December 26, 2009

Walkthrough: Trapped: The Abduction

Review: Trapped: The Abduction

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: none

playtime: 5 hours | difficulty: easy

developer: GOGii Games | publisher: Big Fish Games

links: Official site | Buy this game

Trapped: The Abduction
game brief: What was a regular day turned into a nightmare for a young woman who awakes locked in the back of a truck not knowing what happened, who she is, or what will happen next. What's worse is you are that woman, and it's up to you to crack puzzles, codes and escape traps laid out by this serial killer. Problem is, he is watching you all along and what seems like the exit might lead to another trap! (Official website)


Trapped: The Abduction is a hidden object adventure based on the capture of a young woman by a psychopathic killer, and her efforts to escape his sordid den of booby-trapped rooms, gruesome mannequins, blood-stained medical equipment and assorted filthy odds and ends.

the story:

The protagonist, Helene, is kidnapped and taken to an unknown location in the boot of a car on a dark, rainy night. She escapes from the car, only to find that she's trapped in a bizarre building with no apparent connection to the outside world. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of the worst kind as Helene tries to escape while her captor, a man in a black cloak, indulgently watches her on a bank of CCTV screens, taunting her on as she clears each macabre hurdle. From his words, its clear that she's not the first to be at the mercy of his crazed mind.

At the start, Helene cannot even remember her own name. Worse, when she was unconscious, the kidnapper removed some of her teeth and took an X-Ray of her head. But the game gets really creepy when Helene discovers a video tape - apparently made by her - that indicates that she's been locked in here for much longer than she'd thought, and that she'd tried to escape before... and obviously failed.

Sifting through methodically ruined rooms, Helene finds evidence of her mother having been trapped here as well, and personal memorabilia such a photo of her father. What had previously appeared to be a random crime now seems well planned, with a motive possibly even worse than perverse entertainment.

Helene's aim is to repair a car and escape, and if possible, collect evidence to explain the kidnapper's history and her capture. But getting past the seemingly endless chambers of horror is not easy, and her frustration and agitation often threatens to overwhelm her, for example, when she wishes she could smash him with a sledgehammer instead smashing a suitcase lock.

As a heroine, Helene is sophisticated yet sassy, often giving off a Rachel Green (wiki) vibe from the Friends series with her urbane voice and mannerisms. Her initial shock and outrage at being kidnapped quickly changes to horror as she explores the strange building, and eventually settles as a cold terror in the pit of the stomach as one disturbing fact after another tumbles out of grisly closets.

But Helene's no pushover, and her presence of mind truly wins you over as she rationally works through the puzzles with the gritty determination to escape... this time.


The game kicks off with an interactive tutorial that is self-explanatory and clear even for newbies to the genre.

The basic game-play encompasses two distinct activities. Each screen (room) starts with a general hidden object search. These random objects (such as a tombstone in the kitchen) are described by the kidnapper as part of his scheme to tease his captives.

Part two of each screen, the specific object search, involves items required for the inventory puzzles to escape the rooms. The screens have sparkling hotspots marking interactive areas, and an easy-to-use inventory lists and displays useful objects as Helene collects them. Some objects are found only by locating and using other objects, which increases game-play difficulty, though overall the game is quite intuitive.

The inventory puzzles require engineering various devises such as light systems, furnaces, elevators and televisions. The game-play does get a bit monotonous due to activities that offer little in terms of variety - turn power on / off, search for keys and doorknobs, plug in appliances, fix taps, and so on. But with 30 unique locations, Trapped is one of the rare HOGs that doesn't repeat screens, and this keeps the player riveted despite the slow middle segment.

Some rooms also have special items, which Helene collects and stores in her backpack - items that provide her clues to her own situation, a large number of parts for her getaway car, and some evidence leading back to the kidnapper for use by the authorities.

The developers have invested a lot of effort to balance the taut storyline with a game length that doesn't feel 'too short'. And they've succeeded - Trapped is a game that stays with the player long after the objects have been found and puzzles have been solved.

art & graphics:

The visual detailing of Trapped is top of the line. The art is crisp and professional, and the cliparts are well-blended into their surroundings without being obscure. A vast clipart repository keeps the game from being repetitive and familiar, another big deal. Grotesque body parts and mannequins, along with innumerable other unpleasant knick-knacks, create an atmosphere of death and decay even in the absence of in-your-face blood and gore.

The only drawback, due partly to the game's concept, is the drabness of the screens, which are primarily a dusty brown. This makes them blend into each other and eventually creates mild boredom. But that's a nitpick given the quality of art and the effort put into making each screen unique despite being similar.

The cutscenes are ordinary by comparison, and only serve the purpose of providing interludes between levels.

text, sound & music:

The music of Trapped plays a subtle but effective role in building the game's creepy ambiance, ranging from disturbing to urgent. The sound effects are situational - glass breaking, wires sparking, and so on. A few well-placed screams provide the guilty pleasure of cheap thrills.

Helene's city girl voiceover is well-suited to her persona, and adequately expresses the entire gamut of her emotions. The kidnapper's menacing growl / leery sweetness, though, is comic-book and overdone.

The script is average, and the kidnapper in particular has a very limited set of phrases. Conversation is kept to a minimum, just enough to move the story forward. The subtitles are well-synced with the voiceovers.


The story of Trapped is unusual and compelling. It hooks you in with its quiet menace and the disquieting awareness that it may as easily be reality. Helene's cold competence in the face of death elevates the game beyond puzzles, to the domain of a true psychological thriller. It's, simply put, like watching a movie.

A definite weakness is the slow middle portion of the game, which drags with similar, drab rooms and lack of distinct activity. This drains the game of the tension built up by the eerie storyline, and often makes it an exercise in tedium instead of an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

Things pick up towards the end, with Helene's backpack rapidly filling with evidence - only to end anti-climactically, without answers or closure, obviously setting the title up for a sequel.

Which isn't such a bad thing, in this case.

g@mrgrl rating: 3.5/5
Prosstory, Helene, 30 unique screens, art, detailing
Consdrab screens, repetitive activities, anti-climactic ending
Bugsa few typos - your instead of you're, too instead of to, etc.

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

December 24, 2009

Walkthrough: The Return Of Monte Cristo

Review: The Return Of Monte Cristo

game format: hidden object

puzzles: jigsaws, match two, pipes, gears, shapes, logicals, sliders

playtime: 3 hours | difficulty: easy

developer: Lazy Turtle Games | publisher: Big Fish Games

links: Official site | Buy this game | Strategy Guide

The Return Of Monte Cristo
game brief: Hero Edmond Dantes is on a quest to discover Mercedes’ killers, and bring them to justice, in The Return of Monte Cristo, a beautiful hidden object game. Explore gorgeous scenes as you piece together valuable clues and solve the murder. Travel to Paris while figuring out perplexing puzzles and experiencing an immersive plot, in this sequel to Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale. (Official website)


The Return of Monte Cristo is the sequel to the hidden object adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo, based on the novel by renowned French author Alexandre Dumas.

the story:

It's 1854, and the Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès, is settled in Spain. He receives a letter informing him that the investigation of his fiancee Mercédès' murder in 1814 has been closed without resolution. Unable to accept the conclusion, Dantès returns to Paris to solve the case himself.

A search of Mercédès' mansion leads Dantès to private investigator Louis Decart, hired by Mercédès, who suspected that her life was in danger. Decart tells Dantès to search for her diary to access possible leads.

While Dantès doesn't find the diary, he does find a page from it that mentions a ring with three snakes, and a gendarme, Rudy Villefort, who was spying on Mercédès. Following the lead to the Bastille, Dantès discovers evidence that Villefort was paid illegally for 'unsavory businesses'. The trail leads him to Manu Dangler's corrupt bank in Notre Dame, and from there to the abbey of the evil Father Jean, a friend of Dantès' arch enemies, the Mondegos.

The game follows Dantès' search for the murder weapon - a dagger - and other clues that eventually lead to the imprisonment of the guilty. There are no surprises in terms of a whodunit despite the absence of a backstory linking this game either to its predecessor or the original novel. The culprits are revealed during the course of Dantès' journey, and remain mere names and images without motives unless the player is already familiar with the story (wiki).

Thus, unfortunately, an extremely powerful story is reduced to an uninteresting sequence of events, and it's impossible to empathise with, or even relate to, tragic hero Dantès.


The story is broken up into broad chapters based on significant milestones of Dante's investigation. There are 20 unique locations, some visited more than once, all littered with objects that are generally unrelated to their settings - in nature, and position. The locations are standard - rooms, cemeteries, churches, cells - nothing that hasn't been seen many, many times before.

Objects to be searched are boring and irrelevant - wrenches and hammers and pineapples and safety pins and such. The same clipart is repeated screen after screen, and eventually, it's just tedious.

When scenes are revisited, previously located objects reappear in searches, making the game even more repetitive.

Some screens have 'interactive items' that are revealed using one or more onscreen objects with each other. The technology is in place, but few items integrate into the storyline, thus wasting the concept.

The game is interspersed with puzzles including jigsaws, mini-logicals, sliders, pipes, gears, and shape recognition. The difficulty veers from extremely easy (shape recognition, safe combination), to challenging (sun & moon grid, gem rotation). The puzzles are interesting and effectively break the monotony of the object searches.

In another positive, the game is short and the pace is crisp - Dantès doesn't waste either time or words. Interrogations and evidence discovery proceed logically, and bring the game to a satisfying conclusion in a procedural sense.

art & graphics:

The screens are average in design and graphics, compared to the quality on offer at the moment. The clipart is dull and uninspired, which is truly a regret because this game is about the objects, and had enormous potential given the period it's set in. The rudimentary animation fails to enhance the visual experience. The puzzles, in contrast, are well-designed and vibrant, as are the comic-book transition screens.

sound & music:

The sound effects are routine - crows cawing, bells clanging, clocks ticking, ghosts sighing, and so on. The music is suited to the morbid ambience, but is borderline annoying, and never rises beyond functional.


Though I hadn't played the original title, I started this game with a lot of expectation, because the story itself provides ample scope to make an in-depth, captivating game. I was disappointed with both, the cursory inclusion of the story, as well as the production quality. It's an ambitious project that seems hastily executed, and that's a pity.

Hopefully the developers will step up their game with their next offering!

g@mrgrl rating: 2/5
Prospuzzles, crisp pace, ideal length
Consclipart, music, wasted potential
Bugsno bugs noted

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

November 30, 2009

Tips & Tricks: Hotel Dash: Suite Success

30 points to simply Diner Dash: Suite Success for you (beyond the tutorials which explain basic game-play elements):


1. Since Flo takes time to go up and down the lift, combine activities for guests staying on the same floor.

2. It is critical to earn maximum chain bonuses. Easiest options are putting gift baskets in empty rooms, checking in multiple guests at one time and then giving them their cases, and collecting & depositing waste laundry after rooms have been vacated.

3. Actions can be queued, which helps plan Flo's movements.

4. On the downside, actions cannot be unqueued, and that wastes time / prevents course correction in case many actions are in queue. The queue will end once all tasks are done / some task cannot be done.

5. Flo stops and shakes her head in case there is a cued task that she cannot do, so check often that she hasn't stopped moving somewhere while queued tasks are executed.

6. Clowns make messes in the hallways - guests stop when they come to a mess, so clean up ASAP.

7. From Stark Suites onwards, once celebrities are introduced, it becomes most important to service them fast, since their bodyguards hold up other guests until their orders are completed.

8. Anticipate behaviour patterns to get 'faster service' bonuses; for example, the businesswomen and joggers always ask for towels after meals; the newlyweds, teenaged boys and celebrities ask for pillows after meals; celebrities and fat men order food twice.

9. Picking up laundry bags does not break chain bonuses for activities like serving meals or checking guests out. So try to keep rooms vacant by clearing laundry quickly. This will help serve incoming guests quicker. But note: depositing the laundry in the washer will break the chain.

10. If the hotel is closed, focus on serving the guests rather than cleaning the empty rooms.

11. Remember, throwing away items costs money, so try not to do that often - or at all. If Flo has something in her hand / cart that can be carried around without slowing down service, keep carrying it.


1. If a group is particularly annoyed, focus on earning their hearts back with consecutive 'fast services' for them.

2. Gift baskets should be added to empty rooms to earn more happiness (and tips) from the guests when they arrive.

3. From the Alpine Ski Lodge onwards, opt for the musician - he is good for soothing irate customers, though Flo must wait near him while he activates. But this time is worth spending as ALL waiting guests get more hearts once he plays.

4. Guests must already be in rooms to be placated by iced water.

5. The iced water dispenser has limited usage given that it is usually inconveniently located and cannot be served to guests waiting to be checked in, which is where the maximum delay happens. Upgrade to it after ALL other upgrades are through.

6. Dogs bark and irritate neighbouring guests. They have to be fed dogfood, kept on the table with the room service.

7. The sneaky woman switches the lights off only once per level.

8. Stark Suites, with its celebrities, businesswomen and businessmen is the most chaotic, with demanding and impatient customers all around.

9. The hotels lose $100 for every customer lost.

10. Don't panic! Even with the loss of a customer or two, there are still enough customers to achieve Expert easily enough on all levels.


1. Buy upgrades that add tips first - such as art, wallpaper and carpets - when there are fewer guests so less chance of them getting annoyed.

2. Buy patience-generating upgrades towards the later levels when the crowd builds up.

3. Flo's upgrades are expensive and need to be planned well - for example, she doesn't need to be very fast for the starting levels and hence at those times, the cheaper and more rewarding hotel upgrades should be done. The elevator, cart, mop and shoes upgrades need to be done in that order.

4. Guests who stay in 'star' rooms pay 'star bills' - currency used to fix up the special room. The more star bills, the more likely Flo is to furnish all available items for the room and earn the special bonus - so it pays to star up the rooms of the hotel as early as possible.

5. Add stars to the larger rooms first to maximise tips. Each star costs $750, so try and add at least one stars to each room at every level.

6. Even two stars on each room gives enough star bills to complete the VIP rooms within the 8th levels of each hotel.


1. The socialite with the multiple suitcases takes some getting used to - click the number of times as the suitcases to pick all up in the cart.

2. From the Alpine Ski Resort onwards, some guests also want a wake-up call - which can be a knock on the door or a call from the reception desk if Flo purchases the telephone upgrade.

3. Retrying a level for the first time adds the cash earned in the level originally to the bank.

Good Luck!

This is an original Tips & Tricks written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

November 28, 2009

Review: Hotel Dash: Suite Success

game format: time management | arcade

puzzles: none

playtime: 3 hours (Story Mode) | difficulty: easy

developer: Kef Sensei | publisher: Big Fish Games / Playfirst

links: Official site | Buy this game

Hotel Dash: Suite Success
game brief: When Quinn’s new travel business hits a snag, she needs Flo’s patented elbow grease to help renovate and run hotels all over DinerTown! Experience a Hotel Dash as you deliver guests' luggage, drop off room service and provide extra towels and blankets! Use your tips to decorate and restore each hotel back to its original charm in this fast-paced Time Management game!

review: Dash Heroine Flo returns, this time to help pal Quinn iron out the bumps in her fledgling travel planning business, in the aptly-titled Hotel Dash: Suite Success.

Quinn hits her first roadblock when she extends her services from travel booking to honeymoon planning for newlyweds Tony and Vicky. The couple wants to remain in town to be close to Tony's business, and Quinn books them into Dinertown Suites, little knowing that the place has gone to seed over the years. With only 10 days to go before the couple arrives, Quinn turns to Flo for help to restore - and exceed - Dinertown Suites' old glory, and to make Tony and Vicky's honeymoon a success.

Flo's quick service with a smile soon transforms Dinertown Suites into the most-wanted hotel in town. But wait, there's more... trouble. Margarita and her parents are shut out of their vacation lodge due to snow, and the girls rally to fix up the Alpine Ski Resort to ensure that their trip does not end in disaster. 10 days, and the Resort is ready...

...and so are Quinn and Flo, to move on to their next challenge, the Stark Executive Suites in the city. Pal Cassie needs to wow visiting investors - starting with their accommodation. The city is full of demanding clients: businesswomen, celebrities and socialites, which makes Stark the most challenging of the hotels restored by the duo.

With Stark converted into a buzzing business hub, Quinn and Flo change gears to rebuild holiday hotel Tiki Palace in time for Darla's parents' tropical getaway. Tiki moves along at a relaxed place, with generally patient tourists as its primary guests.

Which brings the dedicated duo to the final hotel on the makeover list, the crumbling, haunted gothic marvel Dunwich House! A truly spooky atmosphere and terrific theme music - not the mention the real ghosts it has as guests - make Dunwich the most interesting restoration project.

The game stays staunchly loyal to the Dash Family Values in terms of design, artwork and game-play. It starts with a quick tutorial, introducing core items and taking gamers through basic tasks. It's good enough to get going, and the rest is easily picked up once the game is afoot.

The concept is straightforward: guests arrive at the hotel and must be checked in, then provided with their luggage, room service, and sundry items like towels, pillows and kibble for their pets. Once the guests eat, hit the pool and/or the gym, and take a nap, Flo needs to check them out and put the laundry for cleaning. In between, she mops up spilled water and broken flower vases, dispels hauntings by naughty ghosts, clicks photos for the tourists, wakes up oversleeping and/or sleepwalking guests, puts welcome gift baskets in empty rooms, and investigates a girl in a green trenchcoat who appears to be sabotaging the hotels.

The guests look and act the same as earlier Dash patrons - cheerful girls, honeymooning couples, camera-crazy tourists, impatient businesswomen, clumsy clowns, annoying teenagers, sultry socialites loaded with luggage, celebrities with aggressive bodyguards, men with dogs, and men with beer guts. However, they are all noticeably calmer than they've been in past games, and the situation never really gets overwhelming. Guest losses due to irritation are few, and limited largely to the businesswomen, who are - understandibly - the crankiest.

As usual, the guests are coloured either blue, green, yellow or red, as are the rooms, and there are bonuses for matching the guest colour repeatedly to the room colour. Points are also earned for chaining activities and fast service. Customer hearts lost due to room allotment / service delays can be won back with quick service, a chilled glass of water, or, for those waiting in the lobby, some live music from the resident musician.

Various upgrades can be purchased with the profits to make the hotel more attractive (wallpapers, carpets, flooring, plants, artwork), improve services (reception phone, faster mops, quick filling water dispensers, more active musicians), and boost Flo's speed (quick shoes, larger carts, faster elevators). The upgrades are reasonably priced and can usually be acquired by the 5 - 6th levels of each hotel, making the later levels significantly easier.

Another upgrade is the addition of stars to the rooms - upto a maximum of 3 stars each. Guests staying in star rooms are happier and pay star bills, besides room rents and tips. These star bills are used to refurbish the themed VIP Suite of the hotel that is reserved for special guests. Decorations include deluxe flooring, wallpapers, rugs, curtains, candlestands and chandeliers, designer beds, desks and chairs, and even a waterfall!

Click to view The Honeymoon Special @ Dinertown / The VIP Suite @ Alpine Ski Lodge / The Executive Suite @ Stark / The VIP Suite @ Tiki Palace / The Haunted Room @ Dunwich House.

The 5 hotels have 10 levels each - a perfect length for the game, building up the challenge without letting ennui set in from spending too much time at one hotel. Since every hotel starts from scratch, the game-play keeps reverting to square one, so it's akin to playing 5 small games rather than a single 50-level game. No level is exceptionally challenging, and attaining Expert rank (with large margins) is simple throughout. Judicious purchase of stars for the rooms easily produces enough star bills to complete the VIP suites by the 8th level. While this reduces difficulty, it helps keep the game moving without frustrating the gamer.

Flo can win upto 8 medals for milestones reached - completing each hotel, completing the game, achieving expert rank for all levels, and completing all VIP suites with all available embellishments.

And for those who just cannot get enough of Hotel Dash: Suite Success, there is the Endless Mode, which provides additional arcade fun once the Story Mode is over.

Four and a half cheers for this spiffy, back-to-the-basics game!

g@mrgrl rating:
game-play, VIP rooms concept, 50 levels, Flo
too easy
no bugs noted

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

November 24, 2009

Tips & Tricks: Cake Shop 2

20 points to simplify Cake Shop 2 for you:

1. First, it's not a difficult or demanding game, even with 155 levels.

2. Tutorials take you through the production process of new products.

3. Right at the start of a level, keep all dispensers filled with one serving: soda, popcorn, candy floss, ice-cream, coffee, cappuccino (with a tall glass - see Point 9).

Note: Milk, juices and milkshakes all use the clear tall glass.

4. Refill all dispensers immediately after serving. A time-saving way of doing this is to pick up the same container (e.g. a popcorn tub) from the conveyor belt and take it to the dispenser (e.g. the popcorn machine, which already has a full tub sitting in it), and replace the full tub with the empty tub. This saves an additional move to the conveyor belt, and keeps you from forgetting to refill.

5. This logic does not entirely apply to the juicer as the fruits appear only when a customer asks for a juice. However, save time by keeping a juice glass sitting in the juicer so that once the fruit arrives, you only have to pop the fruit in.

6. In case you complete a juice order using one of the 'Fulfil Order' bonuses and have a full glass sitting in the juicer, make sure you place it on the display shelf to have one of the customers order it. Otherwise when the next juice order comes, this will be wasted (no monetary penalty, only time and effort wastage).

7. Keep the ice-cream dispensers loaded with cones, not tall glasses (used for making milkshakes). Milkshakes are ordered much more rarely than ice-cream cones.

8. In case you have a full cone sitting in an ice-cream dispenser and a customer wants a milkshake of the same flavour, don't throw away the cone. Pick up a tall glass and click to exchange it with the full cone. Wait till the glass has the ice-cream, then switch the cone back. Take the milkshake glass to the blender to complete the order.

9. Similarly for the cappuccino machine, which can serve both hot milk (tall glass) and cappuccino (full coffee cup). Milk is ordered more often than cappuccino so keep a tall glass sitting in the cappuccino machine. In case someone wants cappuccino instead, pick up the full coffee cup from the coffee machine, click to switch with the milk glass, wait till the cappuccino is ready, then switch the milk glass back.

10. In the equipment selection list, always select the blender last so the time-consuming activity of making milkshakes is done for the least levels possible. The cappuccino machine should be second last.

11. The cakes do not require the three layers to be selected in any particular order. Only three correct layers have to be chosen.

12. There is a 'cake of the day' put on the display shelf from Level 2 onwards. The first or second customer always orders this. Use the time saved to set up the dispensers before rush hour starts.

13. Customers aggressively order items put on the display shelf. This is relevant in three critical ways:

a) Putting up a ready item saves you time from making a fresh item, which means the customer is served sooner, which means more tips

b) Putting up more complex cakes (shaped, with toppings) brings in more money (otherwise customers usually order simple round cakes)

c) This significantly controls customer orders and helps you play more efficiently

14. Use the time delays between customers (more frequent than you'd expect) to build complicated cakes to put on display.

15. Since there is no overnight wastage i.e. no money is deducted for food / drinks that remain at the end of the day, or monetary penalties for throwing away wasted items, don't be afraid to keep dispensers filled and make as complex cakes as possible for display.

16. Getting gold levels require maximising tips and selling more complex cakes than the customers would order on their own.

17. Use the advantage of serving customers by right clicking the mouse button instead of dragging the item to them - it will save you time and make your mouse pad last longer.

18. Bonuses expire and cannot be accumulated, which removes strategic planning using bonuses.

19. Use the 'Quicker Machines' bonus to re-stock the dispensers and build complex cakes rather than serve customers (unless they're getting really upset).

20. It doesn't matter which part of the shop under construction you choose to build at any point of time. All parts must be eventually selected to complete the shop.

Good luck!

This is an original Tips & Tricks written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

November 21, 2009

Review: Cake Shop 2

game format: time management | arcade

puzzles: none

playtime: 8 hours | difficulty: easy

developer: Elefun Games | publisher: Big Fish Games

links: Official site | Buy this game

Cake Shop 2
game brief: Open up your very own roadside café, and earn money, while treating your customers to delicious fruitcakes with different fillings in Cake Shop 2! Purchase advanced culinary equipment and begin to build your confectionery corporation as your café grows! Quickly serve visitors and use unique upgrades to keep your clientele content, and coming back for more. (Official website)

review: First, the good news: Cake Shop 2 has a whopping 155 - yes, 155 - levels stuffed with cakes, shakes, colas, coffees, popcorn and candy floss - sweet, but definitely not short!

Now, the story. I haven't played Cake Shop, the original title, and so started fresh with blonde, blue-eyed heroine Emily. She takes time off from sunbathing at a resort to drop in at her friend Frederico's cafe for a chat and a coffee. Moments later, Frederico's grandma calls to inform him that she's getting married for the, uh, seventh time. Since he must be familiar with the drill by now, Frederico drops all work, including his cafe, into Emily's lap, and jets off to attend the big day.

But that's not the last we see of him. Once Emily starts slogging behind the counter, Frederico reappears, dressed nattily in a striped grey suit. Suddenly, he's the boss and she's the employee. He tasks her into building his beach shack cafe into a Cake Shop conglomerate spread across the city, all the while spewing inanities such as, 'I don't know how you did it!' and 'Even I couldn't do that!'. He (generously) allows her to keep the part of the money not spent in constructing new buildings and upgrading equipment as her salary, and sends her off to a well-earned vacation at the end. What about a partnership in the firm she built for you, bro?

Emily, unlike the feisty heroines of other time management games like Flo and Jill Evans, remains a static image on the level loader screen. It's Frederico's show all the way, and the gamer may have actually cared about the 'big picture' if he had been the protagonist. Building the Cake Shop empire is Frederico's dream, not Emily's. And thus, the story fails.

Which makes this game, well, just a game. So, coming to the game-play.

View screenshots: Level 1 / Level 2 / Level 3 / Level 4 / Level 5

Cake Shop 2 follows the conveyor belt format. The ingredients must be plucked off the carousel and used with various equipment, purchased between levels, to serve the customers. Besides cakes, the Shop also offers sodas (cola, orange, regular), ice-cream cones and shakes (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry), popcorn (salted, caramel), coffee (normal, black, cappuccino), juice (apple, grape, orange), candy floss, and hot milk.

The cakes are three-tiered - two layers of waffle sandwiching a layer of filling. The tiers appear separately on the belt and must be combined correctly to make the basic, round cake. Cakes may be shaped into squares, triangles or hearts, and may be topped with chocolate, peach or strawberry sauce. Ice-cream cones can also be topped with the sauces.

Equipment includes soda and ice-cream dispensers, a blender, a juicer, a coffee maker and a cappuccino machine, popcorn machines, a candy floss spinner, cake shapers and toppings taps.

With such a vast array of products, flavours and equipment, Cake Shop 2 boasts incredible game depth. Equipment choices determine the items offered and revenue. But more expensive, complicated items need more time to make, which means less tips, so a strategic balance has to be constantly maintained between cost and time.

Emily's efforts are supported by four types of bonuses. 'Patience' adds hearts to the customers; 'Time Freeze' switches the clock off for several precious seconds; 'Quicker Machines' make equipment produce items instantly; and 'Fulfil Order' completes part of an order, an entire order, or all pending orders at that moment. All bonuses can be upgraded thrice. Upgrading 'Patience', 'Time Freeze' and 'Quicker Machines' adds seconds to their time limits. 'Fulfil Order' upgrades in service range.

However, the bonuses expire within seconds, and it's difficult to use them to any serious strategic advantage. For example, the gamer doesn't have much control over using 'Quicker Machines' if the bonus is expiring and the customers are only ordering basic, round cakes. Or the 'Patience' bonus appearing when there are no customers around.

Customer types are few and remain constant irrespective of the shops' locations. Buyers include a cop, a tennis player, a young girl with a balloon, a businessman, a tourist, and a blonde hottie who looks, waves, walks and talks on the cellphone just like Paris Hilton.

Profits are used to construct new shops - there are four (Beach Cafe, Park Cafe, Business Cafe and Central Cafe), plus an office. Construction proceeds parallel to the game, but selecting which portion to build is perfunctory - all portions have to be purchased to move to the next shop. Same goes for equipment upgrades, though in this case, buying intelligently helps save time during the initial levels. A drawback to planning equipment purchase is that product prices are not mentioned - for example, is coffee more profitable than popcorn? However, this oversight is rendered irrelevant as goals are easily achievable and profits are much higher than expenses, so there is no money crunch (I finished the game with $46,000 AFTER all expenditures).

A few game design elements make Cake Shop 2 more efficient than its peers: customers can be served by clicking the right mouse button on the item rather than have to drag it to them; there is also no 'overnight wastage' - money deducted on leftover items when the shop closes, nor any penalties for discarding useless items except the time lost in handling them. Customers aggressively buy items on the display shelf, and putting up more expensive items for show pays off handsomely in managing time and effort and controlling customer flow, directly resulting in greater profits. On the downside, serving customers a part of their order does not improve their mood, so there is no way to cheer them up unless the 'Patience' bonus comes up.

For all its game-play strengths, Cake Shop 2 has sub-par production quality by today's standards. The stylised art sequences are dull, Frederico and his assistants' lip movements are disconcerting, and the customers walk like zombies on skates. However, the equipment animation is good, and well-complimented by the sound effects.

That brings up the music, which is possibly the worst part of the game. The severely limited selection comprises a couple of basic sound loops and a jarring jazz-like piece. This is one of the very few games in recent times that I played with the music muted.

The text is rudimentary and suffers from poor grammar and spelling errors, possibly due to translation into English from its original language.

While having so many levels prolongs playing hours, unfortunately, more than half the game is painfully sluggish. Customers appear sparingly, and huge chunks of time lie unutilised. The action picks up in the second half but only slightly; it's easy to get the gold star on every level till the last. In that, the game is often boring, if not downright tiresome.

Cake Shop 2 is ambitious both in length and depth, but the two elements never blend together effectively enough to provide the adrenalin rush of racing against time while juggling multiple challenges. Nor does it create any sense of achievement once it is over, only a bit of relief.

g@mrgrl rating: 2.5/5
game design, numerous items and equipment, 155 levels
graphics, music, too easy, boring
no bugs noted

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

November 7, 2009

Walkthrough: Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy

Review: Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: hidden objects | inventory | jigsaws | logicals | misc

playtime: 8 hours | difficulty: easy

developer: MumboJumbo | publisher: Big Fish Games

links: Official site | Buy this game

Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy
game brief: A 160-year-old mystery, 30 ghosts from the past, and only 24 hours to piece all of the clues together! Who killed Edgar? Was it the publisher? His fiancée's brothers? Or could it be that Poe knew too many secrets about the wealthy storeowner? In this chilling tale of the mysterious and untimely death of Edgar Allan Poe, you'll take a shadowy journey to try to solve the mystery of his death. (Official website)

review: Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), an American writer, poet and literary critic, is most famous for his tales of mystery, horror, crime and romance. Ironically, Poe’s own life-story (Wikipedia) reads much like one of his novels, and his mysterious death, unexplained to this day, forms the basis of the hidden object adventure, Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allen Poe Conspiracy.

Casual games rarely aspire to elaborate storylines. So to see developers MumboJumbo tackle a story as complicated and controversial as what really happened to Poe that fateful election night in Baltimore initially feels over-ambitious.

The game starts in 2009 in Poe’s study. A raven (popularly considered Poe’s mascot based on his poem, ‘The Raven’) leads the player to the chained ghost of Poe, who must be set free by solving the 160-year old case of his murder. To do so, the player must use Poe’s watch to travel back in time, and unravel seemingly unrelated mysteries that eventually lead to the truth of his demise.

From the Westminster Cemetery at Baltimore where Poe is buried, the player time-travels to 19th century Paris, solving the murder of perfume store employee, Marie Roget, and then to New York, solving a second, startlingly similar murder, that of cigar store girl Mary Rogers. This segment is based on Poe’s tale, ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’, but certain characters are taken out of the story and set into the ‘real’ scenario of Poe’s life – and death.

From New York, the player, at Poe’s behest, travels to Sullivan's Island in South Carolina to recover pirate Captain Kidd’s treasure. Based on another famous Poe story, ‘The Gold-Bug’, this segment is short, and feels irrelevant until the very end, when it reveals the modus operandi of Poe’s murder.

Using a train ticket found on Sullivan's Island as a lead, the player then travels to Baltimore, retracing the events that led to an injured Poe being found, dressed in a stranger’s clothes, in a lane beside Gunner’s Hall on the night of the elections. Poe is taken to the hospital, where he dies, but the investigation soon exposes the real culprits and their motives. Finally, poetic justice is served, along the lines of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Masque of Red Death’. Poe is free of his chains once more, and the player is richer by about $15 million, part of the pirate treasure.

The game has a conceptual time limit of 24 hours for the resolution of the mystery; however this does not translate into any game-play component. The hidden object hunts are not timed either.

The screens are neat and attractive, and some, like Poe’s grave at Westminster, are drawn in realistic detail. Animation is sparse and average by today’s standards. The object cliparts are ordinary, but relevant to the era and scenario they are set in. Some of the hidden objects are present on-screen, while the rest must by ‘exposed’ by using objects that have already been located and stored in a toolbox. Extra ravens can be collected to serve as hints, but given the uncluttered screens, few are essential.

A few brainteasers - match items, jigsaws and logical puzzles - are scattered through the game; none are unduly complex, and all are aligned with the plot.

The other high point of the game, besides the story, is its music. Composed mainly of piano and violins, the scores are haunting and melancholy, and occasionally, scary. They effortlessly build ambience, and along with spooky sound effects, add significantly to the experience.

The research is remarkably in-depth. The story integrates Poe’s real life and literary works seamlessly into a tight new adventure. Well-known protagonists, both real (physician Dr. Moran, literary rival Rufus Griswold, fiancée Elmira Royster, politician Boss Tweed) and fictitious (Inspector Dupin, William Legrand) populate the narrative.

Several peculiar events related to Poe find place in the game – the legend of ‘The Toaster’ who leaves a bottle of cognac and three red roses on Poe’s grave on his birth anniversary every year; Poe’s efforts to secure funding for his journal ‘The Stylus’; the fact that he is said to have repeatedly called out the name ‘Reynolds’ before he died; and rumours that he may have been a victim of ‘cooping’ - illegal confine-ment linked to election fraud, depicted in the film, ‘The Death of Poe’.

Multiple reference points blur the lines between reality and fiction, and create an alternate universe that is an amalgamation of both. This is both good and bad – it gives the plot tremendous depth, but also leads to massive confusion of names, places and events for the average gamer who’s just not that into Poe. It often feels like much is going on that doesn’t link to anything that came before; this sort of head-scratching can turn off casual gamers who are consciously looking to take it easy.

On the other hand, the game can intrigue players, like it did me, to retrospectively delve more into the baffling history. I was fascinated by the effort of the developers to write the story using inputs from numerous, often contradictory, sources, close all loopholes, and take it to a conclusion that is lucid and satisfying. On cross-referencing Wikipedia and the game, many of the finer nuances became relevant, creating some ‘ah’ moments; it also set me wondering how much more I’d have enjoyed the game if I truly knew Poe’s life and works in depth.

Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allen Poe Conspiracy is a fitting tribute to one of the world’s greatest writers on his 200th birth anniversary. Highly recommended for those looking for a robust story in a casual game.

g@mrgrl rating: 3.5/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

September 27, 2009

Review: Nancy Drew: Resorting To Danger

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: hidden objects | inventory | arcade | jigsaws | numericals | logicals | object matches | misc

playtime: 15 hours | difficulty: moderate

developer / publisher: Her Interactive

links: Official site  |  Buy this game  |  Strategy Guide

Nancy Drew: Resorting To Danger
game brief: You, as Nancy Drew, must stop a bomber from ruining the Redondo Spa clients’ rejuvenation and relaxation. The high maintenance clients won’t be happy if they find that their retreat is about to explode, even if the bombs are more prankster gross-outs than dangerous. From celebrities who escape here to the receptionist at the front desk — everyone is a suspect! Who is sabotaging the spa and can Nancy catch the culprit before the spa loses all of its clients? (Official website)

review: And the culprit is... Mr. Mingles! No, seriously.

But let’s not jump the gun... or the bomb, as is the case this time. The latest Nancy Drew game by Her Interactive starts with a bomb blast at the posh Redondo Centre for Rehabilitation in Northern California, one in a series of many that has Manager Nick Bleski worried even as he assures his privileged guests that the blasts are ‘construction accidents’. Teen sleuth Nancy is requested to investigate, and she promptly visits the Centre, armed with her formidable skills and a bomb-detecting device built by her gal-pal George Fayne, which is expected to ‘almost certainly work’.

She is met by Cassidy Jones, the hoity-toity receptionist at the Centre, who starts the tutorial that demonstrates the various aspects of the game. The instructions are clear, easy to understand and remember, and get the story going while showing the ropes.

Nancy goes undercover as a General Assistant, and must do various tasks ordered by the Centre’s visitors and employees in addition to her detective work. Her dual role, combined with the out-of-control antics of pampered pooch Mr. Mingles, easily takes the game to an averagely-challenging but thoroughly-entertaining 15+ hours of hidden object hunts, jigsaws, arcade puzzles, mini-quizzes and a step-by-step unravelling of the whodunit.

The screens - the rooms and garden of the Centre - are drawn in comic book style: 2-D, vibrant and detailed. The hidden objects are all relevant to the case, often forming parts of inventory puzzles, and appear in multiple layers i.e. at different times of the game serving different purposes. The arcade puzzles – which have detailed tutorials and increase in difficulty / complexity as the game progresses, cover jumbled words, match twos / threes, pipes-based alignment games and a seemingly girly but deceptively tricky game where Nancy has to give ‘facials’ to the residents of the Centre. Chats with characters and navigating the Centre require Nancy to answer questions that test her grasp of the case. There are some logical puzzles as well, including an interesting one involving a Chinese carving and matching marbles, and a long, complex and slightly vague romp around the garden hedge maze fixing the statues of Greek gods, goddesses and philosophers that may require one or two peeks at Google or Wikipedia.

The characters, represented as toons, have distinct personality quirks and expressions, and add considerable charm to the game. Besides uber-professional Bleski and dandy Cassidy, there is super-rich, super-neurotic Mrs. Montague, the owner of Mr. Mingles; silky-voiced, breezy diva Jasmine Ivy; frustrated and blustering biochemist Helfdan Helgason; and the creepy janitor Joanna Brown. Each of them has secrets and agendas and is a suspect at some or all points of the game. In fact, the game is designed to have six different endings depending on how it's played – yes, that’s right! Besides adding replay value, this fact also stands testament to the tight storytelling that is the hallmark of the Nancy Drew games.

The game has many tools to aid Nancy’s quest, such as a journal detailing the chapters, a hints system and in-game clues and descriptions that nudge the player towards the solution. A points system called the Krolmeister Sleutho-Meter leads to detective rankings starting from Amateur and ending at Ultimate Private Eye, achieving which rewards the player with the ‘Special Credits’. As a bonus, the arcade puzzles appear as stand-alone games along with the main adventure.

Her Interactive steps away from long-format adventures to the currently popular casual-HOG-adventure format for this title, part of the ‘Nancy Drew Dossier’ series. This makes the game easier and linear, with one screen leading to another, and nothing to be ‘deduced’ as such. Players used to the demanding long adventures may find this a bit of a walkover, and may even be mildly turned off by the arcade puzzles that cannot be skipped (but can be attempted over and over again).

But by retaining the features that set these games apart from run-of-the-mill offerings - a robust storyline, perfect voiceovers (the same team that does the long-format games), music that is suitably moody and urgent, and extreme and intelligent attention to detail – Her Interactive makes this game a must-play for existing fans, and will certainly entice a new set of fans, who may be intimated by ‘serious adventures’, to be part of Nancy's cases and enjoy the talent and charisma that has enthralled many generations of mystery buffs.

And as they say, the more the merrier!

g@mrgrl rating: 5/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

September 3, 2009

Review: Cake Mania: Main Street

game format: time management | arcade

puzzles: none

playtime: 5 hours | difficulty: easy

developer / publisher: Sandlot Games

links: Official site  |  Buy this game

Cake Mania: Main Street
game brief: Take a trip back to Jill Evans'™ hometown of Bakersfield in Cake Mania Main Street™, the highly anticipated fourth chapter in one of the most popular time management series of all-time! Help Jill and her closest friends earn enough money to revitalize Main Street by opening, managing, and upgrading four unique downtown shops and building must-see tourist attractions. (Official website)

review: Cake Mania returns with its fourth instalment – Main Street, bringing back Jill Evans, who makes the best cakes in the universe, her husband Jack, and her friends Risha, the city girl, and Tiny, the ex-sumo wrestler.

As usual, an upstart mall, Baker’s Corner, has run out the quaint mom-and-pop shops from Bakersfield’s Main Street, which leads to the setup of Operation OSDBFRBRMSATAWSSCFBC - umm, yes. That’s “Operation Save Downtown Bakersfield From Ruin By Revitalising Main Street and Attracting Tourists, All While Secretly Stealing Customers From Baker’s Corner”, which sums up the aim of the game.

So, getting on with that noble mission, we start with the Grand Reopening of the Evans Bakery. The game format remains the same - Jill serving her clients with cakes, frostings and toppings. She takes orders by phone too, though each level rarely logs more than one call.

But thereafter the game breaks away from the confines of its name, and allows the player to purchase, upgrade and run three more types of shops: Jack’s Burger Barn, Risha’s Flower Shop and Sumo’s Sushi. Each shop has 25 levels, adding up to a 100 crazy levels of running around baking cakes, making burgers, selling bouquets and wrapping sushi. This is as good as offers get – four for the price of one!

The Flower Shop follows the same format as the Bakery, replacing cakes with bouquets loaded with wrappings, ribbons and knick-knacks. Burger Barn and Sumo’s Sushi have a different format – the player is ‘behind the table’ making the dishes, similar to 2007's Burger Island.

A map of Bakersfield shows the position and condition of the shops, the town’s attractions, and the number of tourists. Each shop has a daily income, which accumulates to allow purchase of shop improvements, which in turn increases its daily income. Half of all daily earnings from the shops go to the town, which is used to build attractions like the Bakersfield Arch, the Giant Ferris Wheel-O-Fun and fountains and statues for the benefit of tourists (and of course, the town). Trophies are awarded for completing various milestones of the game.

After each successful level, the Bakery and Flower Shop allow purchase and resale of equipment and upgrades. The Burger Barn and Sumo’s Sushi allow purchase of new recipes (a vast collection) and two items, both for pacifying customers.

The clientele ranges from aliens to vampires to pirates and sundry corny types, including a spaced-out hippy who wants tacos but can be sold, well, ANYTHING. Some clients affect other clients either to the gamers’ advantage or against – Super-Matt freezes his neighbours, ninjas black them out, mafia-man steals money, vampires turn others into vampires, and an arrogant chef turns patrons into hot dogs, changing their orders, often leading to massive wastage, and consequently, negative marking. It’s not really a bad thing - it makes an otherwise standard game unpredictable and challenging.

A big annoyance for me was that Jill and Risha carry only one item at a time, which resulted in a LOT of walking back and forth, reducing productivity, tiring the eyes, and being boring in general. Burger Barn and Sumo’s Sushi are super-efficient though: there’s no unnecessary movement, wrong ingredients cannot be added and fried things don’t get burned, so there’s zero wastage.

Cake Mania starts each shop segment with tutorials that are simple to grasp even for first-timers either to the series, or the genre. The game is easy too: 99 levels took me only one attempt to reach the goal, and never more than 2 – 3 attempts to reach Superstar for the (surprisingly few) demanding levels. Level 24 of Sumo’s Sushi remained unconquered: despite 10 retries, I failed to get past 1700-odd versus a Superstar target of 2000. But overall, it’s fun without frustration, and full marks for keeping it that way.

The art is average: the comic book format is common, the intro screens are gaudy, and the actual game screens have nothing new to offer. The music is average too; mostly up-tempo beats thumping up the urgency, except for the cringe-inducing electronica-oriental theme of Sumo’s Sushi. The game has many voice-overs, and while stereotypical, these did make the intro segments more interesting.

One thing that grated on my nerves – and this seems to be a trend across time management games nowadays – is the ‘big is bad and hostile, small is sweet and all heart’ message that kept getting pounded across. Maybe because I’m a city girl through-and-through, never having lived in a small town, I disagree with this regressive anti-mall, anti-retail chain, anti-multiplex, anti-big hotel, anti-organised sector philosophy.

While I’m sure market research supports following through with this theme again and again, I find it alarming that gamers today, especially girls who are a key audience, are in favour of this in-your-face back to the basics propaganda, which, frankly, is in complete contradiction to the reality. Jill is ambitious enough to take on a large shopping mall and beat it to the ground. She buys shops and entertainment venues across town, builds her own statue as a tourist attraction, rakes in the moolah selling new and improved items from level to level, and yet remains aggressively derisive of the very quality she displays in achieving her goal – sheer business acumen that identifies and capitalises on money-making opportunities. Is there really any difference between the ultimate aim of a mom-and-pop shop and the biggest retail chains?

The game tries to get us familiar with Jill’s friends too. Jack is sweet and affectionate but daft. Risha is smart and no-nonsense, and brings most of the humour to the game with her snarky remarks.

Tiny’s saga is tragic and bizarre in equal parts – an Octozilla (mutant octopus) drowned his village and he was forced to become a sumo wrestler to make ends meet, and then he defeated someone, who is now hunting him down via ninjas. All this has unfortunately but expectedly scrambled his brains and he now revels in romantic matches between shrimps and crabs and squids, all the while nursing a deathly fear of fugu (wikipedia), a dish made from the poisonous pufferfish.

Then there’s this unnecessary track of Jill’s hinted-at pregnancy, covering the entire gamut of side-effects from morning sickness to mood swings to craving for strange foods. Unnecessary, because till the end she displays no baby-bump, Jack remains absurdly clueless, and there is no update on the situation in the final wrap-up. I suppose we’ll see in Episode 5.

I was honestly disappointed that Cake Mania: Main Street did not endeavour to break any new ground in terms of game-play or storylines or production values, given that it’s one of the leaders of the genre and hence lends itself to big expectations. It’s a quick, formula package – a product of the suited-up retail business the game ironically keeps bashing, and lacks the much-touted heart.

PS: Cake Mobile offers the option to play the game on the cell-phone, taking a step forward in techno-terms, but I remain old-school for now.

g@mrgrl rating: 3/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

September 1, 2009

Review: Treasure Seekers II: The Enchanted Canvases

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: hidden objects | inventory | jigsaws | numericals | logicals | mouse control | object matches | misc

playtime: 15 - 20 hours without walkthrough | difficulty: challenging

publisher: Bigfish Games | developer: Artogon Games

links: Buy this game!  |  Strategy Guide

Treasure Seekers II: The Enchanted Canvases
game brief: Help Nelly find and save her brother from a mysterious Romanian castle! Dive into the castle’s magical pictures and discover the secrets of the Philosophers’ Stone. (Official website)

review: Calling this game ‘casual’ or even a ‘hidden object game’ borders on criminal understatement; it is by far the most activity-packed, logically-sound, graphically brilliant game I’ve played in this genre. TSII blows away the competition of the formula HOG-adventures flooding the market, romping home with a 5/5 for: solid storylines from start to end, overall and chapter-wise; complete relevancy of hidden items to their situations; puzzles that are diverse in both design and difficulty and yet tightly integrated with the story; extremely-detailed, spectacular screens and special effects; and smooth, bug-free, typo-free development.

It is the longest game I’ve played in this genre: given that the game is super-intuitive and each task / puzzle leads directly to the next, it still offers 15-20 hours of pure game-play that constantly challenges. There are literally hundreds of things to do, and amazingly, none of it involves bleary-eyed screen-gazing for staplers in ancient Egypt.

The game is a sequel to Treasure Seekers – Visions of Gold, which I’ve unfortunately not played yet. This edition starts when young adventurer Nelly gets a letter from her brother Tom, asking her to join him at Totenkraft Castle to discover the Philosopher’s Stone, the coveted elixir of life. Nelly takes the next train to the Romanian castle, but Tom is missing by the time she reaches, and she is confronted by a wall with mysterious, enchanted paintings instead.

Thereafter Nelly must explore the 6 paintings, each of which is a gateway to locations ranging from desolate fishing villages to magical castles and dangerous forests. There, she has to save various unfortunate entities – ghosts, werewolves and genies - to discover Tom’s fate, and possibly, the Stone.

The game is primarily hidden object retrieval, but it stays firmly away from the laundry lists of generic clipart that ail this genre. Each screen packs several quest items which are activated at different times as parts of different tasks. The items are intelligently integrated into the screens – relevant, yet distinct. The screens aren’t flat backgrounds - they have ‘depth’ and changes to items and scenario elements persist, and often aid, following tasks. This superior level of interactivity elevates the game from being a HOG to being, well, an adventure game.

Nelly’s journey is interspersed with mini-games covering virtually every type of puzzle from jigsaws to match-objects/patterns to logical/spatial/numerical exercises. These blend well into the storyline – a pipe game to fix a jammed water wheel, for example, or catching fireflies that had once been just ‘beautiful scenery’. There is a fair amount of simple inventory action spanning multiple screens. The game provides a broad Task List which helps in case the next to-do is unclear.

There are two game-play modes – Casual and Advanced. The Casual mode has ‘Hint’ and ‘Skip Puzzle’ charging faster, and quicker illumination of the next collectable item (not sure what this means, the game says so). The Advanced mode is for expert players.

Playing Advanced, I used Hint only thrice, each time because I was in a rush, not because anything was unclear. Skip Puzzle in Advanced takes a couple of minutes to load, so it’s not a drag; there’s no point playing this game unless one intends to spend a minute or two trying to solve a puzzle. I finished most puzzles in under two minutes, and had no need to skip any even without external walkthroughs.

The art is fantastic. Each segment starts with a well-drawn mini-movie. The 50-odd unique screens each have subtle, realistic effects like creeping insects, fluttering candlelight, drizzling water, swaying leaves, etc. And then there are the spectacular special effects, like the lighting of the Hell’s Eye magnifying glass, the swaying of the ship en-route to the Storm Temple, the release of the ghost from Vampire Castle, and the revelation of each of the five gems in the last level, to name a few. And let’s not forget the day / night concept in the Vampire Woods: novel, yet tightly worked into the story.

The music and sound effects support the art perfectly, building ambience without jarring, and have their own subtle moments, like the vampire’s retro mood music and the seriously creepy, mad banging of the hold in the fisherman’s hut, revealing... well, open to find out!

Nelly as a heroine is intelligent and considerate, and firm with her antsy supporting cast. Tom has little to contribute, and hopefully we’ll see more of him in the next part. Speaking of which, I cannot wait!

PS: A shoutout to the Artogon dev team for the cute Easter Egg of their smiley-logo revealed by the Hell’s Eye in the morbid rustic church – it was definitely the ‘awww’ moment of this cool, cool game.

g@mrgrl rating: 5/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

August 14, 2009

Walkthrough: Youda Legend: The Curse of the Amsterdam Diamond

Review: Youda Legend: The Curse of the Amsterdam Diamond

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: hidden objects | jigsaws | swaps | sliders | easy numericals | mouse control | object matches | misc

playtime: 2.5 hours without walkthrough | difficulty: easy

publisher: Bigfish Games | developer: Youda Games

links: Official site  |  Buy this game!  |  Strategy Guide

Youda Legend: Curse of the Amsterdam Diamondgame brief: The dark influence of an old curse still taunts the beautiful city of Amsterdam. Puzzling through old city mysteries and searching for clues, you might be on the biggest quest you have ever experienced. (Official website)

review: The story - the search for a cursed diamond - starts in Amsterdam’s Central Station, based on clues left by a stranger known only as W.v.d.D. The quest takes the player across the historic city, covering famous landmarks such as the Carre Theatre, the Maritime Museum, the Flower Market and the Rijksmuseum, as well as some unknown places such as an old organ repair shop, a simply titled ‘creepy place’, and underground canals and libraries.

The screens are excellently-drawn, with tasteful colours depicting various locations of Amsterdam, and are a pleasure to discover from level to level. However, the hidden objects remain at clipart level and are not relevant to the scenes except for the puzzle items. Very few HOG developers take the trouble to actually integrate the objects with the era / scene they are in, and this game also disappoints from that perspective – unfortunate, given the rest of the artwork and the overall superb production quality. On the good side, the objects are generally very easy to find and don’t require endless squinting at the screen and adjusting brightness / contrast / gamma / resolution / etc.

Besides locating hidden objects, which is the primary game format, the player has to do an entire gamut of puzzles, from jigsaws to sorting items, matching shapes and designs, drag-and-drop, sliders, swaps, and a few coordination pieces, where moving one part moves other parts. The puzzles range in difficulty from very easy to moderately challenging (the three keys, the flower market, the rings). There is one vague puzzle involving arranging alphabets, but that is an exception; all other puzzles are logical enough to understand and solve with reasonable ease, without consulting the hints.

I liked the small but attractive design touch of diamonds getting added to the screen frame and sparkling occasionally. They also help recharge the hint compass quickly, but since the game rarely required the compass, and also because nothing was time-based, I never used that option. I collected 165 diamonds, but the stats screen (accessible from the main menu) didn’t mention the total possible, so that didn’t allow for any success rating.

The dialogs moving the story forward and explaining the puzzles are short and utilitarian, but they are typo-free, and most importantly, blah-free. They keep the game moving efficiently, and are an example of how keeping it simple actually works.

Another great aspect of the game is its music – high quality and relevant to every scene. Some segments are good enough to be a part of a standalone instrumental soundtrack. This is definitely one of the rare casual games where the music goes beyond being a token addition to actually enhancing the playing experience.

The game is short side – my total time was only 2 hours and 30 minutes, despite taking it slow as I was writing the walkthrough simultaneously. This may be because the puzzles are mostly easy to understand and solve, and for a casual gamer, this is not really a bad thing, because the aim is to relax and enjoy the game, and not crack the skull against the screen trying to figure out pre-Alexander Gordian knots.

I scored 246885 points, but in the absence of a scoring rationale or comparative high scores, could not make out if this was good or bad.

I have two reasons for not giving this game a better score: first, the absence of a clear backstory, the basic necessity of an adventure game - how did the player stumble upon this quest, and what was the big curse of the diamond? I suppose the developers thought EVERYONE already knew the lore of the Flying Dutchman (wikipedia), but completing recommended reading is not always a casual gamer's virtue, and this might leave a lot of players with a "huh, okay, so what's this about...?"

Second, I wish the developers had taken the time to choose objects that suited the scenes better – it would have elevated this game from superior to exceptional. Maybe next time :)

g@mrgrl rating: 3/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

August 11, 2009

Walkthrough: Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy

Review: Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy

game format: classic adventure

puzzles: inventory | complex clue based | skill | time

playtime: 24 hours without walkthrough | difficulty: challenging

publisher / developer: Her Interactive

links: Official site  |  Buy this game!  |  Strategy Guide

Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy
game brief: Unveil a Ghostly Legend and Find a Vanished Groom! Touted as the most romantic event to grace the ruined halls of Ireland's Castle Malloy, the Simmons-Mallory wedding was supposed to be a fairytale beginning, but now the groom is missing! Did a banshee crash the wedding or is this a case of cold feet? Can you, as Nancy Drew, unravel the knot of scattered clues and scary superstitions? (Official website)

review: In the 19th case of the super-successful series, eighteen year old amateur detective Nancy Drew flies to Ireland to be the maid of honour for old friend Kyler Mallory – and the bride’s rundown family castle Malloy provides the perfect setting for a haunting that just begs to be solved.

The game-play remains similar to the previous instalments of the series. In fact, one of the best things about the Her Interactive team is that they do not mess with tried-and-tested items – be it game-play, graphic styles or even the voice-overs – just for the heck of it. This discretion, so rarely displayed by developers of sequels, allows the player to immediately get immersed in the mystery at hand rather than struggle with token newness.

As usual, the player can play as a Junior Detective, in which case the hints are more abundant, the puzzles simpler and there is a task list, or as a Senior Detective, which is the expert version. Since I’ve never played any of the games in Junior mode, I’m not sure how much simpler it is, but given that Nancy has many young fans – I started on Nancy Drew in 6th grade – this option is always welcome.

The core story hinges on a mature love triangle involving the young protagonists: the bride Kyler, the missing groom Matt Simmons, and Matt’s best friend and Kyler’s ex-boyfriend Kit Foley. Kyler and Matt are in love but don’t seem very compatible – she is serious and quiet, choosing to spend her time reading in the library, and Matt, when he finally appears, is a goofy prankster who says things like “dibs on the potatoes” and “can’t talk, hungry”. Dude...! it, the handsome (despite a black eye!) and amiable real estate developer, steals the show with his unrequited love for Kyler, and the final scene where Kyler professes her love for Matt is truly tragic even within the constraints of a computer game.

The other important NPC is the castle’s cranky old butler, Donal Delany, who, as it turns out, is actually a softie at heart. The mystery is so tight that at various points all these characters appear to be credible suspects, including Matt himself, and the supernatural also remains a possibility for a while.

This game, like its predecessors, follows the tradition of not just entertainment but education, and does so with impeccable style. Ireland and its legends are tightly integrated into the storyline, graphics, characters, music and, of course, a number of the puzzles. There is a bit of everything – a castle, a bog, cliffs, cairns, leprechauns, screaming banshees, shamrocks, runes, bagpipes, sheep, and a good old inn where Nancy can mix drinks and play drums and video games – all of it leading to a revelation that is, contrary to the ancient references strewn throughout the game, super-duper technological!

The graphics remain top-of-the-line, and scenes such as the one with the screaming banshee at the nursery window, are stunning in execution, and effect. The music is traditional and expertly creates a mysterious ambiance without being morbid or depressing. I’m also very fond of the lip-syncing in the Nancy Drew series – perfectly in sync with the characters’ gestures, accents and personalities.

The game’s numerous puzzles - clue-based, skill-based and time-based - often require inputs from multiple sources before they can be understood, let alone solved. They are challenging and scientific, and involve detailed botanical texts, cryptic books, periodic tables, translations of ancient runes, and even launching a rocket! While none of the puzzles are random or unsolvable without walkthroughs, the sheer range may create one or two roadblocks for players who may not relish a particular type of game, say, throwing darts accurately or referring multiple books for not-so-obvious riddles. But the overall game is well worth the effort, and the conclusion is bittersweet and satisfying.

The Haunting of Castle Malloy lived well up to my expectations and is highly recommended both for the lovers of the series as well as gamers who want a tightly-woven story that delivers the entire gamut of human emotions while nonchalantly throwing complex puzzles that you will want to solve – just to know what happens next.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to watch the mini-gag-reel after the credits :)

The game also gives out 12 awards at the end - I only got Super Sleuth, Ace Flyer and Chemist Sorter – but, c’est la vie! You win some...

g@mrgrl rating: 5/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.

August 3, 2009

Walkthrough: Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis

Review: Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis

game format: classic adventure

puzzles: inventory | complex clue based

playtime: 12 hours without walkthrough | difficulty: medium

publisher: Deep Silver | developer: Animation Arts

links: Official site

Secret Files 2: Puritas Cordis
game brief: Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis… the world is on the verge of a catastrophe. By the time Nina Kalenkov realizes that the recent disasters were caused not by nature, but by a ruthless secret society known as Puritas Cordis, it is almost too late. Will Nina be able to avert the impending Apocalypse? (Official website)

review: Welcome to the much-awaited second episode of the Secret Files – after Tunguska, spunky heroine Nina Kalenkov unravels the mystery of the Puritas Cordis, with some unexpected help from ex-boyfriend Max Gruber, a scientist. And the good news is that you don’t need to have played Tunguska to enjoy this one – it powers ahead on its own steam.

The story revolves around, well, saving the world, but with a twist. This time, Nina is trying to save the world from cultist Pat Shelton who is himself trying to save the world, though with his own twist – he wants to save the denizens of the planet, particularly those on the east coast of USA, from themselves, by well, destroying them. Not entirely an un-noble mission. Anyway, there’s also an UN convention underway about the usual suspects of global warming, melting polar icecaps, massive rogue waves and such. All these disasters, leading to an ultimate Apocalypse, have been foretold by a French cultist named Zandona around the 17th century, and through a recently discovered letter from the past, the Church is onto this plot. Thus starts the game.

Nina stumbles accidentally – literally – into the story on the way to a cruise vacation in the North Sea to recuperate from her breakup with Max. Max himself stumbles in accidentally – again, literally, after an explosion no less – while helping out delectable college-buddy archaelogist Sam Peters in Indonesia. Yes, so far out that even crazy-man Shelton refuses to accept this explanation later on. But the game is full of such ironies, and the developers are not afraid to poke a bit – or lots – of fun at themselves.

The game is played, at various times, as Nina, Max, Sam and Bishop Parrey. Hot-headed Nina balances the seriousness of her situations with little wisecracks, and is interesting – intelligent and assertive, and while often snarky, she stops short of being downright bitchy – unlike Sam, who in her cameo is surprisingly verbally spiteful to her native captor, swinging public opinion of her more towards annoying than cute.

Max is thoughtful and easygoing, and is forgiven for wearing that waist-pouch because he is ‘incredibly handsome’ as Nina says. Practical Max spends part of the game flirting with Sam while carrying Nina’s photo in his pocket - however, the potential for a love triangle, well-hinted-at during the Adventures of Sam & Max in Indonesia, is not followed through, and Sam just disappears after a point. It’s disappointing, because there’s nothing more fun than a catfight immediately after you’ve saved the world, right? The reunion of Nina and Max is sentimental without being mushy, and when Max abandons plans to escape from almost-certain death in order to help Nina save her father, his matter-of-factness in making the decision makes you root for them as a couple.

The game format is mainly inventory-based puzzles - combining items with each other or on-screen elements. There are occasional ‘real puzzles’, and these are blended well into the storyline both in occurrence and concept. None of the puzzles are massively complicated or long – just enough to challenge without frustrating. There’s a diary that lists the game plot from time to time, and provides hints for the puzzles, besides noting down the often-lengthy clues for reference. There is a magnifying glass (the SnoopKey) that highlights action points on the screen, and prevents mindless pixel hunting or missed cues. This, a common feature of many adventure games now, is always helpful, though in this game, not really necessary. The game is overall linear and there are no chances of doing the wrong thing or dying, and amazingly, has nearly ZERO running around without knowing what to do next.

The game-play is simple: the cursor shows which mouse button to press for which action. Right-clicking hastens up segments / speech. The inventory and help icons are displayed at the bottom of the screen. Saving is one-touch – even CTRL+S works! And a spectacularly efficient ALT/TAB, especially for people who read – or write – walkthroughs, and check mail often :) Grade A+ for this part of the game.

The artwork is great – character movements are smooth and realistic, with little touches that elevate them beyond the usual clunky sprites. The cut-scenes are well done, some especially so, like the capsized ship, the tsunami demo and the helicopter rescue. The overall experience is definitely lifted by the quality of the graphics from start to end.

The weakest part of the game is its voiceovers. Nina’s is good, which is a saving grace because she talks the maximum. Max, while pleasant, sounds older and smoother than a guy in his early twenties, and Sam is okay as the bubbly girl. The supporting characters are overly theatrical for most part – the Russian guard Spivak and the French (or German maybe, tough to say) vicar Korrel, and plain irritating when it comes to Ms. Jordan and Oskar the kid. The music remains in the background, and is neither great nor disturbing. The sound effects are relevant to their scenes – functional.

The subtitles are well-written, with correct grammar and zero typos, which is a rare achievement even for a lot of big productions, and particularly for those that are not originally in English.

The conclusion is lucid and satisfying, and brings up one of the most fun parts of the game - the ‘Where are the now?’ sequence at the end – cleverly done. And yeah, the scoreboard listing some cool stats – apparently I walked 6040 metres, played for 724 minutes (I was writing the walkthrough at the same time and didn’t refer any myself) and consulted the help 104 times – AFTER saying in the review that it wasn’t really needed for experienced gamers.

Oh well... I know the end-game said that while no animals were harmed during the making of the game, the developers ended up in mental asylums, but I’m taking hope from the fact that they are on their way to recovery, because Secret Files definitely needs a 3!

g@mrgrl rating: 5/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.