Thursday, 24 March 2016

I Am Intrigued by a Mystery Game!

So I follow OWL Hidden Classics on twitter (@OWL_HC) to keep up to date on new HOG releases. Doing so is why I'll soon be reviewing a HOG themed around The Great Gatsby! More importantly, though, there's a 'coming soon' on their website that has me incredibly interested.

Check out their promo video-

A sled dog with a Ruby eyepatch? Digging a stethoscope out of the ice? What could it all mean?

And here's a screenshot of the coming soon page-
Click for all the gorgeous embiggened detail!
That's a ruined Antarctic (or possibly Arctic, but bear with me!) research station, isn't it? Snow cats, pre-fab workspaces, dogsleds... this leads to only one possible conclusion, doesn't it?

An adaptation of all-time great movie The Thing.

Well, okay, not exactly The Thing - after all, the main page promises it's a 'literary classic' - which The Thing absolutely was based on, as anyone who's seen the credits can tell you. John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart - fun fact - that was his wife's name!) wrote the story 'Who Goes There' which concerns a shape-shifting alien who begins assaulting a military outpost in the Antarctic, turning people into monsters while working on an anti-grav belt to take it to the mainland.

It's the second-best story based on the premise, right after The Thing and well above The Thing From Another World.

So, given my feelings about 'Who Goes There' and 'The Thing', you can imagine how excited I am about the prospect of it getting an adaptation into my favorite genre of game... which makes me a little bit uneasy, since there's a piece of evidence pointing in another direction in the image above-

That's a mysterious spire at the edge of the text ribbon. It doesn't look like the architecture of the rest of the buildings, and could easily be an interpretation of the 'strange architecture' which filled the Elder City of 'At the Mountains of Madness'. While this isn't the kind of telling detail that a a giant blind albino penguin would be, it certainly puts a wrinkle in things...

So is it Lovecraft that's being adapted? Is this, given the modern technology depicted, some kind of a 'return to the Mountains of Madness' type of situation? Only time will tell!

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Grim Legends 2: Song of the Dark Swan

That's two games in a row that have just blown me away. Inspired by the high quality of the Grim Legends 3 beta, I resolved to check out the series it's the third entry in, and that has proved to be an incredibly fruitful decision. Song of the Dark Swan is not a sequel to the previous game in the series, just another excellent dark fantasy story. It does have some similar themes, however - tragic tales of love gone wrong, people transformed into animals, identical twins... it's clear that this is a follow-up to The Forsaken Bride, but it never feels like a rehash. Grim Legends 2 has its own story to tell, and it does so in a stellar fashion.

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

Not at all. Again proving that artists working at the top of their game can make HOSs beautiful, the developers offer screen after screen of appropriate items scattered logically around believable locations. There are cluttered storerooms, an alchemist's tables, and a few destroyed structures to comb through looking for items, and the developers have made sure each one is completely gorgeous. The art style, with its thick, almost hand-painted lines and amazing attention to detail, its consistent through the entire game, making every HOS a pleasure to play.

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

Almost entirely. While there are a couple of 12:1 screens, by and large the hidden object sequences in this game are made up of construction screens, mini-puzzles, and integrated  puzzles. The integrated are probably the most impressive this time around, since the developers have found a great excuse for giving the player HOSs which are fully integrated into the story. The main character is a herbalist and healer brought to a remote kingdom to cure the queen's inability to speak, and during her adventures she'll have to assemble more than a few poultices and potions. As a consequence, the game is packed with a large number of 'ingredient hunts', in which the player must find a variety of reagents in completely logical locations. This is a great way to fully integrate hidden object screens without ever stretching the world's logic. All of the HOSs are hugely varied - especially in the bonus mission, which features a section set in a tiny town for faeries. These sequences are especially creative, as they do a great job of playing with perspective - a coffee grinder becomes a large structure, a vegetable stand is packed with single beans - it's all clever and carefully realized.

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

Setting this up as one of the premiere Hidden Object series, Song of the Dark Swan is every bit as brilliantly constructed as the previous game in the series. The story moves from strength to strength, telling a fascinating and often tragic story full of surprise developments and sinister characters. As usual, the story is confidently told, through dialogue, documents, and puzzles - but the game manages to one up its predecessor by working in a little environmental storytelling as well. There are a number of locations in the game which manage to give players a window into the world's history and characters simply through their excellent design.

Even my biggest complaint about the previous game - that segments of the story were locked away behind some too-challenging pixel hunting - has been rectified this time around. There are still hidden objects to find in every screen, but now they don't flit in and out of this dimension, and they're only attached to an achievement and piece of artwork, rather than a good chunk of the plot.

Grim Legends 2 is a pleasure from beginning to end. There isn't a bad hidden object screen in the bunch, and I only skipped a single (extremely fiddly) puzzle, which may actually be a record for me. It builds on the successes of the previous game in the series, managing to enthral and captivate its audience in the main game, and then delight them with the wonderfully silly trifle that is the bonus chapter. These are two absolutely spectacular HOGs, and they've got me more excited for Grim Legends 3: The Dark City than I was after playing an hour of it.

Grim Legends can be purchased from Artifex Mundi!

If you'd like to play the game along with me, click on this link to the YouTube playlist!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride

After being so impressed with the Grim Legends 3 beta, I thought it was high time to finally check out this series. This proved to be a solid decision, as Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride is a top-notch HOG experience in every way. From the opening moments as a bear attack adds excitement to an otherwise humdrum carriage ride, right down to the finale that takes players into an abyss which may or may not be the entrance to Hades, Grim Legends is a top-notch adventure. Great story and art, completely acceptable voice acting, and one of the most satisfying bonus chapters in recent memory combine to make this one of the finest HOGs I've played in a while.

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

Barely at all. With its locations stretching from run-down forest cabins to long-abandoned castles to underworld pits, GL is very mindful of keeping its Hidden Object Screens as plausible as possible. The screens themselves are also beautifully drawn, with special care to make sure that the hidden objects themselves fit in with the screen around them, so they seem like a natural part of the world. From an art standpoint, HOSs don't get much better than this.

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

It's a mixed bag here. There are a few object assembly sequences, in which players have to find all of the pieces of a device to be built, as well as some mini-puzzles, in which players are asked to find a series of items and then immediately use them somewhere on the screen to unlock further items. Both are refreshing and stylish changes from the standard 12:1 screens, which also make an appearance. The one place where the game feels unbalanced is in the placement of these different types of screens. The innovative screens tend to crop up in the first half of the game, while the second half is mostly relegated to standard screens. It's almost as if the developers stopped being able to come up with interesting ideas for HOSs halfway through the production, and chose to coast on raw ability for the rest of the game. They're still good searches, but the game would play better if the types of searches had been shuffled throughout the game's three-hour running time.

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

It's just startling what a great job the developers have done here. It's a thrilling story, filled with twists and turns I won't spoil here, suffice to say that there are a constant stream of reversals, revelations, and schemes that do a great job of keeping players hooked right up until the end. The story is perfectly suited for this kind of game - filled with ancient castles full of special locks and mysterious spirits who need to be foiled through arcane means. What impressed me most of all was how well-told the story was. In addition to to the skilled characterization and solid dialogue, the game does a fantastic job of telling its story during puzzles. Like the GL3 demo, the game features a sequence where the player learns the backstory by interacting with a literal storybook which must be 'solved' by having the player piece together what actually happened. It's a fantastic device, which helps elevate and already great story to further heights.

Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride is so good that I hesitate to mention the one drawback I came across. The complete backstory of the game is available in a coded storybook that can be checked at any time - the problem is that its story is coded, and the various paragraphs only translate whenever the player manages to locate an 'elusive' item. These are items from the storybook which are placed in every one of the game's screens, which fade in and out every ten seconds or so. These items are extremely easy to miss, and hints are useless in tracking them down. Since they've been tied to the plot, players will likely miss out on some of the finer details of the story, which is a tragedy. This kind of device is a fine addition for achievement hunters and the like, but the developers really shouldn't have hidden away any of their wonderful story from the players, since it absolutely deserves to be seen.

Despite this flaw, however, Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride remains one of the best HOGs I've played, and absolutely must be sampled by any fan of the genre.

Grim Legends can be purchased from Artifex Mundi!

If you'd like to play the game along with me, click on this link to the YouTube playlist!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Ferrum Secrets: Where is Grandpa?

This is something of a milestone here at the HOGuru's Haunt. That name is not going to catch on, I'm guessing. The milestone, though, is something else - this is the first all-3D HOG I've even encountered. It may be the only all-3D HOG there is, although I'll have to do some research into that. I'm used to the occasional 3D backdrop, and I've seen plenty of 3D animated cutscenes, but Ferrum Secrets is the first time I've seen someone build an entire world out of polygons and then dump a bunch of items in one place and expect me to sift through them. Based on this audacity alone Ferrum deserved a look, and I was certainly surprised by what I found.

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

Almost not at all. This is the first thing I noticed about Ferrum Secrets - objects seem less random and arbitrary in 3D. I'm sure this is partially a factor of the novelty, but the internal consistency of having the various clickable items all made of the same basic lines and textures as its surroundings massively simplified the struggle of getting artwork to match that so bedevils 2D HOGs. This could easily sound like damning with faint praise - 'everything looks terrible, so the objects fit right in!' - but that's not my take on it at all. While the environments may be primitive, harkening back to the days of Myst or D, the locations they depict - a trashed house, a run-down factory - are the kinds of places one would expect to have scattered piles of refuse, so setting HOSs there seems natural.

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

Not entirely - the hidden object screens are largely of 12:1 construction, other than one diversion to find plants for a potion. The game's developers at least recognize that this is an issue, so they cover up the problem with a figleaf explanation, having their heroine announce that she should 'clean up' the various areas if she's ever going to find the item she needs. The screens aren't then constructed so that a variety of items actually have to be removed in order to find the important one, but at least some effort is being put in.

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

The game is all over the map here. While I applaud the interesting choice of engine and art style, it's impossible to overlook how shoddy and random much of the construction is. The HOSs are well-designed, and there are some fairly clever puzzles - especially one that takes advantage of the 3D camera to let players move around a series of pipes that they need to turn on and off. The story around them is just odd, almost as if it was cobbled together around the assets that they developers had on hand, rather than starting with the plot and constructing from there.

The story concerns an evil fog that has fallen over a city, and the disappearing scientists who are somehow involved in its creation. Nothing wrong with that, other than the fact that there's no fog to be seen in the vast majority of the game. The most puzzling thing, however, is a strange interlude in which a witch - pictured below:

-Helps the player brew a potion to cure an arbitrary illness they gained in the previous chapter. If it seems like the witch in question looks like she's ready to his something with a magic staff, that's because she's obviously a pre-made model that the developers simply dropped into the game, irrespective of how it fit into the setting. It's incredibly jarring to be playing a game about stopping a steampunk zeppelin from using chemical weapons on a metropolis and then suddenly have a sidequest send me into a magical dungeon to find reagent. The whole sequence obviously exists only to pad out the game's extremely short running time, so I was understanding - but it still derails attempts at narrative pretty badly.

Despite its extremely short running time and fairly basic puzzles/HOSs (I neglected to mention, but 3D hidden objects are much easier to find than 2D ones), I was fascinated by Ferrum Secrets. Yes, that's entirely due to the fresh concept, but if nothing else, this game should encourage other developers to take risks with the genre. This isn't a great game, but as a proof of concept that HOGs can work in far more broad environments than had previously been believed, it might just be an important one.

Want to see my playthrough of the game? Just head over to this playlist!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Preview! Crime Secrets: The Crimson Lily

It's time for another HOGuru Preview! Hidden Object Style! Which makes it a 2-peat! Although I guess they just have the word repeat.

Once again, Artifex Mundi has provided this game through their beta testing program, and just like with Grim Legends, they're allowing me to post my playthrough of it! So strap in for this 'unique' opportunity!

Crime Secrets: The Crimson Lily isn't available for purchase yet, but Artifex Mundi has plenty of other games on offer.

Fun fact: There really are Crimson Lilies! So it's not just something they made up for this game!

Okay, that wasn't technically a 'fun' fact, but it is true!

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Preview! Grim Legends 3: The Dark City!

It's time for another HOGuru Preview! This time it's actually a Hidden Object Game! Will wonders never cease!?

Artifex Mundi was nice enough to provide a copy of Grim Legends 3 as part of their open beta testing program, wherein their fans play a slice of one of their new games and then fill out a survey about its content/playability. So there's really nothing exclusive about how I got the game - but AM was nice enough to allow me to post a playthrough video of it, as well as some screenshots.
Obviously I'm not going to attempt a review at this early stage - the game is still a ways from complete after all, but as of right now I'm fairly impressed. The setting and characters are interesting - my first thought was that these roof-running monster hunters would best be described as a mixture of Castlevania and Assassin's Creed, but then they started calling themselves 'The Order' and I realized that AM were deftly ripping off that title, which is already kind of a combination of the things I mentioned.

While the premise may be overly familiar, what blew me away about Grim Legends 3 was how much AM manages to innovate within the HOG/point and click adventure genre. There's a great scene where the player must craft a plan to deal with a monster, rather than just have the game spoon-feed them the answer as part of the plot. There's one of the most visually interesting "hit all the points on a map without doubling back" puzzles I've ever encountered. The real stand-out, though, was the way the game kept managing to offer exposition during puzzles, including a wonderfully touching puzzle box that explains the relationship between two characters.

Check out the video for my thoughts on and experiences with this upcoming title!

Grim Legends 3 isn't available for purchase yet, but Artifex Mundi has plenty of other games on offer.

Emerald Maiden: Symphony of Dreams

This review is going to be a little less precise than usual, as Emerald Maiden was the subject of the first ever Hidden Object Drinking Game, so my judgement can't be trusted 100%. Still, I'm fairly comfortable with the amount of attention paid to the game, and that this review will be fair. So, let's get to it!

Emerald Maiden is the story of a woman in the 1980-something receiving a ticket to a mysterious undersea hotel. The woman in question is an orphan, and she has reason to believe that the preposterously-constructed vacation resort will have some clues as to what happened to her long-lost birth parents! Which is true, but there's so much more to discover as well!

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 fairly crude this time. The abandoned undersea facility isn't a new setting - Artifex Mundi already published a fairly naked rip-off of Bioshock, after all, but the Emerald Maiden resort just isn't in the kind of terrible condition that would justify the stacks of garbage strewn everywhere. It's a little more excusable once the player starts venturing into lucid dreams which don't necessarily follow real logic, but even then the game leverages dishonest design far more than is acceptable. There's basically every type of HOS cheating a game can do on display in Emerald Maiden - size, transparency, colour, placement - the game never encounters a type of cheating it doesn't like.

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

It's about 50/50 here. While the game is blessedly free of item placement screens, there are plenty of 12:1 screens, where the player is tasked with grabbing a load of garbage to find a single item. There are also a number of much more interesting 'item assembly' screens, in which the players has to gather a series of random items to construct something on the same screen. It's a refreshing change of pace that fits the setting really well, and is impressive here as it was in Clockwork Tales.

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

Very well, actually. Emerald Maiden's puzzles are generally environmental in nature - finding items to interact with the world in concrete ways that all make perfect sense. Every now and then a discrete 'puzzle' pops up, asking the player to solve a game of pipe dreams or move symbols around a board - but they always make sense within their setting, and are never too aggravating. While Emeral Maiden certainly has a fantastical setting - undersea motel and dream machine, all in the year 1980 - but its developers have gone a long way to making sure that it's all internally consistent, and the game works well because of it.

Again, my fondness for this game may have been affected more than a little by my state of inebriation while playing it, but I must say that, beyond some sloppy HOS construction, this is a solid and engaging adventure, one that doesn't wear out its welcome across the 3-4 hours it takes to beat. Would it have been nice if the developers had put in a little more work on the hidden object screens? Sure, but that does little to hold back an otherwise stellar adventure.

Want to see the increasingly drunken playthrough of this game? Check out this playlist!

Emerald Maiden is available from Artifex Mundi!

Curious about what our drinks looked like? Here they are!

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Sinister City

Sinister City is perhaps the strangest hidden object game I've ever had to review, if only because I have to be careful not to ruin the surprises that make it such a special experience. I've come across plenty of HOGs whose plots can be spoiled, but Sinister City's reveal is about exactly what kind of game it is, and to explain in too much detail would kill the surprise.

The game begins on the outskirts of Sinister City, a bustling metropolis where vampires rule the everlasting night. Nina, the main character's fiancee, has been kidnapped by an ancient and powerful vampire, and he's come to town to rescue her or die trying. What follows is an adventure whose trials are completely unexpected, whose characters are utterly off the wall, and whose style must be seen to be believed. Now, for the HOG criteria:

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

Not as bad as it could have been. Whether John is searching through a hotel's back room, a castle's armory, or the studio where a vampire-themed children's show is filmed, there's always a plausible amount of clutter obscuring the items he's tasked with finding. The items sometimes stretch believability a little, but the game never cheats by vastly changing the size of items to make them more difficult to find. Also impressive is the amount of layering that goes into the screens—a few of them must be revisited more than once during the adventure, and the developers are consistent in that key items required later in the story are always visible during earlier scenes.

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

Better than many other HOGs. Every time John is sent to a hidden object screen, it's for the express purpose of locating a set of items required by the plot. Sometimes that's all he has to look for, but at other times the developers use the standard list of arbitrary items which need to be cleared before the final item is revealed. This actually has the effect of partially justifying the gameplay within the story since John is ‘tidying up areas' by searching for the one thing he actually needs. That said, it's not as good as if they'd actually made every item somehow relevant, as the best games do.

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

With the hidden object screens mostly plausible, the only thing that could have sunk Sinister City were bad puzzles, but even there the developers have turned in a solid performance by coming up with challenges that fit the world without ever feeling arbitrary. Sure, there's a jigsaw puzzle to solve, but it's built around assembling a broken map, so the logic tracks perfectly. There are likewise clocks to repair, generators to fix, and software to decrypt—but the puzzles always give the impression that the player is performing a relatively concrete task in the world. They're not the most difficult puzzles, but combined with the extremely solid hidden object screens, the result is coherent world, where the puzzles never pull players out of the story.

Sinister City starts with the most boilerplate setup imaginable, but refuses to follow the prescribed path. While the developers could have made a by-the-numbers vampire story, they've done something far more interesting, turning it on its head to creating one of the most delightfully absurd narratives I've seen in ages. From the game's first moments in which a character announces that the player is the director of the film they're going to be watching, right up until the end where outtakes from that film play, Sinister City is an always-startling delight. Besides being one of the strangest HOGs I've ever played, it's also one of the best.