Sunday, 21 August 2016

Demon Hunter 2: New Chapter

At the end of the first Demon Hunter game the stakes were clearly set - the main character had been ushered into a new world full of supernatural dangers, as well as an ancient battle which she was the only one qualified to fight. That's one heck of a way to kick off a franchise, which is why it's so puzzling that Demon Hunter 2: New Chapter picks up the story some 20 years later, after she's already become a world-famous demon hunter who's had countless demon fighting adventures that go basically unmentioned. Why would the developers skip over all of that content? What story was so important that they skipped over decades of adventures to tell it? Oddly, it's the return of the demon from the first game - who the main character has already defeated once (and without too much difficulty, really), rendering him less of a threat than I think the developers were hoping.

On to the hidden object criteria!

Criteria 1: To what degree do the puzzle screens look like a thrift store vomited on my monitor?

It's pretty bad. The game is set in largely realistic locations - offices, mansions, hospitals, a dungeon complex, and the developers have taken those areas and absolutely littered them with completely random and nonsensical assortments of items. While there are a few token attempts at building a theme - a hospital hallway might have a microscope and oxygen tank - generally very little care is put into making the items on display make sense. That same hospital hallways also contained a feathered mask, antique compass, and lace doily.

Criteria 2: Are the searches justified by the premise/story?

Not in the least. Demon Hunter 2 has a few different kinds of visual puzzles - including a couple of fun 'build a Rube Goldberg machine' sequences. By and large, though, the game is made up of traditional list-based searches. Interestingly, these are universally, drawn from the rarest subtype of hidden object screens, the elusive 12:0 screen. In normal 12:1 screen the player is asked to find everything on a list of items, and one of them will be the item they use to solve an environmental puzzle elsewhere. This creates a figleaf in-world justification that the player is 'cleaning up' the screen so that they can find the thing they're looking for. In 12:0 screens, players are given that same list, but once all the items have been identified and ticked off the list, they're handed a wholly unrelated item that they weren't told about. Not only is this strange from a storytelling point of view, it's weird from a design standpoint - it makes it seem like the HOSs are being built without any consideration of the game that they're going to be placed in - after all, how hard is it to draw a puzzle piece or sledgehammer into an already cluttered mess of a screen?

Criteria 3: How well do the various puzzles and object searches meld together to form a coherent whole?

Demon Hunter 2 actually holds together pretty well. I've been hard on the premise and the slightly shoddy HOSs, but as a story and an adventure, it's a very well-made two hour quest. It's full of puzzles that fit naturally in the world - starting a helicopter and examining chemicals are transformed into logic puzzles, for example, and the actual plot developments are interesting enough that I was eager to discover the identity of the game's masked culprit. I'll say this for the game - I've played a large number of HOGs now, and this is the first one in which players are twice attacked by RPG-wielding foes.

Like its predecessor, Demon Hunter 2 is a perfectly solid HOG. There's nothing as delightfully odd as that game's 'surprise' villain - a drawing of Re-Animator era Jeffrey Combs who regularly teleported away in a cloud of black smoke - but it's still a worthy sequel. The key elements are all there - demonic conspiracies, injured animals that have to be rescued, and an impressively large number of hidden object scenes. This isn't the best game that Artifex Mundi has published, but it's certainly worth a look.

If you'd like to see the playthrough that led to this review - it starts here:

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Demon Hunter: Chronicles From Beyond

 Demon Hunter: Chronicles From Beyond has the least surprising villain reveal I've ever encountered. I'm truly baffled that the developers could have included this sequence in a game that is, by all appearances, not a parody or satire. I'll set the scene - the main character's foster father has been murdered, and she's come to his house to investigate the death, where she finds his assistant, who professes innocence in any involvement with the crime, and offers to help track down the real culprit. Then, at the end of the conversation, this happens:

Yes, that was him teleporting away in a cloud of smoke, like a cartoon demon. He does this multiple times in the game before he reveals that he'd been working for the main demon villain all along, and each time I was baffled and delighted. If only that was a reaction that the developers were hoping to get from me!

Criteria 1: To what degree do the puzzle screens look like a thrift store vomited on my monitor?

It's pretty bad. There are plenty of HOSs in this game - most screens are visited more than once, in fact. Those screens, however, are shoddily-designed to the point of distraction. Not only are all of them flooded with random nonsense beyond all reason or plausibility, but every kind of object concealment cheating a developer can attempt - colour, gravity, size - they're all on display. The strange thing is that this doesn't actually lead to difficult HOSs. The clickable objects are all drawn in a style distinct enough from the backdrops that they garishly stand out from their surroundings, leading to one of the easiest-to-complete sets of HOSs I've ever encountered in a game.

Criteria 2: Are the searches justified by the premise/story?

It's all 12:1 screens, I'm sorry to report that absolutely no work was put into merging the the searches within the narrative. Glittering areas appear, and the player searches them, finds a single item, and then moves on to the next puzzle or HOS. There's no flair or innovation here, but at least there's plenty of gameplay, and some effort is made to keep the HOSs lively. In addition to the standard 'hidden items' that need to be unlocked, or have a foreground object moved, the game puts 'beyond objects' that constantly shift into the mix, asking players to find an apple, but having it transform into a baseball from time to time, forcing players to click on it at just the right moment. Little inclusions like this make sure that the game is always engaging, even when it fails to do anything really interesting.

Criteria 3: How well do the various puzzles and object searches meld together to form a coherent whole?

The narrative follows the main character exploring her childhood home and its environs, which wind up being fairly preposterously random. The creepy house is well-designed and fascinatingly complex, but some of the other locations the player visits seem random and out of sync with the rest of the story. Why is the player travelling to an undersea kingdom and trying to arrange a fight between a shark and a kraken? At what point did things go off the rails, exactly? Things get even more bizarre and random in the bonus chapter, which frames its story as a nightmare that the main character is having after her ordeal battling a demon in the main game. This seems like a flimsy way to justify the completely random series of locations that the bonus level takes the player - from a dentist's office to a jungle to a dilapidated asylum - it's almost as if the bonus chapter was made up of environments that had been cut from other games, then stitched together here with only the barest pretext justifying them.

That being said, I can't be too hard on the bonus chapter, as it introduced me to the Hidden Object Guru Channel's new mascot: Scarecrow Dentist

Demon Hunter: Chronicles of the Unknown is kind of a mess. The story only gets around to introducing demons right at the end, and the whole thing winds up feeling more like a prologue chapter to a series than a narrative in its own right. On a purely mechanical level, though, there's plenty of content here, both in the glut of HOSs and environmental interaction. The story may not be anything special, but there certainly is plenty of game on display.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Crime Secrets: Crimson Lily

 An old hotel battered by a winter storm, guests and proprietors trapped together by circumstance, and a vicious killer hell-bent on exacting revenge for the death of a young woman some years earlier - did I accidentally start playing The Axiom Butcher again? Crimson Lily hits a surprisingly large number of similar beats as that game, and is only slightly less effective as a result. For one thing, Crime Secrets' plot is much more coherent - by the end of the game I was completely aware of everyone's relation to one another, and why the murder spree had occurred. I know that's a very low bar to hold a mystery to, but that should only go to show just how muddled The Axiom Butcher's story got towards the end.
Criteria 1: To what degree do the puzzle screens look like a thrift store vomited on my monitor?

Absolute mixed bag here. To start with, there aren't very many hidden object screens at all, which is always a disappointment. The setting offers plenty of logical areas for the HOSs to take place in - closets, sheds, a vault - but the screens tend to be a little on the sloppy side. There's plenty of size and gravity cheating, and in the item construction scenes - of which there are a few - absolutely no care was put into integrating the item pieces into the background, making them all stand out, rendering the screens almost impossibly easy.

Criteria 2: Are the searches justified by the premise/story?

The HOSs are strictly 12:1 or construction-based, so there's a 50/50 chance that the player will have a logical reason for all their object hunting. The puzzles are comparatively well-integrated into the narrative, however. Sure, there are a few contrived locks with overcomplicated keys, but the game does a very good job of coming up with puzzles that feel like an actual part of an investigation. Whether it's '9 Clues'-style crime scene investigation, using logic to figure out which lock a broken key fits into, or a standout puzzle where the player, in need of a map, has to build a model of the environs and then photograph it, the game does a great job of keeping its puzzles a part of the narrative.

Criteria 3: How well do the various puzzles and object searches meld together to form a coherent whole?

Crime Secrets: Crimson Lily is unusually focused and direct for a hidden object game. While the player is offered a map for quick-travel purposes, there's almost never an occasion to use it. The game doesn't take place over a huge number of locations, but more importantly, the narrative keeps the player barrelling forward, rather than dawdling around looking for a series of oddly-disguised keys. The player moves to a location, finds all the clues and solves all the puzzles there, and then heads to the next location, never to return. I can count on one hand  the number of times I was asked to head back to an earlier location to grab an item or complete a puzzle, and it was never more than a screen or two of travel. The game is so tightly constructed and good at motivating the player forward that even if some of the puzzles and searches are a little contrived the whole thing moves so fast that it's difficult to notice any flaws.

As a mystery, Crime Secrets isn't exactly going to challenge its audience - an opening sequence establishes the mystery killer's motive as getting revenge for a murdered woman, and then players meet a character literally named 'Grief'. Still, even with its paltry number of HOSs, there's enough here to justify the attention of any fan of the genre. With its attractive art, decent story, and great puzzles, Crimson Lily is more than worth the price.

You can see the playthrough that led to this review starting here-

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Mystery Trackers: The Paxton Creek Avenger

This is just lush professionalism at its best. Apparently (so the game tells me, anyhow) this is the latest title in long series of HOGs about a mystery-solving organization that battles everything from common thieves to frost giants. I'm not surprised, because this game is clearly the product of people who know exactly what they're doing. Gorgeous graphics, interesting puzzles, and engaging story. Hidden Object Games don't get a lot better than this. That doesn't mean the title isn't exempted from the hidden object game judging criteria, though!

Criteria 1: To what degree do the puzzle screens look like a thrift store vomited on my monitor?

Barely at all. The game is set in a theatre during an attack by a mysterious supernatural force. So take an areal already prone to massive clutter and add a reality-quaking event on top of it - the result is the perfect justification for messes that need to be shuffled through. The game also does a great job of stick only items that realistically belong in the locations on the screens. One notable screen asks the player to look at a packed orchestra pit and pick out ten particular instruments based on their silhouettes - totally arbitrary, of course, but still refreshing and well-designed.

Criteria 2: Are the searches justified by the premise/story?

It's mostly 12:1 fare here. For all its successes, Paxton Creek Avenger never does a stellar job of giving the player a reason to paw their way through the screens packed with random items. Whether it's standard screens or a strange match game hybrid, where the player is asked to look at a cluttered screen and find pairs of things, there's never really any reason to do so other than to pick out the single item that will be useful a little later on. These extra types of HOSs mix things up and keep them fresh, but they don't make up for a lack of effort being put into merging them with the story and gameplay.

Criteria 3: How well do the various puzzles and object searches meld together to form a coherent whole?

The theatre (and its surrounding environs - no spoilers, though) is a fantastic location, and the developers have done a great job of packing it with puzzles which fit thematically and help build the game's world. Disarming bombs, repairing machines, defeating security systems - all have been believably transformed into puzzles. In an especially nice nod to the casual gamer, not only are all of these puzzles skippable with the filling up of a hint meter, but each one comes with both a 'hard' and 'easy' version that can be switched between with a simple click of the mouse. I hadn't encountered this mechanic before, and I was happy to have a little help with the sliding block puzzle that the game threw at me towards the end. Normally I just brute force my way through those things, but this proved a welcome reprieve.

Mystery Trackers: The Paxton Creek Avenger is as good as a HOG can get without actually lifting up the hidden object screens to a fully integrated level. It so impressed me that it made me want to check out other games in the series - which the developers were happy to help with! The game features one of the best bonus features I've ever encountered in a HOG - delving into the extras menu will reveal 'casefiles' of the other games in the series. The player can simply click on one of them and get the chance to play a puzzle and HOS selected from that game. It's great to see developers with enough confidence in their work to put little slices of them out there as samples, and from what I've seen, this whole series is worth a closer look.

Check out the first part of my playthrough here:

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward

HP Lovecraft adaptations always interest me. As a fan of the author's work, I'm aware of how much material it offers for adaptation into other media. Videogames have proven especially fond of his material, recycling plots, themes, and especially monster designs since the days of text adventures. Yet Hidden Object adaptations have been oddly scarce on the ground. Despite a large number of stories which would be remarkably easy to adapt, I've only been able to find word of three titles. Mountains of madness, reviewed here, Cats of Ulthar, which I'm trying to find a copy of, and this game, Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward. Mountains of Madness was a stellar game - how does this one change the HPL adaptation average?

Criteria 1: To what degree do the puzzle screens look like a thrift store vomited on my monitor?

It's pretty bad. While the backgrounds of the screens are beautifully drawn, very little care was put into placing the hidden objects on them. There's size cheating, gravity cheating, even strange overlapping effects. There are decent amount of HOSs in the game, but none of them rise about a mediocre level of quality.

Criteria 2: Are the searches justified by the premise/story?

Strictly 12:1 screens here. Lots of lists of random items, with one that must be grabbed to continue the story. The environmental puzzles are actually something of a high point in the game. There are plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to be explored throughout the mansion in which the game is set (it couldn't be less of a hotel, despite the title). It's a naturally complex location, with countless locks to open and secrets to ferret out, most of which proceed in a logical fashion using the items that turn up in the HOSs. It's just too bad the developers didn't put a little more work into making the screens feel like part of the game world.

Criteria 3: How well do the various puzzles and object searches meld together to form a coherent whole?

While many of the locks and puzzles are a little on the contrived side, the setting does a good job of excusing them. The nefarious Joseph Curwen, an ancestor of Charles as well as his twin sister (who serves as the game's protagonist), was a mad warlock, so filling his house with ornate obstacles seems like a natural fit. The game's story has a few problems, though, largely because it's built around a twist that's almost painfully obvious from the moment the first clues are dropped. I won't spoil all the details, but suffice it to say that the main character's quest to save her brother from a fate worse than death is characterized more by passion than intellect, and the player will find themselves controlling a character who varrels through a complex situation with confidence that borders on delusional.

While Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward may be a huge step down from Mountains of Madness, it's still a passable HOG, and it does a good job of adapting its source material. While it isn't the exact story, the central themes are well-presented, and the developers have the good sense not to tamper with the ending too much. Even the bonus chapter, which delves a little further into the Cthulhu Mythos for some fan-service, doesn't cop out and try to put too happy a spin on things.

My ruling? This puts the overall quality of Lovercraft HOGS at around a 6.5 - now to track down the Cats of Ulthar and see where that moves the needle!

Check out the first part of my playthrough here:

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Manhunt'n Project Part 5 - Happy Canada Day!

It's now after Canada Day, so why not watch a special Canada Day-themed episode of The Manhunt'n Project! Well, Canada Day-themed in that it was recorded on Canada Day, anyhow.
Enjoy! Well, as much as it's possible to enjoy a journey into the heart of darkness, obviously.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Manhunt'n Project Part 4 - All In!

Continuing my journey through the game Manhunt, this time I'm joined by my oldest friend Natasha, who both doesn't play video games, and can't bring herself to watch horror movies because she finds them too scary!

No one could have predicted this would be the result of our session. Enjoy!

I encourage you to fullscreen this video, since it's running at the XBOX's original resolution.