Casual Collection - January 2011 releases
Ghost stories, time travel, murder mysteries, and magic curses… Yep, sounds the adventure genre, all right. Only this time it’s the casual variety, as another month of hidden object hybrids offers up a smorgasbord of popular themes and lite adventure gameplay. We’ve sampled them all, so read on to find out which new releases are deserving of your attention and which merit nothing more than the “skip” button.
Shadow Wolf Mysteries: Curse of the Full Moon
Here’s a shocker: another new game release from ERS Game Factor… I mean, Studios. The company that never rests is right back at it with their latest hidden object adventure in Shadow Wolf Mysteries: Curse of the Full Moon. That, as most casual game fans already know, is a good thing. Rather than cranking out cheaply-produced assembly-line adventures, the developers consistently show that they’re refining their craft as they go along. The same is true of this latest game, which once again demonstrates ERS’ commitment to quality while retaining the oh-so-familiar dark setting and ominous atmosphere that characterizes all of their games. This time around the subject is werewolves, as you’re called in to a small Victorian-era town to investigate a string of murders the locals attribute to the legendary creature.
Over the course of one gloomy, oppressive night, you must explore the deserted town streets and its immediate environs, with a side trip to a visiting circus encampment. You’ll visit a generous helping of locations, including several homes and the local prefecture in town, then out through the locked stony gates and into rocky hills, wooded forests and down to a lakeside mill. The night setting and grisly theme make the mood a sombre one, but each screen is stylishly hand drawn, with small animated touches like thick rolling clouds and scurrying mice to liven up the otherwise still backdrops. There are even some fully-animated cinematics at crucial points, like when you get a little too close to a wolf for comfort. You’ll meet a few people as well, whose motives may not always be what they’d like you to believe. All dialogue is fully voiced, though not always to the game’s benefit. Some fare better than others, but the mysterious fortuneteller delivers a particularly dreadful performance. So does the wolf, surprisingly. Okay, it doesn’t talk, but its howl sounds decidedly unrealistic. The music is a little heavy-handed, too, though the tracks themselves are a nice mix of violins, organs, bells, and other gothic-oriented instruments.
Gameplay follows the traditional hidden object formula with really no deviations. By collecting inventory, scouring periodic close-ups for lists of items, and solving the occasional logic puzzle, you’ll progress through a series of ever-expanding locations. You can move freely between areas once opened, usually by overcoming obstacles like locked doors and blocked passageways first. Since there’s no map available, there can be a bit of backtracking involved, though it’s easy enough to keep your bearings and quickly click through several screens at a time. Adding to the meandering nature of the game is some rather loosely-defined objectives. Unlike many casual games, Shadow Wolf Mysteries has no task list or hint feature for the adventuring portions, though twinkles alert you to interactive areas and a journal records key observations that should help point the way. Often there are several goals to pursue simultaneously, however, so you’ll usually need to switch between them to advance in both, which can feel a little random. Inventory puzzles are fairly intuitive, though of course only one tool will ever be right for a job, and standalone puzzles are relatively sparse. If you get stuck rotating rings of coloured balls into patterns, aligning clock hands, or sliding rows of tiles into place, any puzzle can be skipped on either the Regular or Expert difficulty setting. A few are nicely integrated, like creating your own explosive, comparing microscopic hair samples, and picking the tumblers on a lock, but many are just there to arbitrarily block your progress.
Hidden object sequences are similarly contrived, providing lists of random items to find. Some can only be found by interacting with other objects first, but these are clearly marked to let you know which you can’t see naturally, and the rechargeable hint option will highlight anything you miss in the clutter. As with most HOGs, there’s really no rhyme or reason for this collection of junk beyond the one item you need, but the items are more or less organic to the setting, even when you’re examining a newly-discovered (but entirely non-gruesome) corpse. The only real complaint about these hidden object tasks is that you’ll need to revisit the same scenes twice. Even when looking for different items, this always feels like a cheap way to pad out game length, which ends up being fairly substantial here. The Collector’s Edition offers another half hour of similar gameplay and a few new locations around and underneath the town. Unfortunately, neither ending is particularly satisfying, each resolving a separate part of the full mystery in a rather rushed and unfulfilling way. Even so, there won’t be many howls of protest, as otherwise this is yet another solid hybrid adventure from ERS, with more than enough to sink your teeth into along the way.
Dream Mysteries – Case of the Red Fox
In GameInvest’s Dream Mysteries – Case of the Red Fox, players get to explore dreams and the secrets of the subconscious as Dr. Corey Foster, a uniquely gifted psychiatrist who works at the Dream Seekers Research Clinic. The clinic treats patients for a variety of maladies, delving into their minds in order to relieve the trauma they are suffering. A normal day at the clinic begins to take a strange turn, however, when Dr. Foster finds mysterious links between the nightmares of her patients – including the titular creepy-looking red fox – and she begins to experience haunting visions of her own.
Probing the minds of others involves a variety of steps, as actions carried out in the real world can influence and affect a person’s dream state. For example, Dr. Foster can brighten an opera singer’s dream by making it lighter in her actual room. There are objects and items scattered around both worlds to be collected, and the inventory allows for these to be carried between locations and combined when appropriate. Tasks are largely inventory-based, with small rings appearing around hotspots to show which items are needed, but there are regular hidden object sequences interspersed throughout. These scavenger hunts are well designed and generally fairly simple, though if you get stuck on the odd item, the hint system recharges quite quickly and the only real punishment for clicking on an incorrect object is that the screen will slowly darken with each incorrect click (and lighten again with correct ones). Some of these HOG scenes are recycled multiple times, which is disappointingly repetitive.
There are also standalone puzzles and minigames to overcome. These usually act as a gateway into the subconscious of a patient. By solving such a puzzle, you can unlock entry into a dream in order to clear the person’s fog-shrouded mind. Among the variety of activities, some are simple jigsaws and Concentration matches, whilst others require slight reflexes, such as a fishing minigame where you must avoid other fish knocking your catch off the line. I found none of these exercises particularly taxing, but for those who dislike certain puzzles or find them tricky, there is a skip option provided for each. As you explore, key objects will sparkle and the hint feature can be accessed to highlight any hotspots you’ve missed or inform you when there are no more items to be found in the current location. Backtracking does come into play somewhat, but it never feels excessive since you can often gather items the first time through a scene, even if you won’t need them until much later in the game. The addition of a journal helps players keep track of the clues and leads gathered, even providing some extra insight in some instances.
The background graphics are fairly good and quite diverse, as the dream worlds transport you from the various room in the clinic to such places as an opera house, a seaside beach, a forest, and even underwater. The character models are also quite detailed, helping flesh out the personalities of a bizarre cast that includes the likes of a ship captain, a lumberjack, and even Dr. Foster’s pet turtle, Mr. Bubbles. It is satisfying to see so many other characters in this game, as most casual titles are set in very empty game worlds. Unfortunately, this emphasizes the lack of voices of any kind. There is quite a lot of conversation in the game, and voice acting could have added a welcome level of polish. Background music and sounds effects are suitable to the setting, at least, sounding quite sinister when the situation calls for it but giving way to more subtle tracks and even silence at other times. Together it provides a solid backdrop to support the game’s intriguing premise, as the idea of jumping into dreams is an interesting one that allows for all kinds of creative possibilities. You’ll need to be sly to solve the case of the red fox, but it’s a dream assignment for any casual gamer.
It’s your run-of-the-mill dark and stormy night when you take a wrong turn and crash your car. As you attempt to escape from downed electrical wires and make your way through a misty wood, you stumble upon a mysterious young woman who seems to be in the same predicament as you, and she needs you to call for help. In Phantasmat, a hidden object hybrid game from Codeminion, you’ll have to use your logic-deducing and item-spotting prowess to make your way to the none-too-subtly named Drowned Dead Hotel overlooking a cliff. Dark green seaweed drips from the eaves and candle light flickers from an upstairs window – is someone watching you? Aside from the dread that fills you when you see this dark, uninviting hotel, the strangeness mounts as you notice a church spire and roof tops poking through the waters swirling at the base of the cliff.
Progression through the game requires a variety of inventory items, including duct tape, jugs of water, gears, and hair pins just to name a few. While you will stumble upon some on their own as you explore, you will find the majority of them in the game’s frequent hidden object scenes. Many of these are only faintly integrated with the storyline, so you’ll find fuses in an old basement, but also roses and ducks. The designers have added a creepiness factor as you find yourself searching for blood stains, spiders, and (gruesomely enough) the sixth finger on a blinking doll. Unfortunately, you’ll have to revisit many of the hidden object areas, with some of the same objects even making repeat appearances from scene to scene. In a unique twist, however, if you don’t want to play any given hidden object scene, Phantasmat gives you an option to play a Match 3 sequence instead.
You’ll also encounter a variety of puzzles in your travels which shouldn’t prove too difficult, like filling jugs of water to the appropriate levels or using codes to open locks. There are also a few mazes with easily obtained directions and one music puzzle, which could be a stumbling block if you can’t read musical notes or play by ear. If you find that prospect daunting, the game has three levels of play. On the easiest level, you’ll have plenty of hints and time to solve hidden object scenes, along with a skip button for the puzzles. The middle level gives you fewer hints, and if you click too many times in a HOG scene, you’ll have to wait a few moments before you have control over your pointer again. On the hardest level, you get no hints and can’t skip the puzzles. You’ll also be given a time limit for the hidden object scenes, and if you click too many times, you’ll lose precious time. Fail to find all of the objects in time, and you’ll have to replay the scene again. The Collector’s Edition gives you an integrated strategy guide as well as a fairly extended additional storyline to play, where you’ll learn more about one of the main characters and get a slightly different view of the events leading up to the town’s demise.
You’ll need to do a lot of exploring as well, including several rooms within the dilapidated art deco hotel and the surrounding environs. You’ll also travel down to the little town that appears to have met some type of watery death. The dark artwork is awash in seaweed greens and watery blues. Against this backdrop, the designers have dropped in splashes of neon colors like the signs of an old bar and pet store. You’ll also experience visions in washed-out greys and black and white with splashes of blood red, and meet a limited cast of colorful characters all voiced by terrific actors. The ambient sounds and music are suitably suspenseful, with creaking doors and plucking strings and deep, resonant wind instruments. Together these elements create an impressive atmospheric backdrop, and although the story would have been better served by more integrated challenges rather than repetitive hidden object hunts, this suspenseful tale filled with mystery and intrigue will keep you plunging through to the end.
The Stroke of Midnight
If you’re looking to stand out in the growing crowd of casual adventures these days, it’s probably not the best idea to cast players in the role of a romance novelist seeking inspiration on a dark and stormy night in a haunted Romanian castle, where she must uncover the wrongs of an ill-fated past in order to reconcile two doomed spectral lovers. Been there, done that, got the Harlequin. But while its premise is entirely clichéd, in some respects Nikitova Games’ The Stroke of Midnight is a refreshingly different sort of lite adventure than the standard hybrids we’ve been getting of late. It’s still a combination of item application, scavenger hunting and periodic brainteasers, but its unique presentation is what makes the game particularly noteworthy.
You’ll notice the difference right from the start. Instead of the usual slideshow format, here as you approach the forbidding stone castle, the camera swoops along the path in smooth 3D, depositing you at the locked front doors. While really just a cosmetic change that doesn’t affect gameplay, this kind of dynamic camerawork continues throughout the game, giving the adventure a much more cohesive feel. You can even pan the camera around slightly in each location by sliding the cursor to the edges of the screen. Better still, this fluid perspective comes with no loss of graphical sharpness as you explore the castle’s ballroom, library, armory, and indoor garden, among other rooms, as each are nicely rendered in realistic detail. Using the same engine, the castle’s ghostly residents frequently appear to enact the events of the past, providing a seamless connection between worlds. The developers have made clever use of the camera in other ways as well. Instead of merely carrying around your journal as an ever-present icon, here the journal “follows” you to each new location, reappearing somewhere nearby in each new room. The hint feature is similarly integrated right into the environment, as every stop contains a mirror that outlines new riddle-like objectives. Step forward for a close-up view, and you can click the text for a hint to the current task. It’s never explained how or why these things are possible, but it’s a ghost story, so suspending disbelief a little farther is a fair tradeoff for the variety.
While the camera may be more mobile, however, you are not. Where many casual games offer some freedom to explore, here you’re strictly limited to a single room at a time. Often there are multiple goals to achieve, but even these generally need to be accomplished in order. Whether it’s clearing cobwebs, repairing broken stained glass displays, or rearranging family portraits, it’s always fairly clear what you should be doing. There isn’t even an inventory per se. Instead, after clicking any functional object, it follows your cursor until you left-click on the correct hotspot or right-click to release it. This degree of streamlining does make the game fairly easy, and hotspots sparkle occasionally to make it easier still, but there are some tougher challenges mixed in. You’ll need to solve different types of jigsaws, align imbalanced rings, crack a math-based book code, and even tune a harpsichord. The latter requires at least a reasonable ear, but if you happen to be tone deaf, you can skip this or any other standalone puzzle after a short time. The game’s own music is a fairly subtle blend of haunting piano and violins, but often there is just silence, letting you soak in the ambient sounds of pouring rain, rumbling thunder, and crackling fireplaces. The ghosts are all fully voiced in thick eastern European accents, in stark contrast to the protagonist’s American-sounding narration.
Along the way, several tasks are repeated multiple times, like calculating ingredient weights and concocting formulas in the laboratory, or solving a folded paper puzzle to reveal hidden messages. This repetition extends to the hidden object searches as well. Each location contains a standard list of items to hunt on close-up screens that do not scroll. Most objects are clearly visible, though the occasional word may send you scrambling for the hint button… only to find there isn’t one. Thankfully, clicking any word on the list will highlight it onscreen, though this feature is never mentioned anywhere and can be easily overlooked. You’ll have to search many of the same scenes twice, even looking for some of the same items, as the adventure begins to bog down in the middle by sending you back to all the same locations again. It picks up again in a big way near the end, however, rushing headlong towards the finale as a (non-existent) timer urges you to value each second. It's never clear what your contribution to the story actually is, but it's nevertheless worth seeing through its three-hour play time. The Stroke of Midnight sure won’t win any marks for story or gameplay originality, but if you’re looking for something – anything – a little outside the casual norm, this game is worth looking into to see what makes it tick.
Treasure Seekers: The Time Has Come
Artogon's Treasure Seekers series, featuring the brother-sister duo of Tom and Eleanor (aka Nelly) Lonsdale, debuted as a hidden object game sprinkled with a few puzzles. Its watershed year was 2009, when the sequel was released. The Enchanted Canvases seamlessly integrated hidden object searches, inventory management and logic puzzles with an engaging story, superb production quality and lengthy, tight gameplay, establishing itself among the pioneers of casual adventures. The fourth installment, The Time Has Come, is rather topical, being based on the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world. It's March 2012, and übervillain Totenkraft, a veteran of the series, stands atop a rain-swept rooftop, declaring his plans to unleash himself on the unsuspecting denizens of the planet. Just then, the scene shifts to 1932, to a French news report about Nelly having decoded a Mayan stone forecasting doomsday, then pans to Totenkraft stalking her as she window-shops in Paris. A month later, Tom learns that Nelly is missing, and with nary a thought for his poor hamster, sets out on a quest to save his sister.
Not content with such a simple premise, the developers have piled several adventure game staples into the story: the Templars, the Crusades, dead knights, living demons, politically-correct vegan sacrifices, the Holy Grail (yes, the Holy Grail), time travel, actual travel (Paris, Jerusalem, Scotland, Mexico and a parallel universe, if we include the Collector’s Edition bonus chapter), plus a Star Wars-style finale – it’s all there, linked to the ‘Great Catastrophe’ of the world colliding with an asteroid. But while Totenkraft fine-tunes his world domination plans, Tom’s life is an endless nightmare of locked doors, lost keys, stuck panels and dark rooms. But he chips away diligently at crumbling plaster and choked chimneys, flitting between the past, present and future with dizzying alacrity using a magical ring. In theory, time travel can be a potent tool if wielded correctly, but here it’s reduced to a mechanism to locate banal inventory items. (Um, need tomatoes for the soup – I mean, the sacrifice? Let’s go back 700 years and get them!) To be fair, it’s visually interesting to compare scenes then and now – for example, a statue outside a church in the past is now reverentially enclosed in a small chapel of its own – but because the locations are so isolated and the difference is mostly in aging, not modernization, it’s not even always clear which era Tom is in (not that it matters to the plot).
Despite its time travel, the game is very linear, as Tom must solve a specific sequence of inventory-related tasks in order to proceed. Sometimes only one item is needed, but many puzzles require a combination of several objects together. These are displayed in rings around the puzzle, so you don’t actually have to think about what’s required, merely find the necessary items. Single item quests are stretched further with gratuitous interactivity, as they must often be assembled from parts lying next to each other. There is also repeated hacking at foliage, brushing off dust and hammering things, not to mention tapping an egg several times to crack it. On the easier difficulty setting, interactive items are either tagged on mouse-over or highlighted with a ‘hand’ cursor. Both the easy and advanced modes have a rechargeable hint option which gives you further assistance if needed. Some items can only be found through traditional hidden object searches, but this episode lacks its predecessors’ discretion in stocking such screens – a church shed hides a propeller and a crash helmet amongst other generic items – which reduces its credibility. There are a couple of interesting additions to the basic formula, however. The first, an X-Ray glass, can ‘see’ objects literally hidden underground, behind walls, inside storage units, and even in another era. Besides breaking the monotony of object searches, it moves the story forward by revealing mission-critical items that require toggling between the past and the present. The second is the need to perform actions like moving aside curtains and opening boxes to find items or meet certain requirements. The few standalone puzzles are extremely simple for the most part, though any can be skipped. Among them are jigsaws, directing light rays with crystals, trial-and-error sequencing games, and pattern-painting. Notable exceptions are a logic-and-inventory puzzle that requires making crystals to decode a map, and another that involves alternating between day and night to solve.
The action is all set against decent looking scenes with standard animation – some dust motes, a few swinging censers and chains, a bit of falling water here and there – though there are occasional moments of brilliance, such as when an hourglass turns day into night for the first time. The music is similarly good but not special, though there’s no voice acting of any kind, including during cutscenes. Thankfully, what appears at first to be the game’s Achilles Heel – its inexplicable story hurtling towards ridiculous with each new revelation – suddenly snaps into gear, doing a u-turn just short of doom to wrap up with a genuinely clever twist. This leads to the most interesting part of the game, the ‘secret’ bonus play available only in the Collector’s Edition that’s unlocked once the main quest is over. It allows players to roam a limbo-like alternate universe as the three key characters, and as the world reshapes itself around them to reflect their professions, they must work in turn and in sync to escape it. This small but sharply designed segment is a gratifying reward, though it does earn The Time Has Come the dubious distinction of being grossly outclassed by its own extra. The main adventure certainly isn’t bad, as it’s ambitious in scope and substantial in length; it’s just a little too bloated with story clichés and gameplay filler for its own good, at times making you wonder if the time to finish will ever come.
Murder Island: Secret of Tantalus
When the creative minds behind Tex Murphy launched their 3 Cards series at Big Finish Games, the plan was to introduce a new level of storytelling into casual gaming. Public reception was mixed, however, so the developers turned their attention to a more traditional hidden object hybrid for their next game, Murder Island: Secret of Tantalus. Eight people are invited to the exotic resort on Tantalus Island for a high school reunion, but instead of a dream vacation, players soon find themselves scrambling for their lives, as someone disguised in a mask and robe is threatening to kill you all. Could it be one of your fellow classmates with an unknown grudge? Or maybe it’s the only other island resident, who just happens to be a suspected former Greek mobster. The higher the body count rises, the more you’ll need to keep a good head on your shoulders (literally), as the killer has sabotaged the boat and radio equipment that could lead to your escape. Unfortunately, despite the promising dramatic buildup, all this intrigue ever really amounts to is performing numerous HOG searches and solving the odd loosely-integrated puzzle that has little connection to the mystery at hand.
At first the game feels much like a standard adventure, as you’ll need to roam the island’s beaches, bathhouse, villa, and damaged yacht in search of clues. Hotspots don’t sparkle, so you’re on your own for collecting inventory needed to smoke out bees or distract poisonous ants and snakes, though the rechargeable hint option will highlight interactive objects on screen. Many items lead to logic puzzles, which are sometimes quite clever – a three-dial safe clued by Greek myth is a nice variation of a common challenge – but many feel shoehorned in. The killer is not daring you to a battle of wits, so there’s no real reason given for the various sliders, coded symbol locks, and misaligned ring puzzles (among others) in your path. All can be skipped, but few will slow your progress down for long. Your current objective is always clear, displayed rather intrusively each time you change scenes. The map shows locations with active objectives and allows you to quick travel between them, which is useful, though there's a recharge time between uses, which is not. There’s a fair bit of backtracking involved, as you’ll often need to retrace your steps, usually to find new hidden object scenes that have popped out of nowhere, even if you’ve cleared them before. These screens are largely standard lists of random items, though you’ll often need to collect multiples of the same thing. Some can only be achieved by combining two or three objects together, and others are posed as word riddles to deduce. Each search also contains a jigsaw map piece that will need to be assembled by game’s end.
Along the way, you’ll also collect mosaic tiles that offer bonus facts about such things as Greek myth and culture. These can be completely ignored, but you’ll probably want to collect them just so they’ll stop cluttering up the scenery. Unfortunately, Tantalus Island isn’t much to look at anyway. The locale is great, with its sunny skies, inviting seas, and distinctive stone architecture, but the lo-res graphics do the landscape no justice at all, offering only blurry views of this secluded paradise. Live actors are used, all fully and capably voiced, to portray everyone but yourself (who remain off screen and mute throughout). You’ll meet up with the school snob, the gabby gossiper, and other assorted friends at one point, and possibly again if they happen to turn up dead. Your interaction with them is limited to the occasional paneled cutscene, however, as the bulk of your time is spent entirely alone. Much of the plot is learned through notes scattered about, which leaves you feeling more like a spectator than an active participant in discovering the killer’s identity. And really that’s the biggest disappointment here, as there’s an interesting enough story being unraveled, but it happens largely independently of your efforts. True to the developer’s name, the game delivers a big finish, but it feels disproportionately rewarding for the amount you’ve actually contributed to it. It’s still a mildly entertaining adventure to that point, but it’s a shame that so much of it is spent not asking “whodunit?” but “whereisit?”
Other Games of Interest
Spirit Seasons: Little Ghost Story
On first starting Spirit Seasons: Little Ghost Story from Tiki’s Lab, you’d think you were in for yet another generic haunted house story. In the fully animated introduction, your car breaks down near a secluded house, and before you have a chance to call for help, the ghost of a little girl smashes the phone and strands you there. The only other living inhabitant, an elderly man named Jacob, seeks your help to rid the house of its spectral menace by finding a magical spell book. And so you begin your exploration through the house from basement to library to attic, with a few outdoor stops down to the lake and the small family crypt. Along the way, you’ll encounter frequent hidden object screens, inventory to collect and use, and the rare logic puzzle to solve. So far so normal, but this game develops an interesting twist when the more you discover, the more you begin to question whether the old man is telling the truth. And when the little ghost girl herself claims she’s the victim, you must try to discover what really happened in the house’s tragic past – a quest that leads to a climactic decision at the end of the game that changes the final outcome.
It doesn’t change the nature of the game, of course, which really is a fairly standard hidden object adventure. You have some freedom to explore, but only a few rooms at a time are ever available to you, and though you’ll gather quite a few items in your travels, almost all of them are used in the immediate vicinity in straightforward ways. Other puzzle types are rare, but you’ll solve the occasional slider, connect circuits, and uncross wires. Any can be skipped if necessary but most are quite easy, though they’re more difficult on the “Expert” setting. The lone exception is a particular safe code, which is difficult even just to understand due to its poor instructions. Then again, given the various typos, grammatical errors and other blatant translation mistakes found in notes, news reports, and protagonist commentary, this confusion should come as no surprise. Hidden object screens are numerous and quickly get repetitive, as some are revisited and all of them require you to find multiples of the same item. Some can’t be found until you’ve interacted with the environment, but such items are clearly marked in the object list, and the rechargeable hint feature will highlight anything you miss. That shouldn’t often be needed, as the graphics are clearly and nicely hand-drawn in a stylish, slightly skewed way. The visuals are supported by subtly creepy music in the background, but there are no voices at all apart from some ghostly whispers. The story isn’t particularly deep, but it does probe deeply enough to care about the fates of its participants and make the “right” choice at the end. There is no right or wrong, of course, but to see the alternate ending you’ll need to start again from the beginning, so be sure to make a choice you can live with your first time through.
The Secret Legacy: A Kate Brooks Adventure
If there’s been a common criticism of the now-defunct White Birds’ adventures, it’s that the French studio produced games that looked lovely but continually fell short on gameplay. That trend has carried over to their foray into the casual realm in The Secret Legacy: A Kate Brooks Adventure. Kate Brooks is “based on a character by Benoît Sokal”, though she actually isn’t given much of a role here. Shortly after the death of her grandmother, a history professor researching Egyptology, Kate finds a note left by her about a remarkable discovery that she feared had put her life in jeopardy. The note pleads with Kate to follow the clues left behind in the event of her untimely demise, in order to fulfill her research and bring her discovery to light. Unfortunately, the request means that a full half the game is spent rummaging around her grandmother’s office and house, which hardly makes for a compelling adventure. Things pick up when Kate travels to Egypt in pursuit of a hidden Pharaoh’s tomb, but it takes a fair while to get there. It does look nice, as the graphics are crisp and realistically designed. There is no voice acting at all, though, and the background music is pleasant but doesn’t really convey any kind of ambient atmosphere. If you’re expecting anything Egyptian while in Cairo, think again.
With only some light exploring and straightforward inventory puzzles blended in, the game is largely composed of different types of hidden object tasks. Each scene includes both a standard list and silhouetted items to find, and several rooms require you to collect item fragments or sets of objects. This means you’ll spend a looooong time in each and every location, giving the game a very plodding, methodical pace that isn’t particularly rewarding. Rather than entering specific sub-screens for each search, here you never leave the main environments. Certain rooms include close-ups, but the majority of locations show a fairly wide area and challenge you to find the items located within them. So wide, in fact, that you need to use on-screen arrow buttons to scroll the screen side to side. This ups the challenge, as does the fact that many items are quite small when viewed from a distance. The task gets even harder in Egypt, with its many nondescript shades of brown, and quite a few objects are merely drawings and symbols rather than real objects. The rechargeable hint option will almost certainly come in handy at times. There are sporadic standalone puzzles to solve as well, most of which are entirely familiar: geometric jigsaws, sliders, lights out, and gears, some of which need to be repeated several times and range from extremely easy to very difficult, with an option to skip if necessary. You’ll also collect eight ancient tablets detailing the Pharaoh’s compelling love story, which is possibly the high point of the entire game. It’s not enough to recommend, unfortunately, as for the most part The Secret Legacy just ends up feeling dusty and old.
On paper, 2 Monkeys’ CrossWorlds: The Flying City seems to have all the makings of a solid hidden object adventure: a tried-and-true, dimension-hopping sci-fi premise, three radically diverse worlds full of bizarre characters to explore, and some light inventory puzzling to go with its casual item hunting. On screen, unfortunately, this game falls drastically short of its early promise. Right from the beginning – or make that “beggning”, as the static introduction clumsily sets the tone – it’s clear that CrossWorlds is a budget production that cut some serious corners along the way. The gentle background soundtrack is fine, but there is no voice acting of any kind and almost as little animation, and the graphics are simplistic and hazy. The characters prove to be nothing more than plot devices to keep you busy, and the story is quickly relegated to irrelevant background. In theory, you’re a young woman named Monika who must pursue her father through his experimental teleporter to discover why he’s disappeared. In reality, you’re really just a gopher who continually fixes broken machinery and runs random errands in return for favours, hoping it eventually leads somewhere.
It’s not all bad news, as the three unique worlds you’ll visit include a post-apocalyptic city populated by (broken down) robots, an alien jungle-like planet, and a floating city with talking statues. There just isn’t enough of interest to do in any of them. Hidden object screens pop up frequently and are poorly designed: objects are totally random and out of place for the environments (aliens keep piggy banks?), and they’re often too small or obscured to see, forcing you to wait for the sloooooowly recharging hint feature. Standalone puzzles are few and far between, though you’ll occasionally solve an easy jigsaw or rotate rings. Most of the time you’ll be wandering between the dozen or so screens per world performing simplistic fetch quests, but once in a while you’ll need to find a lock code or change the time on a clock (which somehow makes a difference without having any effect on time itself). It’s probably good that the tasks are so basic, as there is no hint feature at all for the main tasks. The diary is updated with new objectives, each of which can only be accomplished in a very linear order, and this is often the only clue you’ll get to what you should be doing. Some hotspots can be hard to find, particularly on machines, but key items twinkle, so there’s little chance you’ll overlook anything. If you think you’ve hit a snag, chances are you’ll simply need to backtrack to find the same hidden object scene you’ve already cleared has magically opened up again with items in different places. All this adds up to a decently lengthy adventure, but the final reward for your efforts is a blatantly unfulfilling finale with a “to be continued” promise of more to come. Here’s hoping it isn’t merely more of the same.
Kingdom of Seven Seals
At its core, Puppet Life’s Kingdom of Seven Seals is a fairly standard hidden object hybrid adventure spent searching for items, collecting inventory, and solving random puzzles and minigames. But it isn’t long before you notice how very different it is than its contemporaries, as the princess of a magical kingdom is sent out onto a overworld map to seek a cure for a witch’s curse plaguing the land and her people. It’s a welcome change from the standard casual format, and at first it adds a refreshing quest-like element that feels similar to the fantasy adventures of old, as you interact with ogres, elves, mermaids, dragons, and fairies along the way. Unfortunately, nothing interesting is ever done with this feature, merely sending you on one monotonous, map-traversing errand after another instead. It isn’t long until the gimmick has become repetitive, tiresome, and more than a little aggravating. The game should probably be called Fetch Quest.
Perhaps the reliance on game-stretching filler shouldn’t come as a surprise, as this is clearly a game developed on a budget. Its music is a pleasant but repetitive sampling of pianos, flutes, and strings, and there is no voice acting at all. The bright, cartoony graphics are stylish enough, but they’re done in such low resolution that they look badly dated, which is especially troublesome in the blurry, nondescript hidden object screens. You’ll visit and revisit the same scenes multiple times to meet an endless string of totally contrived objectives, invariably located at the far end of the map. A giant wants jewels from the dwarf, but the dwarf wants beer first, but the beer needs water, and the water spirit needs purifying, etc. It’s hard to ever feel like you’re making any actual progress, especially when robbers appear on the map to demand tolls for crossing bridges (which, naturally, you’ll need to do every. single. time.). To pay for this, you’ll need to engage in mind-numbingly pointless slot machines at scattered casinos. There’s no strategy, no skill, no timing, just luck and an abnormal amount of patience. Most tasks are simple inventory puzzles, but you’ll also engage in the rare jigsaw, marble-popping, or tile-collapsing minigame. There are a couple of logic puzzles as well, with instructions so horrendously vague that it’s a good thing you can skip them. Eventually you’ll collect the titular seven seals needed to defeat the witch, but your interest will have magically disappeared long before that. The overworld map was a nice idea, but in the end this game is little more than a one-trick unicorn.
Note: Adventure Gamers is a Big Fish Games affiliate.