Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Year in HOGuru!

That's right, 2016 is almost over, making this the perfect time to take a look back on the first year of the HOGuru Youtube channel!

See you in the new year!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek

I've played more than a few bleak hidden object games, but few are as unrelentingly dark as Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek. Opening in the aftermath of a storm of biblical proportions, it follows a detective with a suddenly-spotty memory as she attempts to piece together her investigation into a disappearance in the titular town. The amnesia angle is a but of a strange conceit - things could well seem anticlimactic, since the main action of the plot has already taken place when the player starts - interviews have been conducted, and evidence collected. The developers are attempting to elide over the slower aspects of detective fiction, and just cut to the thrilling climax of the plot, with all the running through storms and fistfighting with serial killers.

Despite a few hiccups, this strategy works pretty darn well.

Now, on to the hidden object criteria!

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

Barely at all. Yes, every surface is covered with piles of random nonsense, but the developers have come up with a perfect explanation for the terrible condition of this small Vermont town - it's just been struck by a once-in-a-century storm! Honestly, as if these townspeople didn't have enough trouble with the murderous priest controlling all of their minds! They're well-built screens - no size or gravity cheating. The only problems I found were a couple of extremely unclear item names - if the word 'luck' appears on a list of items to find, how can that possibly be interpreted? Yes, the answer - a four-leaf clover - makes sense, but it's certainly not the first thing that comes to mind, and it, along with a few others like it, feel very out-of-place in an otherwise strictly literal game.

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

It's all 12:1 screens here. This is a traditional HOG - there are environmental problems to solve, and the player will do it by picking up a bunch of things and using just one of them. It's meat-and-potatoes gameplay, and the game handles it well, but there are no boundaries being pushed here, not are there any steps taken to make the HOSs feel like an organic part of the world.

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

The game's puzzles all fit the world extremely well. There's boat repair, map construction, a few ornate locks - it all works in the 'small town mystery' milieu. Enigmatis' greatest strength is the mood that the developers have created. The locations are beautifully-drawn, full of storm-battered houses and crumbling old buildings. They're attractive enough to look at that I almost didn't mind the game's biggest flaw - the lack of a fast-travel system. There is a truly epic amount of back-tracking to be done in this game, and it's almost inexcusable that the developers didn't understand that players want to be able to click on a map and just be moved to that location. Especially since there's no good reason to keep that ability from them - it's not like the game is constantly surprising players with ambushes on their way to the next objective, or anything like that.

Enigmatis' story really is its strongest point. Using a wonderfully-conceived 'evidence board' system in which the player gradually rebuilds the case that the detective had been working on, a tale of supernatural menace is gradually revealed. For a character who gets almost zero screentime, the Preacher is expertly built up as a credible threat, which makes the final confrontation with him all the more thrilling. While its presentation may be lacking in places, Enigmatis confidently tells an enthralling story, full of intriguing twists and genuinely surprising reveals, kicking off a franchise with matchless aplomb.

Curious about the playthrough which led to this review? The first part is below!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Most Hidden Object

I've played through some pretty terrible Hidden Object Games - the problem with being an arbiter of quality is that you don't get to only play the good things. In all of those terrible games, with objects so small as to be nearly invisible, or essentially transparent, there was never a hidden object as unfair as this one, from a little game called 'Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward'.

Please take a look at this screenshot and attempt to find the cigar.

No luck? Okay, I'll zoom in on the section of the screen where it's located. Try again.

Did you get it? Good - if not, I understand, as I had no idea where it was.

Here's the important thing to remember - the cigar is functionally the same colour as the wall. The only thing keeping it from looking exactly like part of the wall is the presence of a red cigar band. Or at least, that should have been keeping it from looking like the wall, except the developers went and pasted part of the UI over the cigar band.

Damn it, Charles Dexter Ward developers. Why would you do something like that?

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Adam Wolfe - Season 1

This is, by leagues, the most intricate and deep HOG I've ever encountered. Partially that's due to its remarkable running time - the game's 'season' is broken up into four hour-long 'episodes' - although simple running time has little to do with the game's successes. After all, Evil Pumpkin dragged on for hours and hours with almost no content to it at all. What so impresses about Adam Wolfe is the fact that each one of its chapters is a fully fleshed-out story with its own cast of characters, as well as a beginning, middle, and end.

Players take on the role of Wolfe, a supernatural detective determined to solve the mystery of his sister's disappearance - as well as help out the other three people who need his expertise in their own storylines. Each one of the stories is a fully satisfying experience, and had the developers been interested in doing so, they could have tacked a few extra puzzles and HOGS into each and sold this as four different games. Instead, they've released one of the most dramatically satisfying HOGs ever made.

Now, on to the hidden object criteria!

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

Not at all. Mad Head Games have gone above and beyond to create HOSs that look completely believable. Obviously aware that this is an issue in poorly-produced HOGs, they set all of the hidden object scenes in plausibly cluttered locations. Adam goes digging through an old box of personal effects, a bartender has the player searching through a packed shelf, there's even a child's treehouse absolutely stuffed with toys. All of the screens are beautifully drawn, with items hidden completely naturally. There's no cheating of any kind, yet the screens are never pushovers - great care was obviously taken to ensure that the items to be located match the art style of their surroundings. This is as good as hidden object scenes get from a presentation standpoint.

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

Again, this is a perfect example of developers going the extra mile and showing how much they respect their audience's suspension of belief. While the game doesn't have a ton of HOSs - there are just a few in each episode - the majority of them are fully integrated into the plot. There are some narrative screens, in which the player is asked to find a series of items as part of a story being told, justified lists, where they have to find puzzle pieces under a series of items, and plenty of mini-puzzles, that have them finding and using a series of items all within and intricately-designed screen. There are a couple of basic 12:1 screens as well, but by and large Adam Wolfe's HOSs are some of the best-integrated ones around.

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

Incredibly well. Adam Wolfe offers a huge variety of environmental interaction, standard puzzles, and action sequences, all of which fit perfectly within the game world. The main character operates in a strata of society full of ancient secret orders, scheming demons, and otherworldly threats - of course he's going to have to open a few puzzle boxes here and there. Beyond the standard puzzles, however, the game has a few interesting mechanics of its own to offer. Most notable is the 'time rewind' mechanic, in which Adam arrives at the scene of a crime and has the ability to look backwards to the moment of tragedy - simply move a few items so that the the physical space has been reset, and the player is treated to a rotoscoped re-enactment of the action.

What truly impressed me, though, was how well the game managed to integrate action sequences into the gameplay. So many games stumble with fistfights and gunplay, but Adam Wolfe pulls it off with aplomb. There's frantic tapping, some symbol matching, and even a two-axis aiming sequence - and they all work just fine. This is a more intense, action-packed HOG than I'm used to, but it never asks too much from its player, managing to remain an accessible casual experience even when things get violent. And get violent they do - Adam shoots a surprisingly large number of people over the course of the game, yet another one of its standout points. The game is so well-built that I even enjoyed the card game I played against a supernatural foe at one point - and I tend to skip adversarial puzzles because of my well-established history of being terrible at them.

From beginning to end, Adam Wolfe is operating at the absolute peak of the art of HOG design. Compelling stories, great gameplay, challenging yet fair puzzles - this is as good as casual adventures get, and is an absolute must-play for any fan of the genre. If I was forced to find a single complaint about Adam Wolfe, it's that at the end of the game the story isn't completely over. All of the mysteries have been solved, but there's a fairly substantial dangling plot threat that might frustrate some. I tend to look at it as a good sign - it suggests that the developers intend to make more Adam Wolfe games - which, if this one is anything to go by, would be a fantastic result.

Curious about the playthrough which led to this review? Check out the first part below!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Haunted Hotel: Death Sentence

One of my favourite subgenres in HOGS I review are the stealth adaptations. Whether it's a popular video game franchise like Bioshock or a minor literary classic like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I enjoy seeing how game developers who profoundly don't have the rights to a certain piece of media transform it into a hidden object game. How subtle will they be in their use of locations, character designs, entire plots? Haunted Hotel: Death Sentence is one of the least subtle adaptations I've come across - it's And Then There Were None: The Hidden Object Game, and it's actually fairly spectacular it hews to the book's storyline - actually making a little more sense here and there than the original did.

Now, on to the hidden object criteria!

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

Barely at all. This, like most of the Haunted Hotel titles, is an Elephant Games production, and as such it's made by people who care about the logic of their HOSs. The game's setting is a crumbling hotel on an isolated island, where the player has been called by frequent crime-solving partner James to help him determine the party responsible for a series of disappearances. The hotel has seen better days, so it's largely believable that there would be piles of sundry items scattered around all around the place. Especially since the maid is one of the killer's victims!

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

It's strictly 12:1 screens this time around. They're fairly designed, and frankly, pretty gorgeous, but story integration just wasn't a priority. The game features many examples of the signature Haunted Hotel design scheme - bouncing back and forth between a couple of screens as a series of locks open matryoshka-like. A few of the key items are found in the hidden object scenes, but by and large the game is more concerned with its puzzles and graphic adventure elements than the HOSs. Players generally search each screen just once, and there aren't any examples of the game livening things up or taking chances with the formula.

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

And Then There Were None is the original slasher mystery, and this game does the story justice. The timeline has been shifted so that the killer was able to go after their victims on a longer timeline, and the plot takes a few original turns towards the end, but overall it's a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the source material. Many of the puzzle locks are a little on the contrived side for the setting, but overall I found the execution convincing and eerie - there are even a few ghosts on hand, which is a surprisingly rare occurrence in the franchise, considering its title.

Haunted Hotel: Death Sentence is a solid capper to the second HH trilogy. Some of the text is a little sloppily translated, but beyond that it's an incredibly polished package, and one of the high points of the franchise. Even the bonus chapter available in the collector's edition is top-notch, providing another solid 40 minutes of content, an intriguing look at an even more dilapidated version of the hotel, and a satisfying wrap-up to the story. While this game never reaches the insanely masterful heights of HH: Eclipse, it's a solid effort, and fans of both the series and the original novel will both be entertained.

Curious about the playthrough that led to this review? Check out the video below!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Haunted Hotel: Phoenix

After the strange way Haunted Hotel: Eternity wrapped up, with its Mystery Trackers crossover ending and history-altering bonus episode, I had no idea what to expect from Phoenix. Would it follow the same character from the previous game, as the previous trilogy of games had? Or would it depart from the detective millieu entirely and go off in a new direction?

The former - this is the second game in the third Haunted Hotel miniseries, following up on the story of Eternity as the detective from that case goes to solve a seemingly unrelated mystery, only to have a couple of familiar faces pop up again. But to say any more would spoil the twists, so let's move on to the hidden object criteria!

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

Not at all. This is, once again, a title from Elephant Games, who make it their business to build great-looking HOSs. The game is set at a hotel built atop the ruins of a badly-damaged university which had been attacked by an arsonist some years prior - which creates ample opportunities to justify HOSs, be they in a messy hotel room or a literal pile of burned rubble. This is one of the series' better locations, and the artists have outdone themselves, creating an isolated and foreboding locale, one where the frequent appearances by a nefarious masked figure (who bares more than a passing resemblance to Arkham's Scarecrow) never fail to unsettle.

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

Almost every type of HOS is on display here. There are - in descending order of logic - construction, puzzle, valid list, 12:1, silhouette, and memory scenes. It really runs the gamut, throwing everything at the wall with mixed results. The valid lists - in which the player is given a list of twelve items to move, only to discover that each one has a relevant item hiding behind it - are a great way of making the default screen feel relevant within the game world. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the 'memory' scenes, which have replaced 'placement' as my least favourite type of HOS. For those who haven't suffered through these screens, imagine playing a game of memory - where two items must be matched - without having any idea where the items were located. Sound frustrating? It is - players are presented with a screen and asked to click randomly on items until they find one which slides aside, revealing one of the matching items behind. Then they have to remember which item was behind what random piece of scenery while they resume clicking all over the screen in the hopes of finding another random item. It's a capricious and annoying type of HOS, forcing players to do the very thing - clicking randomly around the screen until something happens - that is anathema to how HOGs are supposed to be played. These scenes inclusion is the worst thing about the game, but luckily there aren't too many of them.

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

Amazingly well. This is one of the strongest stories in the Haunted Hotel series - a tale of ghostly arsonists with secret agendas, of love and betrayal and surprising revelations. I won't  spoil any of the details, but suffice to say the developers have done a great job not only with the story, but with selecting puzzles and HOS types that fit the narrative perfectly. How well done was it? There are even a couple of reflex games/real-time puzzles that I didn't mind in the least, which is almost never my preference when it comes to HOGs. Here, though, they worked.

Which brings me to a final question before ending on a full-throated recommendation. What's going on with James? Playing these games vastly out of order (I started with 11 and then jumped back to 1) caused me to miss a pattern, so it wasn't until James showed up in this game that I realized that the detective who'd been nearly beheaded in Axiom was the same man who'd been calling the shots in the previous trilogy. But those games are set in the 20s, and this third miniseries is set in the 70s. Is it just a cute nod by the developers, or is this supposed to be the same man? I must know the answer, and would love to hear any theories or evidence that anyone may have come across.

Seriously, though, Phoenix is a top-notch HOG, so high-quality that even the appearance of a couple of my least-favourite types of HOSs couldn't sour me on the game. Amazing presentation, great story, wonderful puzzles, this is a great title through and through.

Curious about the playthrough that led to this review? It starts below!

Monday, 12 December 2016

Endless Fables: The Minotaur's Curse

The year is 1888, and archaeologists have discovered an amazing relic - the actual thread Theseus used to find his way back out of the Labyrinth after slaying the minotaur! Naturally, the discovery draws the attention of an evil cult of minotaur-worshippers, and it's up to the player to avoid their schemes, find the hidden isle of the Greek Gods, and prevent the resurrection of a certain bull-headed monster who has already been mentioned twice in this paragraph, and a third would probably be excessive. It's a crash course in mythological monsters packed alongside some great art and solid puzzles.

Now, 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 not a problem in the least. Logic and style are the buzzwords underlying the game's HOS design. While the screens themselves aren't the most intricate or beautifully-drawn, they fit perfectly within the game world. Whether the player is exploring ancient ruins or a cluttered blacksmith's shop, every time they're asked to search for hidden object, it's in a place that make perfect sense. The screens are also completely fair. No colour or gravity cheating here - they even go easy on asking players to find images of items rather than the items themselves. The end result are screens that are perhaps a little on the easy side as HOS go, but always a blast to play.

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

Almost completely. This is where the game really shines. While a couple of 12:1 screens make an appearance, by and large the player only has mini-puzzles and construction screens to work with, and wonderfully-built ones at that. The mini-puzzles are especially well thought out - the player is told how many 'interactions' are left before they can find the item they're looking for, and then they simply have to figure out which items on the screen can be used to pry open one container to find a secret emblem to open a safe to grab a knife... when these screens are well-done, they encapsulate the whole graphic-adventure experience in tiny slices, and this is a perfect example of developers knowing what they're doing.

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

There are many familiar puzzles in this one - sliding blocks, chain linking, a maze to run marbles through. They probably make more sense in the context of this game than any other. Set in the millieu of the Greek Pantheon, Endless Legends has the player at one point traverse the labyrinth crafted by the actual Daedalus - so of course there are going to be some elaborate locks lying around. This is where that concept originates from, after all. The game splits up its journey into a series of 3-4 screen areas, each one involving a different mythological creature which needs to be helped or defeated, and this contained design helps keep the player focused on the task at hand, as well as moving the story along at a good clip. There's never a moment for the player to wonder what the dozen items in their inventory for, and it's almost inconceivable that anyone would ever have to check their map to see where to go next.

With great production values, an intriguing story, and wonderful puzzles, The Minotaur's Curse is a great jumping-off point for a potential series. This trip into antiquity feels fresh - while ancient evil returning to bedevil a chosen one may not be the most original premise, the developers manage to find new twists to the story with a surprisingly faithful presentation of Greek mythology, along with some surprising new gameplay mechanics. The game's breakneck pace ensures that players will constantly have new puzzles and HOSs at them, turning it into a thrilling ride which doesn't let up for the whole two-hour playtime.

Curious about the playthrough which led to this review? Check out the first part below!

A review copy of this game was provided by the publishers.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Haunted Hotel: Ancient Bane

There's another mystery for James and his player-controlled sidekick to solve - this time it concerns missing intellectuals at a haunted hotel! The twist? This time the hotel is supposed to be haunted! That's right, in one of the series' more audacious premises, a man with the warning-bells name of 'Abraham Shadowy' has built a hotel designed to terrify its thrill-seeking guests. The various monsters and ghosts are all carefully crafted machines that couldn't possibly harm anyone. Unless, of course, Shadowy were to attempt to gild the lily and purchase a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus - complete with cursed mummy - and store it in a secret room in the basement. But what's the worst that could happen?

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

It's not too bad. This once again comes from Elephant Games, who, as always, do a stellar job of building plausible HOSs. The setting here - a dilapidated hotel under assault by paranormal forces - is a perfect setting for piles of detritus to naturally appear. There is a surprisingly large amount of clutter in the inventory bar, however. The developers have made the odd choice to load the player down with nearly a dozen items early in the game, then reliably give them new ones just as quickly as the old ones are used up. It's a little frustrating to have to scroll back and forth through the inventory every time I want to try a solution to an item-based puzzle, or dig out a particular amulet to open a lock. This kind of bloat doesn't add anything to the experience, merely stretches out the least interesting part of the game - inventory management.

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

The HOS are few and far between in this game. The developers were clearly more interested in having the player assemble machines, disarm traps, and run through a course of the standard puzzles. The HOSs which do show up are generally 12:1 affairs, which at least means a bare minimum of work was put in to explain their presence. That's not to say the lack of HOSs cripples this game - it's a strong narrative with well-integrated puzzles, it's just that it's weighed quite heavily towards the puzzle side of the 'Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure' genre.

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

This really is a solid story from beginning to end. While it's the weakest of the '20s detective Haunted Hotel trilogy, that's only because Eclipse and Death Sentence are both such amazing games. The fundamentals are all here, however - jump scares, gorgeously drawn environments, puzzles that perfectly suit the plot and location. The game's fundamental problem is that the story is just too convoluted for its own good, without any of the fun which could have been brought to the premise. Just imagine - a man builds a fake haunted hotel and accidentally decorates it with a legitimately haunted artifact. That's a premise ripe for comedic exploitation. Yet the game has the same grave and serious tone that is the hallmark of the rest of the series - which doesn't suit it at all.

Oddly, it's only in the bonus chapter included with the Collector's Edition that things start to feel more on model. Apparently the hotel had, previous to its purchase by Mr. Shadowy, been the site of a tragic love affair that ended in madness and death. This is the kind of story that the art and storytelling style are best at telling, and this final 45-minute chunk of gameplay winds up being more satisfying than the entirety of the main game.

If Ancient Bane weren't part of Elephant Games' Haunted Hotel series I probably would have had lower expectations for it. I might have let the developers get away with a meandering plot and mediocre villain. Its pedigree, however, forces anyone familiar with the series to demand better. While a perfectly functional and eminently playable HOG in its own right, Ancient Bane just isn't up to the level of the rest of the series, and as such is the one inessential entry in it since Elephant Games started making them.

Curious about the playthrough that led to this review? It starts below!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Pretty in Pink

Yes, there's a Pretty in Pink hidden object game. I'm as surprised as you are. Based on the John Hughes film of the same name, Pretty in Pink chronicles the last few weeks of high school for Andie, a girl from the poor part of town, as she starts dating a rich kid, causing upset in both of their social circles. The game follows the movie's plot to a remarkable degree of fidelity, presenting key moments from story in the form of static cutscenes, with renderings of the various characters popping up on screen while text lays out their dialogue. While I'm fairly used to seeing popular stories adapted into the HOG medium at this point, there's something oddly refreshing about the lack of alteration featured in this game - the developers simply show a scene from the movie, then ask the player to click on some items or solve a puzzle before moving on to the next scene.

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

It's fairly dire. Not since Civil War have I played a game with such a random assemblage of nonsense thrown onto each of the game's screens. No matter what the setting is - Andie's bedroom, a school library, or the hall where the prom is taking place, there is no location that is safe from having miscellaneous garbed placed on every surface. The developers put in a passable amount of effort in making sure that the various items at least fit in the location logically - a kitchen will have largely food-based items, while a club will be littered with clothing, drinks, and the like. Every screen will also have a good amount of random ephemera strewn about for no good reason - this isn't a modern HOG, and boy, does it show.

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

Strangely, they absolutely are. While I've often joked about the justification for 12:1 screens being that the character must clean up an area in order to find the particular item they're looking for - Pretty In Pink uses this as the explicit motivation for many of its screens. In the world of PiP, there a lot of messy rooms, and a lot of people who are super-responsible about cleaning them up. Whether it's tidying up Harry Dean Stanton's messy kitchen, cleaning up after a kegger in the rich kid's house, or shelving records at Annie Potts' store, the game always makes sure that players understand why they're being asked to search out and click on various items. That's not something a lot of HOGs can claim.

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

Just as the HOSs are slotted very well into the story, the developers have framed the puzzles largely as representations of characters' thoughts or emotions. There are 'spot the difference' puzzles based around noticing the difference between fantasy and reality, and a few jigsaw puzzles that represent characters figuring things out. None of it is the least bit subtle, but fundamentally works as a logical way of adding gameplay to a tale which - at first glance - couldn't seem a less likely jumping-off point for a video game.

While Pretty in Pink managed to impress me with how completely it managed to fit the film's story into a HOG, it's not without its flaws. The graphics are as rough as one would expect from a decade-old game, and I had trouble getting it to run fullscreen in Windows 7 - which led to a workaround where I had to reduce my monitor's resolution so that the items would be at all identifiable onscreen. It's still a quality game, despite the technical issues - and even has a bonus feature that fans of the film will appreciate: both of the film's endings are included. Pretty in Pink's ending was famously reshot to change who Andie ended up with, but the developers of the game have decided to put that decision in the player's hands - just another way that they demonstrate how dedicated they were to making the best possible version of a Pretty in Pink HOG, which this almost certainly is.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Resident Evil 7 Beginning Hour + VR Observations...

Hearing that RE7's beginning hour had updated for the last time, I decided to check out the final version before the game launches in January. Especially since they'd added the long-promised VR mode!

You can check out the video of my playthrough below, and then please join me further down for some thoughts on the subject of VR control schemes. Specifically, how frustrating it is that developers force a strange, immersion-breaking 'turn using your head' system into their games.

Whether it's Here They Lie, Robinson's Journey, or now Resident Evil 7, developers are addicted to the terrible idea that people want to always move in the direction they're looking. They trouble themselves creating bizarre and jarring movement systems all designed around the premise that people should always be looking at the place they're walking towards - and they're all awkward.

I'm not sure just how they've gone down this route, asking players to turn in 30-degree pie slices, constantly have to recenter themselves, or be unable to glance to the side or backwards without running into a wall. Not only are these systems awkward to play, run counter to the natural experience that VR is supposed to be providing.

How is it so difficult to understand that my controller should be in charge of my character's body, while  my head is free to look wherever I want? Developers understand this just fine in vehicle games - and as a result Battlezone plays like a dream - I can move my tank and aim the cannon in any direction I like, while glancing around my environs to my heart's content. The moment I'm asked to step out of a tank and move into the FPS realm, however, despite the fact that I'm holding a controller in my hands and am perfectly comfortable using it, the developers decide that I can't be trusted to look around freely while walking straight down a hallway.

Perhaps they think that this is some sort of hedge against motion sickness, but I have to say that it's had the opposite effect for me. The only times I've ever been close to queasy playing a VR game is when the game world ceases to obey the normal operations of the physical world it's simulating. Specifically, when the controller pressing forward suggests I should be walking in a straight line, only to have the slightest turn of my head make my course go wobbly - this isn't simulating how people walk, it's quite the opposite, and it's a terrible to a solution to a problem that didn't exist.

Resident Evil 7 doesn't come out for another month - I hope within that time the developers see fit to offer a 'classic FPS' control scheme in the game. Move with the left stick, turn with the right stick, and give me the freedom to look and aim independent of what my body is doing.

Is that really such an ask?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Demon Hunter 3: Revelation

Demon Hunter 3 has a proud pedigree to live up to. While the first two games in the series weren't the best HOGs I've ever played, they were by far the most endearingly strange. The first game will always hold a place in my heart due to its use of a photo of Jeffrey Combs as one of its villains, as well as introducing me to my spirit animal, Scarecrow Dentist. The second game will be remembered forever as having perhaps the most proactive villain in the history of HOGs, who had a penchant for both poison and rocket launchers, which exist at the exact opposite ends of the spectrum of possible murder weapons. While DH3 may not be able to compete with its predecessors in terms of raw oddness, it's a better game than either of them, with great puzzles and a plethora of HOSs.

Also the picture of Jeffrey Combs makes a brief cameo.

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

Barely at all. The developers at Brave Giant have found themselves a perfect setting for object searches - a crumbling house situated just above a decrepit church that hides the entrance to a secret underground kingdom. I seriously don't have the slightest idea where this game is set. The previous two took place in America, but this title just goes full-on fantasy with its setting, having the player traipse from a modern setting where cops are investigating a murder all the way to a pseudo-medieval village. This wouldn't necessarily be so peculiar if the main character's adventure was taking her to some bizarre and far-off location - Demon Hunters can go where they like, of course - but she's called in by the police officer from the first game, which suggests that things are once again taking place in America. Perhaps I was a little hasty when I suggested this game wasn't as odd as the previous entries in the series.

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

Demon Hunter 3 runs the full gamut of HOS types. There are construction scenes, 12:1 scenes, silhouettes, even uncovering screens! While I'm fine with the genre-wide move towards HOPAs, in which developers focus more on the graphic adventure portions of their games, and backburner the hidden object scenes to a certain extent, it's nice to see a game really focus on its hidden object scenes, throwing more than a dozen at the player, with never more than a few minutes of gameplay separating each new HOS. They're all extremely well-designed, and a pleasure to play. Other than a single technical issue, that is. The 12:1 screens have the traditional 'white text for visible items, blue text for items which need to be found or made' structure. This generally accurate and well-handled - even the morphing items have their names change colour when they transform. The problem comes with the silhouette screens - they also feature hidden and transforming items, but there's no signal offered to let the player know which items can simply be found, and which are double-hidden. This adds a needless level of frustration to what was otherwise a perfectly-constructed set of puzzles.

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

Again, setting is king here - the ruined church and ancient village are perfect places to find elaborate locks, statues that need to be reassembled, and piles of items to search through. A lot of the standards show up - spinning triangle mosaic, gear strings, and marble sorting all make an appearance. The most interesting and notable puzzles are two imports from the Grim Legends series - the first are the storybook puzzles that do such a great job of offering backstory while keeping the player engaged and searching for mysterious symbols.

The second, and far more intriguing borrowed puzzle is the 'psychic battle' from The Dark City. From time to time the game's main character will come across a demonic force, and she'll have to break through their mystical barriers by finding symbols they're incapable of defending against. It's a great little minigame, and I was happy to see it, but its inclusion is more meaningful than developers reusing a successful invention. It, along with some plot details I won't divulge here, suggest that Demon Hunter and Grim Legends are set in the same universe, and fans of both can likely expect a crossover soon.

Speaking as one of those fans, this is incredible news.

Demon Hunter 3 may not be a bubbling cauldron of madness the way the first two games in the series were, but it's a bona fide success, with great puzzles, beautiful HOSs, and a story that ties up all of the last two games' loose ends, while promising more intrigue to come. Demon Hunter really feels like a Brave Giant game, and deserves its place alongside that developer's best titles.

I just realized that I made it through the entire review without mentioning the huge improvement they've made - there's now an indicator onscreen to let players know if there are collectibles to be found on a given screen. If it wasn't a solid enough game already, DH3 goes out of its way to strip all frustration out of trophy hunting!

Demon Hunter 3 can be purchased here!

Want to see the playthrough which led to this review? The first video is below!
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher!

Friday, 25 November 2016

Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood

Enigmatis ended on something of a cliffhanger - the evil Preacher escaped, leaving the detective to chase him to another town, where he would doubtless to use his hypnotic church bell to restart his serial killing. To be honest, it wasn't a fantastic ending. Enigmatis had been primarily notable for a super solid and surprisingly dark narratives, but I didn't see any logic or value in playing the same story over again. So i was understandably delighted to discover that Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood had something entirely different in store. Picking up two years after the first game, E2 offers a whole new setting, and entirely new villain, and the return of a familiar threat. More importantly, it explores and expands the mythology of the first game in some of the most interesting ways I've seen in a hidden object game.

Now, on to the hidden object criteria!

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

Almost not at all. The game is set in a long-abandoned tourist park (shades of Eventide!), a territory long-since reclaimed by nature. Every time a HOS pops up, it's in the ruins of a tableau or deep in a lost catacomb. The developers have strewn logical items in sane locations, and the result are beautifully crafted HOSs. There's a total of one questionable screen in the entire game - a single desk location near endgame that has a little bit of size and gravity cheating, but this one flaw is overwhelmed by how massively right the developers get the rest of the hidden object screens.

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

It's a solid mix here. There are some 12:1 screens, a number of assembly screens, and even a couple of mini-puzzles. There's a good balance between logical and illogical, and the assembly screens are some of the best I've ever encountered. By far the most impressive is one sequence in which the player is asked to use a black light to find invisible ink symbols on scattered pieces of paper, then use those glowing symbols as a guide to reassemble the code-sheet they're drawn on. I can easily overlook a couple of generic 12:1 screens if the rest are going to be this detailed and inspired.

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

It's not just coherent - this is one of the strongest stories I've ever encountered in a hidden object game. The various elaborate locks and hidden codes make perfect sense in the context of a holiday park that has been redesigned by a murderous madman, and even the beyond objects that the player can seek out for an achievement make perfect sense as part of the narrative - instead of just looking for a bonus transforming item with no connection to the story, the player is tasked with catching glimpses of the illusions that the villain has been using to lure people to their deaths. It's rare to see a developer put this level of care into every aspect of gameplay, and Artifex Mundi should be lauded for their accomplishment.

Enigmatis' great addition to the traditional HOG structure makes a return appearance here, and the developers have outdone themselves in improving it. Digging out pieces of evidence and figuring out how they fit into the big picture of the case is always going to be a satisfying experience, and this is one of the best examples of that mechanic I've ever seen. Enigmatis 2 also swipes a key element from Nightmares From the Deep - a door that has to be unlocked by finding metal tokens, and a mysterious figure who offers a bit of backstory with every piece of the lock the player turns over.

This is one of the thematically darkest HOGs I've ever played. There's mass-murder, demon worship, psychological torture... It goes even further than the previous game in the series, and that was already a flat-out horror title. Really, Enigmatis 2 improves on the first game in every way - the graphics are gorgeous, the story has a number of big surprises, and the presentation is top-notch. This is the third Artifex Mundi hidden object game I've played on the Xbox One, and I'm still impressed by how natural it is to use a controller for what had previously been a mouse-focused genre. Navigation is a breeze, the inventory control is better, and puzzles have all been tweaked to ensure they take full advantage of the thumbsticks and buttons to create more natural interfaces. If a slight drop in hidden object scene precision is the price I have to pay for better controls in every other respect, that's a deal I'm happy to make.

I can't say enough good things about Enigmatis 2's story, though. From its creepy opening to the thrilling conclusion (and satisfying epilogue), it impressed me more than anything else out there in the HOG genre. There are horrific discoveries, dramatic battles, tense setpiece puzzles - basically everything anyone could want from a graphic adventure. I'd recommend this HOG to anyone, and I'm eagerly looking forward to playing the next game in the series.

Curious about the playthrough that led to this review? Check out the first part below!

A review copy of this game was provided by the developer!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Dishonored 2!

No review of this one (as it's not a hidden object game, obvs), but I thought it was worth mentioning here that I recently did a playthrough of the game, which is available over at the YouTube channel!

Here's the first part!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Lost Grimoires: Stolen Kingdom

I just can't get enough of Alchemy-themed games, it would seem. In addition to my well-established love of the Atelier series of games - JRPGs in which an alchemist has to create her way out of troublesome situations - I've enjoyed every one of the botany/alchemy games that Artifex Mundi has put out. Lost Grimoires is the newest addition to that miniseries, joining the first two Grim Legends titles and the Eventide series by putting the player in control of a woman who uses her expert knowledge of the natural world to craft the potions and poultices that allow her to overcome every obstacle in her path.

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

To the most minor degree. This is the first title I've played from World Loom Games, but they're obviously extremely skilled at the fundamentals of HOG design. The game isn't exactly packed with hidden object scenes, but the ones it offers are - with a single exception - utterly gorgeous. The developers have created natural locations for hidden objects to appear in, and play extremely fair with item sizing and placement. I come to Artifex Mundi games for stellar HOS construction, and this title does their track record proud. Only one screen is badly-drawn, with an assortment of giant thimbles and objects that don't match the lighting or geography very well. Honestly, it's not even that bad a screen - and I'd probably give a pass to a game made entirely out of screens like it - but since the rest of the game's HOS are so beautifully drawn, this single mediocre one stands out like a sore thumb.

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

There are a good mix of HOS types here, with most of them completely justified within the plot. Sure, there are a couple of 12:1 scenes, but by and large the developers have gone the extra mile and come up with ways to ensure the HOSs feel like part of the world. There are mini-puzzle screens and integrated screens, but by far the most impressive are the construction screens. I've always been partial to HOSs in which the player is asked to grab all of the parts of an object they need, and Lost Grimoires offers some of the best I've ever seen. The key to their success is a wonderful presentation flourish, where all of the pieces the player has found appear on the screen as parts of an exploded diagram, which then flies together, forming the object they've created. It's a small detail, but it really makes the player feel like they've accomplished something at the end of a HOS.

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

Lost Grimoires features one of the best-structured stories I've seen in a hidden object game. It hits a lot of familiar beats - an orphaned child, family secrets, royal conspiracies - honestly, with the alchemist main character this winds up feeling more like Grim Legends 3 than The Dark City did. While the story may be familiar, the execution is anything but. The game is broken up into a series of three-screen areas, each one with a number of puzzles to solve and HOSs to complete before the player moves onto the next one. This keeps the story moving along at a great clip, with never more than ten minutes or so going by before the next plot revelation. This means that the player will never have to do much backtracking, or suffer from a bloated inventory which had them trying to figure out which of fifteen items they're supposed to use in order to solve a given puzzle.

Most puzzle solving is done through the alchemy mechanic, which is a fantastic creation. Rather than having the player return to crafting stations over and over to assemble the game's dozen-plus recipes, they simply collect reagents and then transmute them into a useful item through a standardized puzzle interface. In each one the player is shown a set of interlocking rings with spheres on them representing the five key elemental forces - every alchemical product requires that the elements be arranged in a certain order to be completed, and it's up to the player to spin the rings and swap the spheres until the puzzle matches the hint image. It's not a completely original puzzle - I've played version of it in plenty of other games. The genius of Lost Grimoires, though, is the decision to assign a specific puzzle to represent a repeated action, and then present the player with increasingly difficult iterations of that puzzle for the entirety of the game. It makes the player feel like they're using a real skill to interact with the game's world, one that improves as they make their way through the game.

Lost Grimoires: Stolen Kingdom is a great game. The art is universally high-quality, the puzzles fit perfectly into the world the developers have created, and the story kept me intrigued all the way through. I don't know if this is going to be the first title in a new series, or just a one-off adventure, but I look forward to whatever the developers have planned next, since they've shown that they can put out a top-notch hidden object game.

Disclaimer - A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Eventide 2: The Sorcerer's Mirror

After the Botanist hero's success in saving the Slavic theme park and saving a rare plant in Eventide, it's time for a mountain-climbing vacation with her niece. Her mistake - going mountain climbing in the same region where the first game took place, an area she knows full well is packed with goblins, imps, and villainous magic. Naturally, they're attacked by an evil sorcerer, the niece is kidnapped, and it's up to the heroic Botantist to rescue her, defeat the villain, and save a town all before an evil ritual can be completed!

But how did the hidden object criteria turn out?

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

Not in the least. House of fables can be relied upon to generate some of the most attractive and naturalistic HOSs in the genre. With Eventide 2, they keep that reputation alive, offering screens that make perfect sense in context, yet provide considerable challenge. As with all botany and herbalist-themed titles, the developers have an almost unfair advantage, as looking for a certain type of plant in a field of wildflowers is always going to be a fantastic looking HOS. Whether players are combing through bushes for a few flowers, searching desks for keys, or digging into piles of equipment, everything looks gorgeous and completely believable.

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

It's a roughly 50/50 split this time. The game is half 12:1 screens, with players grabbing a single key item and a bunch of nonsense, and half integrated screens, with a mixture of assembly and botany screens. Using the botany theme gives the developers a head start in logical puzzle design, as it's almost impossible to hide a particular flower in a screen full of foliage in a way that seems contrived or unnatural. Likewise, the assembly screens are a lovely sight to behold, with each random fragment slotted naturally into the environment. Even the 12:1 screens are well-built, with the developers managing to create challenging puzzles without resorting to any kind of cheating.

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

For the second time, the developers have put together a solid story which allows for plenty of HOSs and puzzles to be logically included. Many of the doors are locked with House of Fables' well-known narrative puzzle scenes, where character backstories are explored through pictorial puzzles - they're never particularly challenging, but they do a great job of offering exposition through gameplay rather than cutscenes, which is always welcome. The game's setting offers perfect justification for strange keys, secret passages, and ornate locks, just as the focus on using herbal concoctions to help people offers good reason to go looking for hidden objects. The House of Fables obviously cares quite a bit about making their games as logical as possible to keep players from ever getting disconnected from the story - and once again, they've succeeded.

There is one wholly new addition that the developers make to this game - a simple morality system that affects the outcome of the story. This isn't a new thing in games, of course, but it's the first time I've seen it employed in a HOG adventure. There are five decision points, in the game, and while none of them are exactly difficult moral choices, it's certainly satisfying to see how each of them pay off when the various characters return for the final showdown with the game's villain.

Eventide 2 is a darker and more serious game than the previous entry in the series. There are still adorable imps, of course, but the game's plot revolves around a man attempting to bring back his dead wife, and manipulating the townspeople of his village by offering them contact with their own lost loved ones. The solid gameplay never undercuts the great story, making this the perfect example of a sequel that completely surpasses its predecessor. Eventide was already a great game, and Eventide 2 is an improvement in every way.

Curious about the playthrough that led to this review? Check out the playlist starting below!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Haunted Hotel: Eternity

I'm now six games - halfway through, as of the release of Silent Waters - into the Haunted Hotel franchise, and I still don't have a sense of exactly what the franchise is yet. Obviously the first trilogy tells a relatively coherent story, while Charles Dexter Ward is just the brand name being slapped on a Lovecraft adaptation for marketing purposes. From the modern version of the series, with its high production values and tight design, I'd just played games 8 and 12 - and other than both of them concerning villains attempting to attain revenge for dead family members, I don't see any theme developing. I remain resolute, however - this is a consistently interesting franchise, if nothing else, and I'll do my best to find some connective tissue linking them, beyond the cleverest naming scheme I've ever encountered.

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 mostly in an abandoned hotel/medical research facility, so some dilapidation is to be expected. The main character is a detective charged with protecting a millionaire philanthropist who has a shady connection to an aborted cancer vaccine - the 'eternity project' of the title. The protection detail involves a good amount of scrounging through the wrecked hotel looking for tools to help navigate a madman's maze. Between the logical location and the idea that many of the messes are specifically created by the villain to provide a challenge, the visuals of the HOSs are well up to snuff.

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

It's a very mixed bag here. There are a couple of integrated screens, in which the player is takes with picking up a set of items from a list, and behind each one is a piece of a puzzle that needs to be completed. Other times the player is just grabbing items from a list  either as key words in a story being told, which sort of works because it's using the puzzle to further narrative, albeit in an obvious way, or they're just looking to match silhouettes to items onscreen, which I'm on the record as saying is my least favourite type of HOS. Actually, the game manages to innovate a little in that regard, reintroducing me to another terrible type of HOS: the memory game. In this, pairs of items are hidden somewhere on a trash-filled screen, and it's up to the player to pick the two hiding places in sequence. Why is this so horrible? Imagine playing memory, not with a set of cards laid face down on a table, but with a room full of items, a few of which have matching pictures drawn on the bottom. I've accepted the 'match pairs' puzzle design before, when all of the pairs were onscreen and just had to be discovered. This 'hide them behind arbitrary objects that can only be found through random clicking' nonsense is just bad design.

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

It's one hell of a story, I'll give it that. The puzzles, searches, and environmental interaction puzzles all make a lot of sense given the setting - a madman has built a labyrinth of doom, so a good amount of preposterously contrived danger is to be expected, even encouraged. In addition to the game's top-flight production values, I was pleased by the pacing. The game races forward, asking the player to solve all the possible puzzles in a set 2-3 rooms, then quickly moves on to the next contained area. More than anything else, the design reminded me of the one Mystery Trackers game I've played - and there turned out to be a reason for that, which I won't reveal here for fear of spoiling the plot for anyone playing the game.

While this may not be up to the level of Axiom Butcher, Haunted Hotel: Eternity has a solid story, great graphics, and puzzles that skirt the challenge/frustration line beautifully. As is often the case with Big Fish's modern HOPA games, I can fault the small number and sometimes-awkward justification of their hidden object scenes, but I can't say that the game fails because it didn't get the HOSs right. As the Hidden Object Guru, I'll always advocate for more and better HOSs, but I won't deny that a game does a great job just because its hidden object elements are a little on the weak side. Eternity isn't the best Haunted Hotel game I've played, but it's close, and does the series credit.

Want to see the playthrough that led to this review? It starts in the video below!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Criminal Minds

This is kind of a crossover, as in one of my non-HOGuru lives I run the internet's most popular destination for Criminal Minds reviews. Worlds are colliding, though, and it's time for me to put aside my knowledge of (and fondness for) the show and focus on how well it works as a HOG. So, let's join Greg and the gang as they attempt to solve some serial murders! But first, the hidden object criteria!

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

It's a complete disaster. Every HOS in the game is a pile of random garbage dumped on a generic backrgound. It defies realism, logic, or even basic professionalism. There's size, gravity and colour cheating - plenty of pictures that need to be found instead of the items they represent. Every screen is amateurish - with the only interesting aspect being the fact that a few of the items on every screen are anagrammed. Most words will be in black, but some will a mess of blue letters, and it's up to the player to either decode the anagram and figure out what they're looking for or just track down and click on a question mark hidden somewhere on the screen. It's not a revolutionary feature or anything like that, but it certainly does help spice up the otherwise mediocre HOSs.

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

Marginally. Sometimes players are asked to find 1-3 pieces of evidence amidst a 12-item list, but by and large this is all standard HOG stuff, with players needing to track down an item to open up access to another or get information from a witness/suspect/janitor. These types of searches and results clash badly with the subject matter - these are FBI agents the player is controlling. In the first episode, they're looking for a serial killer who's killed two people in less than a day, in the second episode they're looking for a dirty bomb. Why, in either case, aren't they just taking the things they need, going wherever they want, and demanding help from everyone while threatening them with arrest for obstruction - the way they do on the show? No, it's here in the random item-grabbing that the game feels least like a Criminal Minds experience.

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

While the HOSs don't really fit with Criminal Minds world, the developers have managed to come up with a number of puzzles that manage to fit the investigative model quite well. Whether players are asked to identify fingerprints, organize evidence, or psychologically interpret art by ferreting out details in it, all of the game's puzzles managed to recreate the feel of simplified policework depicted in the show - and as such, are very successful. The developers have even managed to put together decent substitutes for interviewing and profiling sequences. The former is depicted as a game of taipei, with the removal of certain pieces equating to the opening of a conversational onion, and the latter is a tile-swapping game built around assembling a line of uninterrupted thought - the game even lets players know that they're doing well by having the conversations between the profilers proceed as pieces are snapped into the correct slots.

While the game may drop the ball from time to time as a HOG, looked at as a Criminal Minds game it's everything a fan of the series would hope for. There's a gruesome murder, a lot of nonsensical psychobabble and ridiculous leaps of logic - what more could one hope for? Even all of the actors allowed their likenesses to be used in the game, if not their voices. As a Criminal Minds graphic adventure, it's probably that anyone has a right to expect, I just wish that the HOSs were up to the level of the puzzles, so I could recommend it without  reservation.

Want to check out the playthrough that led to this review? Check out the video below for the first part!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The 5 Outlastiest Moments in the Outlast 2 Demo

I was playing the demo for Outlast 2 on the XB1, and I found myself amazed/frightened/disgusted by a few key moments in it. Then it occurred to me that I'd never attempted to make a video list - so why not try to share those moments with anyone who didn't play the game? So, without any further adieu, here's the video!

(One piece of further adieu - Outlast 2 is an incredibly brutal game, full of hypergore and the most horrible fates befalling the most innocent victims possible. Then there's the series' trademark first-person-mutilation-victim sequences, which make a return here. So long story short, don't click on the video unless you have a strong stomach and don't scare easily!)

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Riddles of the Past

A woman with amnesia gets a clue to her past and heads to a mysterious town populated only by robots... and secrets! That's the intriguing premise behind Riddles of the Past, which is one of the cleanest and most focused HOGs I've ever encountered. There's a great location, some creepy robot designs, and a genuinely solid story that tracks all the way through. Before I get lost complimenting the game, though, we should get to the hidden object criteria!

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

Not in the least. An innovate type of fully integrated HOG, Riddles of the Past has no distinct and separate hidden object screens. Instead of being taken to a zoomed-in version area of some location and being forced to sift through a pile of trash, all of the game's hidden object scenes take place within the game's natural environments. Every location is a plausibly distressed depiction of a town left to rot for a decade, and within each one the items that need to be found are fairly hidden. No size or transparency cheating here - the developers even go so far as to give the player a picture of each item they need to find. It will be sized differently on the screen, naturally, and probably turned to a different angle, but it works far better than silhouettes in giving players the leg up they'll need when they have the possibility of looking anywhere in the game's locations for the next item.

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

Entirely! In each of the game's screens there will be from 1-3 items which need to be repaired or rebuilt, using from 3-5 items. While the game might not have distinct HOSs, there's no shortage of searching to be done for fans of the genre. As with all true fully integrated hidden object games, the player will never be asked to pick up an item that doesn't directly relate to them solving a puzzle - and the game is all the better for it. This is as justified as hidden object searches get, folks.

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

Riddles of the Past's greatest strength is the way it uses the hidden object searches to move the story forward. Rather than pushing them off to the side and having the player track down an item or two here or there, the player is constantly presented with concrete problems that need to be solved, and asked to find the handful of items that will allow them to move forward. Compared to that completely logical HOG design, the puzzles can sometimes come across as a little arbitrary. Yes, this is a town run by a mad scientist, so some peculiar locks and machines aren't completely out of the realm of belief, but there's a weird focus on solving puzzles by doing simple math, which feels a little out of place.

It has great hidden object integration, good puzzles, and an above-average story. For anyone looking for a title that has the fundamentals of HOG design down pat, they won't do much better than Riddles of the Past. While it may not have the presentation bells and whistles of more recent games, it's a great experience from beginning to end, with enough gamplay variety and story turns to keep players hooked right to the end.

Curious about the playthrough which led to this review? Check it out below - with special guest DM!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Warhammer Vermintide Video Review!

That's right, it's time for another HOGuru video review! My look at No Man's Sky went so swimmingly I decided to try it again! This time it's the new Warhammer game, The End Times: Vermintide! I'm a big fan of the Warhammer fantasy universe, so how did this game stack up to expectations?

Check out the video below to find out!

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Bathory: The Bloody Countess

Wow, does this game look good. That's its main selling point, and it really is a strong foot to put forward. Every character, location, and HOS in the game is drawn in a distinctively soft pastel-influenced style that makes it stand out from the strict realism that so many other titles are shooting for. I'd say that the art was the only thing the game had going for it, but that wouldn't be exactly fair, as the story, short though it may be, actually does have its nice moments.

On to the hidden object criteria!

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

To a moderate degree. There aren't many HOSs in the game, and the vary wildly in quality. While a kitchen and tool stand may be perfect examples of realistic yet complex and challenging HOS design, a few of the other screens - like a greenhouse or the garden in front of a gypsy's house - are mediocre messes. Good or bad, though, the game's problem with its HOSs is that players are asked to return to each of the small number of screens an unacceptable number of times. I've been fairly open about my love of returning to HOSs for second and third trips in the past - on two conditions: 1 - All of the quest items must appear when the player arrives at the scene the first time, so they get a teaser for what they'll be looking for later; 2 - Any item the player picks up must not be returned for the second visit, allowing the player the rare pleasure of actually 'cleaning up' the screen over two, or at a maximum three, visits. That second item is vitally important, since players never want to be put in the position of having to find the same item in the same place more than once - the act that breaks all suspension of disbelief and pulls players out of the game.

Care to guess my objection to Bathory's HOSs?

That's right - not only does is the player asked to return to most of the screens 5-10 times only to find all the items reset, but adding insult to injury, each time they're asked to find 12 items, but each screen has a pool of around 16 items to draw from, meaning that players will spend the game picking up the exact same items over and over again. It's inexcusable and frustrating and by the end of the game I'd nearly reached the point where I could grab all of the first screen's items blindfolded.

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

A small percentage of the time, yes, the game offers the thinnest justification possible - the 12:1 screen. Most of the time, though, players are asked to complete a hidden object scene over and over again in the hopes of being rewarded with money. Money which is used to buy quest items from the town store. Where most games will hide those items inside HOSs, giving the player the chance to find them for themselves, the developers of Bathory didn't bother. Instead, players are forced to perform the same rote screens over and over again until they earn enough money to but everything at the store with a price tag on it. Why is the main character receiving coins for collecting the same items over and over again? Who can say! The developers couldn't even provide the barest figleaf of justification by hiding coins in the various HOSs. It's just a disaster.

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

While the HOSs are a nearly complete wash, the game at least has puzzles that fit well in the world. This is a haunted village in Slovakia, with the main character investigating an evil castle, a museum, and her sister's cottage. All of them are filled with elaborate puzzles to be solved, either in the form of mini-games or item use. The puzzles aren't anything special - just a standard assortment of card-matching, ring alignment, sliding block puzzles and the like. The only standout is the fetch-quest to find all of the ingredients to a potion which is then brewed via a game of pipe dreams. No, the puzzles aren't particularly innovative, but at least they're almost entirely competent in a way the HOSs just aren't. The only problem they have is that a few of the puzzles don't have the clearest rules, and the game doesn't explain how puzzles are meant to be played when the character first finds them. No, if players want instructions, they'll have to click on the HINT button. Which is just strange. Especially since the game's oft-times spotty translation means that occasionally the instructions raise more questions than they answer.

It's too bad that the HOSs are such a mess and the puzzles are just okay, since Bathory's presentation really is top-notch. It has some of the most beautifully-drawn art I've ever seen in a HOG, but it's in service of a sub-par experience. The story of a woman searching for her sister and uncovering the terrifying true story of Elizabeth Bathory is an entertaining one - but the developers didn't find a good way of telling it, and I spend more of the game frustrated than I did intrigued.

Want to see the playthrough that led to this review? Check out the first part below!

Monday, 3 October 2016

Still More Hitman Gun Crime!

That's right - a new Hitman level came out, so I decided to - as always - see how it works as a 3rd-person shooter!

The answer - pretty great. Unlike the previous missions, this one has zero innocent bystanders, so I was finally able to just cut loose and shoot wildly. Then again, the lack of bystanders means that literally every NPC in the level has either an assault rifle or a shotgun. So yikes, it gets rough.

You can check out the video below!

New York Mysteries: Mafia Secrets

The year: 1955. The situation: mobsters are being abducted by clouds of green fog, leaving patches of swamp and a single butterfly on the ground where they'd stood a moment earlier. Also, children are disappearing at the same time, leaving behind drawings of the exact butterflies that showed up at the mobsters' feet! Who could hear about that mystery and not want to see it immediately solved! Certainly not I, so let's move right away into the hidden object criteria!

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

Not at all. These are the cleanest hidden object screens I've ever encountered. Whether players are in an office, a subway car, a diner or a university lab, there are only as many items on display as there would logically be in that place. This is artistry in HOSs that is rarely seen - although it does border on being too much of a good thing. The screens are so completely lacking in clutter that finding the necessary items would be scandalously easy if players were just given a list to pick from. They aren't, though - instead, players are presented with a set of silhouettes that do a remarkably poor job of representing the items that players need to find. Sure, keys are always easy enough to pick out, but beyond that, the shapes are weirdly unhelpful - I'll make a ruling right now - if developers having two methods of adding challenge to their game: adding a little clutter to scenes or asking players to identify silhouettes, go with the clutter six times a week and twice on Sundays.

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

They are completely justified. The HOSs are exclusively fully-integrated mini-puzzles, with the player asked to find a series of items within the screen to unlock or reveal items, until they've run through the whole list and wound up with the key item. This is one of the best types of HOS possible, and it's one of the most challenging to produce, which likely explains why the game is so comparatively light on hidden object screens. NYM focuses more on graphic adventure content - grabbing items and using them on other screens - than the HOSs that the developers craft so well. It's a bit of a pity - while everything about the game is first-class, I couldn't help but wish that there had been a few more HOSs, just so I would have a chance to see developers working at close to the top of their game.

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

Again, the developers knock it out of the park on this one - the three factions making moves in the game's story are the mafia, supernatural forces, and a secret group of mystery solvers - any of these would naturally be proficient in and partial to building devious caches and hiding keys in preposterous places, making the whole plot flow far more logically than is often the case in this type of game. Pacing is one of this game's strongest suits - the pieces of the mystery are parcelled out at just the right times to keep players hooked, and the locations they're led fit perfectly with the story being told - whether they're at a museum, deep beneath the city, or wandering around a mysterious swamp, each setpiece flows logically into the next. All of this is helped along by one of the best maps I've ever encountered in a HOG. Not only does it keep the player apprised of which screen there's something to accomplish in, the developers have noted which screens have collectibles and beyond objects in them, ensuring that a player will never be in a position to miss an item if they're interested in unlocking all of the achievements.

New York Mysteries: Secrets of the Mafia is a top-notch game in every respect but one. The puzzles are well-thought out, the art is peerless in its beauty, the story has just one borderline plot hole. Really, it's an incredible accomplishment. If only the HOSs weren't so few and far between, and if only they used lists instead of silhouettes this would be in the running for one of the best HOGs I've ever played. Even without that achievement it's an amazing game that's not to be missed for anyone who enjoys HOPAs.

Curious about the playthrough that led to this review? You can find the first part below!