Monday, 29 February 2016

Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK

I'm always a little taken aback when an HOG's plot attempts to represent an actual law enforcement investigation, rather than the far more popular trope of a gifted and motivated amateur meddling in things far out of their depth. It's easier to accept a character wading through piles of trash while searching for a grasshopper-shaped brooch if they don't also have a badge, gun, and more important things to do with their time.

Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK is perhaps the most egregious example of the disconnect between the real-world job that the game attempts to depict and the actual gameplay being offered. As an FBI agent looking into the death of a reporter who was investigating the JFK assassination, I can't think of any logical reason for the majority of the things the game has me doing.

Now, for the HOG criteria!

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

It's about 50/50 this time around. By setting the game in abandoned storage facilities, cluttered offices and a junkyard, the developers have managed to find logical reasons to fill their game with piles of garbage that must be sorted through. Then they threw in a few more screens of important government offices, apartments, and high-priced vacation homes that are also filled with random garbage, and all traces of verisimilitude go right out the window.

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

Unfortunately, the game leans quite heavily on the standard 'find fifteen random items for every important one' mechanic. Worse, the screens themselves are absolutely packed with cheating on the developers' part. Items are resized and even recolored to render them nearly invisible against the background. I found myself leaning on the 'hint' button far more frequently than usual, and never once did the reveal of an item's actual location make me feel like missing it was my fault for not paying close enough attention.

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

While the searches are well below average, Hidden Files's puzzles are pleasant diversions, which also manage to fit well with the narrative. While some require players to accept that sane professionals would craft truly bizarre locks to hide their secret documents, most have the overall feel of fictional policework as players experiment with fingerprint identification, file decryption, and a poorly-implemented shooting gallery sequence.

Also notable is how clearly the developers' lack of familiarity with English shows through. There are typos all over the subtitles and files that appear, and even the names of objects are so badly mangled that they make the game more difficult than it should be.

Asked to find a 'reel', I spent two minutes searching for a film canister or part of a fishing rod before finally giving up and hitting the hint button—which revealed that the game actually wanted me to click on the spindle of thread sitting beside some bottles. This was far from the only example I encountered. One time—and this is not an exaggeration—the list of items demanded I find a 'hat', and then the hint button revealed that it really meant I was supposed to click on a pair of goggles.

Hampered by a nonsensical plot, unrealistic activities and mediocre HOG screens, Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK comes nowhere near living up to its premise, and is neither crazy enough to recommend ironically, nor competent enough to recommend for those looking to relax with a little clicking. While the scenes may be universally well-drawn, their attractiveness can't hide the fact that the game is a mess.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes

Portal of Evil opens with Vanessa Helsing discovering that her grandfather Abraham has gone missing, and quickly thereafter learning that her family is part of an ancient order tasked with protecting the world from a demon invasion through the titular doorway.  This quest takes her first through the bowels of the fake Vatican, then to a series of ancient times, where the door's seals have been spirited to by a mysterious villain. It's a great premise, and the game makes good use of it, switching from time to time and location to location, ensuring that the player will never have a chance to get overly familiar with a given location.

Now, how about some Hidden Object Criteria?!

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

Oh god, it's bad. Really bad. The first screen I came across was set in the garden of the almost-Vatican, and it was just a mess. Random, out-of-nowhere objects tossed on every surface, hanging off of walls, seemingly hovering in mid-air. Throughout the church location, there's screen after screen of items that have no reason to be together in places that shouldn't be messy, dropped on the screen to create a completely arbitrary obstacle. The game does much better with its historical locations, keeping anachronisms to a minimum and developing much more logical item placement. Still, it's about as mixed a bad as one can get.

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

It's all standard 12:1 gameplay, I'm sorry to report. The screen might be well-drawn, but the developers haven't done a great job of giving me a reason to go scrounging through them. Even worse, its features an object placement screen for every HOS. While I can understand the appeal of these screens in theory, they just don't make sense within the world of the game. Where did I get this armful of items I'm placing with others on the screen? Why on Earth am I doing it? Maybe someday a game will combine these two types of puzzle screens, and have me pick up 12 random items on one screen and then use them to complete 12 broken items on the next, but until they do, I'll keep judging these screens harshly. It's called the HOG genre for a reason, people, and it's not because I'm supposed to be putting angel statues together.

I don't know why, but the angel statues turn up a lot.

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

It's actually a fairly well-structured narrative. While I may have been hard on some of the HOS design, it's all in service of a good story that moves relatively quickly. Likewise, the puzzles all fit fairly well into the story - Vanessa moves exclusively through ancient hideouts and secretive enclaves, so the elaborate traps and locks all don't come anywhere near stretching believability. Also, the game features two of the easiest puzzles I've ever encountered in the history of Adventures. They're so easy they barely count as puzzles. It's actually quite remarkable.

Portal of Evil offers a strong story with acceptably solid gameplay to support it. The HOSs could have been tighter, and a couple of the puzzles are a little more finicky than I'm used to, but the hint/skip button recharges quickly enough that it's never really a problem. The problem arises in a puzzle that turns up in the bonus chapter - which by the way, isn't really a bonus chapter at all, it's really just the end of the story. I can't stress enough that this game's story, without the bonus chapter, is not complete, and releasing a version of the game without it would just be insane. Back to the problem - there's a keypad-based puzzle that's flat-out broken. Vanessa encounters two halves of the code, but when she enters them into the pad, they don't do a thing. I entered them half a dozen times, but couldn't get a reaction - sure that I'd done something wrong, I finally skipped the puzzle, only to discover that I'd had the right numbers in the right order - the game just refused to acknowledge them for some reason.

It absolutely a decent game and I have no problem recommending it, but don't be afraid to use the skip button here and there.

Check out my playthrough of the game at this playlist!

Also, Portal of Evil is available on Steam!

Friday, 26 February 2016

Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden

There's no way to get around it—Abyss: Wraiths of Eden is a shameless rip-off which manages to avoid lawsuits by being in an entirely different genre than the game it's stealing from.

Set underwater, the player takes the role of a deep-sea diver who must brave the depths to rescue her disappeared paramour. After just a few minutes, she finds herself escaping the crushing sea pressure by making her way into... wait for it... a giant art deco-inspired underwater city that began as a utopian experiment for people fleeing the corrupt overworld, but has since been transformed into a crumbling haven for terrifying monsters.

Yes, Abyss is the HOG version of Bioshock.

So, how does this outright larceny of a premise work as an actual game? Amazingly, actually. The city of 'Eden' is a well-realized location, managing to feel like a practical place with ten years of detritus layered over it.  Stores are ransacked, walls are leaking, mold is everywhere. These wonderfully-detailed scenes are not only consistently well-drawn, but all manage to reinforce the menace of the setting. Players spend the game wandering through this sunken graveyard, and although there are very few putrefying corpses that suddenly fall into frame, the threat of that happening looms ominously over the whole experience.

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

Not at all. This is really a case of a developer making the most of their location. The game's 'Eden' has been left to rot, and as it fell into ruin, items were left strewn randomly around locations, leading to authentically cluttered HOG screens. In another nice touch, the game doesn't cheat with items by vastly altering their size/shape/colour to make them more difficult to find.

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

The game falters a little here. As is the standard, Abyss asks players to find one plot-related item in the mess, as well as a handful that need to be uncovered for no particular reason. There are a few screens that don't suffer from that drawback, however, instead asking players to assemble an item by finding its component pieces and nothing else! It's a nice innovation that serves to mix things up well to keep the screens from becoming repetitive.

Also, in the biggest twist I've seen in the genre, Abyss offers players the chance to skip the HOG screens entirely by choosing to play a modified game of dominoes whenever they want to clear a screen. I didn't lean on this option too heavily—the HOG scenes are well designed enough to be worth sampling—but just knowing it was there felt like a breath of fresh air.

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

The puzzles and HOG screens are all artfully employed to build a solid narrative. While some of the puzzles are a little on the arbitrary "here is a disc with colored blocks, spin them to make them match" side of things, for the most part the player is only ever asked to perform logical actions to get sensible results. Mixing salves, casting candles, rewiring circuit boards—all of these feel like completely logical activities within the setting, and do a great job of creating a solid adventure game experience inside the HOG framework.

While Eden's halls may not challenge players with the complex moral questions they found in the depths of Rapture, it does prove that the 'sunken art deco utopia' location has legs beyond its original implementation. The best compliment I can give Abyss is that after the first few minutes inside Eden I stopped thinking about how baldly the game was ripping off Bioshock. Once the shock wore off I was treated to a solid little thriller in a compelling setting with well-designed puzzles and beautifully-drawn HOG screens.

I'm not going to offer any theories as to whether this whole thing should be legally actionable, but setting potential plagiarism aside, Abyss is a high-quality hidden object game more than enough content to keep anyone entertained.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Evil Pumpkin: The Lost Halloween

It's rare that a game so thoroughly defeats me in the way Evil Pumpkin did. It's not that I wasn't able to finish the game - a slowly-recharging hint meter and the extremely helpful denizens of YouTube ensured I would be able to brute-force my way through the trickier sections. No, Evil Pumpkin foiled me by forcing me to resort to hints over and over again. A well-designed adventure game - and make no mistake, this is more of an adventure game than a HOG, to the point that the hidden object screens are actually optional - moves players through the story in a logical fashion, presenting them with obstacles to overcome and giving them fair clues and tools to allow them to struggle their way through.

Evil Pumpkin goes a different way entirely, loading itself up with nonsensical, sometimes buggy, puzzles and some of the least impressive HOGs in recent memory.

On to the HOG criteria!

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

It's pretty bad. While the game does a passable job of restricting its searches to areas that would logically be cluttered, many of those areas are littered with items which make no sense given the setting - and that's just in the logical areas. There are also plenty of screens where a load of nonsense is tossed in. A church pew? Seems like a good place for a gold bar, straight razor, bullet and tree! It's just a mess for mess' sake. And that's not even getting into the rampant cheating that goes into item placement. There isn't much size cheating - the game has a good grasp of perspective, at least. That doesn't stop it from defying gravity, changing colours, and going transparent whenever it suits the developers' purposes. Just shoddy work here.

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

Only in the most cursory fashion. There are the standard 12:1 item finding sequences, but beyond that, no justification is given for the searches. This is largely because the game is far more interested in its puzzles than its searches - on the 'difficulty select' menu, HOSs only appear as an element on the lowest difficulty setting, aimed at 'casual' players'. This suggests that serious adventure gamers wouldn't bother with hidden object searches, and should focus on the game's other, more nonsensical puzzles. Given this attitude towards the genre they're working in, it's no surprise that the game's hidden object screens are so lacking.

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

Not well at all. The story follows a little boy on a journey to find out why his town is the only place in the world without a Halloween. It's not a bad premise, but his method of investigation never makes much sense, and the conclusion he comes to seems utterly random. This isn't helped at all by the game's terrible puzzles, which range from annoying to buggy. This isn't just a case of my distaste for sliding block puzzles rearing its ugly head once more. There's the equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that don't fit together and offer no clue as to where they're to be placed on the board. There's an 'eliminate the subjects' game whose rules are so oblique that I could see people being driven mad. Then there's a puzzle which is just plain wrong - as in the developers forgot their own world's rules when crafting it, so the answer doesn't make any logical sense.

With its lacklustre HOSs, frustrating puzzles, and hint/skip meter which takes forever to charge, Evil Pumpkin: The Lost Halloween is a disaster on every level. Literally the only thing that the game has going for it is a wry wit that surfaces in a bevy of puns offered for nearly every circumstance. For anyone uninterested in wordplay or adorable talking animals, this game offers nothing to recommend.

Want to check out my playthrough of the game? Just head over to the playlist, available here!

Evil Pumpkin is available on Steam!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Behind the Reflection 2: Witch's Revenge

In this sequel to Behind the Reflection (which, full disclosure, I haven't played), the Witch has escaped from the prison she was taken to at the end of the last game, and once again stolen the soul of the protagonist's son. To to save the day, the player's character will be forced to travel to a series of historical and fantasy-based lands, helping the denizens trapped therein and looking for clues about her son's whereabouts.

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

Behind the Reflection 2 offers quite a mixed bag in this respect. There are two types of item hunting sequences in the game. The first and more naturalistic type asks the player to overcome an obstacle in the environment by finding eight items scattered realistically around the area. The second is, of course, the de rigueur "hidden objects screen" in which the player has to find one of the aforementioned eight items among a sea of nonsense, and also locate a dozen other items for no particular reason.

Simply offering two different styles of hidden object searches feels like a breath of fresh air, but the design falters over the length of the game, as the items that need to be located become more and more incongruous and obviously mismatched with their surroundings. Towards the end I found myself in a prison cell baffled by the sight of a multitude of coins tossed haphazardly around the room, with no consideration given to perspective or their proper relative size. Instead of being challenged to scour the room for the items necessary to solve a puzzle, I was left wondering how long it was going to be before someone asked me to grab a bunch of dinner plate sized nickels.

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

Other than the standard "here is a mess, grab twelve things," the game does a remarkably good job of justifying its search sequences. As always, there's a contrived elaborateness to the manner in which video game characters hide even their most basic possessions, but a wide variety in the kind of puzzles presented keep these sequences from ever growing too dull. While many of the searches may seem arbitrary—find a bunch of flowers to start a sliding block puzzle—quite a few of them are logical or even clever. After being told that I need to find something within a beehive, I then scour the area looking for the tools necessary to safely open it.

Behind the Reflection 2: Witch's Revenge Screenshot

The only real drawback is that the game sometimes doesn't play fair with these searches. While generally the eight items required to solve any problem are located in that screen where the problem exists, a few times one of the items will be hidden in another location. The problem is that there's no way to tell that the item is going to be in another location—I only realized what was going on when, after five minutes of fruitless searching, I finally gave up and clicked on the hint button, which directed me to another screen.

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

Behind the Reflection 2 is certainly visually accomplished, with attractive looking levels and relatively fair object placement, but the various parts never blend together to create a consistent experience. While the plot's explanation for why I'm jumping through time and space makes perfect sense—I'm visiting the various locations where the witch has interdimensional influence—there's no common theme or tone running through them, so the hodgepodge of locations ends up being largely unsatisfying. The visit to seventeenth century Salem makes sense given the game's premise, but why did the sequence that preceded it involve me helping out a cartoonish talking tree by bringing him a goldfish? And why is it proceeded by visit to a bright and cheerful mansion, complete with ghost butler?

These issues aren't the game's only problem though, as Behind the Reflection 2 is, by a wide margin, the buggiest hidden object game I've ever played. I can't really fault the game for the way one puzzle became unbeatable after my computer crashed, but the ability to jump to the beginning of that world rather than being forced to start the whole thing over would've been a nice feature. I can, however, fault the game for the two puzzles that stopped responding to mouse clicks midway through solving them. It's lucky that the game offers players the opportunity to skip any puzzle. Without that option, I may not never have been able to finish it.

Behind the Reflection 2 offers a few interesting twists to the HOG genre, but in the end the bugginess and lack of any kind of overarching theme keep it from standing apart from the crowd. That's not to say the game doesn't have its charms, merely that it never really does anything interesting with the bizarre situations it establishes.

That prison I mentioned in the introduction, the one the witch escapes? That's not a magical prison. She's not trapped behind a mirror, or in a statue or anything. The last shot in the plot recap that opens the game is of the witch being driven away from the heroine's house, handcuffed in the back seat of a police car. We're promised a weird world of (not entirely serious) urban fantasy, and the game delivers incongruous setpieces that never gel. Maybe Behind the Reflection 3 will finally figure this thing out.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Hope Lake

Right from the title screen which features a half-naked woman suffering from exposure in a rowboat on a rainy night, Hope Lake is determined to appear darker and more sinister than the average HOG. Horror is a ubiquitous subject within the genre, and there are countless examples of games set in crumbling hospitals, churches, and madhouses, but Hope Lake wants to evoke an entirely different brand of horror.

By focusing the player's attention not on a scary beast or sinister edifice, but the plight of a kidnapping victim, the developers make it clear that they want to play on more grounded, everyday fears. While the game never manages to be as gripping an exploration of terror as the title screen implies, the change of pace it offers is both welcome and enthralling.

Now, for the HOG criteria!

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

Not in the least. By setting the game in and around the grounds of a long-shuttered boarding school where a psychopath has taken residence, the developers have found the perfect setting for piles of refuse and random objects to be scattered. Whether it was the abandoned infirmary filled with a variety of rusted tools and machines, or the dusty attic stacked with decades of stored possessions, I never once questioned the contents of a HOG screen, as bizarre and random as they might have become.

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

Playing as private detective Kelly Wells, the player is given every logical reason to scour rooms for clues and useful items. Yes, the game uses the standard device of demanding the player find a dozen more items than they actually need, but the game manages to keep the screens fresh with multipart solutions to finding items, and well-drawn locations in which the items are believably hidden.

More importantly, the key items the player finds have a tendency to stick around in the inventory for a little while rather than perishing immediately after being used to remove an obstacle. It's a minor step, but just acknowledging that the player may be able to find more than one use for an axe goes a long way towards making the game feel more practical and realistic.

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

Hope Lake is interested in telling a dark, intense story about hidden sins and the drive for vengeance by carefully crafting the HOG screens and puzzles to maintain the tone throughout the game. Even if the creation of some puzzles seems beyond the ability or interest of the villain, they always serve the larger purpose of reinforcing the game's eeriness. Artistically speaking, this is an unusually accomplished and consistent entry in the HOG genre.

Even the game's story gets high marks for most of its running time. From a propulsive opening sequence that uses a few brief animated scenes to establish the stakes, the player is thrown headlong into the mystery and given every reason to believe something terrible is going to happen if they don't solve it fast. Every step of the way there's a new discovery waiting for Kelly, and some new bit of the evidence or piece of backstory to give more insight into the villain's motives and plan.

Things only get a little troubling right at the end, which happens incredibly abruptly. After an entire game devoted to building up the villain and his insane scheme, the story gets wrapped up with just a few bits of dialogue. It's certainly not the satisfying resolution the game seemed to be promising, and the details are so threadbare that the fate of several missing characters goes completely unexplained. There are hints in the game pointing to a certain interpretation of events, and it's possible to leave Hope Lake assuming a resolution the game doesn't provide, but those same hints also point to a grand climax that the game skips over. Honestly, I'm left not knowing exactly what to think about the finale.

Other than the story problems, Hope Lake is top-notch with gorgeous art and well-constructed puzzles to overcome. As HOGs go, Hope Lake is as creepy and intense as they come. It's only too bad the lack of a satisfying story resolution keeps it from true greatness.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Dark Strokes: Sins of the Father

I am presented with a fishing net that needs to be cut. I find a set of wire cutters, but they prove useless against the damp string, though perfectly serviceable at cutting through steel. Later on I will find myself stymied by a set of vines clogging an important venue. Discovering a set of pruning shears, an implement designed solely for cutting back plants, I rush to the vines and try my luck... only to discover that no, the game would prefer I use those pruning shears for something other than pruning vines. Welcome to the world of Dark Strokes: Sins of the Fathers, which undercuts a great setting and memorable artwork with some truly baffling moon logic in its puzzle design.

Hidden Object Game (HOG) Criteria 1: To what degree do the puzzle screens look like a thrift store vomited on my monitor?

Less than most. While Dark Strokes still features the 'find twenty items in the mess to collect the one you need' screens that are so popular in this genre, a few changes by the developers make them seem less arbitrary and tiresome. First off, there are fewer of the sequences than in the standard HOG— especially given this game's length, and more importantly, an unusually large amount of care was obviously put into crafting the screens themselves. While there's still a bit of 'Goodwill explosion' to the locations, the variety and placement of items is far more believable, and the game has no real problems with anachronistic/nonsensical items popping up because the artists were running out of ideas.

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

Dark Strokes does an excellent job at straddling the line between HOG and first-person point-and-click adventure. Rather than just searching for items in proscribed areas, players are asked to interact with the environment in wholly scripted, but still very interesting ways. My biggest problem came with trying to keep track of just how much there was to do in every area. At any given time my inventory would have five or six items to go, with a couple of them relating to a screen and obstacle I'd encountered more than a half-hour earlier. This is an impressive amount of depth for a 'casual' title, and it may even be a little daunting for players coming to it looking for pure relaxation.

There's a bad side to the complexity as well—more than once I had a full inventory, plenty of areas to explore, and absolutely no idea what the game expected me to do next. Luckily the game's hint system is very forgiving by providing gradient advice and covering for shortcomings in clear direction. The hints first tell the player what location they're supposed to be in, then point out exactly what part of the screen they're supposed to interact with, and finally just allow the player to skip troublesome puzzles if all else fails.

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

Boasting an attractive location and chilling enemies, Dark Strokes has an exceptionally enthralling premise, telling the tale of a man who brings his fiancee home to meet his family, only to discover that he's walked them into a trap two decades into the making. Sadly the story doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny—the 'twist' is telegraphed by the game's title, and a 'bonus story' that unlocks when the game is completed actually hurts the story more than it helps. Normally an extra chapter told from the villain's point of view serves to fill in the backstory, but this one raises more questions than it answers.

Still, the game's aesthetics alone make it more than worth checking out. The location—a perpetually rain-soaked seaside village with a nightmarish spire looming over it from across the bay—is the exact type of location where this kind of game should be taking place, and I relished each new location I discovered, finding each to be more attractive than the last. The gothic mystery is exactly the genre that HOGs excel at portraying, and Dark Strokes's adherence to the formula, with pale women endangered by terrible family secrets, gives the whole game a sheen of class and depth that set it apart from the crowd.

Oh, and the vines? The game wanted me to find a sharpened hoe in order to deal with them. I don't get it either.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart

Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart is a hidden object game wastes no time in getting to the action.

The 'adventure' opens with main character Edwina driving to the town where her mother and father died years earlier, killed mysteriously while searching for the titular object. She isn't in the anachronistically-medieval town for more than a minute before she's using spirit cards to divine the names of ghost animals and unlock arcane seals in order to keep a mysterious black beast at bay. Right off the bat players are invited to share in the bizarre magical world of the game—it feels like being dropped in the deep end, but as the game progresses, it just winds up seeming like the developers have decided to err on the side of respecting their audience's intelligence.

Margrave's classic art style suits it well. The screens are all beautifully rendered, with just enough animation to make the various locations feel alive. Unfortunately, the high quality of the environmental art makes the bizarre choice of rendering all of the story scenes by lightly drawing over actual photographs seem incredibly odd. Going from a classically beautiful depiction of a crumbling city wall to a photo with a crude filter over it is a jarring experience that does the game no favors.

Now, my Hidden Object Game criteria!

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

Really bad this time. While the hidden object scenes are extremely well-drawn, there's absolutely no coherent theme to them. An effort is clearly being made—an orchard has rusty tools, a dollhouse has creepy figures of broken porcelain, and so on, but in every screen I'm asked to look for completely random items whose presence makes no sense at all. What's worse, the various items that need to be found are vastly shifted in size to better hide them, which just seems lazy. There are pins the size of walking sticks, paperclips the size of suitcases, and bowler hats that fit over a single key on a cash register. More often than not, I was finding items by picking them out of the list, guessing what color they'd be, and then trying to find a spot on the screen where the artist had camouflaged them to the point of unfairness.

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

This is borderline. As usual, there's generally one 'vital' item that needs to be found to continue the story, as well as fifteen that don't matter, but it's not a huge issue here. The game seems far more interested in its puzzles than the hidden object screens that define its genre.

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

The developers have done a great job of creating a coherent world where HOG screens are just one component of the various mysteries they're asked to solve. There are a wide variety of puzzles, including pipe turning, assembling torn letters, and a recurring puzzle where the player has to use their spirit cards to determine the secret names of various characters and items. While the HOG screens are somewhat disappointing, the high quality and comparative fairness of the other puzzles go a long way towards making up for the shortcoming.

The game is a little on the short side, with just a handful of HOG screens—most of which the player will have to visit more than once—and an equal number of puzzles. Despite the relatively small size of the game, it still has a problem with making it clear exactly what players are supposed to do next at any given moment. While other games have offered interactive maps letting players know when a new HOG screen has appeared somewhere, Margrave expects players to simply click the 'hint' key whenever they're not sure what to do next. While both offer the same relative level of difficulty, forcing players to ask for help (or backtrack through every single screen multiple times) rather than simply giving them a map seems like a bad decision.

While the game does a good job of wrapping up its main plotline, like House of 1000 Doors before it, Margrave is puzzlingly obtuse when it comes to many of its plot points, such as explaining what exactly the Severed Heart is, and why it's cursed. Many of these questions are then answered in one of the most baffling bonus games I've ever come across.

The "Blacksmith's Revenge" which unlocks after completing the main game, is set two years in the future, when Edwina has returned to tie up loose ends. Then, things get bizarre when the game explains that the cursed object in question was created by a Native American cyclops to get revenge on the puritans that persecuted his family. Also, Edwina now has a mechanical bird sidekick. The jarring time-jump and sudden inclusion of magical races, along with a few well-drawn but non-interactive locations that appear in a montage as the story begins make this epilogue feel like the last 10% of a sequel, dropped in here as a special feature when the project was abandoned.

Despite its disappointing HOG screens, Margrave manages to offer a satisfying (if brief) adventure, followed by a tiny, utterly baffling one. With its impressive art and effectively creepy atmosphere, it's certainly an adventure worth playing. It's too bad that it's only a few improved HOG screens and a more coherent story away from being a stellar example of the genre, though.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Haunting Mysteries: The Island of Lost Souls

Like so many other games, The Island of Lost Souls opens with a plane crash next to a mysterious lighthouse. Once they arrive at the nearby island the player won't find themselves confronted with zombies, vivisected animals, or the concept of capitalism. No, this time it's an island haunted by the ghost of a murderous spurned admirer, as well as those of his numerous victims. Yes, it's a fairly generic premise, but that's nothing that can't be overcome with solid design. Which, unfortunately, Island of Lost Souls doesn't have to offer. I know it seems as if I was setting up a compliment there, but ILS actually makes a bunch of fundamental design errors that keep it from fulfilling its promise. Also, a bad bit of coding make it possible to accidentally render the game unbeatable. But we'll get there. First, the HOG Criteria!

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

So much garbage, folks, and very little of it makes sense. This is a setting that could easily have justified a few tchochke-filled screens. It's an abandoned island which was briefly a military outpost during the second World War. I can think of any number of reasons that it would be filled with random detritus. Simply designing believable screens around that concept was apparently beyond the developers, however, who pack each screen with random nonsense that couldn't fit the setting less if it tried. Not only are the items in the screens questionable, the developers use every kind of cheat in the bad hidden object toolset - size cheating, transparency cheating, items that float or stick in contradiction with all known laws of physics. These are some sloppy screens, people.

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

It's standard 12/1 screens this time, with each HOS offering a single item which needs to be used in the story and 11 that don't. To the game's credit, it does a great job of leading players to new HOSs organically. When players find a new item and backtrack to use it an earlier location, they'll often find a new HOS waiting for them on the way. A map letting players know which screens have new activities would obviously be preferable, but this is at least better than hoping players will be fine with aimlessly wandering around until they just stumble onto the next HOS. Unfortunately, the HOSs themselves have an additional major problem in addition to sloppy construction - not only do items found in a hidden object search not permanently disappear, but on return trips to the same screen I was frequently asked to click on the some of the same items I'd just found five minutes prior. In the worst example, I saw five repeat items - a nearly 50% rate. This is just shockingly shoddy work.

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

While the HOSs aren't especially well integrated, the game's puzzles at least fit the theme fairly well. There's some torn picture re-assembly, a game of Simon, and a few more clever ones I won't spoil. While they're all very artificial, they're unreal in a way that makes sense on a haunted island full of lonely ghosts. The story moves at a brisk enough pace to keep players from getting bored, and nearly everything is wrapped up in a neat little package by the time the credits roll.

I wish I was able to say the same about the bonus chapter which unlocks after the main game is completed, but unfortunately, I was unable to finish it, for reasons that it's important I address now, since my mistake may hopefully prevent another player from stumbling onto a game-breaking bug. Here's the problem - the game's inventory is fairly standard - a bar at the bottom of the screen, which fills up with pictures of items as they're collected. If more are found than can fit on the screen, arrows appear which allow the player to scroll between inventory bars. All fairly standard stuff. Here's the unique feature problem which can cause severe problems: when items from the inventory are used, the rest of the items in the bar don't all immediately shift one block to the left, compacting the inventory the way they do in most games. Why is this a problem? Well, it shouldn't be, except for the fact that if players take an item from the inventory and try to use it incorrectly, the item will then be filed back as close to the start of the inventory bar as possible.

This can cause a terrible result - I had a half-filled first inventory bar, and a single item on the second. I went to the second bar and misused an item - this caused it to be filed away back in the first bar, which I'd expected. What I hadn't expected was that the game noticing that the second bar was empty caused it to turn off the ability to switch between inventory pages - but it did not at the same time automatically move me back to the first page. With the 'switch page' buttons turned off, I was trapped on the second page, which had not inventory items in it. Without the ability to access my inventory, I was left unable to continue the game. This is a fairly serious bug, and as of yet, I haven't discovered a workaround.

So while there are certainly good parts about Haunting Mysteries: Island of Lost Souls, the lacklustre hidden object screens and game destroying bug leave me unable to recommend it.

If you'd like to play along with my journey through Haunting Mysteries: Island of Lost Souls, just check out this playlist! The final part feature my harrowing descent into madness as I realize that I've broken the game!

Haunting Mysteries: Island of Lost Souls is available from GameHouse!

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Natural Threat: Ominous Shores

For the first half-hour, Natural Threat: Ominous Shores feels like it might be building towards something special. The game opens with the player taking on the role of a recently-hired assistant to a mad scientist determined to crossbreed animals with plants. As the player carefully removes insects from experimental plant beds and searches out the ingredients for a mutagenic cocktail, gamers will be hunting for objects in believably cluttered locations, giving the whole thing a natural feel. Then the scientist's experiments prove successful to a tragic degree, and the plot jumps forwards a few decades, where a more generic story and less impressive gameplay are waiting.

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

As I wrote above, the game's opening is impressive in this respect, with a single object-hunt screen managing to look like storage area of a man with more important things to worry about than the orderly arrangement of his tchotkes. Once the time-jump is complete, and the player is now controlling a generic youth whose party-boat sank near the island, the screens get needlessly messy. If the mere appearance of incongruous items like suits of armor and cuckoo clocks on this isolated Caribbean research outpost wasn't bad enough, the game commits the cardinal sin of HOGs—arbitrarily changing the scale of items to better hide them in stages. It's all well and good to tell me I'm looking for a "dog" and then trick me but putting a small drawing off in the corner, but making a hex nut the size of a human head in order to conceal it is just unfair.

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

It's pretty much a fifty-fifty split in this game. While there are plenty of screens that ask the player to collect over a dozen random objects, there are also a few progressive item hunt areas, where every item in the list has a specific purpose and relevance to the puzzle being solved. These puzzles are well-enough designed that it winds up throwing the standard screens into sharp relief, making them seem more perfunctory than anything else.

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

It's in this area that the game really falls apart. While HOG fans have come to accept the "find a key to open the chest—and fourteen other nonsense items for no reason!" puzzle framework as a necessary evil of the genre, Natural Threat feels perfunctory even by those lax expectations. It isn't just how many times players will be asked to go back and hunt for objects on the same screen—although that does get tiresome—it's how little effort the developers put into integrating the searches into the story. There are many occasions in the game where I came across a glowing field letting me know that a HOG screen is available—but the plot hadn't presented me with an impassable obstacle or a mystery to be solved. Not only was I faced with the prospect of picking twelve objects out of a pile of refuse, I didn't even know which of the dozen was the plot-related item that I was supposed to be looking for. That's just sloppy design.

Natural Threat's visuals are attractive enough, and nearly half of the puzzles are well-designed for the genre, but it never gives the player a good reason to keep playing. The central mystery of the island is kind of a dud, and the main character and their friends are such ciphers that it's not really possible to care if they get off the island, except in an objective, "getting-eaten-by-carnivorous-plants-is-a-bad-outcome" sort of way. Without technical accomplishment or a compelling narrative, Natural Threat never rises above the crowd to distinguish itself in any meaningful way. There are better ways to spend time hunting pixels.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

A Historical Footnote - My First Ever Hidden Object Game Review - Voodoo Chronicles

That's right! This is the first HOG I ever reviewed, way back in 2011. It's also the third I'd actually played all the way through, soon after completing the first two Campfire Legend games. So please, join me on this jaunt back in time!

Up until a few months ago, I'd never actually played a hidden object game. They'd always seemed like the bailiwick of bored people at work looking to kill time while waiting for a phone call. My naive habit of horrible target audience stereotyping ended when I actually played one of these games on a whim, and was shocked to discover an incredibly good game—one that mixed hidden object hunts and puzzles seamlessly into a compelling narrative that pulled me inexorably towards a thrilling conclusion. Voodoo Chronicles: The First Sign isn't that game, but at least my eyes were opened before encountering it. If not, i would have likely missed out on nice little casual title.

The biggest challenge with reviewing a hidden object game is figuring out exactly what critical framework to use. Obviously it's largely a puzzle game, one that owes its origins to "spot-the-difference" and Where's Waldo? books, but there are also light action sequences, and a semblance of a plot tying everything together. So, how to approach it? After some (way too much, honestly) thought, I've come up with three criteria that, when judiciously applied, can be used to determine the quality of a hidden object game.

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

The game suffers a little from this phenomenon. It's always a challenge to come up with reasons for areas to be littered with random objects that have to be sorted through, and Voodoo Chronicles does better than most. The settings do include a ransacked office and crashed airship, so there's sometimes justification for the strewn goods. Still, there are far too many instances of "random object thrown in for no good reason" to give the game a pass. Especially egregious are the too-frequent appearances of bizarre scaling problems with objects. I think it's fair to expect item sizes to be fairly consistent—if I'm asked to look for a "pitchfork," I don't expect the game to mean a tiny utensil dwarfed by the sawblade lying next to it.

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

Only partially. The game follows the standard HOG trope of asking players to find a specific plot-related object in a given area, but then also forcing them to find twenty other random objects simply to pad out every puzzle screen. This is so common that it's almost foolish to complain about it, but it can be done more elegantly, and I'd appreciate it if more developers took the effort and stretched themselves in that direction. That way players won't find themselves asking why—while escaping from an underground prison—they need to find a pillow, basket, and monkey.

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

This is hardest-to-quantify category, but also the most important. When it comes right down to it, this isn't a Where's Waldo? book, it's a game with a narrative, and as such I'm forced to ask how well the gameplay serves that. In this case, it actually works fairly well. Except for a bizarre endgame sequence, the puzzles and object searches all fit the mystery tone extremely well. The story is considerably less well-handed. While it's an effective enough over-the-top adventure, the decision to reveal the solution to the mystery in an opening cinema sequence is baffling at best. When I'm playing as a detective tasked with solving a high-profile mystery, I'd rather the game didn't tell me who did it and why in the first 90 seconds. Perhaps that's just me.

The game also has a few minor sticking points. A few of the object-based puzzles are on the non-intuitive side (the in-game guide that comes with the deluxe edition is quite useful), and the game can be oddly cavalier with language for something that largely depends on precision and specificity. The list of objects has a bad habit of using bottle, vase, and jar interchangeably—and when the shelves are filled with all three, figuring out what I'm supposed to click on becomes a challenge. The game also has a few odd translations—it took me more than a minute to discover that when the game said I needed to click on a "beam" it meant a pile of logs.

Despite these minor flaws, Voodoo Chronicles: The First Sign fulfilled my criteria for a quality HOG handily. While it may not be near the top of the genre, it's certainly a pleasant casual title. Easy on the eyes and just challenging enough to keep people from getting bored while waiting for that phone call. How much more can one ask from a Hidden Object Game?

Monday, 8 February 2016

Preview! Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders!

In a stroke of good fortune, I wound up with an advance copy of The ABC Murders for the XBONE - I've agreed to only post the first chapter for now, so enjoy, then tune back in for the playlist of the entire game when it's out!

There likely won't be a formal review, since it's an adventure game, as opposed to a HOG. Still, Poirot! Yay!

House of 1000 Doors: Family Secrets

Set in a mysterious mansion that appears all around the world at different times, the game puts players in the role of a frustrated novelist who travels to the titular house to restore the good name of her family (and maybe get an idea for her next book). Or maybe she doesn't—the plot gets a little confused towards the end, although that will be addressed in a moment.

First, the HOG criteria:

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

This isn't one of the genre's shining moments, by any means. Every item collection screen is full of random nonsensical clutter, along with a fair amount of trick items that can only be found by assembling other pieces of clutter or finding a secret sub-screen within the main area. To the game's credit, finding these items is made far easier by the fact that complicated items are highlighted in the list. The game also has a better explanation for the clutter than most. After all, if this house really travels through time and space, who's to say what random garbage it might pick up?

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

Not especially. It's bog-standard design right down the line on this front. Players move through a series of screens, unlocking doors and solving simple puzzles (or skipping them with the aid of an extremely fair hint system) until they find that they're missing a certain item. Suddenly a previous area is bathed in a magical glow, and it's time to find that item! (Along with twenty other arbitrary knickknacks.) Not especially disappointing, but the developers certainly weren't going the extra mile this time around.

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

House of 1000 Doors is something of an odd case, since the story that the player finds themselves participating in has very little to do with the plot they're promised at the outset.

After a chilling opening movie, the main character is contacted by a ghostly relative, and told that the only way to clear their family's name is to go to the house. So the player does, and finds herself tasked with traveling to the sites of a variety of murders—all involving a tragic death in the past (some more gruesome than others)—and solving puzzles to put the ghosts involved to a peaceful rest.

The bizarre part is that the main character's relative isn't mentioned. The nature of her scandal never comes up, and by the time the end of the game rolls around I'd almost forgotten what the point of the whole endeavor was supposed to be in the first place. It wasn't until the main character mentions in her final monologue that she'd gotten the evidence she needed to vindicate her ancestors that I was reminded of the game's purported storyline—and mildly annoyed, since nothing like that had actually happened.

After beating the game I discovered that the main story—really the entire central plot of the game, is entirely dealt with and resolved in a bonus unlockable chapter that's included only in the "collector's edition" of the game. Luckily the publishers were kind enough to provide me with that version for review, but I worry that anyone playing the standard game would come away completely disappointed (and somewhat baffled) by the utter lack of a resolution.

With all the ghosts, murders, and tragic histories one would expect from a gothic melodrama, House of 1000 Doors does a great job of finding an eerie tone for the game and giving players a consistent level of challenge as they explore their way through it. It definitely loses marks for the bizarre mishandling of its plot, but beyond that, the mechanics are solid, and it's successful at everything else it attempts.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Lost Civilization

When Suzanne's fiancee goes missing in Prague after asking for her help in explaining what a Mayan artifact was doing in the middle of Europe, it's up to the player to help her save the day! This will be accomplished by lying to, stealing from, and in one case, actually poisoning the innocent bystanders who stand in her way. Adventure games with jerk protagonists are nothing new, but Suzanne is a special kind of self-centered a-hole. I understand that her cause is essentially just, but wow, is it strange how quick she is to deceive and inconvenience people to suit her own interests. Also, there's a part where she uses firecrackers to scare of some pigeons, presumably deafening them, when the same end could have been accomplished by simply walking up to them, waving her arms and going 'shoo'. So yes, I was a little uncomfortable with her as a main character.

Also, the game takes weird liberties with the hidden object formula, which I'll get into in the Hidden Object Criteria!

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

The game's developers obviously knew this was an issue, so they largely force Suzanne to find items in piles of garbage. This happens so often that it's actually kind of a theme in the game - there's a recycling station that people haven't been respecting very well, two dumpsters, a river that people use as a dump, even a net full of random items that have been dredged out of the ocean. It's nice to see developers putting in the effort of trying to come up with places which would have items to pick over, but sad to see that all they could come up with is trash heap after trash heap after trash heap.

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

Not in the least - and in a very strange way. While most games ask players to remove a variety of items from a pile of nonsense in order to find the item they need to proceed, Lost Civilization tasks them primarily with filling trash heaps with even more garbage. Sure, from time to time there's a classic 15-1 item search, but about as often the player will be handed an inventory full of random items, and match them with something on the screen that they're related to. Not only is this less entertaining than making items disappear, it makes considerably less narrative sense. Where are these extra items coming from? What is accomplished by adding them to the pile? At least in traditional HOSs there's a narrative figleaf in which we can imagine removing three armloads worth of items helps us locate the thing we're really looking for - even if it was right there in the middle of the screen all along. These 'Added Object Sceens' don't track in any way, shape, or form.

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

The developers do a decent enough job here. While adding garbage to scenes never makes any kind of sense, it's always in service of perfectly logical, if slightly dickish, goals. The game also moves along at very brisk pace. It's only two hours long, but in that time Suzanne will explore two major and three minor locations, go through more than a dozen HOSs and AOSs, as well as deal with puzzles that fit right in with the world in which the game takes place. As a narrative it has more than a few holes - no one ever really explains what Nibiru has to do with anything, and Suzanne is perhaps the most incurious archaeologist in the history of fiction, but by and large the story works as a frame to hang the various activities on.

While Lost Civilization is nowhere near the top of my list of Hidden Object Games, it's extremely professionally produced and never gets frustrating. This is largely due to something that I feel like the game should have singled out in its marketing - it has perhaps the fastest-recharging hint button I've ever encountered! I don't imagine players will need it that often, what with the HOSs being fairly large and easy to navigate, but it's nice to see the game letting players opt out of frustrating puzzles if they just want to get to the end. With its strange, wrongheaded innovations Lost Civilization isn't setting the world on fire, but there's much worse out there.

Also, the game features no Lost Civilization. Just a couple of Mayan pyramids.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Hidden Mysteries: Civil War

The Civil War seems like an odd setting for a hidden object game, given that a mass bloodshed fought over slavery might be a little too grave a subject to broach in the genre of 'finding nonsense in a field'. Hidden Mysteries: Civil War does nothing to dispel this notion. Mostly because it is one of the worst offenders when it comes to randomly throwing nonsense all over a screen with no consideration of theme, colour, gravity, relative size, or transparency. Hidden Mysteries is nothing but two hours of the developers shoving random items into the place where they'll be the least visible, then using whatever tricks they can to jack the difficulty just a little bit higher, like turning items invisible and really stretching the definition of certain words.

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

This might as well be the definition of that particular flaw. Every screen is a passably-rendered image representing a battle from the Civil war, which then has been covered with a hundred pieces of random clip art. It's difficult to express how difficult these screens are to beat - primarily because of their tiny size. I played this game in an obscenely stretched out fullscreen mode (it was originally made for 4:3 monitors) on a 32" screen, and I was still barely able to make out some of the items. I can only imagine how impossible this was on small, blurry monitors of the past. A recharging hint button would have at least made the game playable for everyone, but for some reason - even in the so-called 'Casual' mode - the developers set a hard three-hint limit for each of the game's stages, making them an incredible chore to beat.

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

There is no premise/story to speak of, beyond a few letters offering backstory on the few characters that the game nominally follows over the course of the war. Beyond that, the player is just cleaning up anachronistic/nonsensical garbage from America's historic battle sites.

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

The only puzzles are a few 'decoding' puzzles that involve using basic reading comprehension to replace symbols with letters - and these have nothing to do with the object searches. There's an alternate history background story happening, where somebody's searching for a lost Mayan treasure, and a separate character manages to save Lincoln's life at Ford's theatre, but the searches are so random and unrelated to anything else going on that it's impossible for the game to build any sort of a narrative, leaving the player feeling like they're being asked to perform an arbitrary task just to unlock the next page of story text. Absolutely the opposite of integrated puzzle and HOG design.

Hidden Mysteries: Civil War is a bad example of a bad period in the genre, when developers would throw together a few screens that barely constituted them, then packaged them into a game. Hidden Object Games have come a long when since games like Civil War, and it's a perfect example of why it was so important for them to do so.

If you'd like to play along with my trip to the Civil War, enjoying the embarrassing spectacle of me trying to fill two hours of gameplay with extemporaneous monologuing about whatever comes to mind, then look know farther - the YouTube playlist is here!

While I may not necessarily recommend it, Hidden Mysteries: Civil War is available on Steam!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Clockwork Man: The Hidden World

It's always annoying when technical issues get in the way of enjoyment of a game. I'm doing this to compliment or complain about design decisions, not coding errors. Where's the fun in pointing out that someone forgot to add a colon somewhere in the thousands of lines of text that make up the framework of a game? Still, sometimes games are so badly compromised that it must be mentioned. Clockwork Man: The Hidden World is one such game. It tells the story of Miranda, a young scientist bent of uncovering the secret behind her parents' disappearance nearly a decade earlier. She'll travel to Thule with the help of her clockwork robot sidekick - a small golden droid who speaks entirely in bleeps and bloops, turning him into a sort of combination C-3P0 and R2D2.

Sadly, this journey is hampered by both design errors and technical gaffs, which I'll detail as we move through the... Hidden Object Criteria!

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

Oh, it's bad. Extremely bad. While the game tries to keep the items true to the steampunk Victorian setting, there is no excuse for how absolutely covered in garbage the game's screens are. One particularly dire example gives a quaint Irish cottage the character of a trash yard, with empty pots, furniture, and bits of food scattered over every concievable surface. Then there are rampant cases of size-cheating - in one case I was asked to look for a pocket knife which was hidden in the spokes of a wagon wheel, making it something along the lines of eighteen inches big. This is all made worse by the developers' decision to include 'scrolling' hidden object screens, in which the player is forced to scroll the screen up/down or left/right to find all the items. I'm baffled by this choice, since it takes the baseline concept of hidden object games - put 20 items on a screen and have the player look for them - and increases the amount of trash-covered space they have to look through by threefold. Absurdly, this massively increased difficulty is accompanied by one of the slowest-to-recharge hint buttons I've ever encountered. Also, during once stretch of playing the game the hint button glitched out on me and flat-out refused to recharge, stranding me alone with some of the most annoying difficult hidden object scenes ever.

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

Absolutely not. This is classic 'find a load of nonsense, get one useful item' design. Occasionally the game offers some meagre justification, such as 'clean up all the bottles in this yard' or 'help me find all the food I've squirrelled away', but by and large there's no rationalization given for any of Miranda's searches.

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

It's a compelling enough narrative - villains are on their way to Thule, where Miranda's parents were last seen, and she's got to go along to stop said conspirators from ruining that paradise undisturbed by history. The journey isn't structured particularly well, opening with Miranda exploring a mine, then flashing back to an extended sequence of searching through offices and attics a few weeks earlier. The developers are trying to use the cinematic device of starting with the action and then zipping back to tell the story, but the mine exploration isn't notably more thrilling than searching for old documents and artifacts hidden in a house - this is a hidden object adventure, after all, and the 'thrilling' scale is only ever going to get so high. While the hidden object puzzles don't usually make the most sense, at least the puzzles hit in nicely with the setting. Repairing a submarine and unlocking alien technology seem like the kind of things that could be solved with clever puzzle design, and they are - but the lack of a skip button could prove terribly frustrating to players looking to just enjoy a pleasant story and some object hunting.

Clockwork Man: The Hidden World has too many missteps to easily recommend. The HOSs are needlessly complicated - beyond their sheer size, they also feature parallax scrolling, meaning that different planes of the background move at different speeds, covering items at different times. Good luck finding a snake when it's only visible for a few degrees halfway to the right edge of the level! Glitches in the hint system mean that sections of the game drag on  far longer than they're welcome, and sometimes the music gets stuck, and continues playing a single set of atmospheric effects in every screen. It's a mess, and the story just isn't good enough to be worth slogging through to experience all of it.

If you'd like to play along with my journey through Clockwork Man: The Hidden World, and hear me go mad with frustration, you can find the YouTube playlist here!

Clockwork Man: The Hidden World is available from Steam!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Clockwork Tales of Glass and Ink (updated for PS4 release)

The Glass and Ink there are the main characters, which is more preciousness than I prefer in my titles - but this game is so incredibly winning that I can't help but put aside any misgivings I might have had going in. Set in a fictional European country in the mid-19th century, Clockwork Tales follows Glass as she attempts to rescue her mentor ink from the clutches of a mad scientist with an earthquake machine! To accomplish this task she'll have nothing but her wits, her sticktoitiveness, and a magical mechanical crow who does a surprisingly large amount of the heavy lifting, which is especially strange considering that he doesn't have hands.

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

Not in the least. Artifex Mundi always does a great job with building believable HOSs, and this game is no exception. It doesn't feature that many of them, but each one is in a logical location, with a sensible amount of clutter. Enough to be challenging, but never so much that it gets ridiculous. Some standouts include a cabinet full of rock samples, a cluttered kitchen, and a messy guard station. Never in any of them did I question the presence of a particular item. There was a little size cheating, however - unless eight-inch-tall trumpets are a real thing.

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

For the entire first third of the game, I thought Artifex Mundi had finally gone the extra mile and made a game with nothing but fully-integrated hidden object screens. For the entire time Glass is wandering around a mysterious alpine village there are no arbitrary shopping lists of items that need to be tapped - just item-based puzzles which must be solved by finding hidden objects in quick succession. It works beautifully - other than the fact that during a couple of sequences in which the player is asked to locate various pieces of an item so it can be assembled, the items on the search bar just fade out a little, rather than disappearing entirely once they've been clicked on. This can create some confusion, since 'found' items don't look that much different than the 'lost' ones. It's a minor problem, however, and this move towards HOG integration for a company already at the top of its game.

I was a little disappointed, then, to see traditional HO screens turning up in the second and third chapters. Back was the grid of chaff which needed sweeping away as Glass sought a single useful tool. They're all exceptionally well-built and attractive screens, but after the game spent so much time proving it could do more interesting things, seeing the developers rest on their laurels was a little disheartening.

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

With a sampling of fully-integrated hidden object screens, as well as puzzles that fit the steampunk setting and old European millieu, Clockwork Tales does and exceptional job of melding gameplay and story. The main character is a professional puzzle spy in a world where such a thing's existence makes perfect sense. The creepy castle, the underground lab - these are the places where puzzles and hidden objects naturally belong, and the game gets the most of its setting.

Having played the game on both PC and PS4, I can safely say that the console is my preferred platform. Clockwork Tales' lushly detailed graphics look fantastic on a big-screen television, and the controller setup is a completely natural way to engage with the game world. The first few times I tried console hidden object games I had some misgivings about using an inexact circle hovering over the HOSs to find objects, as opposed to a precise mouse-controlled pointer. Now that I've played four of them, however, I've found the search circle to be just as easy to control with a mouse. Add this to the fact that inventory management and puzzles are both vastly improved by using a controller, and I can't think of a reason not to think of consoles as the best way to play hidden object games.

Other than the fact that far too few HOGs are being released on them, of course.

With a wealth of top-notch HOGameplay, Clockwork Tales continues Artifex Mundi's stellar run of HOGs. While I'm still a little sad that they refuse to push themselves and attempt a fully-integrated HOG, where every puzzle to solve and item to find is a concrete and logical part of the narrative, it can't be denied that among people working the traditional HOG field, they're the best, and this game is a perfect example of that incredible skill in action.

Clockwork Tales of Glass and Ink is available , and on the Playstation Store!

If you'd like to watch my playthrough of this thrilling adventure, the first video is below!