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.