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Casual Collection - March 2011 releases

Casual Collection 7
Casual Collection 7

March was supposed to be a quiet month. With so many new casual game releases these days, it's hard to keep up with them all, so we decided to scale back our coverage to only those games truly worthy of an adventure gamer's attention. No more fringe games with only marginal adventure content, and other than a few rare exceptions of note, no more lousy games introduced just to tell you not to bother. (If you don't read about them here, you don't need to know!)

So naturally, with this newfound commitment to ruthless discrimination, we ran smack dab into the busiest month since we began the Casual Collection series. D'oh! But more work for us means more play for you, so there's lots to choose from this time around. If you can't find something that interests you among the ten games featured this month, you just aren't looking hard enough. That won't be a problem, though, right? After all, if there's one thing casual adventure fans know how to do, it's to keep searching until they find what they're after.
 



Guardians of Magic: Amanda’s Awakening

Jack Allin

For those who are burning out on hidden object hunts (or just yearning for more variety) and wishing there were more games like Drawn: Dark Flight, look no further than HitPoint Studios’ Guardians of Magic: Amanda’s Awakening, a casual adventure that shares more than a few things in common with Big Fish’s painterly series, though this time it’s the young damsel doing the rescuing. Amanda Reese was born into a magical family, but she was always far more interested in science and technology than spells and potions. Now, however, she’ll need to master both. Following her grandfather’s passing, Amanda learns about the Guardians of Magic, a group sworn to protect the magical realm. With his death, it’s left to Amanda to safeguard it from the machinations of her former mentor, Dr. Magus, who has personal motivation driving his anti-magic crusade. In order to succeed, she’ll need to piece together the scattered parts of two unique devices, transporting herself magically into a series of paintings of other times and places to find them.

Though you’ll collect many objects on your journey, this is not a hidden object game – at least, not in the traditional sense. All required items can be found in their natural environments as you explore, though you won’t necessarily be able to see them at first. Some objects and creatures can only be seen by assembling the “Clockwork Bubble-Blower”, and accomplishing that will mean learning some magic first. There are four spells that will aid you in your travels, including teleport, fire, freeze, and spark. Casting a spell is as simple as tracing its unique shape onscreen with the mouse (and rest assured, the system is very forgiving of unsteady hands). Some spells can only be used at particular places like teleport points, while other spells turn the cursor into a magic wand imbued with that current power for a short time, or until canceled if you change your mind. Spells are used in logical ways: fire lights torches, sparks start machinery, so while this doesn’t add significantly to the game’s complexity, it’s still a welcome variation from the norm.

There isn’t much that impacts complexity here, as Guardians of Magic is a fairly easy game, at least at first. Along with a handful of intuitive inventory puzzles, you’ll encounter a series of recurring puzzles and minigames in the form of locked boxes. You’ll solve sliders, jigsaws, and tangrams, balance weights and play Concentration, among other tasks, each getting progressively more difficult the further you get. You’ll need to overcome more organic obstacles as well, like dialing in a specific gas pressure, redirecting lasers, and lighting torches in a riddle-based sequence. (Well, organic in a magical world, anyway.) Other tasks need a very marginal amount of hand-eye coordination, like timing clicks on a slot machine or playing a slow-moving game of Whack-a-Mole, but there’s nothing that should discourage even the least dextrous player. One more repeated activity is finding and tracing constellations through a telescope, though the game literally prevents you from making a mistake. If you do need help, a skip option exists for the standalone puzzles, a journal records all relevant notes and spells, and an imprisoned witch named Mera will offer clues available in the current scene (if any) by clicking her crystal ball icon.

While certainly not difficult once you have what you need, solving puzzles often involves travelling back and forth between “worlds”, each of which has a handful of screens to roam. Beginning in the real-world rural home of Amanda’s grandfather, you’ll soon find yourself in the Guardians’ Ritual Hall hub, with access (once unlocked) to dreamy forests, a scenic ocean beachside, a stone castle in two different eras, and a rain-drenched abandoned carnival, where you’ll begin to understand the reasons for the current anti-magic crisis. There’s very little ambient animation, but the artwork is done in an attractive hand-painted style that suits the whimsical nature of the game very well, with even more cartoon-like character portraits displayed during cinematics and conversations. There is no voicework at all apart from key cutscenes, and very little commentary is offered by Amanda, but you’ll learn additional background through discovered news clippings and videos. The music provides a pleasant backdrop to the action, offering a touch of fantasy in its mix of flutes, strings, and even xylophone, thankfully without falling back on ye ol’ standard medieval themes. You won’t be dazzled by the aesthetic design, but it’s a charming presentation that’s a pleasure to explore. You may breeze through the puzzles (with a little magical help from the other elements), but if you’re looking for something casual that isn’t bloated with hidden object filler, don’t snooze on this magical lite adventure experience.


Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart

Shuva Raha

In Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart, Edwina Margrave is finally returning to the village where her parents mysteriously died fifteen years earlier. Upon her arrival, she is welcomed back to her childhood home by Elize Thorn, the nanny who cared for her in her youth. An old letter reveals that her parents were investigating the lore of the severed heart, according to which anyone who murders another person shall forever haunt the mortal world as a remorseful spirit. Edwina must unlock the five magical barriers called shadowlocks scattered around the heavily fortified but now abandoned village to unravel the mystery of what really happened to her parents. But when the only other living person around also claims to be Ms. Thorn, Edwina is forced to grapple with the rapidly blurring lines between the real and the supernatural, confronting a truth that’s not only unbelievable, but also rather unpleasant. Fortunately, this ghost story remains grounded in reality, and at the end of four-odd hours it emerges a rare winner in a genre that all too often forgets to add a touch of heart to the procession of shiny screens cluttered with random artifacts.

This third game in Inertia Game Studios’ Margrave series features the detailed, hand-drawn art that’s now a casual game staple. The rural locations include Ms. Thorn’s cottage, an orchard, a barn, a ruined church and the dilapidated village, though they aren’t all uniformly spooky; some are calm and some even pleasant. Animation covers the usual falling leaves, dripping water, and fluttering butterflies, but some small touches like a torn lace curtain flapping in a shattered window and a strangely huffing-and-puffing water pump add subtle drama. The music loops are well-adapted to the moody setting, and the songs – the title track and another ditty sung by a ghost trio of a cat, a bird and a squirrel, pleading the case of a girl driven insane by remorse – are unique and entertaining. The most appealing aspect of the production, however, is the extensive use of voice acting. Every character, living and dead, human and animal, speaks aloud in varying British accents. Edwina’s voiceover is stellar and allows her youthful personality to shine through, ranging in tone from irreverent to shocked and distraught when her world begins to crumble around her. Her comments on interactive items and situations enliven the game, and often add an unusual dimension to many scenes by her descriptions of how they smell.

This game is more an actual adventure (albeit a lite, linear one) than the series’ previous two straightforward hidden object excursions. The nine hidden object screens here are spread sparsely across the game world, and each is used twice, yielding an inventory item per search. The attractively-animated standalone puzzles include jigsaws, pattern matches and variations of the pipes game. None are difficult, and several are repeated many times, such as playing the piano from sheet music and divining the names of characters using Edwina’s dream cards – an unusual and creative minigame based on matching geometric symbols. One puzzle demands a bit of hand-eye coordination to zap ladybugs with animated birds. The inventory-based puzzles, however, form the backbone of the game, requiring forty-odd items to be collected and used. Objects can remain in inventory for hours, and you’ll often need the sketches Edwina makes of unusual patterns to use them correctly. Unfortunately, the game is marred by an awful amount of mindless backtracking, as hidden object screens and collectable items may be activated anywhere and anytime, with zero indication. This can give the impression of being stuck without ever encountering a real problem, and hinders the otherwise logical gameplay to the point of irritation.

The Collector’s Edition includes a bonus segment, "The Blacksmith’s Revenge", in which Edwina returns to the town after two years to break the curse of the severed heart, which Cyclopean blacksmith Oban has cast upon the village in retaliation for the murders of his wife and daughter. This short but well-designed extra comprises more of the same kind of gameplay, including a variation of the shadowlocks puzzle and a challenging new edition of pipes, plus a useful inventory companion for Edwina named Afi. Most importantly, it also offers a bittersweet end to the story with the timeless messages of love and forgiveness. This chapter doesn’t add anything to the storyline of the main game, which stands completely on its own, so those who choose the standard version won’t feel shortchanged in any way. Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart falls just short of achieving true greatness due to some repetitive puzzles and annoying backtracking, but its ambition and effort to break the glass ceiling between hidden object and traditional adventure games is obvious and well-appreciated. As such, it’s highly recommended for any connoisseur of the genre who’d like to rediscover the pleasure of playing a supernatural tale well-told.


Shiver: Vanishing Hitchhiker

Jason L Blair

On a dark, rain-slick stretch of highway, a man gives a lonely hitchhiker shelter from the storm. They share a few miles of silence before he drops her off outside the small town of Gordon Creek. Soon after resuming his trip, he notices she left behind an object from his youth, a teddy bear he recalls was once owned by the girl he loved. He quickly drives back to where he last saw his passenger, only to discover nothing but a road that leads into a cursed town brimming with deadly secrets in Artogon’s Shiver: Vanishing Hitchhiker. Players will spend most of their time exploring the grim environments of Gordon Creek in order to piece together the haunting mystery of its troubled past in this compelling first-person casual thriller.

While Shiver is categorized as a “hidden object game”, it offers a lot more than just finding items based on obscure lists. The majority of puzzles are inventory-based and the HOG screens work toward that end as well. These tasks are well-integrated into the game, minimizing breaks in context just to throw a puzzle your way. That same philosophy is found throughout the other puzzles as well, of which there is a decent variety including slider, jigsaw, decryption, and pattern-matching puzzles, mostly worked into the story in a non-arbitrary manner. They offer differing challenge levels: some easy, some requiring a bit more time and effort, but none that are too hard or obtuse. Some sequences require direct control, such as manipulating a claw to remove heavy objects or welding a metal panel onto the hull of a boat to make it seaworthy again. Speaking of which, there are a couple of driving (or, rather, boating) sequences where you’ll guide a watercraft through a fog-heavy maze by clicking directional arrows as they pop up, all while avoiding flotsam and other hazards along the path. Failure to get around these obstacles results in a rough bump and sitting through a brief delay until you can try again.

Aside from an attentive eye and the occasional quick reflex, players will need a couple other tools to unravel the mystery laid out before them. Early in the game, you acquire a flashlight and camera that become important. Some areas are not lit well enough to explore unassisted, while the camera is used to capture images from the past as well as document spectral visitations. In some cases, the photographs lay out scenes that must be recreated in order to unlock the next bit of the story or proceed to a new area. In others, the images suggest tools or items needed in the area or simply fill in some story gaps. The game's generous hint system is also available if you ever get stuck. It will guide you from screen to screen to get where you need to be without penalty, or if the next step resides in your current location, it will indicate a relevant object or area. Rechargeable hints and puzzle skips are available in both the hidden object tasks and standalone puzzles as well.

Most of your time is spent discovering images and items from places such as a burning house, a rundown hospital, and a church graveyard. Flashbacks and photographs fill in the story details and there are a handful of voiced cutscenes, but most of the information comes via the main character's text commentary. The intentionally foggy, washed-out visuals and background audio complement the creepy atmosphere very well, and Shiver succeeds in building an unsettling vibe. The game gave me more than a few starts as I returned to an area I’d already been, only to have a glowy-eyed specter staring at me where none was before. The primarily piano- and string-based music is beautiful and contributes subtly to the greater mood, occasionally punctuating room transitions and story reveals but not standing out beyond that. The Collector's Edition packs in a few extra goodies, highlighted by a built-in strategy guide and a bonus chapter that becomes available after the main story is completed. This extra chapter provides another hour of gameplay and picks up where the original game leaves off. It ties up the loose threads nicely, though I was a bit surprised it was an add-on given how integral it seems to the story. Regardless of the version, Shiver: Vanishing Hitchhiker spins a creepy tale of pain, death, and ancient curses, and it’s worth giving this game a spin if that's up your alley.


Hallowed Legends: Samhain

Merlina McGovern

You might think that meteorological stations, shadowy corporations, and Celtic gods have nothing at all in common, but http://www.bigfishgames.com/download-games/11946/hallowed-legends-samhain/index.html?afcode=af609279250d">Hallowed Legends: Samhain, a hidden object hybrid by Elephant Games, attempts to tie all of these disparate concepts together in one puzzle-packed but crazily-stitched-together game. In this first-person adventure, you set off in search of your missing friend Robert, a journalist who hastily departed for a Celtic festival in Cornwall, England, and never returned. Fearing for his safety, you follow in his footsteps, but once you arrive, you find that all of the festival goers are missing... or worse. Instead of festive fair attendees, you encounter plenty of dead and frozen people, but no Robert. You’ll stumble across clues left by the mysterious Vad, Inc., and here and there catch glimpses of a large, imperious man who wears animal skins and is crowned by a skull and antlers. But is he beckoning to you? Warning you away?

You’ll often meet this strange half-man creature during the dynamic cutscenes that pepper the game. These appear not only at the end of each segment but also during dramatic moments, where you’ll go for a ride in a hot air balloon, watch an intricate mechanical bridge unfurl before you, or rush down a river nearly falling to your death in the roiling waters below. Between cinematics, the 2D in-game settings take you from a cold Cornwall church to wintry mountain tops to underwater landscapes, with occasional glimpses into the dark, distorted world of the Sidhe. The artwork is photorealistic but at times a bit too brightly lit for Samhain, summer’s end, the time when twilight and autumn colors take center stage. Instead, this game is awash in cold icy blues much of the time. And for a game that seems to be about the mysteries of Celtic mythology, you encounter quite a bit of hi-tech equipment in your travels. The in-game animations are nicely done: a man dangles from the ceiling screaming, before being yanked up by some mysterious force, and a large lamp swings loose and crashes into an imposing horse statue. There is no voice acting to support the action, but the abundant ambient sounds add depth. You’ll hear your footsteps crunch on snow as you cross an icy field and then turn to clacking on hard floors, while banshees wail and dogs bark in the background.

The hidden object searches are all well-integrated into the game, and for the most part the objects you’re searching for make sense in context – you’ll look for tech gear in a TV van and worn boots and a discarded compass in an old pond. You won’t visit the same hidden object scene twice, which is nice, and the developers have sprinkled in the odd change of pace, like requiring you to slide objects around to find others buried beneath, or apply inventory you’ve found elsewhere for objects that are out of reach. Inventory puzzles in the main environments are logical, and you’ll eventually discover a method to the madness behind hiding things like keys, lighters, and other items that you’ll need to progress through the game. There is no shortage of standalone puzzles, either, ranging from sliders to tile puzzles to straightforward logic puzzles involving weights and memory. The difficulty ranges from fairly easy to medium, but all puzzles give you the option to skip after playing through a certain amount of time. In the game’s casual mode, sparkles highlight areas of interest, as well as items to pick up. However, scene exits aren’t similarly highlighted, which can be frustrating at times as they aren’t always clearly marked.

In the Collector’s Edition, you’ll get an additional half hour of play time with a bonus chapter that serves as a great prequel to the game. After completing the main quest, you play as Robert as he first discovers there is a mysterious Celtic mystery awaiting him at the Cornwall festival. You’ll encounter a few more additional scenes as well as revisit areas from the original adventure from a different perspective. As for the main game itself, I couldn’t really get over the strange disconnectedness of the story, and the sparse notes kept in the journal do little to fill in the details. With a title like Hallowed Legends: Samhain, I was prepared for some Hallows’ Eve spookiness. Instead, you’ll find yourself in the midst of clandestine corporate machinations that delve into Celtic mythology for reasons that are never clearly revealed, and your encounters with high technology far outweigh your investigation of Celtic lore. But though the story may be impenetrable, this fairly lengthy casual adventure is often still worthwhile, providing a great variety of gameplay set against a bounty of handsome settings and places to explore.


Echoes of Sorrow

Jack Allin

A young woman is fleeing for her life when she stumbles and cracks her head, then slips into a coma even as medical workers frantically work to revive her… And then her day really gets bad. Following the panel-styled opening cinematic in BlitPop’s Echoes of Sorrow, our troubled heroine finds herself trapped at a train station in a dream world with a “dark shadow” threatening to keep her there forever. With no memory of who she is, she soon discovers a familiar looking statue (possibly of herself?), bound in chains and surrounded by four ethereal flaming pyres. Branching off are four doorways, portals to other times and places, where she must confront the ghosts of her past (quite literally) in order to rediscover her identity and find a way home. It sounds like a fairly standard premise, but what follows is a truly tragic tale that is sure to twist at your insides long before you reach the end. Unfortunately, it’s an end that arrives all too soon, as you’re likely to finish in just a couple hours.

Gameplay is a fairly standard mix of light adventuring, puzzle-solving and hidden object searches. Each portal takes players back to certain relevant times and places in the protagonist’s past: her childhood home, college, a prison, and a church. The objective in each is twofold: fulfill the necessary tasks to enable the spirits of that world to reveal their messages, and drive away the wicked spectre haunting them all. There are six or seven areas in each location that you can wander freely, though naturally many of them will be blocked by obstacles at first. Interactive objects faintly glow, making it abundantly clear what can be picked up or used in some way. Most of the puzzles are inventory-based and quite logical, and for the most part they are used in the same flashback, though you’ll often need to collect sets of items like photos, guitar strings, and doll parts before they can be used. A few late tasks involve carrying items from one memory to the next, but the portals can only be opened sequentially, keeping the overall process fairly streamlined, so there’s little cause to hit the hint button for nudges on what to try next. There are a few standalone puzzles as well, but these pose no greater challenge. Whether it’s jigsaws to assemble, rings to rotate, or staggered levers to align, it’s all standard stuff, and easy examples at that. If there’s a passcode needed, you can be sure the number is written somewhere nearby. Light math factors into a few puzzles, but nothing that will make you break a mental sweat.

Hidden object searches are lightly sprinkled into the mix, each consisting of traditional lists of items to find, one of which will be useful to your quest. As usual, such tasks can pop up out of nowhere with no warning, and many are repeated a second time, so if you’re out of ideas, often retracing your steps is all that’s necessary to look for the telltale sparkles. There’s a rechargeable hint feature that you may once again never use, as these scenes aren’t excessively cluttered (relatively speaking) and are displayed in a fairly close-up view, with items clearly recognizable. These are done in the same sharp, hand-drawn design as the rest of the game, with a moody, sombre colour scheme heavy on blues and greys, with splashes of purples nicely highlighting supernatural elements. The portal mechanic allows for welcome diversity in locations, as you’ll find yourself putting out fires in a campus dorm, fixing a slide projector in a classroom, walking the Green Mile on death row (all the way to the electric chair), climbing a bell tower and unearthing human remains in a cemetery crypt. There are just enough little touches of animation to bring these worlds to life (or undeath, at least), from swaying trees, spinning clock hands, and emergency sprinklers. You can never speak to the ghosts, but despite never moving they too seem “alive”, with light particles dancing through their translucent souls. There’s no speaking at all, actually, as this game has no voice acting, and very little commentary in general.

While often a detriment in games, the lack of exposition is really what makes Echoes of Sorrow so compelling. This isn’t a trite, clichéd storyline, but a gutsy one that goes to emotionally dark places few dare tread. There’s nothing at all scary about it, but expect to feel horror of another kind as you gradually piece together a tale that is relentless in its painful manipulations. The title is right: it doesn’t just sound its sorrow once, it echoes it repeatedly. I’m often disappointed by stories that feel shoehorned into casual games, but here it works, because discovery is the storyline, and what you find will most certainly keep you pressing on to learn more. It ends with an overly tidy finale, though not before introducing another explorable setting that connects the recollections of the past to the heroine’s current crisis. If only it didn’t all happen so fast, I could recommend this game unequivocally. It’s so easy and so short, it’s sure to leave players at that “wanting more” crossroads: wanting more because you enjoyed it so much, and wanting more because it’s just not enough. As it is, I still give this game a high endorsement as one of the more memorable, emotional stories to grace a casual title, so if you’re satisfied with some light, breezy gameplay (even by lite adventure standards) once in a while and are still thinking of passing this one by, give your head a smack.


PuppetShow: Lost Town

Robin Parker

ERS Game Studios continue their popular series of hidden object adventures with PuppetShow: Lost Town, the third game in the franchise. Continuing a series well-known for its creepy atmosphere and unsettling situations, the latest sequel once again delivers on those counts. When a system of caves is discovered in the hills outside a rural Victorian-era village, they are opened to the public as a tourist attraction, showing off the rare natural beauty of the rainbow-tinted caverns. All goes well until one day a local child is kidnapped by a strange metal beast, who proceeds to disappear into the darkness, causing a cave-in on the way to hide its tracks. As a detective asked to look for the missing girl, you will find a way into the caverns to discover an even bigger mystery: a lost town in the grip of a mysterious illness which is killing the populace, quarantined and cut off from the outside world. Can you rescue the missing infant and uncover the truth behind the sad state of the town?

As is the norm in ERS titles, you must search the environments for clues whilst partaking in hidden object tasks, inventory-based obstacles and a variety of different logic puzzles, ranging from simple sliding tiles and jigsaws to more complex puzzles, such as one involving lighting a board full of bulbs by linking them with the correct wires. These challenges are often used as door locks, and overcoming them (once all missing pieces have been found) allows access to a new area or building. Whereas simple persistence will yield the solution to many of these brainteasers, players who find them overly taxing can always resort to the handy skip button, though this takes longer to charge up on the “expert” difficulty mode. At regular difficulty, puzzle skips and hints charge more quickly, and areas of interest are highlighted with a glowing trail. The Collector’s Edition comes complete with an integrated strategy guide, filled with screenshots and a walkthrough to provide assistance when really stuck.

There are a fair number of inventory-based puzzles, but many of these consist simply of collecting an item in one area for use in another, as there isn’t much in the way of complex combinations. Acquiring them can demand a great deal of backtracking at times, and the majority of objects can only be obtained by completing hidden object scenes. Some items on the list are highlighted, meaning another interaction within the scene must first be performed before that item is available. These are never hard to work out, however, especially on the easier setting, which highlights such objects with a flickering light that probably ends up making them a little too obvious. Hints are rechargeable and the only punishment for incorrect clicks is an animation that disables the cursor for a short time. The scenes themselves are quite cluttered and nonsensical, like jumbles of unrelated rubbish. Item placement is generally fair, and since the scenes are displayed fairly close up, most items are recognizable, though there are several occasions where objects are not easily distinguishable, and one item in particular is completely mislabeled. Even here, the artwork is disturbing and full of foreboding, which sits very well with the overall tone of the game.

Players who have sampled previous ERS games will appreciate the same art style on display here. The mutely-coloured hand-drawn backgrounds are realistic but with a touch of fantasy that conveys a somewhat sinister atmosphere, with broken down puppets and wind-up dolls littered throughout your travels. Animation varies wildly, however; sometimes it can be quite effective, but it often appears blurry and rather jerky. Sound effects and music are simply recycled from the first two games in the series, which is disappointing. Themes are often reused in ongoing franchises, but there is little to no deviation in the entire score here. There is some narration and voicework on a few other rare occasions, and the performances are well acted and add nicely to the atmosphere. Letters and diaries scattered throughout the town will help progress the plot and fill in some of the story gaps, though these are almost always optional as the storyline seems to play second fiddle to the puzzles. It all adds up to a fairly short adventure that isn’t as weighty as its predecessors, and even the inclusion of a bonus chapter in the Collector’s Edition is brief, leaving some strands of the mystery still without a satisfying explanation. But while it may not be the most fleshed-out sequel story-wise, it’s a solid hidden object adventure otherwise. You don’t need to be familiar with the PuppetShow series to jump in here, but there are enough common threads carried over from earlier installments to ensure that existing fans will definitely want to investigate the Lost Town further.


Diamon Jones: Devil’s Contract

Jack Allin

The name Diamon Jones may be marginally familiar to adventure fans. (No, not the other Jones.) The wannabe archeologist/treasure hunter was the star of gfi’s Amulet of the World and Eye of the Dragon back in 2009, and now he’s back for the Russian developer’s third installment in Diamon Jones: Devil’s Contract. But those expecting more of the same traditional adventuring fare are in for a disappointment this time around, as the new game is a hyper-streamlined lite adventure with hidden object sensibilities. That alone isn’t a bad thing, as the series always had a fairly casual feel, with an emphasis on simple puzzles and arcade-like minigames. Unfortunately, the conversion has done nothing to improve the dismal writing and translation that afflicted its predecessors, and its low-budget presentation is more prevalent now than ever. There’s a degree of charm to its oddball personality and bright 3D graphics, and the gameplay itself can be mildly entertaining, but it’s not enough to carry the game all the way through its short, hackneyed storyline and piecemeal production.

After having previously sought fame and fortune in Egypt and the Far East, Diamon has done what all adventurers do: open a small restaurant in France. But trouble soon finds him anyway, as a fat man bursts in seeking shelter, followed by an Elvis impersonator with a three-headed “hell hound”. Next thing Diamon knows, his restaurant is ablaze and he has only minutes to rescue his precious artifacts and get out in time. That is just the start of his problems, however, as his pursuit of the fat man to a medieval fortress ultimately results in Diamon unwittingly “signing” a contract with the devil. Of course, there are perks that come with selling your soul, and Diamon soon finds himself heading off to Hollywood to seek glory as the star of a western movie before tracking down the contract and removing his name. It’s all silly, ridiculous stuff, and though the absurdity is clearly intentional – escaped cheese moulds have large round eyes and the local fireman wears an ear horn as a “hearing aid” – it begins to wear thin before long, particularly when all you get to do for the most part are trivial, meaningless tasks.

Before Jones can even get out of France, he’ll first need to put out his own fire, repair a car, and rescue a cheese-maker from his walk-in freezer. Even when he gets to the Arizona desert to begin filming his movie, his duties consist of repairing the sets and prepping equipment. These obstacles set up the basic routine: once an objective is identified, any necessary items needed to complete it are shown in a bar at the bottom of the screen. Theoretically all items are “necessary”, like collecting pieces of a cowboy costume or finding traps in a dungeon, but sometimes the requirements feel arbitrary – one helpful item suddenly emerging from a collection of useless ones. All objects are located in the main environments, but you can’t always see everything you need right away. Sometimes you’ll need to interact with other non-intuitive objects first, which enables secondary objectives that demand still more items to acquire. There’s nothing to indicate which items are truly “hidden”, leading to some annoying cursor sweeps for highlights, but a rechargeable hint option can help out. You shouldn’t need it too often, however, as there is no exploration at all. Every screen is a self-contained scenario, and you can’t even move Diamon around. Occasionally the game will inexplicably give you the items you require, which threw me every time, as I instinctively proceeded to search for items already in my possession. Argh!

Once you have everything you need, solving the inventory “puzzles” is as simple as clicking them on the appropriate hotspot, all of which are plainly obvious. The only thing breaking up this seek-and-find formula are a series of standalone puzzles and minigames. Puzzles are common varieties like sliders, jigsaws, and Lights Out, while minigames often require some hand-eye coordination as you shoot targets, time clicks with prompts or onscreen meters, and play whack-a-rat. Even the “dramatic” endgame confrontation plays out as a Match-3 activity. Most players will find these very easy, though a skip option exists if you have trouble. All this action is presented in a bright, cheerful 3D world; a stark contrast to the utterly plain, cartoony cutscenes. Music ranges from jazz to western, but the tracks are so short that they soon become distractingly repetitive. There’s nothing to stop you from turning the music down, either, as sound effects are sparse and voices are non-existent, leaving you with the privilege of reading butchered subtitles riddled with grammatical errors and typos. The basic gameplay is fun enough for the two measly hours it will take to complete, and the story is offbeat enough to feel like a change from the casual norm, but don’t expect anything more of Devil’s Contract. Instead of a third less-than-impressive title, perhaps the price for Diamon’s soul should have been a better adventure.


Shades of Death: Royal Blood

Jack Allin

Just about everyone in Vogat Interactive’s appropriately-titled Shades of Death: Royal Blood is dead: your father, your sister, and the other keepers of the “Amulet of Life” pieces, broken and scattered to keep an undead king imprisoned forever. If that wasn’t a happy enough thought, someone – or something – is seeking to restore the amulet and resurrect the evil entity, killing anyone and everyone in their path, and now only you are left to stop them. Fortunately, you have the ability to see and communicate with the ghosts of the dearly departed, and even transport yourself to the ethereal realm, which gives you the advantage in the race to discover the lost artifact. The clichés fly fast and furious in this game, but it’s a solid enough premise for this lite (though very dark) casual adventure hybrid from the creators of the Reincarnations and Veronica Rivers series. It’s also a very traditional mix of mild exploration, puzzles, and hidden object hunts, though it won’t take long to breeze through any of your tasks in either dimension.

Arriving at a rural castle to put your deceased father’s affairs in order, you discover that your family has been involved in a centuries-old duty to protect the sacred amulet that safeguards the world. To honour that responsibility, you’ll need to explore the old stone castle for its closely-guarded secrets. Hidden in the nooks and crannies of the hallways, armoury, and even a torture chamber (complete with iron maiden) are a series of items to collect and puzzles to solve, often in that order, as many of the puzzles are often missing parts needed to complete them. Challenges include standard ring rotators, tile jigsaws, simple assembly tasks, and sliders of various sorts. Most of these you’ll have seen before, likely many times, though one clever puzzle involves combining symbols with basic math for an extra layer of complexity. Even so, the puzzles are generally on the easy side, though of course the option to skip soon presents itself, assuming you have all the necessary parts or clues to solve it first. Inventory obstacles are intuitive, overcome simply by using one object on another, but sometimes you’ll need to collect multiples of the same item in order to proceed. The hint feature will highlight an item or area of interest on the current screen, if applicable, and the game’s easier difficulty setting causes interactive hotspots to twinkle periodically.

Like many hidden object games, many of the items you require can only be found amidst other junk on cluttered screens. The scavenger hunts are frequent and their lists consist of completely arbitrary objects, but they’re also fair, with most items plainly visible and hints to help you if necessary. The only reason you’re likely to use them occasionally is that the graphics aren’t particularly crisp. They’re nicely detailed in a realistic fashion, just limited to a resolution that makes the backgrounds look slightly pixelated. As you’d expect of a game called Shades of Death, the colours are often muted and gloomy, but this merely accentuates your visits to the netherworld. That isn’t nearly as exotic as it sounds, mind you. By fixing mirrors in three different areas, you can travel to a much brighter, cheerier otherworldly realm that's based on its real-world counterpart (a small consolation for being trapped there for eternity unless you help them). The gameplay is the same in both, and you don’t move back and forth between the two dimensions once entered, but the visual distinctiveness is a welcome change from the often dreary, oppressive nighttime locales of our own world. Even the music, typically a fairly sombre mix of piano and violins, gives way to a warmer, lighter tone in the afterlife.

Fortunately, you get out of the castle before long, as your journey eventually takes you such places as a police station, hotel, cemetery, and dockyard of a nearby town, before boarding a boat you’ve repaired and travelling to the underground caves of a remote island. Along the way, you’ll encounter a variety of ghosts, some of whom will speak to you in soundless, non-interactive conversation at key points, while others merely float mystically around the screen in a nice animated touch. By the time you reach the site of the pending resurrection ritual, you’ll have fleshed out the backstory through a series of conveniently-placed newspapers and notes, though there’s never any attempt to justify its rather wild concoction of vampires and undead creatures, and the protagonist is remarkably calm about the whole ordeal. The ending won’t provide the thrill or answers you seek, either. Though the story is fully concluded, the finale is so rushed and anti-climactic that you’ll be left wondering what all the fuss was about. And with only two-and-a-half hours of gaming, a little more depth would have been welcome on all fronts. Still, Shades of Death is an entertaining diversion while it lasts – just don’t stop and ask many questions as you go, as this is a game best spent whistling quickly past the graveyard.


Blood and Ruby

Jack Allin

HitPoint Studios had a busy month. Besides Guardians of Magic, the developer also released Blood and Ruby, though this game is a far more traditional hidden object hybrid adventure. In the latest addition to the ever-growing vampire bandwagon, this game casts players in the role of Ruby, a young woman who rushes to Venice after receiving an urgent note from her brother. Marcus is now missing, but he’s left further clues for Ruby that lead her to the museum’s celebrated new exhibit, the legendary Fountain of Life. Recently raised from the ocean floor aboard a sunken ship, the fountain not only has life-extending healing powers for mankind, it also enables vampires to walk unharmed in daylight. In order to stop that from ever occurring, the fountain will need to be destroyed once and for all, but first Ruby needs to collect a set of mystical amulets and whatever items she can find to defend herself from her nocturnal opponents, because she’s going to need them before all is said and done.

For the most part, the gameplay is a pretty standard mix of light adventuring and object scavenging. As you unlock new areas, you can roam freely between the antique shop, museum, and library, or board a gondola for a trip to the aptly-titled Cemetery Island (curiously renamed “Graveyard Island” by game’s end). Better yet, you can do it both in the present and the past. At one point, a magical artifact allows Ruby to relive the memories of her ancestor Rosa, who also vowed to stop the vampires and destroy the fountain at any cost. And so you’ll get to revisit familiar scenes from modern day, though obviously in a much different state in 1576. The museum is half-built, and a covered wagon awaits exploration in the town square. There’s a ship down at the docks ready to sail for the New World as well, which is much the worse for wear when you return to it as Ruby. Assuming, of course, that you can get inside, as a grid-based minigame must be won in order to outmaneuver patrolling guards. There’s no stealth skill required, but if you do get caught you need to start over from the beginning. Other puzzles are a more conventional lot of wire connections, ring rotating, weight balancing, and jigsaws, along with some memory tasks like Concentration and Simon. Apart from one particularly devious slider challenge full of interlocking pieces, all of these puzzles are quite easy, though the usual bypass option exists.

With guidance from a helpful vampire and an aged witch, you’ll also need to acquire recipes and make some magical concoctions to aid your quest. Every potion has its own conditions, making each brewing minigame unique: a deadly “garlic fire” needs ingredients prepped and added in a very strict order, while a sleeping draft must be the perfect blend of colour and bubbles. Some components and other useful items can be found in plain sight, while others are earned only by completing hidden object sequences. Unlike most HOG hybrids, these generally occur right in the main environments, making the activity feel a little more organic, though many of the items listed are entirely contrived. A few locations are revisited with secondary searches later, but thankfully they’re spaced out enough to avoid feeling too repetitive. Usually only one or two items are added to inventory for later use, but in a very welcome twist on the standard formula, occasionally you’ll need to gather a full set of items in a hurry to defend against attack. There’s no real hurry or danger of any sort, but the music ramps up in tempo to emphasize the urgency as an axe chops down the door you’re hiding behind or enchanted marionettes spring to life. Getting through these sequences involves a string of inventory tasks, as you must strategically use the items you’ve just gathered to fend off your foes. These scenes are few and far between and none are difficult, but this is exactly the sort of intuitive integration that more casual games should be doing.

The music is fairly subdued otherwise, with periods of silence broken up by solo tracks of harpsichord, accordion, piano and violins, depending on the time and place you’re visiting, while a dramatic organ tune sounds out whenever you accomplish a goal. There is no voicework at all, so the rest of the soundscape consists of subtle ambient effects like the endless drizzle when you arrive in Venice and the ticking clocks of a quiet shop. There are few animations to speak of either, though one nice touch is that each correct click in the hidden object sequences makes the item disappear in a tiny flurry of bats. The lack of movement is okay, though, because the art is done in a stylized, hand-painted fashion rather than a realistic look. Items are clearly visible, which is good because they don’t sparkle, though exits do, letting you know there’s something to be done in that area. This is a much better option than most casual games, which offer an all-or-nothing choice of interactive highlights. Your efforts are ultimately rewarded with a satisfying conclusion, though the ending feels rushed and doesn’t take long to reach, as most players should easily finish in under three hours. The ease of the game may turn off some players, and the vampire theme has been done to (un)death, but don’t be quick to pass it by, as Blood and Ruby has just enough distinctive personality and clever touches to warrant a look and give the game some much-needed bite.


Amanda Rose: The Game of Time

Jack Allin

Casual hybrids often mix hidden object and more traditional adventure gameplay together in varying degrees, but few do it quite so distinctly as Renergy Entertainment’s Amanda Rose: The Game of Time. Cast in the title role of a young woman pursuing her missing father through time, players must first collect a set of hidden objects in each location, then overcome a successive series of inventory challenges in order to proceed. Occasionally there’s an additional group of items to scavenge in a secondary scene, while a few logic puzzles and minigames round out the experience, but for the most part it’s a fairly rigid formula that you’ll rarely deviate from throughout the game’s fifteen chapters. But if it ain’t broke, why fix it, as this is generally an enjoyable, lightweight adventure through the 19th century on the trail of the temple of Atlantis. The story is a jumbled mess of laughably thin clichés, and it’s so easy you’ll blow through it in just a couple hours, but it’s a fun enough diversion while it lasts.

When Amanda activates a unique artifact discovered at the site of her father’s plane crash, it whisks her back in time to the American Old West. Remarkably unsurprised by this turn of events, now Amanda must find clues to her father’s whereabouts in order to return home. First, however, she’ll need to see her way through a host of trivial tasks, as the townsfolk seem utterly incapable of doing anything themselves. The menial objectives actually undermine the flow of the story in the first half of the game: the saloon keeper has a letter from your father, but demands that his cocktail machine be fixed for him first; a dodgy blacksmith refuses to help identify a horseshoe, leaving you to create a new one from scratch; while the Sheriff is far too obsessed with his broken clock to concern himself with the bank robbery and kidnapping that occurred just outside. Even when the scene shifts to a native Indian village, Amanda’s prime role as gopher continues, as you must help the chief’s sick dog recover and construct a makeshift dreamcatcher. Only when you finally reach a series of crystalline caves do you truly feel like you’re making any real contribution to your own progress. Of course, these silly story contrivances are really just excuses for gameplay, and fortunately Amanda Rose fares much better in that regard.

Unlike many hidden object games, here you’re given visual depictions of the items you’re looking for, though actual objects sometimes look conspicuously different than their icon counterparts. There are no cluttered sub-screens, as everything you need is littered around the main environments. At first there are only single rooms to scour, but eventually that expands to two and even three screens. The rechargeable hint feature will help if needed, and it may be for some of the smaller items that are hard to distinguish from the backgrounds. All items are contextually appropriate, though only one is ultimately needed, which then launches you into a very linear set of inventory puzzles. Usually these are quite straightforward, like finding tools, construction materials, and keys, some of which need to be combined before using. Occasionally you’ll find clues needed to solve other tasks, like lever positions or recipes. Typically you can solve only one at a time, as each new item tends to be the precise thing you need to uncover the next, which streamlines the experience considerably. The only real challenge is finding interactive hotspots in the first place, as they can be harder to spot than the objects themselves. The few standalone puzzles sprinkled in won’t pose any more difficulty. There are tile jigsaws to swap and rotate, rings to rotate, Hanoi towers to move, and patterns to match, plus a single limited-move minigame, which seemed fun right to the point that it crashed on me. Even after a restart, I couldn’t interact with it anymore, forcing me to hit the puzzle skip button to bypass it.

Aesthetically, Amanda Rose has a budget feel, with no voicework at all and comic panel-styled cinematics driving the story forward. This is in sharp contrast to the realistic look of the game itself, which is fairly crisp and moderately detailed. The choice of locations is somewhat disappointing, as few of the selection of cabins or offices or train station have an overtly “Old West” vibe. Even the saloon looks more like a quaint bed and breakfast than a hangout for cowboys and prospectors. This is even more true of the music; the soft mix of piano and strings provides a pleasant backdrop, but seems entirely out of place for the setting, which becomes more bizarre the nearer you get to the end. As you descend deeper beneath the Arizona desert, you’ll encounter mystical crystals, underground waterfalls, and other ancient mysteries dating back to the days of Atlantis. It’s a grab bag of random story elements that bears no scrutiny whatsoever, but if you spend your time looking at the trees and not the forest (or in this case, whatever objects are displayed in front of you), you’ll likely have a good time exploring. It’s a light and easy adventure to be sure, but with the right expectations, you’ll probably dig in one afternoon and lose all track of time until you’re done.


Note: Adventure Gamers is a Big Fish Games affiliate.

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