Casual Collection - May 2011 releases
For casual game fans, May was something of a split between the haves and the have-nots… or at least, the must-haves and the don’t-need-to-haves. There were several top quality lite adventures released last month that fully demand your attention. Not all of them are “hidden object” adventures, and even the ones that are find themselves on the leading edge of the genre, polishing and refining and occasionally even pushing the envelope in new and interesting ways. And then there are the others. While none of the titles covered here are bad games, there’s a noticeable drop-off in quality between tiers. These games are best recommended only after finishing off the better games first, or if the subject matter is of enough interest to you to smooth over the rough areas. Or, of course, if you have plenty of money burning a hole in your pocket. In which case, can we have some? Whatever your budget, there’s certainly some winners here to choose from, so read on for the best and the rest of May 2011.
(Note: From now on, our casual game write-ups may gloss over certain traditional elements that don’t need repeating for each and every game. You all know the drill by now: first-person, point-and-click, hotspots sparkle, hint systems recharge, puzzles have a skip option, etc. Unless otherwise noted, you can assume that all games covered do include any now-standard genre features even if they aren’t specifically mentioned.)
All write-ups by Jack Allin except where noted.
Mystery Trackers: Raincliff
You’d be forgiven for accidentally referring to Elephant Games’ Mystery Trackers: Raincliff as Dire Grove at some point. To say the sequel to last year’s The Void was “modeled” after Big Fish Games’ popular hidden object adventure is an understatement. From the haunted wintry setting to the disappearance of several university students to the integrated use of FMV, Raincliff shares more than a little in common with its Mystery Case Files inspiration. But for gamers that’s a good thing. If you’re going to pattern yourself after something, it may as well be one of the best, and Raincliff does a solid job of recreating Dire Grove’s winning formula here. Better yet, it delivers such a substantial casual gameplay experience that it’s more than made a name for itself by the end.
As an unnamed detective arriving in Raincliff in search of the missing students, all you find at first are deserted, ice-covered streets and random clues to a deadly crisis the town wasn’t prepared to deal with. As you gradually open up new areas like the watchmaker’s shop, the pharmacy, and a radio tower, you’ll also find warning notes that make it clear your presence isn’t welcome, and you’ll begin witnessing some startling paranormal events yourself. These are displayed in short live-action video clips that you can watch again at any time. That’s all you’ll get for story refreshers, however, as there is no journal, map, or task list to help you keep your bearings. The background scenes are attractively hand-drawn in subdued blue hues, as befits the inclement weather, with falling snow swirling around you and the wind howling in your ears, the eerie soundtrack largely limited to dramatic moments of tension. While not a horror game per se, Raincliff does a nice job of building an unsettling atmosphere, occasionally punctuating it with startling surprises like the appearance of a masked “phantom” and a violent outburst by an unseen antagonist.
Of course, the only real danger you’ll face is succumbing to the many puzzles in your way. Raincliff is littered with logic puzzles, from matching tile edges to plotting paths through conditional obstacle courses to grid-based sliders, some of which can get very difficult by the end. Alas, integration is practically non-existent, the puzzles serving mainly as arbitrary obstacles that limit your progress and require an increasing amount of backtracking the farther you get. You won’t have to hunt down secretly-activated hidden object searches, fortunately. You will do some traditional junk collecting, but these scenes are fairly infrequent, never repeated, and always introduced right on the current screen – a practice far more casual games should follow. Searches consist of straightforward item lists, the only wrinkle being the frequent need to find multiples of the same item. Random items collected here, plus others you’ll gather in your travels, are used to solve intuitive inventory puzzles that will pose little challenge on the easiest setting. Interactive item sparkles are removed on the medium difficult setting, and there’s an even steeper challenge level available that removes the puzzle skip and hint options. You can also keep an eye open for 50 optional frogs as you go, though it wasn’t clear to me what that unlocked once I reached the goal.
Just when you think the game might be winding down, it opens up into a whole new area with all new tasks and puzzles as the plot thickens. The storyline is very thin, revealed largely through conveniently-placed books and notes, but it spins a surprisingly compelling tale that will keep you guessing until the fully-resolved ending. Not that you’ll reach that point quickly, as the puzzle-packed main adventure will easily take five-plus hours to get through. The Collector’s Edition adds almost another hour of bonus gameplay on top of that, picking up a few hours after the original storyline. While offering only a couple new nondescript locations, it provides more of the same generous gameplay experience and adds a distinct twist to the story that shines a whole new light on the town’s tragedy. There’s even a short quiz to test your knowledge and reward you with an epilogue after completion, though the test is all-or-nothing and offers no insights on which answer(s) you might have wrong. Whichever version you go for, however, you should be all over this game like a fresh snowfall. Aside from a disappointing absence of any voicework and a desperate need for an interactive map to mitigate the backtracking, this is a high quality casual production in all respects. Next time someone says “Remember that great game with all the snow in that creepy deserted town?”, this time you may just want to answer “Oh yeah, Mystery Trackers: Raincliff!”
Princess Isabella: Return of the Curse
Take a deep breath… Mmm, smell that? Fresh air! It may not be quite as fresh as 2009’s A Witch’s Curse, but like its predecessor, Gogii Games’ Princess Isabella: Return of the Curse once again represents one of the more welcome forays outside of the stifling hidden object adventure confines. There’s still a traditional foundation of light exploration, inventory puzzles and item searches, but this series spreads its wings – literally – with an ever-present sidekick, special magical abilities, and a tighter integration of puzzles across its dual fantasy world settings, all capped off by a rich presentation of scenic artwork, fully-voiced characters, and an eerie choral soundtrack. The question for series fans is how the sequel could top the original, and while it does feel a little too “samey” in some respects, there are some clever new additions that make it one of the better hybrid adventures available. It’s not so much that there’s anything new; it’s just bundled in a slickly-produced and delightfully imaginative way.
After defeating the witch that cursed her parents’ kingdom the first time around, now the young princess has a family and nemesis of her own. This time, an apprentice of the old witch snatches baby Bella and traps the prince in a crystal prison, and it’s up to Isabella to save the day once again. With a little help from her friends, of course. Isabella’s chatty fairy companion is back, not only as the built-in hint system, but also an active contributor with unique talents of her own (once she learns how to use them all over again). Disappointingly, her powers are the same as the last game: creating water and fire, and the ability to smash fragile objects, but the sequel introduces a second sidekick in the form of a baby dragon. Once hatched, he’s yours for the duration, even after the fairy takes off for a while. He’s controlled exactly the same way, by clicking the appropriate icons in a radial menu in the top corner. The dragon’s “lift” ability acts a whole lot like “smash”, but while he hasn’t mastered fire breath yet, he can muster up a breath of smoke. His final elemental talent is barely used, revealed only in the bonus chapter in the Collector’s Edition. These skills are used quite liberally, and while really they’re just alternate forms of inventory puzzles, it’s a welcome change from the norm, if a bit too easy. On both of the two difficulty settings, any hotspots you can use an ability on are clearly identified, which is more hand-holding than is necessary.
There are also a moderate number of hidden object searches to complete, rarely repeated. Most of these consist of straightforward lists scattered about clearly depicted close-up screens, though you’ll sometimes need to collect a whole set of flies or remove all “evil” influences from a scene. The standalone puzzles are variations of common types and often quite simple, but they tend to feel more organic than in many games. Sure, you’ll still slide and twist and rotate coloured tiles into place or align mismatched rows, but you’ll also route waterfalls to restore power to the fairy village, assemble wooden puppets to restore them to little boys, and mix the correct colour of liquid potions. A few puzzles are repeated, like painting tattoos according to strict conditions and forming correct patterns with coloured gems, but they’re spread out far enough to avoid feeling too overdone. Part of the reason these activities feel more natural is that it’s a very unnatural world. Once free of the castle, you’ll discover a fantastical land full of sleeping dwarfs, trolls, mermaids, and giant insects, and you’ll explore gingerbread houses, Shire-like hill houses, and Rapunzel’s tower. But it’s a cursed land, possessed at first of a purple haze and spirit-bubbling, bog-like aura. Once cleansed of its evil influence, however, each screen is transformed into a vibrantly-coloured healed version of itself. In either condition, the environments are attractively hand-drawn, and the joy of watching the visual metamorphosis is an enticing motivation throughout.
The end goal is the witch’s castle, and though you’ll make it there regardless of which version you play, how you get there will be different. The standard version thrusts you straight into a final timed HOG-off against the witch (done just like the first game, in which you must find your lists of items before the old hag), which feels a little abrupt, though a suitably climactic ending to the three-plus hours spent reaching that point. The Collector’s Edition includes a bonus segment before the endgame, allowing you to explore the witch’s “trophy tower” for more than another hour before the big showdown. This generous segment has you transporting into different fairy tale worlds to free captives like leprechauns and a frozen phoenix, and then again into very familiar locations, revisiting castle scenes from the first game (now visually enhanced) to fix the telescope in the observatory and kill Venus Flytraps in the greenhouse. There are surprisingly few hidden object hunts in this chapter, but it does include the most memorable, which is a moving scene with random items rising and falling on pedestals. The standalone puzzles are more frequent, feel more tacked-on, and rely more on generic tasks (Simon, Match-3) and twiddleware challenges, which isn’t as satisfying as the main adventure, but the diversity of the new locations more than makes up for some lackluster puzzling. Whether that’s worth paying double the price is up to you, but whichever you choose, Princess Isabella: Return of the Curse is sure to keep you spellbound for a refreshing several hours of casual gaming.
State of Play’s Lume isn’t so much a “casual” adventure as it is a little one. Everything about it is small, from setting to scope, from screen size to game length. There are no minigames to play and no hidden objects to find, just a few inventory items and a handful of logic puzzles to go with a houseload full of charm. The entire game takes place in and around one dollhouse-like home, which may sound underwhelming if not for the fact that it’s made entirely out of cardboard and paper with real miniature lighting, giving the experience a cozy, hand-crafted feel. As a melancholic piano and guitar tune plays in the background, the camera swoops and follows the paper protagonist, Lumi, as she changes floors and opens up new closet-sized rooms in her grandfather’s house while she attempts to restore the power in his absence. That’s about it for plot as well, as there’s no real storyline in what is clearly intended to be an introduction to a larger series, only a small glimpse of which is offered here. It’s a beautiful, stylish first look, but it really is just a glimpse. Blink and you’ll miss it.
The only thing that stretches out the time spent playing Lume are the puzzles, some of which are entirely standalone while another few require environmental clues found elsewhere. A complex pipe puzzle can be completed simply by twisting tiles into place and a coded number conundrum solved by interpreting symbols, but good luck playing the music-based door lock without finding the required tune first. Most of these puzzles are fairly straightforward if not altogether easy, but there’s one pretty significant exception: a three-stage combination lock sequence that requires some extreme leaps of logic in piecing together the scattered hints available. The only other thing that might trip you up is an inability to identify hotspots. Lume uses a Flash-based format that is incredibly simple to grasp, but since individual hotspots are not highlighted in any way, it can be tough to distinguish between any that are positioned close together.
Apart from that one...%&^*[email protected] likely giving you trouble, you should blow through Lume in well under an hour, during which time the only hint of what’s to come lies in an ominous view of the nearby town, which has also inexplicably lost its power. Lumi’s grandfather returns at the end, teasing her with news of a shocking story to tell, but what that might be remains to be seen for now, as the credits roll before we get a chance to hear it. It doesn’t even take long to get through those, as this game is largely the product of just two people, which makes it a pretty impressive accomplishment. Whether that also makes it worthy of a purchase depends not only on how much you enjoy puzzles, but on how supportive you are of indies. On its own, this debut episode is really too short and shallow to fully recommend, but its aesthetic appeal will tickle you while it lasts, and a little early investment may be the only way to ensure a bright future for this delightful little series.
What do you do when a professor, a long-time friend, asks for your help? Why, you follow him into the unknown to meet dwarfs working for a public utility, a googly-eyed fortune teller, and mysterious monks without question, of course. In Tearstone, a strange and unique lite adventure from DragonsEye Studio, you’ll encounter a variety of kooky characters along with more inventory puzzles than you can count as you attempt to find the intersection between the troubled hidden world of Tearstone and your destiny.
The professor disappears shortly after asking if you’re up for a fantastical challenge. Like any good adventurer, naturally you accept, though you won’t soon learn what your quest is all about. The extremely thin plot remains largely inscrutable until the end, but Tearstone begins taking bizarre turns the minute you find yourself talking with a cricket. Without a clear and discernible story, I found it best to just let the strangeness envelop me as I met unusual characters like a blind street musician or happened upon other oddities such as park posters for Unicorn’s Lake, which may just represent truth in advertising. Elsewhere, before you can enter a monastery, you’ll discover a note that says, “The Time is not yet right. The owl doesn’t have his hat yet.” That isn’t merely an obscure puzzle clue; the owl really doesn’t.
Mimicking this crazy collage of ideas, the realistic hand-drawn art is a mish mash of images thrown together. You’ll get a close-up of a forest floor with red capped mushrooms in the background and a detailed cricket -- antenna, thorax, jointed legs and all – staring at you curiously in the foreground. In another strange scene, sheep graze in a bucolic field while floating islands hover in the distance. There is no animation aside from the cutscenes separating the game’s seven chapters, and even these are a bit on the rudimentary side. None of the characters are voiced, but the music brings a suitably off-kilter feel to the game. Notes from flutes, tubas, and snare drums playfully bounce off each other as you travel through these strange and stranger lands.
Along the way, most of what you’ll be doing is solving a myriad of inventory puzzles. At the start of each chapter, the inventory menu displays the full range of items you’ll need to proceed. Some of these you'll find right away in the various scenes you explore; some of them require using an item you've already found or solving a puzzle first. You'll also be able to combine two items to create one using the "magic mixer." Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell whether or not an item in question is currently visible, so you may find yourself scouring environments for objects that aren’t there. A hint button helps to locate items on the list or let you know if there is (or isn’t) a puzzle to be solved in an area, though this is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it will highlight puzzles you can’t solve yet and sometimes not. The sparse journal lists a set of goals to accomplish for each chapter but not much more.
You’ll also encounter a variety of logic puzzles, usually involving helping the various characters (including a treasure-hording squirrel that hangs cute little pants on a line to dry, and a playful ghost with a taste for fine wine). Puzzles range from simple jigsaws and memory games to more integrated, complex tasks, such as one where you’ll have to surreptitiously move characters from one screen to another in order to search for items unhampered. You’ll need to keep a sharp eye out for solutions as well, as clues are often cleverly presented graphically (but rather cryptically) somewhere close to their related puzzles. If you’re stumped, take another look at those symbols carved into the scenery or even at the composition of the scenes themselves.
In all, Tearstone provides a solid 3-4 hours of gameplay, and it’s a refreshing change from the standard casual formula. Sure, you’re mainly still looking for and trying to acquire an abundance of items, but it plays more like an inventory-gathering bonanza than hidden object scavenger hunt. The story is threadbare and trippy, but like Alice diving head first down the rabbit hole, don’t be shy about climbing down into a tree trunk when asked; in this game, you’ll definitely be in for a fun and whimsical adventure when you do.
Midnight Mysteries: Devil on the Mississippi
Edgar Allan Poe was a shoo-in, Nathaniel Hawthorne understandable. But in Mumbo Jumbo’s third Midnight Mysteries installment, Devil on the Mississippi, Mark Twain is the latest acclaimed writer in need of deliverance from a torturous afterlife. And he’s not alone, as before long Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe are brought into the fray in a globe-hopping, time-travelling supernatural adventure. As intriguing as that sounds, the ambitious hodgepodge of storylines soon spirals out of control, making for a rather overwhelming, nonsensical affair. Fortunately, there’s plenty more to make up for it, as this is a slickly-produced title with loads of creative gameplay, making for a fully entertaining – if bewildering – casual experience.
As was the case in the first two games, you play an author with paranormal abilities whom fellow writers (albeit dead ones) turn to for help. After a dynamic opening cutscene of a demon destroying a riverboat, the ethereal form of Samuel Clemens appears in your study with an appeal and some tutorial instructions. You couldn’t possibly refuse the incomparable Mark Twain, so off you go to pre-Civil War Missouri to catch the very riverboat you just saw destroyed, a tragedy that plagued Twain’s life (and continues to in his afterlife). Then things really get weird. Somehow, Twain’s troubles become connected to his stance on Shakespeare’s legitimacy, which in turn relates to Marlowe’s ill-fated tale of Dr. Faustus and pacts with the devil. This convoluted tale sends you from the 19th century American heartland to turn-of-the-17th century London and other English locales. It’s enough to make your head spin, and it’s too much, feeling more like two or three stories unnaturally forced together. Which is a shame, as there’s more than enough of the Twain tale alone to have filled out a whole storyline. You’ll meet up with his lovely ghostly family and not-so-noble friends, and even some of his characters, with appearances by Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim (the latter two only in the Collector’s Edition).
It’s best not to think too deeply about the story, as the game is a whole lot more enjoyable that way. In fact, it’s a whole lot more enjoyable than the vast majority of casual games. There are some hidden object searches, but very few, numbering only in the single digits. These are fairly standard but done well, with silhouettes shown by clicking list items, which is sometimes useful since objects are from a past era and sometimes no longer exist and/or look much different today. That lets you save your hints for the main adventure, assuming you’ve been collecting hint ravens along the way. Devil on the Mississippi not only includes the usual array of inventory puzzles, it also requires combining pairs of items in reserved part of the inventory menu. Combinations are usually very intuitive, but this still represents a very welcome layer of complexity.
Another welcome feature is the game’s attempt to reasonably integrate its logic puzzles. Sure, there are still some contrived number tile challenges, sequencing puzzles, stained-glass jigsaws, and pair-matching exercises, but often there’s a clear effort to make the tasks organic. You’ll clear a river obstruction layer by layer, navigate a three-part maze without touching traps, and build a blockade in a stacking puzzle using real physics. You’ll even get to defend a river with a cannon by playing a form of Battleship and shoot a game of pool. The tasks are varied and entertaining, they don’t rely on overused twiddleware, and best of all, they feel like they belong. Most are fairly easy, though one big frustration is that none are adequately clued, at times forcing you to spend a hint just for the basic objective. I found one or two particularly obtuse even with a nudge, but the puzzle skip option is always there as a last resort.
There are many diverse locations to visit, from the riverboat engine room in need of repair to the Globe Theatre to a Stratford chapel dedicated to the Bard, plus the requisite cemetery and skull-lined caverns that all ghost stories apparently need. The hand-drawn artwork is crisp and attractive, with a heavy use of blues and greys to convey a suitably creepy ambience. Though not really a horror, there are a few demonic “boo!” moments, along with a generous helping of cinematics sprinkled throughout, as apparitions appear and disappear with regularity. There are no voices and only low musical tones and chants playing in the background, but a number of convincing sound effects like thunder, crackling fire, and the chugging of a riverboat engine round out the surprisingly subtle aural experience.
My three and a half hours spent playing the main game seemed to fly by, but there’s more beyond that, as collecting enough clovers throughout the game unlocks an unlimited hidden object mode. The Collector’s Edition adds another item hunt in the form of a bone collection challenge in and around Twain’s home, along with a bonus chapter that provides a little under an hour of play time. The extra segment adds a further level of finality to the storyline, but the main game is resolved quite nicely without it, making it feel rather redundant, as does the increased use of hidden object hunts to pad out its game time. It does add a few new locations, but few are as memorable as the ones already explored. Whichever version you decide on, however, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it. The absurd story would have Twain and Shakespeare turning in their graves, but if you’re looking for a polished, high quality casual gameplay experience, you’ll find it in Midnight Mysteries: Devil on the Mississippi, and you don’t even need to sell your soul to get it.
Empress of the Deep 2: Song of the Blue Whale
Silverback Productions’ Empress of the Deep 2: Song of the Blue Whale, released a year after The Darkest Secret, picks up immediately after the young empress-to-be Anna escapes from her crumbling underwater kingdom. Her mysterious hologram-pal Jacob recounts the events that led to the Ark’s destruction and the presumed demise of the power-hungry Pandora before we find Anna washed up on a nearby shore. As play begins, Anna soon makes her way to the literally-named Temple in the Sky, where she must bring together four 'elemental resources' to break Pandora's curse. In a tank in the massive central foyer, Anna encounters the titular blue whale, who also has a request, asking her to free four cursed children and their animal guardians to restore harmony to the shattered world. Jacob is less than thrilled to have Anna's attention diverted, but she's adamant about undertaking both projects simultaneously, all the while faced with the same dilemma as the last time – whom should she trust, if anyone?
This sequel isn't very different in either style or gameplay from its entertaining and visually impressive predecessor. But it doesn't just ride on the coattails of success either, amplifying the experience with a more complicated storyline, a larger playing field with several subsections, a more shadowy adversary, double the number of hidden object screens, and an even more visually stunning backdrop. The temple has four large segments linked to the seasons, which must be completed in sequence. Each is laden with colorful and extravagant statues, domes, columns and stairways, along with a lot of intricate machinery. The elemental realms all have their own distinct flavour, from the blinding resplendence of Summer to the dark, icy core of Winter, a frozen land inhabited by cawing ravens. Background music is once again mainly an eerie background hum, though important events are built up through orchestral compositions, and the original voice cast returns to effectively reprise their roles.
Anna's quest is split into small objectives like repairing damaged sections of the temple and restoring water supply, electricity and heat to the dead world, most of which require items gathered along the way. Some of these are found in exquisitely drawn hidden object screens, which, though never repeated, are littered with completely random sundries like angel wings, razors and camels. Anna can now carry away multiple items per search, which is useful since she’ll typically need to collect full sets of items to proceed. The inventory quests are logical, and the most daunting challenge they pose is the extensive backtracking involved. Hotspots are clearly distinguishable from their surroundings and twinkle frequently to attract attention. Anna's journal records clues to puzzles, though the map is less useful than before, merely serving as a pointer to key locations here. Onscreen, however, completed areas are clearly indicated, which is still very helpful. Standalone puzzles cover common types like sliders, prism patterns, ring rotators and Pipes variations, most of which are quite easy. The worst repeat offenders are several image-flipping jigsaws and closeup-identification tasks that pose no challenge whatsoever.
Unlike in most Collector’s Editions, the bonus gameplay in Empress 2 is integrated right into the main game. Players can collect eight diary cartridges scattered around the temple, which combine to offer a glimpse into Pandora's disturbing past. The CE also opens up additional sections, including the treasury, which can be plundered via some unexpectedly tricky hidden object searching. But the most intriguing extra is Zem, a deceptively challenging and addictive gem-matching arcade game that has to be unlocked by solving inventory puzzles in the main adventure first. Even without the bonus content, Song of the Blue Whale provides a few hours of quality gaming that is superior to most of its casual peers due to the sheer sensory delight of its sights and sounds, plus its compelling mysteries and charming resolutions. Its tale is as generous as the canvas on which it unfolds, across a world replete with visual grandeur and embedded with a complex mythology that effortlessly blends centuries and dimensions, greed and generosity, loyalty from strangers and betrayals by friends. But if you’re up for a little change of pace, the precious little gem called Zem (which might just tide you over till the promised third part rolls out) makes this one of the rare Collector’s Editions worth investing in.
Dark Dimensions: City of Fog
Not only does Daily Magic’s Dark Dimensions: City of Fog closely follow the traditional recipe for hidden object hybrid adventures, it rarely veers from the successful storyline script either. In no particular order, we have the eerie deserted town: check… troubled ghosts needing our help: definitely… evil presence that must be driven away and the curse lifted: of course! Yes, you could probably call this game “Derivative Dimensions” and not be out of line, as you won’t find anything new here. But there’s a reason this formula keeps being revisited: it works. And it works here, too, as this game delivers a solid, lengthy casual experience that is sure to appeal to anyone who isn’t sick to death of the same old haunted town premise.
Paranormally gifted due to a childhood tragedy and drawn to supernatural phenomena, you find yourself alone in Silvertown, Maine, a town that simply disappeared almost a century ago, engulfed in fog. You will piece together the town’s troubled history through scattered notes and journals and the rare encounter with fully-voiced ghosts, but much of the background is revealed only through a stylish journal, the narrative taking a distant back seat to the gameplay. Fortunately, there’s lots and lots of gaming to be done – in Silvertown there are puzzles even covering keyholes! With the usual haphazard puzzle integration limiting your progress, you’ll need to explore such locales as the train station, surgeon’s office, and cemetery, collecting inventory as you go. Some are common tools like crowbars and knives, but more are gems or puzzle pieces required for the standalone tasks. Once you have all the pieces you need, you’ll solve Lights Out challenges, rotate tiles into set designs, and slide rows of colours into place, among others. A few activities are more organic, like developing a photo in a darkroom, and some require clues observed along the way, but few should pose too much difficulty.
What’s surprisingly challenging is simply finding active hotspots, making the hint feature handy at times, though it has an annoying tendency to highlight puzzles that can’t be solved yet. There are no difficulty options available, and while most interactive areas do sparkle, some do so either very sporadically or not at all, so you’ll need to keep a sharp eye open not only for items but for puzzle locations as well. You won’t mind doing so, as the subdued, often fog-shrouded graphics are nicely drawn, with the occasional macabre touches like a pig’s head in a bloody butcher shop, skull-lined shrines, or bats fluttering out of treetops. The hidden object scenes aren’t particularly full of clutter, which makes it easy to spot items, but often more is required. Roughly half the searches involve using one item on another about five or six times. In fact, it happens so frequently that objects are temporarily stored in the inventory, though they can only be used on that screen. This adds a significant “puzzle” element to the hunts, though some of the solutions are far from intuitive. The other half are straightforward item hunts, and really should have been left out, as they are typically repeats of the same locations and activated randomly without notice.
The excess filler does help pad out game length, as does the increasing amount of backtracking, so Dark Dimensions should take a solid four hours to get through. The Collector’s Edition adds nearly an hour of new gameplay on top of that, picking up precisely where the main game left off. While a decent enough expansion, the bonus chapter is a half-hearted attempt to rationalize the omni-present fog at the heart of the mystery, rather confusingly introducing underground lairs and sci-fi elements to its otherwise legitimately supernatural storyline. It also relies more extensively on hidden object searches, introducing just a handful of new locations and a few similar puzzles (and one blatant repeat). Regardless of the version, there is lots to keep you busy in this City of Fog, and so long as you don’t seek even a sparkle of creative new ideas, you should find a reliably good time lurking in Silvertown’s haze.
Escape from Thunder Island
Big Finish Games must have something against islands. After stranding players on Tantalus Island with a murderer, now they’re sending players right back into danger in Escape from Thunder Island. This time the threats are more organic, as a rescue mission to an uncharted tropical island leads to a death-defying effort to avoid fantastical animals, towering waterfalls, and spiked traps… all under the shadow of an angry, smoking volcano that looks ready to erupt at any time. Yet it’s all done in a very casual, tongue-in-cheek fashion that plays on the old dramatic B-movie serials, complete with narrated introductions of each new cheesily-titled chapter. It’s all very reminiscent of Amazon: Guardians of Eden, which isn’t surprising since Big Finish founder (and Tex Murphy creator) Chris Jones was behind both games. It’s too bad the rather mundane hidden object adventuring in between isn’t much to write home about this time around.
Playing as a young woman named Kate in search of her missing father, and accompanied by the real star of the show – an eye-patched monkey named Marbles – you must make your way through several different island locations both above and below ground, solving puzzles and finding key components along the way. Some of this is done through standard hidden object lists, which include one interactive item to construct and multiples of the same items to find. Some can be fairly challenging to spot, but the searches themselves are never repeated and only ever appear in your current location. The environments themselves are filled with items to find as well, most of them jigsaw tiles and coins. In each new area, you’ll have to collect and later assemble a set of tiles in order to proceed. Unfortunately, many of these are acquired by the exact same means, and you’ll grow tired of pulling out the same shovel, slingshot, and crowbar for the umpteenth time. It’s even more tedious sweeping every wall, floor, and ceiling in search of barely-distinguishable loose stones that might be concealing something behind it. Interactive items do not sparkle at all, and though there is a hint button to highlight them, often it simply points to the nearest exit and then recharges. There is no puzzle skip option either, which is unusual, but there aren’t many standalone puzzles and these can typically be solved by trial-and-error or basic observation, like aligning coloured gems in sequence, identifying a specific floor pattern, and even playing Simon. The jigsaws are the best of the lot, and can even be a bit tricky, with no image as a model and little colour variation to guide you.
Easily the best part of the game are the liberal cinematics, done in a very rudimentary dynamic cartoon style. They’re all fully voiced and display a cheerful sense of humour, often depicting Marbles saving the day and then getting no respect for his troubles. The cutscene art style is in sharp contrast to the realistic in-game graphics, which aren’t overly crisp but are nicely done, convincingly portraying the ancient civilization of a lost world. Its stone monuments, crumbling temples, and underground, lava-filled caverns are surrounded by lush jungles, ever under threatening, ash-filled skies and the dark spectre of the volcano. The music capably supports the action, blending a subtle background mix of tribal drums and tropical tunes with more haunting instruments and vocals to evoke the sense of wonder and mystery of exploring a strange new world. There are deadly enemies here, but they’re no real danger with Marbles on the case. Besides, they really only make their presence felt in cutscenes, leaving you to explore at leisure, which you’ll do for a solid three hours or so of game time. If you’ve also been collecting the requisite number of coins scattered throughout (and what self-respecting adventurer wouldn’t?), you’ll be treated to a short bonus video clip at game’s end that suggests there may be another adventure for Kate and Marbles in future. If that’s the case, it’s not unwelcome news, but let’s hope the next grand pursuit is a search for more diverse gameplay.
Hidden Mysteries: Notre Dame – Secrets of Paris
After taking us on casual tours of Buckingham Palace, Salem, and even the sinking Titanic, Gunnar Games and Game Mill Entertainment are back with another hidden object adventure, this time exploring the titular French landmark in Hidden Mysteries: Notre Dame – Secrets of Paris. Like its predecessors, this game is a very standard mix of light exploration, puzzle-solving and frequent object hunts, but beyond the notable historical setting on which it’s based, this game does very little to distinguish itself, with only the thinnest and most-implausible of storylines, a budget presentation, and plenty of filler just to pad out its meagre two-plus hours of gameplay.
When the 12th century cathedral is discovered vandalized and the “Crown of Thorns” stolen from its treasury display case, an unnamed young woman specializing in “eccentric investigative methods” is called in to solve the case over the course of one night. It turns out these special techniques include a willingness to further desecrate the sacred building and an ability to see ghosts, as what begins as a modest quest for stolen items takes an inexplicable turn for the surreal out of the blue. The entire game takes place in and around Notre Dame, but it isn’t nearly as exotic as it sounds, as the graphics are bland and simplistic, the scenery uninspiring. You’ll break into the nearby archeological crypt and catch glimpses of what I assume are accurately depicted statues and monuments, plus the huge organ pipes and even the famed church bells. That’s all good, but the vistas are underwhelming and often you’re exploring more mundane locations like hallways, attics, and bedrooms. There are no voiceovers from ghosts or humans alike, and really no music to speak of either, just a series of low, haunting tones to provide ambience.
You’ll gradually open up new locations as you go, but much of your visit will be spent on hidden object hunts. The searches themselves are rather easy, with clearly discernible (and often totally random) items in relatively uncluttered backgrounds, and they’re entertaining enough in their own right. Unfortunately, not only are the scenes repeated, but some of the items are as well. What’s worse is that the repeats are typically activated without warning, often far from where you’re currently positioned, resulting in a lot of aimless wandering or constant glances at the map, which doesn’t allow quick travel but at least shows the placement of current objectives. Most of your inventory will be acquired this way, and much of it is used simply to access the standalone puzzles. These include standard types like assembling jigsaw rows, swapping gems side-to-side, matching coloured edges, and piecing together a rosary tangram. Several require clues found elsewhere, like Roman numerals or partial crest diagrams, which are far more engaging. These clues are recorded in a journal, but absurdly, there’s no way to easily access them when you need them. I eventually just copied the notes by hand so I could see them at the same time as the puzzles that required them. None of these issues are deal-breakers, but nor is anything a deal-maker to counteract them. The latest “hidden mystery” certainly isn’t a bad game, but if this is the best Notre Dame has to offer, it might be time to consider a new travel agent.
Mystery Chronicles: Betrayals of Love
Lazy Turtle’s Mystery Chronicles: Betrayals of Love is a little bit too much like its subject matter for it own good. At first there’s a lot to love: you’ll arrive at a scenic turn-of-the-20th century Parisian manor with attractive, realistic-looking graphics and a reasonable blend of exploration, puzzles, and hidden object hunts to experience. There’s also a murder to solve, setting the stage for what could have been an intriguing Belle Époque-era whodunit. Alas, just when you’ve been lured in, the game betrays your trust and wastes its early potential with an increasing reliance on repetitive scavenger hunts, excessive backtracking, utterly random objectives and solutions, and the introduction of an ill-suited ghost element to pad out its still-brief play time.
As tragic love stories are wont to do, the mystery begins with so much promise. A Countess has been murdered, the Count is missing, and there are no legitimate suspects. A visiting detective called in to solve the case, you must explore the ritzy mansion and surrounding grounds to look for clues, from the stables to greenhouse to the private chapel and its cemetery. Naturally, many areas are closed off to you at first, so you’ll need to find keys, build ladders, clear debris, and solve puzzles to gain access to new locations. At first your progress feels fairly organic, gradually expanding your domain with items picked up along the way, but once you’ve unlocked most key locales, all pretense of logical progression is thrown out the window. New requirements (or worse, old requirements the game finally decides to address) suddenly become available in hidden object searches you’ve already cleared, secretly activated without your knowledge, often in the farthest conceivable spot. The constant traipsing to and fro seems intended solely to maximize game length, which wouldn’t be so bad if it were appropriately clued. But typically there’s nothing to indicate where you need to go next – a fact acknowledged by the “hint” system, which blatantly spells out your next location and goal. In the absence of any intuitive design, you’ll soon come to rely on hints to avoid an absurd amount of aimless wandering. The super-brief diary is no help at all.
Between the prolonged backtracking, the gameplay itself fares slightly better. Hidden object searches include straightforward lists of items, made reasonably difficult with a fair degree of clutter and a number of small objects. Inventory puzzles are basic enough, apart from an aggravating insistence on only one tool for each job when many others would serve just as well. Standalone puzzles are fairly few and far between, and consist largely of standard tropes: gears, jigsaws, ring rotations, and sliders of the most traditional kinds. There’s a short, fog-shrouded maze to easily navigate through, and one game board-style route-plotting puzzle which is rather fun, and a few combinations that require clues found elsewhere first, but there’s nothing here that will trip you up for long once the game decides to let you. Unfortunately, there’s no real mystery to solve, as you spend more time jumping through hoops than playing detective. There are a few voiceless people to “question”, but all the likes of the boatman and botanist ever do is profess their innocence. It’s not until a supernatural element is inexplicably added that a solution presents itself, as you’re never even required to identify the culprit. Even with all the padding, you’ll find out whodunit soon enough, as Betrayals of Love can be wrapped up in a little over two hours, assuming a liberal use of the “where do I go next” instructions. All told, it’s definitely one of the weaker releases on the list this month, so consider it only if you’ve been through the other, better casual releases first. Trust me. Would I lie to you?
Lost Chronicles: Fall of Caesar
Rome may not have been built in a day, but Lost Chronicles: Fall of Caesar shows some telltale signs of being rushed through production in too much of a hurry. Just a few short months after a historical excursion through Salem, now Vast Games and Nat Geo Games have joined forces once again to take players on another pseudo-edutainment journey. This time it’s even farther back to the first century BC, when the assassination of Julius Caesar by a group of rogue senators led by Marcus Brutus threw the burgeoning empire into political turmoil. As a unnamed protagonist arriving just after Caesar’s death, it is your job to track the conspirators through Rome, Greece, and even onto the battlefield in Philippi in pursuit of justice. You’ll even meet influential figures like Cassius, Cicero, and Marc Antony along the way, unlocking encyclopedic entries about each in the process. Exciting and informative, yes? Well, hold the fort.
Unfortunately, what starts with an intriguing premise soon gives way to a rather mundane series of fetch quests and item hunts that are ill-suited to the urgency of the situation. While the killers flee, you’re left to find food for hungry soldiers, armour for unprepared guards, flowers for grieving widows, and missing documents for inept scholars. That’s acceptable in a casual adventure if the gameplay makes up for it, but here there’s no such consolation. Hidden object searches are straightforward and easy, often taking less than a minute to blow through an entire list. Inventory puzzles are just as simple (which is good since there are no hints available as you explore the main environments) and the standalone puzzles generally aren’t much harder… when they work. You’ll encounter familiar challenges like swapping tiles and sliding rings into place, along with pouring precise amounts of wine, arranging non-repeating rows on a grid, aligning key bittings for a door lock, and even playing Minesweeper twice to determine battle strategies. The problem is, the “hint” feature is supposed to provide the basic instructions, but often it does little more than spew out coded gobbledygook. Even the puzzles themselves can be broken. One slider puzzle was all but impossible to solve, because the pieces simply wouldn’t move for no apparent reason. Thank goodness there’s a skip option. Too bad there’s no way to skip the glitches instead.
That’s a lot of criticism, but the news isn’t all bad. There is a nice selection of famed locations to visit, from the Theatre of Pompey to the Roman Assembly to the Parthenon in the Acropolis, with stops at a Greek university, the isle of Crete, and several lovely gardens along the way, even popping into the chamber of the gods to return some curiously-misplaced items to their rightful places on the sacred statues. The artwork isn’t particularly detailed and there’s very little animation, but it’s a solid hand-drawn representation of a historical era that’s instantly recognizable for its architecture and fashion. You’ll have the chance to talk with various people using a simple dialogue tree that’s colour-coded for pertinent and optional topics. None of these text-only conversations (complete with typos) are extensive, but they offer a mild attempt to offer some historical background, as does the voiced narration between chapters. The music is a decent blend of sweeping orchestrals and more relaxed strings, and while it does begin to get repetitive, at times it wisely gives way to purely ambient sounds. You won’t hear enough to get too tired of it in any case, as the game only takes two hours to finish, the results playing out somewhat differently than the history books describe. In the end, I’d like to call it short but sweet, but unless you simply can’t get enough of all-things-Rome, I recommend taking a pass, and leave the fallen Caesar where he fell. Et tu, Brute?
Emma and the Inventor
Tricky Software’s Emma and the Inventor could be considered the Casual Adventure for Dummies. Not because it’s for unintelligent people, though one certainly has to question the wisdom in shelling out full price for a game that takes less than 90 minutes to complete. You simply don’t need much intelligence to get though this simplistic, highly streamlined hidden object hybrid. Apart from one obscurely-clued puzzle, its garden variety “challenges” won’t pose any difficulty at all: solutions are always blatantly obvious and close at hand, you’ll never have to wander more than one or two rooms out of your way, and interactive areas of interest brightly sparkle with an unavoidable “hey, over here!” intensity. If that’s not enough, there’s an ever-present hint system available, but who needs that when even clicking hotspots occasionally gives you the answer. Sometimes easy is good, of course. We don’t always need to strain our brains to the max, but there just isn’t enough of even the most basic interactivity to engage you here.
The story begins with young Emma Jenkins arriving at her grandfather’s rural mansion just in time to see a huge explosion. Through various notes and improbable video transmissions, you’ll discover that dear ol’ grandpa’s latest and greatest invention went horribly wrong, warping him to an alternate dimension, and it’s up to you to bring him back. Sadly, this doesn’t mean travelling to other worlds to find him; instead, you get the privilege of exploring his house looking for torn-up schematics, machine parts, and fuel ingredients, plus a few useful inventory items to tide you over. He’s got a pretty interesting property, at least, with a study, greenhouse, observatory, a crypt underground and a pumpkin patch outside. There just isn’t that much to do in any of them, and your progress is strictly linear, with new objectives activating new areas and items as needed. You’ll assemble some simple jigsaws, enter a few easily-cracked codes, connect pipes, and play Simon (the real Simon!). The closest thing to thinking required is completing a Fibonacci number sequence, which is nevertheless solvable with even elementary school math.
Along the way are plenty of hidden object hunts, but even these won’t keep you busy for long. They’re never repeated and are often quite creative, though they don’t make a speck of logical sense: an aquarium morphs into an undersea vista, a mouse hole reveals a rodent circus, and paintings transport you to ancient Egypt, a storm-ravaged ship, and the moon. Not really – just for the purpose of scavenging a standard set of random items and then it’s back to business as usual. You’ll blow through them all anyway, as the scenes are quite sparse, making it easy to pick out items tucked into the pleasant but simple art style. It’s too bad they finish so quickly, as several have their own distinct tune to suit their setting, never to be heard again. There are other nice presentational touches as well, including voice acting from the two main characters, and a steampunk-tinged interface complete with fold-out screen magnifier and an animated “pick up” cursor in the shape of a grasping metal clasp. Such flourishes are largely wasted in a game of so little substance, however. When you finally (make that: quickly) complete the cleverly-named “Mysterious Machine”, Emma’s grandfather re-emerges to regale her with fantastic tales. But it’s an adventure we never get to hear, and certainly never experience. Our only reward is a “to be continued” promise and rolling credits. Maybe before the sequel, Grandpa Jenkins will invent a machine that merges both halves of this game into one price.
Note: Adventure Gamers is a Big Fish Games affiliate.