October 10, 2011

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.