searches and lite adventuring in almost equal proportions. As you wander through the village and nearby countryside, you’ll need to collect inventory, solve the occasional puzzle, and scour screens for lists of items in order to open new areas and push the story forward. The hidden object screens are on the easy side and contain items that have no bearing on the context, but they are generally well done… the first time around, anyway, as you’ll often need to revisit the same scene and find many of the same items. The standalone puzzles range from uninspired (non-overlapping route tracing, 4x4 slider) to fairly creative, like a sin-and-virtue symbol-matching puzzle and a miniature town model to complete, though the latter is far too simple. Most are simply shoehorned in awkwardly, however, as gates and chests are invariably locked with absurd brainteasers for no apparent reason. Inventory challenges are straightforward and sparse, but the item you’ll need the most is a dreamcatcher heirloom to use on “familiars” (animals) you encounter. This launches a simple timed-clicking minigame that is marginally fun the first time, but far less so the following 15 or 20 times. These are strictly optional, but each reduces the hint recharge time by one second, and you can simply try again if you happen to fail.

Unfortunately, Lost Chronicles is one of the buggier casual releases in recent times. Already updated once since its initial launch, I still encountered one crash and another place where all my inventory disappeared and a dialogue failed to trigger. Later, the hint feature kept repeating a specific puzzle instruction no matter where I used it, and then told me to look at the map for locations to missing components. The map, however, showed nothing. None of these errors proved fatal, though some required a restart to overcome. Meanwhile, the storyline that begins with such promise becomes little more than an afterthought much of the time. There’s a clear attempt to establish a very human motivation at the heart of the witch hunt, but the mystery often gives way to fetch quests, favours performed, and other menial tasks that completely undermine the urgency of the situation. This lack of focus throughout its three-hour duration results in a rushed ending that resolves everything in a flurry of non-interactive cutscenes. The anti-climactic finish doesn’t negate the good parts that come before it, but it does take the edge off what is an otherwise solid lite adventure hybrid.


Other Games of Interest


Twisted: A Haunted Carol

Christmas may be over, but somewhere Charles Dickens is probably still rolling over in his grave. In the acclaimed author’s holiday classic, old Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser of the worst sort, but who knew he was really a murderous lunatic? That is the premise of Twisted: A Haunted Carol, a seasonal hidden object/lite adventure hybrid from Casual Arts and Gamers Digital. Apparently Scrooge’s own night of terror, haunting, wretchedness, and despair wasn’t twisted enough, so here you’ll get to play his business partner, Jacob Marley… make that ex-partner, as we see Scrooge killing him in the opening scene. Now a ghost yourself, you’re given a temporary reprieve of one night to explore Christmases past, present, and future to determine the full extent of Scrooge’s evil plans and stop them from coming to pass. Unfortunately, the journey is anything but compelling, marked by simplistic scavenger hunts and easy, repetitive puzzles that combine to barely last longer than the Alastair Sim movie.

Assuming you can get past the egregious storyline liberties taken, at first the adventure shows some promise. You’ll get to visit such familiar places as Bob Crachit’s house, Scrooge’s childhood schoolhouse, and the local church graveyard in various timelines. The trouble is, there just isn’t much to do anywhere you go. There is freedom to explore, but no location contains more than three or four screens. You’ll collect items along the way and even combine some in inventory, but most obstacles invariably consists of finding keys or other tools (only the right one will ever do!) to break into locked places. Hidden object screens are close-up inset images that are too sparse to pose any difficulty, though a rechargeable hint feature will help if necessary. Standalone puzzles are few and far between, including jigsaws, an image-matching puzzle, and one laughably easy math problem. The only potential challenge comes from a tile rotation puzzle, which you’ll need to perform eight different times of increasingly difficulty in order to make your time jumps. Production values are equally underwhelming. The graphics are fairly simple but clean, making for a pleasant enough backdrop, but the nondescript, endlessly repeating music adds nothing to the atmosphere, and there are no voices at all except at inopportune times, like the sound of children crying when none are present. The end result isn’t bad so much as seriously under-developed, and for that the game earns a disappointing “bah humbug”.


The Curse of the Ring

You’ll likely spend about 90% of your time scavenging for items in Flywheel’s The Curse of the Ring, though don’t expect a standard hidden object game. Instead, this is one of those highly streamlined lite adventures that continually asks you to search for necessary items as you explore the main environments – just exponentially more of them than usual. When young Isabel unwittingly tries on a mysterious ring, she finds herself bound to the curse of Captain Flint, and now has only ten days to track down and return six stolen artifacts. The ensuing treasure hunt takes her on an exotic but frantic journey from Barbados to Peru, with a few stops to explore the lost ships of Cortes in between, both above and below water level. These locales won’t give up their valuables easily, however, throwing a lot of inventory obstacles and standalone puzzle challenges in your way. Fortunately, they’re fun to explore and lovely to look at, with a bright, colourful palette and pleasant hand-drawn art style complete with little animated touches like an excitable octopus extending its inky welcome. Various musical pieces capably complement the action, though there’s no voice acting to support even the static cutscenes between chapters.

At each stop in your travels, you’ll need to explore a small group of screens and solve a constant stream of new objectives to proceed. The tasks are very linear, as only by looking at certain items or completing particular activities will new hotspots and exits become active. Any needed objects will be displayed at the bottom of the screen, and often whole sets of items will be required, like missing gems or model castle pieces. Items that cannot be found on the current screen are clearly marked, so you won’t waste time hunting for anything that can’t be found, and the rechargeable hint option highlights either a missing item or an interactive area that needs to be accessed. Once collected, items need to be applied, sometimes in complex ways like constructing an aqualung correctly for an undersea dive. You’ll also be confronted by numerous brainteasers, whether rotating jigsaws or gear arrangements or a quick round of Concentration. Many of these are quite easy, but others will give you pause, particularly those that demand piecing together clues found elsewhere first, though skipping a puzzle entirely is always an option. There is very little attempt to integrate these challenges rationally, passed off simply as random obstacles protecting the precious rewards. But that’s all part of the fun, keeping the storyline light and the pace quick for a tight, focused adventure. It may not be very deep, but it’s easy to dive into. Just remember to gather your scuba gear first.


Note: Adventure Gamers is a Big Fish Games affiliate.

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