Sunday, 31 January 2016

Can Someone Please Explain This Silent Marshes Puzzle To Me?

Because I have no idea. Alright, so here's a picture of the puzzle.

Clear enough what you're supposed to do, right? Hit the keys in order, matching the image next to the number to a related image on a key. Couldn't be simpler, right? So let's go over them-

1 - Match the Sun to the Flower.
2 - Match the Spider to the Fly.
3 - Catch the Chicken to the Egg.
5 - Match the Wave to the Boat.

Which brings me to '4'. By process of elimination, I know where the bat goes with key number 2, but what the hell is that? An onion? A fist of garlic?

That's the closest I could come to, but I'm still baffled by it - you know that garlic has no associations with bats, right? It's just vampires that are afraid of garlic, not bats. It's just puzzling, especially since there's no trend making them clear.

Suns feed flowers. Spiders eat flies. Hens lay eggs. Boats ride on waves. Bats... are afraid of garlic?

So strange.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Amazing Mistranslations of Insane Cold: Back to the Ice Age, Presented in Ascending Order of Absurdity

There's no denying it - Insane Cold: Back to the Ice Age features some terrible attempts at presenting a game in English. So I've collected three examples of just how bad it is - there are many, many more, but I think these illustrate just how crazy things get.

This one borderline makes sense to me. It's a pipe, run that through some kind of translation program, I can see it winding up as 'tube'. That's fine. This next one makes a little less sense.

How? How does one go from 'Bow Tie' to 'Butterfly'? Are there similarities to those two words in Russian? When they're spelled phonetically in Cyrillic? This one is just bizarre. But not as strange as-

Yeah. Baffling. An electrical shock warning sign becomes 'ZIPPER'. This is so nuts it doesn't even seem like a translation thing, more like someone associated the wrong word with the wrong file. Just crazy.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

How Did This Happen? Insane Cold: Back to the Ice Age Edition

Please take a look at this picture and see if you can spot what I found so bizarre.

Yes, that's it. The bucket of fish. Can we get a closeup of that, please?

Wow. How did that end up as a finished part of a game that was released for sale? Did someone forget to replace a temp image with the actual one? Is this a 'take your daughter to work day' thing, where a 4-year-old wanted to get a picture in her parent's game?

That last option would be the only way I would find this acceptable.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Insane Cold: Back to the Ice Age

Set somewhere in Scandinavia, Insane Cold posits a fascinating premise - what if, for no clear reason, Frost Giants were to return and just start wrecking the place? Well, obviously it would be up to one man, armed with a magical amulet - which he has for no clear reason - to save the souls of their victims and use said spirits as a weapon against the evil giants from the ancient past. So yeah, nothing about this game makes much sense. Also, it's shoddily produced in a number of ways! But hey, forget my negativity, let's move on to a more concrete system of judging hidden object games - the HOG Criteria!

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

Oh my god do they ever. This game is set literally minutes after Frost Giants swooped in and started causing a fuss, but literally every hidden object screen looks like a pile of garbage with barely coherent themes. Yes, the hospital areas are mostly filled with medical supplies, and the aquarium is 50% fish stuff and 50% pirate things, but by and large, generic items are scattered all about in the hopes of cluttering up the screens even further. Worse, every HOS must be searched twice, but the game does not permanently remove all of the items stripped away on the first visit, leaving players without an advantage - or really any satisfaction - on their second visit.

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

It's the standard 'you want one thing, find 19 others' premise most games use - but even that simple gameplay dynamic seems to have confused the heck out of the developers, because they botch it in a number of ways. First there's the decision to not let players see all the items they're looking for at once - at any given time they're only allowed to look for six items, which is just absurdly small. Then there's the weird font the developers have chosen, which makes actually reading the names of various items surprisingly difficult. Not that it matters, since multiple translation failures wind up putting a completely wrong word onscreen. How on earth does the game expect players to see the word 'butterfly' onscreen and expect them to know they should be clicking on a bow tie? Just a mess all over, people.

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

The puzzles are at least a high point. There are some memory games, gravity puzzles, and a couple which fall under the broad 'draw a line between points without backtracking' category. They sort of make sense within the game world, so long as one doesn't think about it too hard. The game is very bad, on the other hand, at keeping a clear path in the player's mind and letting them know what they're supposed to to next. More times than I could count I'd find myself finished a set of rooms and then left completely baffled as to what was expected of me - invariably, the answer would be 'backtrack until a new HOS appears and you get a new item'. This is the exact reason that HOG developers started putting interactive maps in their game, and I didn't for a second hesitate to abuse the hint button in striving to discover which direction to follow.

Insane Cold: Back to the Ice Age isn't a very good HOG - there are plenty of decent HOG screens - including a standout set around a doll's house filled with cute animals, but the technical errors keep them from ever being effectively entertaining. As a story it's competently enough told, but there's nothing interesting enough to keep an English-speaking audience enthralled through sub-par gameplay.

Also, don't go to the ball-carrying statue puzzle at the back left of the first hospital screen until the hint button tells you to - a glitch can make it so it's impossible to leave the puzzle, and if you don't have the yellow ball necessary to solve it, you might have to quite the game! So... yikes.

Insane Cold: Return to the Ice Age is available from Gamehouse!

If you'd like to play along with my oft-times frustrating trip back to the Ice Age, just click here to load the playlist!

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Curse of Silent Marshes

Right up top, just seconds into the opening movie, there's an evil clown. I can't stress enough how much goodwill that clown buys the game's developers from my point of view. I don't think of myself as an especially biased reviewer - there are game design elements that I'm partial to or disgusted by, but never without well-reason caused. Certain aesthetic choices, on the other hand, so fundamentally tweak my interests that I will forgive quite a bit of nonsense in order to see them implemented. Killer Klowns are very high on the list of things that can cause me to turn a blind eye towards a game's flaws. Which The Curse of Silent Marshes absolutely requires.

On to the Hidden Object judging criteria!

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

I'll be honest - it's pretty bad. Items are tossed around the screen with no regard to any kind of basic logic. This is a game where you'll find a globe, a teddy bear, and a set of knitting paraphernalia in the back of a pickup truck. Damned if I could explain why. There aren't very many screens in the game, either, which is a bit of a disappointment, since, other than their lack of logic or order, they're actually fairly smooth to navigate. All of the names are accurate and the items don't cheat on size or the rules of gravity. That might be damning with faint praise, but it's not nothing.

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

The searches follow the standard 10 for 1 logic of loading the item list with nonsense to stretch things out. This isn't unexpected, of course, but it's always annoying. At least the game's story, in which Anna, the main character, must rescue her friends from the clutches of an evil clown who has used voodoo to trap them in a dream world, has the kind of batty logic that would send someone scrambling through storage closets hoping that odds and ends could save the day.

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

The magical premise solidly establishes the kind of logic players are expected to bring to the game, so it's never jarring to be asked to break a doll out of a crystal ball, or use river water to erase the chalk which is creating a magical barrier. The contained location also keeps the player's journey at the forefront of their mind - right at the top Anna knows her goal is to free her friends and escape town, and every step she takes is a clear move in that direction. That's not to say all of the puzzles are fantastic; a few of them are so oblique that I was forced to lean on the hit button - who on earth sees a set of wire cutters hanging from an overhead cable and thinks 'I know, I'll shoot a flare at them!'. The game's story also ends in a frustratingly abrupt fashion - after spending a lot of time setting up the villain's backstory and motivation, I was sad to see no real resolution for any of the characters - just a 'well, that's over' once the final puzzle was solved.

The Curse of Silent Marshes may not be the Silent Hill rip-off I was hoping it would be, and it never bothers to explain why a voodoo-empowered villain chooses to dress as an evil clown, rather than a skeleton man or something - but I still found the game interesting to play. It's quite short, clocking in at just under two hours, and there aren't very many hidden object screens - each one must be visited twice to stretch things out a little. Still, beyond a few buggy puzzles and bizarre narrative leaps, this is a game with small ambitions which more than meets them.

The Curse of Silent Marshes is available from Gamehouse!

If you'd like to play along with my journey through Silent Marshes, you can find the Youtube playlist here!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Brink of Consciouness: Dorian Grey Syndrome

Brink of Consciousness: Dorian Gray Syndrome is one of the most effective horror Hidden Object Games I've ever come across. The plot opens when the main character's girlfriend is kidnapped by the twisted serial killer who has been preying on the city's beautiful young people. The main character is a reporter chronicling the case, and this has drawn the madman's attention - the only hope he has of saving his girlfriend's life is to travel to the villain's mansion and play the madman's game.

It's a solid premise for any horror story, and BoC:DGS' developers do it justice with truly solid scripting. The villain contacts the main character through the game via loudspeakers he's set up in every room of his house, pontificating about the nature of love and sacrifice, and valiantly attempting to justify all of the murders he's committed. It's all incredibly solid stuff, and along with diary pages scattered about the house informing the killer's backstory, and surprisingly a well-written journal that tracks the player's trek through the mansion, it offers one of the genre's high points, from a storytelling standpoint.

Now for the HOG criteria!

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

BoC does a great job of making its HOS fit within the world of the game. The whole thing is set in the dilapidated mansion of a maniac, so a certain degree of clutter is to be expected, but it never gets so stacked with random nonsense that it seems preposterous. An especially nice note is that the game is set in the 1950s, and the developers were very careful to only use period items in the hidden object screens. There aren't any digital watches lain across phonographs, or anything along those lines. Okay, there's a colour television at one point, but that's really the only anachronistic lapse.

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

Only in the barest sense. Conforming quite neatly to the industry standard, BoC has screens where the player is asked to pick up one item they actually need, along with a dozen that don't matter, for no particular reason. The screens are fair and entertaining to play, but it would have been nice to see the developers go that extra mile to ensure that they made sense within the story.

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

BoC does a great job of creating a world where this kind of searching a puzzle-solving make sense. Oscar, the game's masked villain, is a baroque psychopath who enjoys toying with his prey - of course he'd construct elaborate puzzles for them to solve in his huge mansion. Even the puzzles are generally more practical than is normal for the genre. They tend to feel more like minigames and activities than actual brain-teasers - for the most part, whenever a lock needs to be picked or a chest opened, players are simply assigned a complex task to perform and then expected to follow the clear instructions on how to complete it. While it may not end up as challenging as some games, this certainly puts BoC among the most user-friendly HOGs I've encountered.

With its great setting and exceptional writing, Dorian Gray Syndrome stands apart from the HOG crowd as a title that even players unfamiliar with the genre can find extremely accessible. It's just too bad that it doesn't push the envelope in gameplay design as well, satisfying itself with utterly traditional hidden object screens. While it may not be reaching for the stars, BoC still manages to stand well above most of its contemporaries, providing a chilling adventure along with some merely solid puzzles.

Brink of Consciousness: Dorian Grey Syndrome is available on Steam

Friday, 22 January 2016

Space Legends: At the Edge of the Universe

I was excited to take a look at Space Legends - Edge of the Universe because it seemed to be that rarest gem among the HOG genre - a hidden object adventure set in an outright sci-fi millieu. With most HOGs leaning towards supernatural horror, crime-solving, or some kind of fantasy/faery nonsense, Space Legends seemed like it would be a breath of fresh air. Little did I realize how quickly things would take a turn for the bizarre and inept.

The game starts off promisingly enough, establishing the main character as part of a two-person research team investigating a far-away planet. After a storm severly damages the station, the base, it's up to the main character to stabilize her love interest's injuries, gather their data, and fly back to Earth for medical assistance. This section is fairly solid - a logical threat bearing down on the player in an interesting and novel setting. Then the player blasts off and crash lands on a medieval planet, and everything goes straight to hell.

For reasons I can't fathom, the developers take the one unique thing that the game had going for it - a non-standard setting, and then decided to throw that away. By moving the action to a standard fantasy kingdom, complete with magic swords to repair and stricken princesses to cure, they make the game far less interesting by degrees - especially since the fact that the main character is from a far more technologically advanced civilization doesn't factor into the majority of her interactions once she arrives on the planet. What's worse, the one interesting mystery that the kingdom has to offer - why does a low-tech world have robot bartenders and industrial lasers lying around - has its solution spoiled by the game's map, of all things. Just minutes after arriving on the medieval world, the player gets access to a fast-travel map that depicts not only the castle they're trapped in and the surrounding village, but a secret monorail beneath it which leads to a futuristic city destroyed by a cataclysm sometime in the past. This is not how you build a curiosity, developers.

Now, on to the HOG criteria!

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

This is absolutely a problem, especially since the game has such a paltry number of Hidden Object Screens, most of which need to be visited twice. Absolutely no thought was put into the logic of what might items might be found in a particular location. The main character's closet on the research base is absolutely overflowing with the kind of random tchotchkes that one would expect to find in another game's haunted mansion. This raises the question of why someone would cart all of this junk halfway across the galaxy space. Naturally, the answer is 'the developers couldn't be bothered to conceptualize the type of junk that would be in a space closet, so they just went with cliched items'. Even worse is a subsequent scene in which a jail cell has a shelf in it fulled to bursting with random junk, much of which proves useful in planning an escape.

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

Only in the most basic sense. From time to time the player will need to find an item to unlock something, and then a standard HOS will pop up, allowing them to look for it, as well as fifteen other items that they don't need. Space Legends tries to make things a little more interesting by having items which require assembly,  and while that livens things up a little, it can't cover for the fact that the main character has no use for a target with a bullethole in it, so taking the time to load and fire a flintlock pistol at a piece of paper seems like something of a waste of time. Just once the game attempts to colour outside the lines and offers a multi-stage HOS, in which the player has to find items and use them right there on the screen to unlock the next set of items and task, but the objectives are so poorly explained that it proves more frustrating than innovative.

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

Try as the game might, it can't make the puzzles and searches feel like a part of the story. Not that it tries especially hard. Most of the puzzles on display are of the most generic type imaginable - move blocks to slide a crate to the other end of a hall; spin knobs, but doing so causes the other knobs to spin as well. Most egregious is the cloaking device the player is asked to turn on by doing a jigsaw puzzle. It's hard to get more thematically irrelevant than that.

In addition to all of the design failures, the game's presentation is inexcusably sloppy. While I'm aware that the game wasn't developed by English-speaking people, I can't let translation that affects gameplay slide. A brush is not a 'comb'. A lightbulb is not a 'lamp'. An hourglass is not a 'clock'. There are another dozen examples I'm not going to list here. Beyond the bad translation, some of the puzzles are just poorly explained. At one point I was asked to brew a potion by following the steps in a recipe - except three of the ingredients I'd been told to gather didn't appear in said recipe. Which forced me to resort to trial and error to figure out when they were supposed to be used. That's just sloppy.

Here's a puzzle that perfectly illustrates the nonsense players are expected to put up with in Space Legends: The main character must use a crossbow grappling hook to snag a rope bridge so that she can cross it. But she's so bad at shooting that she hits the ceiling instead, knocking down some rocks, as well as the thing that was hidden behind them - the key to a cabinet in the princess' bedroom which contains insulating tape she can just to build a brace to allow her to fire the crossbow more accurately. Why was a key lodged in the ceiling of a secret cave that no one ever goes to? Why does a medieval princess have a roll of insulating tape? Did I seriously just have to go through a series of puzzle steps because the character I'm playing as doesn't know to fire a crossbow at the thing she wants to hit, rather than straight up?

With contrived nonsense, terrible presentation and generic settings ruining all of the goodwill built up in the game's full hour, Space Legends is a nearly-unplayable mess. In a sad final note, the game's end credits offer a possible explanation for its shoddiness. They start with an 'in memorium' photograph of a man who the credits quickly identify as the game's designer and scriptwriter. So it's entirely possible that all of Space Legends' problems owe to it being partially unfinished at the time of its release. That's tragic, but maybe they would have been better off simply dropping the project rather than releasing something this bad.

Space Legends: At the Edge of the Universe is available on Steam

Thursday, 21 January 2016

One Last Thing About Campfire Legends: Hookman

There's one bit of the game that still baffles me - you know, beyond all of the stuff about the Guardians and Stillwater Sanitorium that never gets resolved in the series - near the end of the game. When Christine is playing a game of pick up sticks to gather kindling, underneath all of the scrap wood she finds this carved into a rock-

That's a man and a woman watching a meteor shower while standing next to a graveyard. There's also one or possibly two children standing nearby. It's strange because this game features people watching a meteor shower near a graveyard. On one level this is just more art representing the same scene as the sliding block puzzle in the crypt, but its unexplained similarity to a scene in the game is a little strange.

Does it mean anything? Probably not, but it obviously stuck with me. So great work one last time, Campfire Legends.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Mystery Stories: Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft and the world of hidden object games. I don't know if more of this is available, but if it is, I will absolutely be tracking it down ASAP. Horror and HOG already go together quite well, but it's strange how perfect a fit the eldritch horror of Lovecraft is for the slow-burn of the HOG world. Eerie locations, crumbling necropoles, ancient tomes which need to be pieced back together - this is all a perfect fit for the object hunting gameplay of HOGs. So it's only natural that this particular game has such a solid foundation due to its adaptation of Lovercraft's sole full-length novella, At the Mountains of Madness. The game is a fairly straight adaptation of the story, leaving out the bleaker elements, and adding copious puzzle-solving to the story's more procedural investigation.

Now, the Hidden Object judging criteria!

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

This is a bit of a problem in the game. While for the most part the developers have tried to ensure the items being looked for are things that would naturally occur an Elder City being investigated by a New England university - mapping tools, first aid supplies, and the like. Then the game will throw in some random nonsense just to fill out the scene, such as a violin and untold amounts of household and cooking supplies. It's not an excessive amount, however, and the game is largely good at making sure that everything is an appropriate size and placed in a logical location. A little more annoying is the game's habit of reusing sprites of certain hidden objects from scene to scene - I saw the same sextant more times than I care to count. It's far from perfect presentation, but well above average.

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

Almost half the time! While many of the game's hidden object screens hold to the standard 'find 3 important items and 20 others' framework, there are a few where the player is simply asked to track down the items they actually need. Whether it's torn pieces of paper or a broken window that requires piecing-together, these departures were always welcome. Also welcome is the game's use of one of my favourite devices - HOG screens which start out cluttered, but gradually find themselves cleaned up as the player is asked to return to them time and again. It's something of a reward for players who play close attention during their first visit to a screen, as they'll have noticed the microscope and filed that information away for when they inevitably return!

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

A darn fine job - with gorgeous architecture to gawp at, items-filled screens to dig through, and an enthralling mystery to unravel, Mountains of Madness is an immensely engaging journey. Even the puzzles are just the right balance of challenging and accessible. Standard fare, to be sure, but they're well-enough designed and implemented that they never violate the reality of the world. With the exception of a game of 'Collapse' that turns up right at the end.

I can't stress enough how well Lovercraft melds with the Hidden Object genre. At The Mountains of Madness is the most obvious choice for an adaptation, but a surprisingly large number of his stories would be incredibly easy to adapt, and even demand the treatment in some cases. Who wouldn't want to journey beneath the Sphinx as Houdini? Or find themselves shipwrecked on R'lyeth, scrambling for some kind of escape? People looking for more fantastic settings have all of the dream-travelling to choose from. Even something relatively grounded, such as the Case of Charles Dexter Ward could be transformed into a satisfying hidden object mystery more easily than any of the works of Agatha Christie which are so frequently plundered. No, in addition to being a well-above-average HOG, Mountains of Madness serves as a statement that these are great stories just waiting to be told again in a new format.

If you'd like to play along with my trip through the Mountains of Madness, just check out this Youtube video! Near the end, I pitch some other potential HPL HOG titles!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Confusing Timeline of the Campfire Legends Series!

The Campfire Legends series of hidden objects takes place in two different timelines. Timeline A is the framing device in which Maggie tells a few spooky stories - this is also the single night over which The Last Act, game three in the series, is set. Timeline B takes place over roughly 25 years in the flashbacks to the stories that Maggie is telling. It's not an ov  ercomplicated setup, but the developers manage to confuse the hell out of themselves over the course of the second and third games.

We never get a clear statement of when the first game, 'Hookman', is set, but the costumes-

Would suggest late 50s, perhaps early 60s.

'Babysitter', the second game in the series, is much more concrete in its setting - here's a video feed from a surveillance camera as main character Lisa enters the sinister house where she'll be spending the night.

I can't stress this enough: video cameras have no reason to lie. So that means that this is, in fact, September 9th, 1987. Okay, now let's check out the tapes we find in the workshop below the asylum. The labels say that the backstory - everything from Libby getting murdered on June 1, 1983-

Up until Hookman almost finishes the resurrection serum on April 11, 1985-

Means that the whole thing takes nearly two whole years - during which time you'd think they would notice their daughter not ageing. The in-game timecodes offer a much more compressed timeline, starting with the push down the stairs on September 3rd, 1986-

Up to her treatments going pretty well on November 19th of the same year-

A timespan of under three months - a far more plausible amount of time for a set of parents to not notice that one of their daughters was dead. Then Lisa arrives to babysit 10 months later, and everything goes to hell. So we've got a total timeline on the 'Libby dies and comes briefly back to life' narrative of just a year.

The 1987 timeline seems to track logically, so I'll stick with that one, right? Figure Maggie is five or six years old in the flashbacks, which means the main story is around fifteen years later in 2002, making her 22. That makes perfect sense until we arrive at The Last Act, where things get super-dicey with this entry Reggie finds in Lisa's journal.

Junior Prom? Wouldn't that make Reggie sixteen when Lisa disappeared, and 32 now? That doesn't fit with any other part of the story to a really jarring extent. I know it's a simple error, but how does one that egregious slip by?

The Last Act isn't done with messing up the timeline, though - just when it seems like we can confirm that the game is set in 1987:

Yup, that says Libby was born on February 18th, 1984, which would make her three years old during the events of the game. Also, according to the labels, she wasn't even born yet before she was killed and resurrected. It's all just flat-out insane. For all the quality they brought to their games, these developers are clearly not people who cared to keep a tight timeline.

Also, it's nice to see that, for a complete monster, Maggie sure did a passable job of taking care of her sister's grave. Yes, thorns have wrapped around the headstone, and the rest of the graveyard is a wreck, but those are fresh flowers, a well-maintained eternal flame, and manicured grass.

You stick by your family, I suppose.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Campfire Legends: The Last Act

The Campfire Legends series comes to a close with The Final Act, which came years after the first two titles in the series, explaining the slightly strange way it opens. Much like the last in the series, The Last Act picks up exactly where the last one left off, with Maggie gazing at her friends with sinister intent. When players take control of the game they're put in charge of Reggie, who hasn't gotten over the way her sister Lisa disappeared fifteen years earlier. So naturally she's a little on edge when driving past the mansion where everything went down - then a ghost appears in her path, causing her to crash the car! It's time for another long night at the Stillwater Sanitorium, with this one hopefully wrapping up all the loose ends!

Now, for 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! Again, the developers have done a great job in dressing the various hidden object screens to look like naturally dilapidated rooms. From a crashed car, to a crumbling study, to an underground lab, all the way to Maggie's cabin, everything is perfectly grounded and realistically cluttered. In an especially nice note, the developers take the players on a journey back through familiar locations from the first two games. Some locations are more successful than others - while the mansion screens are beautiful, it doesn't look like the same location as in Babysitter - I was amazed at how well the revisited cabin from 'The Hookman' turned out. It really did feel like coming back to an old haunt.

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

Once again, the superb hidden object design really sells the experience, with the players only ever having to look for specific items to solve specific problems. This is the last Campfire Legends game, so it's important to appreciate this triumph of design while it lasts. Unfortunately, the developers made a huge blunder in the post-game mode - instead of another Haken's Journal mode which lets players try their had at grabbing a variety of items in the HOG locations, The Last Act offers 'Project Stillwater', a disaster of a 'spot the differences' game. It's bad enough that they included this instead of a traditional HOG bonus mode, the fact that the screens are pitch black and lit by a flashlight, forcing players to look for differences in just a twentieth of the screen at a time is inexcusable.

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

It's another great showing from the Campfire Legends people - the puzzles are, despite the inclusion of a sliding block abomination, a lot of fun, and fit the location and theme quite well. The story is also well up to series standards, with only one strange error on the part of the developers. Even though anyone playing the game should know that Maggie is the villain, since that was the whole point of the last game, the game is oddly coy about revealing her as such. Early in the game Reggie finds Lisa's captivity journal, and in it the babysitter bizarrely refers to her captor as 'it', rather than 'her' or 'Maggie'. The whole thing is structured to protect a reveal that isn't anything close to a secret. Even someone who hasn't played the previous games would immediately know Maggie is the villain, especially since the first thing she does in the game is give the other girls at the campfire mugs of obviously drugged hot chocolate.

It's a strange conceit that hampers the story a little, since it spends a good amount of its running time building to a fait accomplit - nevertheless, it's a solid tale of terror and the brave young woman who alternately flees from and stands up to it. Even the still-terrible firefly-based hint system has been tweaked to be slightly less awful! Now instead of spending beetles to skip puzzles, a skip bar gradually fills, just like in every other HOG! Also, when Reggie runs out of fireflies, an extra one will gradually regenerate in her inventory to help the hopeless. The hint regeneration time is absurdly long, though, more than twice as long as the 'skip puzzle bar' charge-up, once again making me question why the developers hated casual players so intensely.

While The Last Act doesn't function as a satisfying conclusion for the entire series - we're left with plenty of questions from The Hookman - when looked as a continuation of The Babysitter, it's a great resolution. The Babysitter had quite a nasty cliffhanger, and even though I had to wait years for this game to follow up on it, I wasn't disappointed. Whatever problems it may have as a game - hint system, bad bonus material - The Last Act is a great capper for the best trilogy in hidden object gaming.

This is another HOG that absolutely demands to be played - and if you'd like to watch me do just that, head on over to the Youtube video of that happening!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Campfire Legends: The Babysitter

Campfire Legends: The Hookman didn't end on anything close to a cliffhanger - sure, there were unanswered questions about Doctor Haken and his regenerative research, but the only real narrative thrust was blonde girl at the campfire claiming that she has her own spooky story to tell. We never get to hear it, though, as black-haired girl interrupts to reveal that the Hookman story isn't quite over yet, which brings us to maybe the best hidden object game ever. The story follows Lisa, a babysitter in the year 1987, as she's charged with looking after a pair of creepy twin girls for a single night. This shouldn't be a challenge, other than the fact that the house they live in was one part of the notorious Stillwater Asylum where the Guardians ran their terrifying experiments on the unwilling patients. She is obviously in for a long night...

Now, for the hidden object criteria!

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

Again, not at all. The developers have done an incredible job of building a believable mini-mansion and secret lab. The first area is cluttered, but in a believable, domestic kind of way. Dishes left all over the kitchen, clothes scattered around a bedroom. Everything looks like the maid took a few weeks off, but beyond that, it's all very plausible. The underground lab looks even better - far more cluttered, but obviously the result of decades of neglect. The Hookman has been working so long that tools and devices have just wound up scattered everywhere. Messy as hell, but it works because the types of items left lying around the labs are internally consistent - there aren't any violins or scattered playing cards lying around, for example.

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

They are 100% justified, as is the hallmark of the series. This is an especially notable feat, given that the first third of the game is spent just on Lisa's babysitting job. Between fixing broken plates, making hot chocolate, and tracking down stray geckoes, the game does a fantastic job of keeping the setup portion of the game engaging. Things only get better once the horror starts, and Lisa has to assemble machinery and track down mysterious videotapes. That's not all, though - while I can wholeheartedly praise the game's decision to make all of the searches entirely relevant to the plot, the developers clearly understand that sometimes people just want to relax and find some items from a list, so they added a mode for casual enjoyment of the HOG screens. Once the game has been completed players can replay any of the hidden object areas, now armed with a long list of items to locate. It's the best of both worlds!

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

Fantastically well. The completely logical hidden object scenes are a pleasure to play, and the puzzles fit incredibly well within the world of the game. Are there a few overly elaborate locks here and there? Sure, but they fit well within the horror adventure millieu and never feel like things are being arbitrarily padded out. In addition to the great hidden object and puzzle design, the game's story is a real standout, following Lisa on a harrowing journey into the mind of a madman, all leading to a terrifying conclusion that sets up the third game perfectly.

Campfire Legends: The Babysitter isn't a perfect sequel to Hookman - there are just too many loose ends to be completely satisfying, but taken on its own merits, it's one of the finest hidden object games ever, its success marred only by the decision of the developers to go with a firefly-based hint system, rather than a simple recharging bar. On the upside, it only takes three beetles to skip a puzzle, rather than five, so at least one annoyance was fixed. Especially since there's a much-despised sliding block puzzle just five minutes into the game. Still, this is a hidden object game that's a couple of fixes away from complete perfection, and not many can say that.

I can't recommend this one highly enough - and if you'd like to watch me playthrough the game, just head on over to the Youtube playlist by clicking here!

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Campfire Legends: The Hookman

Campfire Legends: The Hookman was my first hidden object game. I bought it as part of a two-pack with its sequel, 'The Babysitter' while waiting for someone to arrive at a Walmart. At the time I didn't even know what a hidden object game was, and picked it up on a whim, expecting some kind of horror-themed interactive fiction. What I found instead was my new favourite genre, in which characters search through messy rooms in order to find the clues necessary to escape tense situations and solve crimes. I was hooked right away by this game's story - the framing device features a group of girls telling stories around the titular campfire, with the action taking place within the story being told.

As for the story itself, it's a classic of the genre - girl goes to a spooky cabin with her boyfriend, they're menaced by a man with a hook for a hand, and they have to take extreme measures to escape him. What separates Campfire Legends from generic versions of this story is what a strong lead character it has, and how well she deals with the obstacles that she comes across. Christine is simply the handiest horror heroine I've ever encountered. Lights out in the cabin? She'll track down fuses! Radio shattered by a madman's claw? She'll jury-rig it with spare parts from a broken television! Car has a flat? She pulls out a jack and a wrench! While it's clear that all of these character traits are determined by the kinds of puzzles that the developers wanted to include, the end result is that Christine winds up being characterized as incredibly competent and self-sufficient, and absolutely never feels like a victim. It's a nice twist in the genre. Her only weakness seems to be her fondness for her incredibly shady boyfriend Patrick, who disappears from the story at key moments, acts super-suspicious, and manages to convince her to head out for a romantic fire by the lake when she already knows that there's a hookman on the loose. Ah, young love.

Now, the HOG judging criteria!
Criteria 1: To what degree do the puzzle screens look like a thrift store vomited on my monitor?

Not by any measure. It a little unfair to grade Campfire Legends games based on these criteria, given that they were developed with these games specifically in mind. Still, I'm already here, so... The environments in Hookman are completely believable because the developers went out of their way to make them completely internally consistent. I've been in garages and sheds as cluttered as the one in the game, and the cabin itself is a mess because a hookman recently trashed it. The developers really went the extra mile to make sure every location makes complete sense while still being enough of a mess to provide for satisfying hidden object searches.

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

They are absolutely, 100% justified. Christine is never asked to look for anything she doesn't absolutely need. Sometimes that's rocks to scare a cat, sometimes it's car parts, and sometimes it's pieces of an ornate sliding block puzzle; it's never random dross designed to pad out the running time. Christine has lots of minor obstacles to overcome throughout the game, so there's plenty of searching to be done, but it's never arbitrary or pointless - and I can't stress how far this goes towards pulling players into the game. By never asking Christine to locate five playing cards, a roman numeral, and a series of books, the game creates a grounded sense of place that's so often lacking in other titles.

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

Better than almost any other HOG. Christine finds herself faced with entirely relatable problems and solves them in completely logical ways. Things can get a little wonky when the occasional puzzle box appears, but by and large everything in this game follows a totally sensible path, which reinforces the characters and situation to the point where I'd go so far as to call it one of the best stories in hidden object gaming.

That's not to say the game is perfect - it's at times crippled by a frustratingly outdated hint system. Rather than offering players the standard refilling bar, The Hookman asks them to track down difficult-to-find 'fireflies', with each one revealing the location of a single missing item, or a clue to its location, if they're not on the correct screen when the firefly is used - that's right, the game doesn't even offer free hints if players are on the wrong screen. It's inexcusable. Even worse is the puzzle skipping - bad at block sliding puzzles? The game will allow the player to skip them - at a cost of five fireflies - which is as many as can be carried at one time. It's a terrible system which mars an otherwise spectacular hidden object game.

I can't recommend this one highly enough - it turned me into a lifelong fan of the genre, and if the fiddly hint system is overlooked, it's the best that hidden object games have to offer.

If you'd like to watch my narrated playthrough of Campfire Legends: The Hookman, just click on the following YouTube link!