Thursday, 28 April 2016

Announcing - The Manhunt'n Project

Some years back, Rockstar released the game 'Manhunt' on an unsuspecting world, scarring many people for life. Now, more than a decade on, I think it's time that we look back on that game and try to analyze its impact on the culture at large.

How will I accomplish this? By bringing people who have never seen or heard of the game and playing it along with them. What will multiple sets of fresh eyes think of the game? Is it still as shocking today as it was in 2003? What will more modern, possibly jaded audiences think of it? I can't wait to find out!

In the first episode, I'm joined by popular podcaster DM, who you'd think would be more prepared for the game than she winds up being! Enjoy!

Have any thoughts to share on Manhunt? Do so below, and prepare to have them discussed in a future episode!

Friday, 22 April 2016

Christmas Adventure: Candy Storm

Christmas Adventure: Candy Storm has the honor of being the smallest hidden object game I've ever played. Not that it's especially short - at around 2 hours, it takes a normal amount of time to complete the game, it's just that the whole thing takes place in just four different locations. Now, to be fair, each one of those screens has a couple of different places to zoom in on, and multiple HOSs, but still, it's oddly claustrophobic for a genre whose normal MO is to pride itself on variety of screens.

The game starts with a truly bizarre premise - the main character, who may or may not be some kind of Santa, is driving a red pickup truck with a bed full of toys down a forest road when he passes in front of a witches' house and finds his car suddenly transformed into candy. Turns out the whole thing was just a misunderstanding, but if he's going to get the witches' help in transforming it back to normal so he can be on his way, he's going to have to help each of the witches with a task. Those tasks? Cleaning dishes, fixing a hydroponic growing operation, and knitting sweaters for birds.

So yeah, as games go, it's deeply into the crazy side of things.

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

It's a full-on disaster. Every screen starts with a basically Christmas-friendly premise - tree, hearth, a feast set out on a table - then throws layer after layer of random, occasionally yule-themed garbage on top of it. No thought is given to gravity, logical placement, honest sizing. These aren't as bad as the Civil War screens were, but they're not a whole lot better either. Just a mess.

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

Not in the least. While occasionally the item that the player is looking for is somewhere in the mess, more often than not the game offers the rare 12:0 type of HOS, in which the player must grab twelve items for no reason before the game will just hand them the thing they were actually looking for. It's just awful. Even worse, the game commits the cardinal sin of sending the player to the same HOS multiple times in rapid succession. This is excusable when the player is allowed to gradually clean up a screen, but Christmas Adventures makes the insane choice of not just restoring the items which were previously removed, but actually adding new ones to the already-cluttered screens. It's so awkward that I was actually able to solve a few screens without looking at the list of items, simply because the new additions were so jarringly out-of-place, and I'd seen the clean version of the screen just minutes earlier.

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

Within the world of the game, the crazy things that the witches want do make a kind of sense, but the lack of effort put into making the HOSs feel like a part of the world really does the game a disservice. Also problematic is the small detail of the way the game's screens don't change as the player works on them. At one point there's a crack in a chimney - zoom in on it and clay can be placed to fix it, but zoom back out, and the crack is still there. Roll up a bit of carpet in a zoom-in screen and a locked cellar door appears. Zoom back out and the basement is clearly viewable, because the developers didn't bother to draw a version of the room where the carpet was up but the door was closed. This is nitpicking, I'm sure, but the developers were working with just four locations - a little consistency isn't that much to ask for, is it?

Christmas Adventures: Candy Storm isn't the worst HOG I've ever played. Its daffy plot had me baffled and at least mildly entertained all the way through. The HOG fundamentals just aren't there, however, which means it's far more frustrating than it ought to be. It's only a two dollars game, but look around, and when good games go on sale that two dollars could go a lot farther. I can recommend the game only to those curious about the craziest HOG premise I've yet encountered plays out.

Want to see my playthrough of the baffling game? Check out this YouTube Playlist!

Christmas Adventures: Candy Storm is available on Steam!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Eventide: Slavic Fable

Set in and around a tourist park deep in the woods of eastern Europe, Eventide casts players as a botanist attempting to help out her grandmother by using her expertise to help preserve  an ancient and mystical flower. This leads her on a journey through an ancient forest populated by colourful mystical creatures, and, of course, a variety of puzzles to solve and items to construct. While the premise may be a little on the generic side - grandma's in trouble, magic will help! - Eventide wins a lot of points with its high-quality character and art design. It may not be breaking any new ground from a design standpoint, and one mini-game is lifted whole cloth from Grim Legends 1, but it's still a solid example of the genre.

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

This isn't a huge problem this time around. As with other games in the 'magic botany' series that both this and Grim Legends delve into, Eventide excuses much of the artificiality of HOSs by having the player search for specific plants in overgrown pastures. When things turn more traditional, the game also does a good job of building locations where HOSs are likely to happen. There are crumbling tourist attractions, neglected castles, and the hovels of mysterious woodland creatures. A little clutter is to be expected.

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

The game is acutely aware of this issue, to a fault in the late-game offerings. To start with, the game tries to avoid the issue entirely by simply not having many hidden object screens in its first half. Eventually they start appearing, but other than the many examples of plant picking, they're almost entirely 'construction' HOSs, a favourite of the teams of developers working with Artifex Mundi. Building items always makes a lot of sense, so I was a little disappointed when, right at the end, the developers try to make standard 12:1 screens just as relevant to the story by establishing them as 'mosiac' searches, in which 12 pieces of locking mosaic are hidden in a cluttered screen, and the player is given the names of the 12 other items they're hidden behind. There's nothing wrong with this conceptually - it's not as good as fully integrated HOS, but it's always nice to see innovation - but the way the mosiac pieces tend to be larger than the items they're hidden behind makes the whole thing feel like an afterthought. It's as if the developers had gone most of the game without any simple 12:1 screens, and then decided right at the end that they wanted to keep the streak going, with incredibly mixed results.

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

Pretty well. The minigames are surprisingly fair - it's rare that I get through a game without skipping something, and the fact that I never had to means that by and large the puzzles respond well to basic logic and a willingness to hammer away at a problem until it just gives up. They also do a good job of fitting the game's world and tone - this is a forest of magical creatures and an evil castle run by monsters, of course there are going to be elaborate multi-stage locks to crack. One problem crops up towards the end of the game as the various objectives get a little more generic and less memorable, it can be easy to lose track of where a particular item needs to be used. Add to that a map which tells players where there are current puzzles to solve, but only points them to a general area, rather than a specific location, and the result is enough frustration to drive anyone to the hint button.

While not up to the stellar levels of the Grim Legends series, Eventide is quite charming on its own terms, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. The demo for Eventide 2: Sorcerer's Mirror convinced me to give this game a try, and I wasn't disappointed by what I found. A few misbegotten design choice here and there can't hold back an overwhelmingly decent game, especially one with one of the most satisfying prequel bonus games I've played in a while.

Check out my playthrough of the game at this YouTube Playlist!

Eventide can be purchased from Artifex Mundi!

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Preview! Eventide 2: Sorcerer's Mirror

A new month, a new game preview! That's right, Artifex Mundi has come through with another opening slice of one of their upcoming games!

This time it's Eventide 2: Sorcerer's Mirror, the tale of a mountaineering trip gone horribly awry!

You know, I've had Eventide: A Slavic Fable gathering dust in my Steam Library for a while, but this bit of the sequel has me determined to finally break it out and see if it's any good. I suspect it will be.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Questerium: Sinister Trinity

This one was a bit of a puzzle, because elements beyond its control had me going in with expectations far higher than the game could have possibly achieved. I'll explain.

There's a game called 'Infected: Twin Vaccine'. It's the second-best HOG ever made, right after Campfire Legends: The Babysitter. The story concerns the search for a missing child in a town that has befallen a tragedy. The players attempts to find the child are blocked at every turn by a sinister figure rendered in the best FMV that 2012 had to offer, as a man in a mask lumbers around in front of a greenscreen, looking entirely out of place in front of the drawn backgrounds. So when Questerium: Sinister Trinity opened in an incredibly similar fashion, right down to the costumed FMV man capering about in front of gorgeously painted tableaus, I was on board. But where would the ride take me?

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

It's not too bad this time. Questerium plays the 'destroyed town' card pretty hard, assuming that will justify any combination of items turning up in any area. It's never completely believable - there are too many instances of completely arbitrary items dropped in random locations - but by and large, the screens err on the side of plausibility and attractiveness. While some of them may not make sense, they're all gorgeously drawn in their dilapidation.

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

Standard 12:1 gameplay all the way through this time. The player needs an item, so go find a whole lot of them, with not even a tiny figleaf of justification. These are some of the easiest HOSs I've seen in a while, though, with the clear and professional art style offering players a clear view of the items they're searching for. The game doesn't cheat in item size or colour, only occasionally offering unclear instructions on what players are supposed to find - such as this image, in which the player needs to find a single 'fan', where two are clearly visible onscreen.

Yes, the solution is as simple as clicking on each in sequence, but it's still annoying. Can you guess which fan it was? The solution can be found in my video playthrough!

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

With the arbitrary searches doing the game's story no favours, the puzzles have a lot of slack to pick up, and they're not really up to the task. While many of them are entertaining and just a little challenging, a couple of the puzzles are so poorly-explained that they had me jamming on the 'skip' button until it filled up. Never a great sign. The game also leans a little too hard on the assumption that players will be comfortable hitting the 'hint' key letting them know where they're going to need to go next. The ruined town is filled with numerous obstacles to overcome, so many in fact that it's easy to lose track of which item is supposed to go where - and the game's journal does a terrible job of offering guidance. I came across this problem the hard way, when the bonus chapter's hint button steadfastly refused to point me anywhere other than a puzzle I'd solved right at the beginning of the game. This lack of help turned the chapter into a frustrating slog that had me ready to quit time and again - but, to the game's credit, when I finished the game, the plot's resolution was fairly satisfying.

Questerium: Sinister Trinity was never going to live up to Infected, which offered fully integrated HOSs to go along with its gorgeous art and compelling story. That failure to live up to a wholly unreasonable standard of excellence shouldn't be held against the game, however, which is perfectly fine in its own right. Even though things got a little uncomfortably confusing at times, I enjoyed nearly all of Questerium. Although I never really figured out what the title was supposed to mean.

You can join in my playthrough by checking out this playlist!

Questerium: Sinister Trinity is available on Steam!