December 14, 2011

Review: Time Mysteries: The Ancient Spectres: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | hidden object

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: moderate | size: 934 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Artifex Mundi

Time Mysteries: The Ancient Spectres: Collector's Edition
game brief: The year is 1830, the dawn of the Victorian Era. You are sitting in your room and contemplating your orphan life in London. Someone knocks on the door. You open it and… nothing will remain like it was before. Change the course of history and reveal the mystery which has influenced your family for ages. How is it all connected with the evil witch Viviana? Will you manage to untangle all the secrets? (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: November 2011 New Releases' article.

Left at an orphanage as an infant, Esther has no link to her origins save an ornate rattle and a medallion, plus frequent nightmares of a strange mansion and an ancient oak tree. On a hazy day in 1830, she receives a letter from a distant aunt urging her to return to her estate, not only to learn more about her illustrious ancestors descended from Merlin the wizard, but also to prevent a power-hungry witch from escaping the magical container built by her family. Artifex Mundi's Time Mysteries: The Ancient Spectres starts in earnest as Esther reaches the abandoned, decrepit mansion – the same one from her nightmares – and discovers the crystal cage which she must keep from cracking by finding magical tokens scattered across Europe and time.

This sequel to Inheritance is loosely linked through the Ambrose family tree: Esther is the grandmother of Vivian, the heroine of the first episode, who travelled through time to rescue her father from the clutches of his kidnapper. But The Ancient Spectres is far superior in both complexity and production quality to its predecessor, which used time travel as a mere plot device to generate diverse visual backdrops. Here, time and space are linked intricately through action and consequence, and Esther must constantly flit between both to achieve her goals, whether collecting items from one century to use in another, setting up events that yield results years later, or gathering clues and objects from past versions of the mansion even as the witch progressively destroys it in the present day.

The main adventure has about a dozen hidden object screens and as many logic puzzles interspersed with numerous inventory quests to collect tools and puzzle parts, all taking over five hours to complete. The hidden object searches are quite challenging, with attractive, detailed screens smartly stocked with era- and situation-appropriate items, some of which require minor interactivity. These screens are revisited twice each, but all previously collected items are excluded from later searches. Besides the rechargeable hint, a 'sonar' feature helps by showing silhouettes of the listed items. Interestingly, if you don't feel like trawling the search screens, you can opt for an addictive symbol-matching arcade game to move ahead.

The standalone puzzles are simple and cover the usual gamut of jigsaws, rotators, and pattern- or image-matching, but are nevertheless entertaining as they're well-integrated with the story. One that requires lighting a city's streets is especially elegantly designed. The backbone of the game, however, are Esther's tasks to locate objects and create situations by teleporting between the Ambrose estates in London and Venice over multiple centuries using the time machine, like the clever quest to produce a bottle of wine. These add genuine complexity to the linear flow, and the sense of accomplishment as minor activities significantly alter the future is satisfyingly real.

Unlike Vivian, Esther has no wisecracking sidekick; instead she must rely on the letters and instructions strewn about, which are archived in her journal along with her objectives. The time machine also serves as an interactive map, marking out locations – across time – where tasks are pending, and those which have changed since Esther's last visit. By allowing teleportation to specific destinations, this invaluable facility eliminates the tedious legwork that cripples most casual games.

The attention to detail extends from the plot and puzzles into production as well. The richly coloured scenes reflect their eras and moods, such as the Venetian mansion in the grips of the plague or its British counterpart crumbling under the witch's onslaught. Comparing locations through the centuries is a delightful pastime in itself. Ambient animation, like wavering sunbeams and footsteps on dusty floors, is subtle and efficient, as is the orchestral score, which is lovely in parts and ominous in others. Cutscenes are spectacular, be it Esther's nightmares, the witch running amok, or the release of fire-moths from the crystal cage. The time machine animation is also sleek and never gets stale despite many repetitions. Unfortunately, the screens are annoyingly cluttered with multiple hotspots (and repetitive comments) for non-essential elements that are never deactivated, resulting in a lot of extra clicks. Conversations and cutscenes are expertly voiced, though in-game commentary is text-based, with coherent, easy-to-follow dialogues.

While the main game ends with a blazing cliffhanger and the announcement of a sequel, the Collector’s Edition returns to the past for a complicated half hour story of a woman trying to save both infant and adult Esther from her fiery predicament. Along the way, she must repair the time machine, visit an outlandish lab and a herbalist's hut, and solve a handful of easy minigames. A notable exception is a poorly clued, visually and mentally taxing pattern-matching puzzle that may make you grateful for the skip button. The bonus chapter has four more repeating hidden object searches, and is a fairly unnecessary extension of play time unless one is really keen to learn how Esther arrived at the orphanage or manages her predictable present-day escape. A unique extra is an encyclopaedia of key characters and objects, though having it on hand while playing may have made it a more useful reference.

Time Mysteries: The Ancient Spectres is most certainly another very good game from Artifex Mundi (immediately following the stellar Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek). Its fantasy-based story is laid out plausibly and ties in actual historical events, the reasonably challenging gameplay flows smoothly and stays aligned with the plot, and the production is largely superlative. But what elevates it to a great game is the way it links its core time-travel concept into the gameplay to create an experience that is complex and thought-provoking beyond the pretty window-dressing. It connects actions to consequences with rare rationality, and is confident enough of its own potential to avoid deceiving players with unnecessary backtracking and ill-informed quests, making it a casual adventure that's well worth your time.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

December 5, 2011

Review: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel

game format: classic adventure; supernatural thriller

puzzles: inventory | logic | arcade

playtime: 5 - 7 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 2.3 GB

publisher: Akella | developer: Electronic Paradise | links: official site | buy this game @ Steam

Dead Mountaineer's Hotel
game brief:The remote hotel stands atop an ominous snow-peaked mountain, and death permeates every inch of the place. A crime has been committed here, and the remote nature of the retreat means that the culprit is still roaming the halls. Which of the guests is capable of this? Whose past hides sinister truths and who has the most to gain? (Steam Page)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers® | rating: 1/5

summary: The long-awaited Dead Mountaineer's Hotel is finally open for business, but the pointless quests, clunky gameplay, exhausting backtracking, subpar production quality and absence of a coherent plot will surely leave you cold.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

November 9, 2011

Review: Reincarnations: Back To Reality: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | hidden object

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: moderate | size: 575 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Vogat Interactive

Reincarnations: Back to Reality: Collector's Edition
game brief: In Reincarnations: Back to the Reality four angry entities insist that you return to the past and correct your own mistakes! Travel into your past lives, set things right, and restore your karmic balance in this thrilling Hidden Object Adventure! (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: October 2011 New Releases' article.

Driving on a lonely road one night, a young woman is attacked by four vengeful spirits, who use dangerous tricks like blinding and freezing to crash her car, killing her on the spot. Before reaching its final resting place, Jane's soul arrives in an astral library, where she must investigate her past lives to solve grievances and improve her karma enough to earn another chance at her current life. Those familiar with Vogat Interactive's Reincarnations series will recognise the concept as well as the mystically-gifted protagonist, and there's little new in this third installment, Back to Reality. But the good news is that this edition is lengthier, with four cases to solve over five-plus hours this time, and the quests are a tightly-knit collection of moderately challenging inventory, hidden object and standalone puzzles set against attractive, well-designed scenarios.

Jane's first incarnation is a village doctor in the early 1900s, who must solve a heinous murder to save the locals who have been blinded by a ghost. The second case is more contemporary, as a museum guard has to recapture a chaotic ancient spirit unwittingly set free by a student. The third story is set at the North Pole, where a child rescued from a shipwreck must free her adoptive family from the clutches of the accidentally released and terribly annoyed Spirit of the North. The final case is the most elaborate and unique, and has a boy trying to save his sister from scientists researching human life longevity via gruesome experiments on a weirdly-forested island in the Pacific. The first and last cases are morbidly fascinating, though the gameplay and styling of the mysterious island is easily the winner.

Letters, notes and photos reveal more about each case as events progress, and clicking any hotspot provides straightforward instruction about what to do with it. Quests include collecting practical tools as well as pieces of esoteric puzzles, and then using them to resolve the big problems. The 21 hidden object scenes are stocked with somewhat-relevant objects, and often require multiple numbers of items to be collected, which ups the count well beyond the listed dozen. There are some interactive items too, like wheat to be ground into flour, or a wooden idol to be carved on the spot. Each scene yields one useful object and is repeated once, though items found the first time are left out of round two. Many objects are shared between different search screens, and several are hard to find as they are partly hidden under other things. The independent puzzles cover variations of jigsaws, pattern- and image-matching, easy math, light beam redirection, and the often-maddening Lights Out tasks. Some are creative, like fitting animal cutouts on pegs on a wall, and some are fairly challenging, such as a deceptively difficult jigsaw of a seahorse.

There are three modes of difficulty, and without the benefit of sparkles in the tougher two, you have to pixel hunt for hotspots and revisit scenes frequently to check for hidden object areas that may have been reactivated. Playing time is padded with superfluous activities like moving aside leaves one at a time or clicking repeatedly to clear piles of stone or ice, but thankfully multi-purpose tools like hammers and axes stay in the inventory for as long as needed, thus eliminating repetitive quests to gather generic tools. There is a comprehensive task list, though given the linear format of the game, it's more a helpful guide than a crucial reference.

The hundred-odd realistic screens are detailed with shadows, foliage and textures, and distinctly represent each setting, whether the idyllic but creepy village, the museum and its cleverly-engineered tableaux, the Arctic and its Aurora Borealis backdrop, or the outlandish island with its mutant flora and mechanical fauna. A cave-art hidden object screen adds freshness to the typical stashes, and collected items are showcased in appropriate containers like a wicker basket when in the village. The minigames are especially well-designed, with expertly animated doors, rotating parts and special effects. In fact, in-game animation goes beyond the staples of drifting snow and flickering fires to include consistently believable motion, such as a robotic spider standing up or a shark lunging forward. Jane's spirit possessing and leaving her incarnations is also impressive. Unfortunately, some screens suffer from considerable pixellation beyond their native 1024x768 resolution, especially the partially-animated cutscenes, though they do scale to widescreen if you UNcheck the widescreen menu option.

Each scenario has a soundtrack suited to its mood, while sound effects are just right and do not overwhelm the proceedings; together they compensate adequately for the absence of voice acting. Sensible and considerate, Jane is willing and resourceful enough to undo the failings of her past lives. She's blessed with a script that is concise yet precise, albeit sometimes to the point of stating the obvious, and is a companionable partner to play with. Interestingly, though three of her four incarnations are male, her practical personality makes the transitions feel natural and gender-independent.

Back to life after her ordeals in the astral library, the Collector's Edition bonus chapter sees Jane soon dragged into the depths of a new mystery by yet another disconsolate spirit. Based on the urban legend of the White Lady, this story is about a rich pirate's daughter who was betrayed by her greedy fiancé and has since been exacting her revenge on random young men by drowning them in the aptly-named Disappearance Bay. The hour-long expansion is similar in gameplay to the main segment, with several inventory quests that send Jane back and forth between a series of underwater caves containing dead bodies, treasure, a shark, and four standalone puzzles including a devilish rotator with pearls to be set in three different patterns. The four hidden object screens are repeated once each. A strictly-standalone affair, the extra case is recommended mainly if the original four leave you gasping immediately for more.

Reincarnations: Back To Reality is quite like an episodic television series with a 'case of the week' formula, and loyally follows its two predecessors in concept and gameplay. It's basically a collection of four mini-stories tied together by a flimsy central arc. This is great for variety given the four diverse scenarios, but on the flip side, the stories and characters lack depth as each case is too brief to delve beyond the superficial. But Reincarnations makes up for its simplistic plots with solid execution, and is packed to the brim with engaging casual adventuring. Despite the niggles of the harder modes – tough-to-locate hotspots, hidden object areas reactivated without notice, some clueless wandering – the game provides over five hours of activity-oriented entertainment, and if you're still craving more, serves up a fifth case as the CE extra. And if even that's not enough, rest assured that yet another reincarnation is on the horizon.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

October 28, 2011

Review: The Book of Unwritten Tales

game format: classic adventure; fantasy

puzzles: inventory | logic | arcade

playtime: 16 - 20 hours | difficulty: moderate | size: 3.75 GB

publisher: Lace Mamba Global | developer: KING Art Games | links: official site | buy this game

The Book Of Unwritten Tales
game brief:In a world torn by war, the aged gremlin archaeologist Mortimer MacGuffin harbours the dark secret of a powerful artefact. Whoever owns this artefact will determine the fate of the world. While the Army of the Shadows sends out its best and most devious agents to discover the secret, the Alliance's four heroes find themselves involuntarily drawn into the crisis. (Official website)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers® | rating: 4.5/5

summary: It took a while to be told, but The Book of Unwritten Tales holds an epic adventure between its pages, bringing to life a gorgeous, multi-dimensional, quest-laden world of glittering seas and fiery mountains, and filling it with some of the most endearing game characters of all time.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

October 10, 2011

Review: Voodoo Chronicles: The First Sign: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | hidden object

playtime: 5 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 875 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Space Monkey Studios

Voodoo Chronicles: The First Sign: Collector's Edition
game brief: Help out James Voodoo as he investigates a mysterious attack and goes on an incredible adventure in Voodoo Chronicles: The First Sign! Explore the forsaken hamlet of Ravenhill, then travel the world's wealthiest city, Richtown, and uncover the secret of a lost tribe in this challenging Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure game. Can you save the city from the terrifying monster? (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: September 2011 New Releases' article.

In 1880, an expedition funded by an industrialist aptly named Coins plundered a tribal island while seeking an artifact that gives its possessors all they desire. In retaliation, a shaman cursed them, eradicating all but Coins and two henchmen, who escaped with the artifact and for the next twenty years reaped its benefits to their hearts' content. But the curse, undeterred by time and space, has finally caught up with Coins, and you, playing as private eye James Voodoo, are summoned to help solve his murder. This premise promises a gripping casual adventure, but Space Monkey's Voodoo Chronicles: The First Sign can't decide whether it wants to be a noir whodunit, a supernatural caper, a mythological mystery, or all of the above, and its story rapidly degenerates from a crime procedural into disjointed scenarios involving a weird cat, a wisecracking skull, a kraken and Norse gods, making you wonder by the end if you're still playing the same game you started. And despite the attractive art and lengthy five hour play time on hard mode, its puzzles are too easy and hidden object searches too tiresome at times.

The investigation is based in and around Voodoo's messy office, but he also travels on an Orient Express-like deluxe locomotive to Coins's metropolis Richtown, races through a forest in a horse-drawn wagon with feral wolves in pursuit, sails on a storm-battered ship, and crash lands a blimp on the tribal island. Each location is a self-contained chapter of a few screens, which limits both the playing area and complexity since neither quests nor objects are transferred between chapters. Instead, every scene needs to be frequently revisited to find relevant hotspots activated since the last time you were there.

The main challenge comes from the 18 hidden object screens, repeated once each. Chock-a-block with random junk, these yield one usable object per turn. The clutter isn't a hindrance, but the screens are dark enough in large patches to warrant raising the monitor's brightness, and many items are made difficult to find by obscuring them under the interface elements or behind other objects till only barely-discernible portions are visible. The dozen standalone puzzles run the usual gamut of pipes, gears, switches, pattern matches and object assemblies, and while they are well-illustrated and relevant to their situations, they rarely hold you back longer than a minute or two. On the bright side, they reward you with two hints per completion to supplement the single (very) slowly recharging hint at your disposal during hidden object searches. Hints can also be collected by locating tiny skulls lurking on occasional screens. Surprisingly, you can't access any of these hints while you explore, though given the confined areas that really shouldn't be a problem.

Progress is linear, but proceedings are confounding nevertheless as the story skips forth in fits and starts, launching arcs and characters which bear little or no relation to each other: the natives are trying to derail the investigation; a mysterious girl needs constant saving from strange situations; a missing gangster is replaced by a voodoo doll; a detective driven insane by the curse (or the case, it's unclear) is levitating in an asylum; storms and sea monsters are destroying ports and cantonments; a snarky disembodied skull like Monkey Island's Murray appears from nowhere; a cranky cat isn't what it seems to be, nor is the island when it's finally located. The ambition in attempting to string together such diverse topics and locations to create a complex stage for the adventure is evident, but little is explored in depth or explained clearly enough, relegating the game to a progression of dioramas. Voodoo himself is a crusty, scientifically-inclined gumshoe who starts strong, but even he can do little but gape at the increasing peculiarities as time goes on.

The big plus of The First Sign is the charming art, which alternately seeps decadence and reeks of grime. Scenes like the gas-lit city centre, the port at dusk, and swanky Richtown with its skyscrapers and hovering blimps, are eye-catching and detailed with fine animation like sweeping clouds, wavering shadows and steaming valves. Cutscenes are quite fascinating, particularly the Coins Express rolling into a station billowing plumes of white smoke, an orchestral recital by toy monkeys, and a burning zeppelin crashing into the island. Meanwhile, wandering aboard the lurching train, especially the brief ride atop it, is as close to reality as such animation can get.

The background score varies from jazz-infused tracks in town to Oriental fusion on the island, but the audio winner is the multi-layered ambient effects that effectively recreate each milieu, be it a bustling city or a burning train. There is substantial dialogue, and the full game is voiced, even the briefest cameos. Voodoo's gravelly voice, the skull's cackle and the mobsters' over-the-top Italian drawls are in sync with the drama, but other characters run amok with accents and create noticeable dissonance. English translation of onscreen text is erratic and mistakes riddle newspaper headlines, but they still recount Coins's history efficiently.

The baffling conclusion of the main game may have you scrambling for the Collector's Edition bonus chapter for an explanation, but there's none coming. Instead, it's a prequel that has neither story nor substance, nor any useful impact on the main plot. Here you play as the mystery girl who has to save native children trapped by Coins before the he activates the artifact. Five screens stuffed with typical items are partnered by three equally uninspiring hidden object dumps that follow no rules of era or location. There are no solitary puzzles, and set by default at 'easy', the chapter spews step-by-step directions to solve the juvenile inventory quests while heaping indignities on you, like forcing you to find a rope even as one you have just used (and inexplicably discarded) dangles in your face. This segment is also voiced, but the natives sound suspiciously similar to each other and their British-accented saviour. Luckily (and yet equally inexcusably), the torment lasts only fifteen minutes before the it terminates with the suddenness of a power-cut.

Voodoo Chronicles seems intended to be a series about Voodoo's cases, since this edition has no relation to the craft except for some hex bags and a couple of gratuitous references to Haiti. But any crime story, even one with supernatural elements, must have logical clarity that connects the dots with plausibility instead of distracting with mumbo-jumbo. The First Sign has all the elements of a good hidden object adventure: a plot with potential for twists; vibrant art and animation; an engaging lead; some interesting guest stars, and numerous obstacles to overcome across a variety of locations and situations, but it squanders its opportunities with tedious gameplay and incomprehensible storytelling. As a result, the main adventure is ultimately just average and the CE expansion is a joke, though the attempt to step away from the trodden turf makes you hold out hope for Voodoo's future assignments.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

Review: Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | hidden object

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 860 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Artifex Mundi

Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek: Collector's Edition
game brief: Find a kidnapped teenage girl and save yourself in Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek, a fun Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure game. After waking up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, you must piece together your memories and figure out why you ended up in Maple Creek. Discover the ancient evil that lurks in the seemingly peaceful land of Vermont and learn the truth in this thrilling detective story! (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: September 2011 New Releases' article.

A sleek cinematic follows a terrified woman as she flees through a storm-swept forest, chased by a faceless malevolent entity till she finally collapses on the outskirts of the titular fictional town in Vermont, USA where Artifex Mundi's Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek is set. The game starts as she regains consciousness, but not her memories – she recollects nothing that explains her precarious predicament, or the blood on her hands that isn't her own. The settlement hasn't weathered the storm any better, reduced to a messy heap of shattered housing, fallen trees and short-circuiting electric poles in the aftermath of the tornado. The damage, however, has also shaken loose secrets long buried within walls and under floorboards, and the cluttered wreckage is ideal for some riveting sleuth work, hidden object searches, and puzzle-solving.

Some handy clues soon help our amnesiac protagonist discover the basic facts: she's a detective who was investigating the disappearance of a teenager, the latest of several young women gone mysteriously missing from the area over the past eight decades. It's up to you to scout the inexplicably abandoned town and its surroundings, which include a guesthouse, a chapel, some disheveled homesteads, a gas station, the nearby hiking trails and a sinister church. Only by piecing together the scraps of evidence – photos, newspaper articles, reports from past investigations – can you hope to solve the case before the evil consumes its newest victim, and likely you too.

But Enigmatis guards its secrets closely and yields no easy answers during its six-odd hours. You're quickly drawn into a flurry of macabre discoveries, and suspicion veers between human cult and criminal adversaries, and supernatural ones like ghosts. Each assumption is backed by plausible evidence, and debunked rationally as more clues are unearthed. The quest is led systematically by the detective, but you're not relegated to mere mouse-driving: the collaborative gameplay allows you to analyse the leads and work out the correlations between them yourself.

The investigation favours inventory-based activities and object hunts over standalone puzzles. Searching the fourteen hidden object screens thrice each is repetitive, but not overly tiresome due to the stylish art. Some lists have an object or two which require minor interactivity to find, and in an annoying oversight, these hotspots remain active even after resolution, continuing to sparkle for your attention even during later revisits. Inventory quests are well-integrated with the plot and yield not only useful tools but clues and pieces of puzzles as well. Rewards are sometimes disproportionate to the effort required, like a convoluted excursion spanning hours to uncover an object of only mechanical value, but such missteps are rare.

There are fewer than a dozen logic puzzles, but quality trumps quantity, and each beautifully illustrated challenge, be it a jigsaw or a pattern match or a lock to be picked, is entertaining to solve. In an ongoing drag-and-drop puzzle that lasts throughout the game, you pin evidence items onto a wall and group them to either clarify the dilemmas or create more avenues for investigation. Mistaken links aren't fatal, but deducing correctly on your own provides a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Progress is linear, with only a couple of activities to do at a time. Your current objective is listed in a journal, which helpfully documents your observations according to related events and connects each goal to its specific set of clues, eliminating the usual pain of rifling through scores of pages for smidgens of relevant information. A map is drawn out as new areas are revealed, and on the easier of two difficulty settings it marks out locations with pending activities. Exploration can still be irritating, however, due to an unnecessarily complicated town layout (a large portion of which can only be reached by rappelling down from a balcony and crossing many derelict yards), and the order of quests, which force you to make this and other lengthy trips again, and again, and again.

Based in the verdant Appalachians, Maple Creek is predictably scenic, and the richly coloured, tastefully drawn screens showcase this appeal, albeit in a dark, gloomy way. Snooping around endangers you to some gasp-worthy moments, and the game consistently sustains a creepy tension. This undercurrent of terror is augmented by the soulful piano-and-cello soundtrack and ambient noises like the creaking of damaged buildings, tolling of church bells and the pounding of the protagonist's heart. Some segments are voiced, like the animated cutscenes and certain conversations, and the performances are competent, barring one character whose weird hamming grates on the nerves. The onscreen text itself is crisp and easily understandable despite a few typos.

The main adventure wraps up with a cliffhanger that paves the way for a sequel, while the Collector's Edition bonus play provides a prequel set decades earlier. The hour-long extension traces a past investigation into the case, and ties up some crucial loose ends of the main game even as it tears apart its unpleasant yet somewhat acceptable explanation with a centuries-old secret that ups the ante for the next episode by several notches in one fell swoop. Maple Creek of yore is depicted in hazy, rose-tinted shades, and it's delightful to compare the town then with its current iteration, though it has barely evolved over time. The music is sweeter – soothing almost – but the sense of doom is no less oppressive as you uncover clue after morbid clue. The gripping story bolsters the chapter's easy gameplay, which features an abridged environment, basic inventory quests, five well-designed but simple puzzles, and five hidden object screens again visited twice each. And though you already know the ill-fated conclusion of the case, the finale is nevertheless gut-wrenching to witness.

A casual adventure that keeps you guessing till the end is rare; rarer still is a CE expansion that thickens the plot instead of scraping out a few extra minutes of play. Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek is a fabulously extruded mystery, and the bonus chapter is essential if you wish to learn the real secret (and trust me, if you like tense, twisted tales, you will). A few more, and tougher, puzzles would have upped the overall challenge, but the unsettling creepiness of the quaint rural town, the baffling mutterings of the peculiar townsfolk and some genuine frights embellish the intriguing story and smart production enough to create a chilling experience that will definitely haunt you even after the credits roll.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

August 8, 2011

Review: Missing: A Search & Rescue Mystery: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | hidden object

playtime: 5 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 463 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Sulus Games

The Missing: A Search & Rescue Mystery: Collector's Edition
game brief: A group of college students have gone missing from a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. You are called in to rescue them, but nothing is as it seems as the island is haunted by a mysterious evil! Use all your skills to complete Hidden Object scenes and solve perplexing puzzles as you delve deeper into the island's sinister secrets and find the students. (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: July 2011 New Releases' article.

Buffeted by gale force winds and blinding rain, a seaplane struggles to land on an isolated island, from which meteorology professor Kelvin and four students have gone missing after sending out a distress call. Matters quickly turn as murky as the weather after landing, when the search-and-rescue pilot discovers a heavy-duty cage from which something clearly powerful – and non-human – has escaped. Playing as the pilot in Sulus Games' hidden object adventure The Missing: A Search and Rescue Mystery, it's your job to decode the clues left behind by the missing people in the form of notes, instructions, photos and radio transmissions, in an effort to trace their whereabouts before it is too late.

The mission starts well, ominously bringing to life the desolate and menacing, yet undeniably beautiful, islands with a real sense of urgency. Unfortunately, instead of weaving it into a tight, multi-pronged mystery, the developers ingloriously demystify the story by simplistically revealing the villains – both supernatural and human – within the first half hour of the game's almost four-hour duration, though inexplicably, neither inflict any damage on our protagonist despite multiple opportunities to do so. The secret of Kelvin's research into harnessing the energy of meteorological phenomena – the cause of the chaos – is exposed all too soon as well. This reduces the challenge to a perfunctory expedition through the tropical isles in vicious weather, collecting tools and solving elementary puzzles to unlock containers, entryways and machines in order to find the science crew and, eventually, defeat the inefficient baddies.

Toto and Fog, the two islands, were once inhabited by an ancient tribe, creating a mélange of aging scientific paraphernalia and indigenous structures adorned with codified hieroglyphs. The newer constructions, which include accommodation camps, a bunker, lighthouse, weather station, an undersea port, a rambling mansion with an antique cannon, and even an incongruous ice station (explained via the 'control nature' theory), serve as the setting for the straightforward quests – inventory tasks, hidden object searches, and logic puzzles. As you explore the 100-plus screens, the main focus lies heavily on the search and use of interactive items to solve practical problems. But while these tasks are well-integrated into the story, they are also repetitive and obvious, never taxing your imagination in the slightest. Onscreen hotspots sparkle frequently, further simplifying the process.

There are only fourteen hidden objects screens in the main game, and though they aren't repeated, they keep regurgitating the same drab items like drills, wrenches, binoculars and hammers. In a slight twist, some of the screens represent dark areas that have to be partially lit using a flashlight, while some have objects displayed as silhouettes instead of words. The dozen-odd standalone puzzles, comprising pattern and number matches, rotator jigsaws, sequencing tasks, gear alignments and pipes variations, are rendered thoroughly undemanding by obvious clues and easy mechanics. Most use codes found elsewhere, and only one – creating a key using a mirror image – poses a genuine challenge due to its visual complexity. Puzzles can be skipped, though it likely won't be necessary. The rechargeable hint button either marks out onscreen areas where tasks are pending or picks out a random hidden object from the list. You also have to collect 56 energy crystals strewn about the islands to power Kelvin's invention, but that's not difficult either.

Though linear in logic, the game offers multiple areas for exploration at all times, each requiring repeated visits, though the smart placement of locations and sound rationality of the tasks prevent backtracking from becoming tedious. A journal records broad objectives and discovered clues, and maps out the islands and your current placement. While areas aren't explicitly marked off as 'completed', at key junctures cleverly designed events cordon off places where no activities are left.

Despite the simplistic gameplay and non-mystery of its plot, The Missing manages to hold your attention due to its sleek, intricate production. Realistic art, graceful ambient animation (lightning, wind tunnels, swinging doors and lights), relevant sound effects, and an intense but soulful soundtrack generate a fair bit of drama, often creating the illusion of actually exploring the drippy, forested islands. The first-person perspective is underlined by bordering the screens with the edges of scuba goggles or a fur-lined jacket hood when worn. Several fully-animated cutscenes intersperse the proceedings, and some, like the sequence of the seaplane crashing into the ocean, are spectacular. There's no voice acting, but given that most of the adventure is solitary, that's not a critical omission.

The main game wraps up with an all-too-convenient but conclusive finale, so the Collector's Edition provides an hour-long unnecessary prologue of how Kelvin discovered the islands in his youth and thought up his project. The six hidden object screens are repeated once each, and yield mundane tools from random collections of Mayan statues, Indian figurines and gothic gargoyles. The half-dozen watered down standalone puzzles require you to manually note some of the code patterns to avoid backtracking. This chapter emphasizes inventory quests built around Kelvin's escape from an indigenous temple, and the clever interplay of natural elements make the final half-hour almost worth the extra investment.

Despite starting with the strong premise of a search-and-rescue operation gone wrong, set against a visually arresting backdrop bolstered by superior production quality, this game quickly loses its way and ends up in hackneyed territory. It pointlessly overloads the sensible plot with diverse topics such as the pitfalls of human greed, environmental consciousness, and marvelous anthropological legacies, and tries to intimidate with two namby-pamby villains instead of the true obstacle to any rescue effort – the uncontrollable forces of nature (ironically, just what it's preaching about). The tried-and-true casual gameplay still holds up as moderately entertaining, but ultimately, The Missing: A Search and Rescue Mystery misses its landing on the shores of greatness and skids into the dreaded so-so zone.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

July 20, 2011

Walkthrough: Odissea: An Almost True Story

Review: Odissea: An Almost True Story

game format: classic adventure; indie development

puzzles: inventory | logic

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 300 MB

developer: Midian Design | links: official site | buy this game

Odissea: An Almost True Adventure
game brief: Who has not heard of Homer's 'Odyssey'? "Odissea - An Almost True Story" is an adventure that "almost" recounts the deeds of Ulysses, taking him to legendary places, such as the cave of the Cyclops, Calypso's island, the Sirens' tavern... a long journey in search of his homeland, Ithaca, where his beloved Penelope has been awaiting his return for many years. (Official website)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers® | rating: 2.5/5

summary: You'll sail through its simplistic gameplay, but this imaginative indie take on Homer's Greek epic can be an entertaining budget ride.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

July 13, 2011

Review: Dracula: Love Kills: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | hidden object | arcade

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: moderate | size: 515 MB

publisher: Frogwares | developer: Waterlily Games | links: official site | buy this game

Dracula: Love Kills Collector's Edition
game brief: The Queen of Vampires emerges from the ashes of history, seeking to destroy the world of humans and rule over its ruins! Join the legendary vampire count and his faithful servant Igor as they join forces with Dr. Van Helsing in a horrific adventure inspired by the work of Bram Stoker. Travel the world in search of the Knights of the Order of the Dragon and attempt to thwart the terrible plans of the dark Queen! (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: June 2011 New Releases' article.

As the public fixation with all-things-vampire continues unabated, now we have yet another chance to schmooze with the fangtastic Count Dracula in Dracula: Love Kills. A hidden object adventure with an unusual pedigree, this is a casualised sequel to the full-fledged 2008 adventure Dracula: Origin by Frogwares' internal Waterlily Games studio. It picks the story up some time after Dracula was ingloriously knocked into his casket and stashed in his crypt by his nemesis Van Helsing. Once back on his feet, the Prince of Darkness is informed by his fiercely loyal henchman Igor that the Queen of Vampires has hijacked his domain and intends to turn the human race into vampires. Now, in addition to rescuing his beloved Mina from the Queen's clutches, Dracula must fight off the challenge to his own dark supremacy. Being a vampire interferes with his plan to kill the Queen, however, so he's forced to propose an uneasy alliance with Van Helsing, who reluctantly agrees that the threat of vampiric world domination is far more insidious than the Count's lovelorn malice.

Unlike Origin, which featured Van Helsing, Love Kills is played mainly from Dracula's perspective. The unlikely trio – including Igor, whose bickering with Van Helsing adds comic relief to the grim proceedings – flit between late 19th century Transylvania, London, Venice, Paris, Louisiana, Panama and Mont St. Michel, racing against time while the Queen's influence destroys the world, piling it with gruesome mounds of flesh and blood. A lengthy and enjoyable mix of inventory quests, hidden object searches and standalone puzzles, the game has two modes, the harder of which not only offers fewer hints but also increased difficulty for some puzzles. Dracula's vampire nature is laced into the gameplay as well: his superhuman abilities like telekinetic powers and x-ray vision require him to bolster his strength with blood – sourced either from vials hidden onscreen, or directly from the jugular veins of the Queen's racy young minions. However, indulging his insatiable thirst has consequences, which makes Love Kills a rare casual game worth replaying, as the surprising conclusion depends on the choices you make along the way.

The immense range of activities is sure to satisfy any fan of casual adventures, whatever the preference. Gathered inventory items are either used intuitively with other onscreen objects, often much later and in far-removed places, or help complete scenarios which yield new puzzles. The objects blend well into intricately designed screens, and though they sparkle occasionally, eliminating pixel hunting, seeking them all out is still pleasantly challenging. The two dozen hidden object screens are well-stocked, and each set of fifteen era-appropriate objects yields one useful item. Though these scenes are repeated once each, no objects found in the first search are included in the second round. The thirty-odd standalone puzzles and minigames cover almost every sort: jigsaws, object matching and sequencing, tile swapping, sliders, rotators, mazes, gears, checkers, and even mouse control challenges, varying widely in difficulty from easy to quite complex. Many have multiple levels to complete, though any puzzle can be skipped after a couple of minutes.

Progress isn't entirely linear, as Dracula has to juggle all available locations. Helpfully, screens where all tasks are currently done are marked as completed, though they're revisited in later chapters. A map marks active screens and specifies incomplete ones, allowing instant teleporting between them. With over a hundred meticulously drawn, subtly animated screens loaded with little flourishes, Love Kills is a visual treat that combines with the classical background score to create an immersively tense and ominous ambience. Character and event animation is smooth but limited, relying mostly on transitions of static images. There's substantial dialogue, embellished with snappy one-liners, and extensive voice acting both in-game and during cutscenes. But over-the-top renditions and hodgepodge accents, particularly the Queen's minions' hammy threats, make the production inadvertently cheesy, though Igor's oddball portrayal is weirdly charming.

There are numerous awards for achieving pre-set milestones, good and bad, including one for finishing the game under five hours, a fairly demanding ask even in the easy mode. In the Collector's Edition bonus chapter, Dracula searches the labyrinths below Notre Dame for the source of the Queen's power to keep the artifact out of the hands of other megalomaniacs. His team depends on the conclusion of the main game, as does the finale, which comes after another ninety minutes of superlative questing through several new locations, eight more repeated hidden object screens, a lengthy inventory obstacle, and a dozen-plus tricky puzzles.

With Dracula: Love Kills, Waterlily Games delivers big on genuinely high stakes. A shift from traditional to casual adventure could easily be dismissed as a downgrade for a series, but this game proves that a classic tale told with refreshing twists, diverse protagonists who play off each other's discrete personalities, a vast repository of thoughtful challenges, moral dilemmas yielding different outcomes, and impressive art and architecture will produce a winner irrespective of the format. Clocking in at well over six hours with the CE extension, this game has both style and substance, and is worth playing at least a couple of times for all fans of vampires and/or casual adventure games.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

June 8, 2011

Review: Empress of the Deep 2: Song of the Blue Whale: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | arcade

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 460 MB

publisher: Gogii Games | developer: Silverback Productions

Empress 2: Song of the Blue Whale Collectors Edition
game brief: Anna awakens on a tiny island after escaping the destruction of her underwater kingdom. She must find her way to a mystical floating cloud city in the sky, seek out the four Children of Light and save them from the twisted clutches of the Evil Empress Pandora. Along the way she must rescue enchanted animal slaves and solve elaborate puzzles with objects and magical artifacts to bring harmony to the ancient sky palace. (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: May 2011 New Releases' article.

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.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

May 11, 2011

Review: Voodoo Whisperer: Curse of a Legend: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic

playtime: 3 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 283 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Funswitch

Voodoo Whisperer: Curse of a Legend
game brief: Mentored by one of the most powerful voodoo priestesses in the world, Lillian is learning to use her power. Suddenly, a dark force settles over New Orleans, and Marie Leveau, Lillian's teacher, is placed under a curse. In fact, the entire town has been put into a deep, dark sleep by a mysterious evil force. Lillian must find allies and uncover the dark secrets of voodoo to save her master and free her friends. links: (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: April 2011 New Releases' article.

If it's a game about voodoo, it must be in The Big Easy. Sure enough, in Funswitch's Voodoo Whisperer: Curse of a Legend, an ominous cloud swirls over late 19th century New Orleans as young Lillian is informed by her voodoo priestess mentor that a malevolent force has cursed the residents. Now it's up to Lillian to eliminate the evil entity, and as she seeks to discover the source of the maladies by solving puzzles and scouring a variety of hidden object scenes, she'll also learn more about her own supernatural gifts in the process.

Lillian's adventure begins on her own sprawling estate, which includes a mansion, a chapel, the family crypt and the obligatory backyard swamp lorded over by a hungry crocodile. Eventually she'll make her way into town, encountering a population of seven along the way – four of whom are cursed, two are dead (though momentarily revivable by magic) and of course the villain. A map marks Lillian's current and completed locations, but with only four main areas (or five if you include the hotel, fully integrated in the Collector's Edition) to visit in sequence, it has no practical use. The task list is similarly redundant, noting the two or three objectives per location which, given the strict linearity of proceedings, are impossible to forget anyway. Unlike in most games, players can toggle between the two difficulty modes at any time – regular has faster hint recharging and sparkling hotspots, while the advanced mode only has hints.

Lillian largely searches for usable items to solve inventory quests, though she does occasionally find simple standalone challenges, including pipes, image-matching and jigsaws. She can also use voodoo spells on certain items, such as the useful 'Move', which shifts heavy objects. The inventory puzzles are logical and easy to solve, and are well-integrated into the story apart from a few awfully contrived situations in pursuit of regular household objects. Two interesting items are added to Lillian's arsenal midway through the first chapter: a mortar, used to combine ingredients to create dolls and potions, and a grimoire, a book which stores the recipes and spells to enchant them. This adds intricacy and focus to the game, nicely incorporating the spirit of voodoo and elevating it slightly from just being a run-of-the-mill scavenger hunt.

The 16 hidden object screens (and several more in the CE bonus chapter) are elaborately designed, though many are repeated unnecessarily to pad playing time. The objects are era- and location-appropriate and reasonably well-concealed, and the main challenge comes either from item names no longer in our vocabulary, such as a pocket tinderbox and a boneshaker, or from familiar-sounding items like a pencil case or stethoscope looking quite different a couple of centuries ago. Unfortunately, objects are recycled between screens without remorse, and many necessary items are arbitrarily disposed of, forcing you to continually collect tools of similar purpose like garden shears, a saw, a cake knife, a pocket knife, a pen knife, and several sorts of scissors. Most areas fully explored are marked onscreen as completed, but there is still a lot of needless backtracking required to fetch objects you can only observe at first, and to find hidden object scenes you've already searched that have been activated again without any indication.

Easily the prime asset of this game is its beautiful, realistic screens, each of which is meticulously drawn with numerous little flourishes that bring both the genteelness of the era and the darkness of its evil to the fore. A few cutscenes of static images intersperse the story, while the rare conversations are displayed as text dialogues, with voiceovers limited to the beginning of the game. The music efficiently supports the art to create a morose if mildly perilous atmosphere, and is bolstered by sound effects like cracking thunder, creaking swings and croaking frogs. Another highlight is Lillian herself. She's an intelligent and spunky child, and leads the game with sensitivity and courage. She describes objects and situations in detail, provides straightforward instructions on how to resolve most quests, and ultimately confronts the villain with great determination. Players, however, are only given a half-baked explanation of the crisis before being summarily cursed with a 'to be continued' at the end.

It doesn't even take long to reach that point, as even the expanded Collector's Edition can be completed in three-odd hours. Rather than simply tacking an extra chapter onto the end, this CE inserts its single bonus location, Barlowe's Hotel, seamlessly into the main game as one of five places visited by Lillian. This brief chapter, which features a few inventory quests, a handful of hidden object screens and one jigsaw puzzle, doesn't add any new revelations to the investigation; it merely boosts playing time by a half hour. Overall, Voodoo Whisperer: Curse of a Legend is an attractively crafted game that's unfortunately pinned down by a lukewarm mystery, repetitive item searches, needless backtracking and an abrupt cliffhanger ending, so step in only if you're keen on soaking up the spooky New Orleans atmosphere and rummaging through the delightful antique-laden hidden object screens.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

May 2, 2011

Review: King's Quest II: Romancing The Stones

game format: classic adventure; freeware / indie development

puzzles: inventory | logic | arcade

playtime: 15+ hours | difficulty: challenging | size: 309 MB

developer: AGD Interactive | links: official site

King's Quest II: Romancing The Stones
game brief: The King's Quest II: Romancing the Stones (is a) remake of King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne, the sequel to Quest for the Crown. The game revisited Graham, now King of Daventry, and followed him on his journey through the land of Kolyma. Graham's ultimate mission this time was to rescue the beautiful maiden, Valanice, from her quartz tower imprisonment and marry his Queen. (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers® | rating: N/A (Freeware)

summary: AGDI's enhanced remake of Romancing the Throne will give you plenty of reason to fall in love with it.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

April 21, 2011

Review: The Next BIG Thing

game format: classic adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic | conversations

playtime: 10 hours | difficulty: moderate | size: 7.3 GB

developer: Pendulo Studios | publisher: Focus Home Interactive | links: official site

The Next BIG Thing
game brief: TNBT revisits with class and humor the fantastic cinema universe in a modern and funny adventure, packed with references to the genre's popular movies and series. It offers a story full of comedy, horror, shivers, action, mystery, romance, twists and turns, lies, monsters, fridges, teleportation cabins, stolen brains, half meter flies, Egyptian bombshells, Mexican werewolves, Australian crocodiles, and… What? (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers® | rating: 3.5/5

summary: The glossy production, zany cast and clever writing are sure to entertain fans of whimsical adventures, but a shaky plot and inconsistent gameplay trip this one up just short of its billing as The Next BIG Thing.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

Walkthrough: The Next BIG Thing

April 11, 2011

Review: Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic

playtime: 4 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 180 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Inertia Game Studios

Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart Collectors Edition
game brief: Deep in the English countryside, Edwina Margrave has returned to the cottage where her parents died, eager to speak with the one person who might shed light on the tragedy – the volatile landlady, Miss Thorn. But her shocking revelations are not what Edwina expected! Enlist the aid of the spirit world and evade the wrath of a disfigured beast as you explore this heart-breaking game! (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: March 2011 New Releases' article.

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

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

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

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

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

March 9, 2011

Review: Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 216 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Alawar Games | links: official site | buy this game

Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story
game brief: Welcome to a town where something that should not exist runs free; where a desperate wife will risk her beating heart to find her husband; and where a terrible secret lies buried behind an orphanage. Search for clues, solve puzzles, and unlock new areas as you visit spine-chilling locations, play stimulating mini-games and locate Hidden Objects. (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: February 2011 New Releases' article.

Danielle Hunt, a young newlywed, is trapped in a honeymoon from hell. Her husband Sam went mysteriously missing the moment he opened the door to receive a strange box left on their porch. Now its content – a bizarre thread doll with mismatched buttons for eyes – is talking to her. As if that isn't bad enough, Danielle must drive in the pouring rain to Sam's old neighbourhood to save him from a fate possibly worse than death, but she loses control and crashes the car, coming to in a vicious alternate reality. Alawar's Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story follows Danielle as she attempts to uncover the dreadful secrets long-hidden within the abandoned community, which has now morphed into a dark, distorted version of itself, groaning and rotting under the shackles of the all-permeating evil. Exploring the town, which includes a toy store, amusement park, an orphanage, and of course a cemetery (the last being the least grotesque location in this macabre tale of kids, dolls and clowns) is no easy task, however, as the evil presence has locked every door, cupboard and drawer to thwart her progress. Even Sam's home is guarded by two mutilated mannequins brandishing a saw above the lock on the door.

Stray Souls excels with its art and attention to detail – each scene, whether idyllic or warped by malevolence, is skillfully illustrated and effectively communicates destruction and doom both underlying and overt. These screens are animated with inclement weather, glowing lights and eyes, awful moving toys, and a seriously disconcerting guillotine. The dingy, abused buildings and tunnels are oppressive and disturbing, and often it's a great relief to exit to relatively cleaner open spaces. Places that are cleansed of evil return to their original state, and provide a nice before-and-after visual comparison, especially when areas still cursed are visible on the same screen. Unfortunately, essential elements for a truly spooky atmosphere – sound effects and music – are woefully sparse: there are only a few short piano-led pieces that loop interminably, there's no voice acting, and sound effects are merely adequate.

Gameplay is both linear and quite easy. Each individual location has a hidden object screen tucked into it, which yields one or two useful items. Objects are cleverly concealed rather than buried in clutter, and several items are included as children's sketches, graffiti and appropriate labels. Only three or four of the twenty-odd screens are repeated. The inventory puzzles are basic, as the solutions are usually practical and believable, and Danielle generally has a maximum of three or four items. The few standalone puzzles are all locks on various doors and gates. Most are traditional types like ring rotators and sliders, but there is one genuinely creative puzzle, an elaborate piece involving a chain-reaction of various smaller puzzles falling into place. None of the puzzles are difficult, though a couple are poorly-clued, making them seem harder than they really are. There are two difficulty modes, the only differences being hint recharge time and highlighting of interactive items and objects. The hint feature displays one item in hidden object screens, and the currently-most-useful hotspot in regular environments. A journal records Danielle's key discoveries and important plot points, and contains a map of the town, which notes any areas where there's work to be done. While this eliminates clueless backtracking, it doesn't allow for quick travel between locations.

The story retains a sense of suspense at all times despite some gobbledygook about wizards and demons, and keeps the player engaged until the end. Upon arriving in town, Danielle receives a dollhouse and a doll – a replica of young Sam – which reveals that Sam has paranormal powers. Guided by her thread doll companion, Danielle must discover the remaining seven dolls, each representing a key member of the story, to piece together the mystery of the town, her husband's role in its destruction, and most importantly, his current fate. There are a few other characters in the game, including a clown, a girl and Police Chief Torres, but interactions are limited and expository, and Danielle herself is insufferably bland. She trudges mechanically through the bizarre events unfolding around her, never intrigued, never excited. The game ends with a conclusive epilogue, and the Collector's Edition bonus chapter is a prequel set decades earlier, in which Chief Torres investigates the unexplained murders and disappearances of the rapidly-dwindling population. Unlike Danielle, Torres is acerbic and vocal, which adds a bit of spice the main game lacks. Regrettably, this segment wallows in pointless hidden object searches of screens you've seen already, feeling like little more than a tacked-on extra. While disturbing in parts, the game is never scary, but if you like dark, surreal mysteries, Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story delivers with an unusual premise, a unique core object (the dollhouse), and a complex plot that twists and turns rapidly, leaving no one above suspicion right up until the dramatic finale.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.

February 9, 2011

Review: Treasure Seekers: The Time Has Come: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 300 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Artogon Studios | links: buy this game

Treasure Seekers: The Time Has Come
game brief: The time has come for Nelly and Tom to stop a potential catastrophe and save the world in Treasure Seekers: The Time has Come! With new powerful devices, such as the Ring of Time and the X-Glass, Nelly and Tom must go on their most exciting adventure yet! Is Totenkraft really as evil as they previously thought? (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: January 2011 New Releases' article.

Artogon's Treasure Seekers series, featuring the brother-sister duo of Tom and Eleanor (aka Nelly) Lonsdale, debuted as a hidden object game sprinkled with a few puzzles. Its watershed year was 2009, when the sequel was released. The Enchanted Canvases seamlessly integrated hidden object searches, inventory management and logic puzzles with an engaging story, superb production quality and lengthy, tight gameplay, establishing itself among the pioneers of casual adventures. The fourth installment, The Time Has Come, is rather topical, being based on the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world. It's March 2012, and übervillain Totenkraft, a veteran of the series, stands atop a rain-swept rooftop, declaring his plans to unleash himself on the unsuspecting denizens of the planet. Just then, the scene shifts to 1932, to a French news report about Nelly having decoded a Mayan stone forecasting doomsday, then pans to Totenkraft stalking her as she window-shops in Paris. A month later, Tom learns that Nelly is missing, and with nary a thought for his poor hamster, sets out on a quest to save his sister.

Not content with such a simple premise, the developers have piled several adventure game staples into the story: the Templars, the Crusades, dead knights, living demons, politically-correct vegan sacrifices, the Holy Grail (yes, the Holy Grail), time travel, actual travel (Paris, Jerusalem, Scotland, Mexico and a parallel universe, if we include the Collector’s Edition bonus chapter), plus a Star Wars-style finale – it’s all there, linked to the ‘Great Catastrophe’ of the world colliding with an asteroid. But while Totenkraft fine-tunes his world domination plans, Tom’s life is an endless nightmare of locked doors, lost keys, stuck panels and dark rooms. But he chips away diligently at crumbling plaster and choked chimneys, flitting between the past, present and future with dizzying alacrity using a magical ring. In theory, time travel can be a potent tool if wielded correctly, but here it’s reduced to a mechanism to locate banal inventory items. (Um, need tomatoes for the soup – I mean, the sacrifice? Let’s go back 700 years and get them!) To be fair, it’s visually interesting to compare scenes then and now – for example, a statue outside a church in the past is now reverentially enclosed in a small chapel of its own – but because the locations are so isolated and the difference is mostly in aging, not modernization, it’s not even always clear which era Tom is in (not that it matters to the plot).

Despite its time travel, the game is very linear, as Tom must solve a specific sequence of inventory-related tasks in order to proceed. Sometimes only one item is needed, but many puzzles require a combination of several objects together. These are displayed in rings around the puzzle, so you don’t actually have to think about what’s required, merely find the necessary items. Single item quests are stretched further with gratuitous interactivity, as they must often be assembled from parts lying next to each other. There is also repeated hacking at foliage, brushing off dust and hammering things, not to mention tapping an egg several times to crack it. On the easier difficulty setting, interactive items are either tagged on mouse-over or highlighted with a ‘hand’ cursor. Both the easy and advanced modes have a rechargeable hint option which gives you further assistance if needed. Some items can only be found through traditional hidden object searches, but this episode lacks its predecessors’ discretion in stocking such screens – a church shed hides a propeller and a crash helmet amongst other generic items – which reduces its credibility. There are a couple of interesting additions to the basic formula, however. The first, an X-Ray glass, can ‘see’ objects literally hidden underground, behind walls, inside storage units, and even in another era. Besides breaking the monotony of object searches, it moves the story forward by revealing mission-critical items that require toggling between the past and the present. The second is the need to perform actions like moving aside curtains and opening boxes to find items or meet certain requirements. The few standalone puzzles are extremely simple for the most part, though any can be skipped. Among them are jigsaws, directing light rays with crystals, trial-and-error sequencing games, and pattern-painting. Notable exceptions are a logic-and-inventory puzzle that requires making crystals to decode a map, and another that involves alternating between day and night to solve.

The action is all set against decent looking scenes with standard animation – some dust motes, a few swinging censers and chains, a bit of falling water here and there – though there are occasional moments of brilliance, such as when an hourglass turns day into night for the first time. The music is similarly good but not special, though there’s no voice acting of any kind, including during cutscenes. Thankfully, what appears at first to be the game’s Achilles Heel – its inexplicable story hurtling towards ridiculous with each new revelation – suddenly snaps into gear, doing a u-turn just short of doom to wrap up with a genuinely clever twist. This leads to the most interesting part of the game, the ‘secret’ bonus play available only in the Collector’s Edition that’s unlocked once the main quest is over. It allows players to roam a limbo-like alternate universe as the three key characters, and as the world reshapes itself around them to reflect their professions, they must work in turn and in sync to escape it. This small but sharply designed segment is a gratifying reward, though it does earn The Time Has Come the dubious distinction of being grossly outclassed by its own extra. The main adventure certainly isn’t bad, as it’s ambitious in scope and substantial in length; it’s just a little too bloated with story clichés and gameplay filler for its own good, at times making you wonder if the time to finish will ever come.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.