Was July officially recognized as “Hidden Object Adventure Month” and we just didn’t get the memo? Sweet criminy there were a lot of them! So many, in fact, that you’ll need a Table of Contents just to keep track of them all. And since you’ve got more than enough reading ahead of you already, let’s skip the preamble and get right down to this month’s smorgasboard of casual game offerings.
Page 1: Nightmare Realm, Sacra Terra: Angelic Night
by Merlina McGovern
What’s your worst nightmare? Losing a loved one? A child? In Nightmare Realm, a lite adventure by Lesta Games and Films, you’ll explore one mother’s nightmare as you enter a dream realm to help get her daughter back from the clutches of mysterious beings who have “extracted” her from reality. Although you may struggle with the nonsensical story, the engaging puzzles, interactive hidden object scenes, and some beautifully trippy graphics make this game a dream to play through.
The opening cutscene is a harbinger of the otherworldly goodness to come: An artistic still depicts a creepy, non-human finger scratching a long dark nail across a drawing of a car on a cliff. Art alters reality, and the scene ends in a devastating crash. After a harrowing family scene on the cliff’s edge resulting in a man’s death, the game resumes four year’s later as his wife is attempting to pick up the pieces with her daughter Emily and brother-in-law Peter. Emily is about to turn seven, but her birthday party is interrupted by a strange being called an “extractor,” who whisks Emily into one of the drawings decorating her room. You set out with Peter to get your daughter back and plunge into a realm of imagination and nightmares through the drawing, one of Emily’s crayon creations that document a vivid imagination. From this point on, you’ll travel through the realms set up by her other various drawings, attempting to bring life back to withered places, such as diverting water to a surreal desert wasteland or unfreezing a wintry landscape.
The artwork throughout is vivid and at times Dali-esque. A crooked stone path winds its way to a solitary door floating in air. You’ll climb a staircase of mushrooms to find yourself at the edge of an arid canyon dotted with desiccated topiary bushes perched on giant metal springs. These surreal images form the backdrop to a variety of inventory puzzles, logic challenges, and hidden object scenes. The inventory obstacles are not too challenging; clicking on locked doors that need something other than traditional keys usually gives you a hint as to what to look for, and seeking items to complete a potion is aided by a recipe. If you come across a mechanical device that is missing particular pieces, you’ll easily find clues how to fix it, either in your journal or by speaking with the various characters you meet.
The logic puzzles, which range from simple pattern-matching to jigsaws to rotating tile puzzles, are also quite easy, but are offered in abundance and are often beautifully designed. Completing a riddle by arranging tokens depicting all of Emily’s imaginary friends is a treat, as each token is beautifully painted and set in an elaborately carved star. You’ll also want to keep a close eye on the scenery, as frequently you’ll find numbers and other clues to puzzles scrawled into the environment. Hidden object scenes break from the ordinary by including sub-screen layers to search through up close. You’ll also have to move other objects around or combine them together in clever ways to find other objects (highlighted in yellow on the list). It’s a nice change of pace to have such variety in the hidden object scenes themselves.
Both within the hidden object areas and the main environments are clever animations that add depth as well as ramp up the creep factor. Emily’s photograph at home morphs into a creepy doll whose wide eyes ringed with dark lashes blink slowly at you. In an icy hidden object scene, glowing eyes fade in and out of an old tree hollow. The music is pleasant to listen to, with descending piano scales and a thumping, insistent background adding tension where appropriate. Although there is no voice acting, ambient sound is used to great effect as well; urgent knocking on the door in the middle of the night will make you anxious to open up and find out what the emergency is.
The game definitely has a dreamlike quality, as its descriptions are peppered with poetic lines and quotations from famous writers, such as Rilke’s “the only journey is the one within.” This reminds you of the fact that you’re exploring a fantastical realm rather than the mundane one. However, the storylines and themes don’t quite seem to mesh. You’ll meet witch doctors and mechanical contraptions, tesla machines and factory owners, and honestly, none of it seemed too nightmarish to me. I also found it very difficult to see what these characters had to do with Emily’s seven-year old imagination or exactly why her particular “extractor” needed to abduct her.
I much preferred the Collector’s Edition’s bonus play, which follows the trials of Peter, who quickly becomes separated from you in the dream world. In the substantial extra chapter, you’ll explore an entirely different realm, full of surreal desert landscapes with bone cages and claws reaching out from the sand. You’ll meet with a strange woman in a rickety house with its perpetually burning roof. This segment features a fair amount of additional gameplay, tying together its story in a much more succinct way than the main game, while also delving into Peter’s own character motivations and backstory. If you opt for the standard edition, however, you’ll still get about four hours of play time, and despite the fever-dream quality of the main game’s story, Nightmare Realm is anything but a nightmare to play.
Sacra Terra: Angelic Night
by Jack Allin
Normally it’s up to angels to duke it out with demons in the ethereal realm, but when demons make their way to our world, all bets are off. In Alawar’s Sacra Terra: Angelic Night, it’s up to you to destroy the escaped demons representing the seven deadly sins, then find fourteen runes to close the spiritual gate through which they entered. It’d all be in a night’s work if not for the fact that you’re a patient at a decrepit, depraved mental institution, being treated for an illness unknown. Luckily for you, there is an angel on your side, a recently-deceased young girl who knows the town’s wicked past, and will help you right the wrongs committed. She provides items and clues necessary to succeed, but most of the legwork you’ll be doing on your own, as there’s plenty of item scavenging and puzzle-solving to be done before the night is through.
Once free of the hospital, you’ll soon begin to flesh out the backstory that brought the town of Sacra Terra to its defiled state. It’s a rather nasty tale of familial strife, though it ultimately has very little impact on your objectives, which boil down to: find demons, kill demons. Making your way around won’t be easy, however, as demons thrive in darkness, and the town is – not surprisingly – devoid of power and light in many areas. You’ll also encounter inexplicably puzzle-locked doors and other environmental obstacles along the way, not to mention the small matter of finding ways to defeat the devil’s brood.
Much of this is accomplished through complex inventory machinations, whether it’s creating a succubus to lure the horned lust demon, trapping greed with deadly riches, or concocting a gaseous green potion of “evil wind” (ewww!) to destroy the monstrous demon of gluttony. There are always nearby clues to follow, though as many tasks involve several steps and the game doles out new items rather randomly, it’s often hard to know what to do next at any given time. The map feature, which highlights any areas with current interactions available, is the real godsend here.
Many of these interactions are hidden object searches, which can appear anywhere, anytime. Most scenes are repeated, but objects are not, and some can be difficult to find. That’s partly because only eight objects are displayed at a time, each replaced on the list as you find one, but it’s mainly due the tendency to depict certain items as pale shadows or drawings instead of real objects. Items are rather disappointingly arbitrary as well. Whether rummaging through a cathedral, cemetery, castle towers, or dungeons, I wouldn’t expect to find many pineapples, snowflakes, or Africa outlines. Each search includes one interactive item – some intuitive, some not – and yields one useful item when you’re done. Often these allow access to the logic puzzles, which are fairly standard and entirely contrived, but usually disguised nicely and suitably thematic. You’ll match symbol tokens with corresponding sins, align a ring of Cupid’s arrows, pair animals with geographic locations, and balance scales. Thankfully, the game is light on twiddleware, though you will need to contend with a few tile-swaps and sliders to proceed.
The action takes place all within a fairly limited radius, but there are many scenes to explore in that space, requiring a great deal of backtracking to traverse it all. Fortunately, the hand-drawn artwork is lovely to look at – in that eerie, dark, and ominous sort of way. Despite its demonic premise, this isn’t a horror game per se, but there are some welcome creepy touches, like a syringe sticking from a head-clamped teddy bear, blood-filled IV bags, and appropriately disturbing-looking (yet strangely passive) demons. Even the animation plays a part, as lightning often reveals a shadowy figure (which may give you a start even though it’s you), and there are many dynamic cutscenes sprinkled throughout. There’s no voice acting, unfortunately, and the soundtrack is fairly restrained, wisely opting to allow the ambient sounds of wind and thunder to set the mood for long stretches.
The main game is quite substantial, offering at least four hours of game time with a conclusion that wraps up the town’s crisis nicely, though shedding surprisingly little light on your own character’s predicament. The Collector’s Edition bonus is a prequel chapter that adds another hour of gameplay on top of that. Taking place two days earlier, the story fills in the events that immediately lead up to the main game, yet it offers little in the way of helpful enlightenment, feeling entirely tacked on and out of place. There are more hidden object scenes between new jigsaws, joint-arrangement, and book order puzzles, but unless an hour of gameplay is worth double the cost to you, the standard edition is probably the better investment. Whichever you choose, Sacra Terra: Angelic Night is another solid casual adventure from Alawar. It’s ultimately just another “haunted town” title, but if you’re tired of those, the demonic/angelic theme adds just enough of a twist to answer your prayers for something a little different.Continued on the next page...