Friday, 30 September 2016

HOGuru Previews - Adam Wolfe

So I was contacted about covering an upcoming Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure (too good to make a HOG, huh?) from Mad Head Games - I'm always interested in trying out new Hidden Object-related games, so naturally I said yes - and these are the screenshots they sent along - obviously you can click to bigafy them.

Haunted Hotel 3: Lonely Dream

Within this single trilogy the evolution of hidden object games can be seen. The first offered screens full of clutter, punctuated by completely random puzzles which had nothing to do with the story. The second game still featured questionable HOSs, but clearly the developers were beginning to understand that 'story' wasn't just the pages of text that appeared between levels, but rather the most important element in tying the game's elements together into a coherent whole. They didn't do a great job of it, of course, but at least they understood that HOGs were capable of being something more than a casual timewaster. Now, with the third game in the series, how close have the developers come to the greatness that this series would eventually produce?

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

It's still pretty much a mess, but a considerably more attractive one than it used to be. The items are now drawn to look like they fit in a given screen's lighting and setting, rather than just being clip art which was dropped in any old place. Beyond that, however, things are still very rough. There's plenty of size and gravity cheating, but at least the items aren't wildly anachronistic and random any more. That's not to say there aren't flowers stuck in shoes for no logical reason, and a few silhouettes so faint as to be nearly impossible to find, but by and large, this game is a huge step in the direction of better HOS design.

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

Just 12:1 screens here. There are plenty of object-based puzzles for the player to solve on their way through this latest haunted hotel, which means plenty of HOSs in which to track those items down. While it would be nice if the developers had put a little more work into justifying the object hunting, just demonstrating the understanding that HOSs can be something other than filler shows how quickly this genre was growing from casual fluff into something more meaty and worthwhile.

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

The series is certainly getting there with this entry. The game tells a single, largely coherent story about a fake Mulder who teams up with an old-timey detective in a plan to shut down a time-traveling hotel powered by the ennuis of failed artists. It's more complicated than that, of course, and the game's greatest accomplishment is how straight it plays the storylines it inherited from the first game in the series. Sure, the hotel and its killer fog never really made much sense, but the developers barrel ahead anyway, assuming that by throwing in a few sinister characters and giving fans of the series a chance to revisit classic rooms from earlier in the series they would get away with their largely nonsensical story. The fact is, they come pretty close to getting away with it.

Haunted Hotel 3: Lonely Dream isn't a great game by any stretch, but it is an instructive one. Anyone interested in the development of the genre should give these three games a look - they'll see a new form of entertainment gradually finding its feet, and figuring out the ideal form of what it can be. Lonely Dream never reaches the heights that later games in this series would, but as a graphic adventure it's fundamentally solid, even if the story doesn't hold together as well as it could. The game's extras menu promises a second trilogy of games coming soon - and while I can find no solid evidence that those ever came to pass, I will continue working my way through this series, hoping to see what other insight it can provide into the ongoing evolution of hidden object games.

Curious to see how the adventure winds up? Check out the video below!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Chronicles of The Witches and Warlocks

Yeah, that's an awkward title, to be sure, but let's not dwell on it. Especially when the game turns out to be suspiciously light on the two titular figures. Here's the premise - an adventurer has been accused of murdering a mountaineer with an ice axe! This happened in a residential hotel, and no body was found, so I'm not sure how they made the charge stick, but let's move on - the player is controlling the adventurer's girlfriend, a prominent lawyer, who'll use every legal trick she knows to clear her man! I'm kidding, of course, what she'll actually do is use magical portals in a hotel room to jump do various eras, solving puzzles and finding hidden objects! It's never entirely clear how any of this is meant to help clear the adventurer's name, but is that really the most important thing? Of course not - so let's move on to the hidden object criteria!

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

More than a little. Every screen is made up of a flood of nonsense dumped in the corner of some room or another - various types of cheating abound. Items are randomly stuck all over screens in entirely illogical places. In addition to the standard nonsense like knives and pens run along edges of desks, the game occasionally pulled some completely nonsensical moves like hiding a vinyl record in the underside of a lamp. What's worse, occasionally the game becomes downright impossible, as a few items are listed by the wrong name. I spent a full minute looking for a 'funnel' before giving up and hitting the hint button, which revealed that the game was asking me to click on an oilcan, of all things. Perhaps the worse example was the game requesting an 'Ostrich Feather' when it really meant 'peacock feather'. How does one even make a mistake like that? Also, couldn't they have just written 'feather'?

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

It's strictly 15:1 screens here - with the small caveat that the player is only ever presented with six named items at a time - the rest sub in as old items are discovered. This certainly has the effect of making the screens a little more engaging, but their poor construction keeps them from ever really being a pleasure to play. The screens themselves are attractively drawn, but too often unclear or generic names are used, making items surprisingly difficult to find. In on case, the game wanted me to click on the 'workshop key', yet gave me no indication that the key in question was a flat disc which fit into an ornate door lock.

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

Again, this is mostly a mixed bag. Many of the puzzles work within the game world - ornate unlocks, misplaced books, and brewing stations all fit nicely into the game's world. Too often, though, the game messes up the fundamentals of gameplay. Here's a fairly big problem - when there's an item or area that must be activated in order to move the game forward, the cursor changes to a gear, but clicking on it doesn't bring up a bit of text hinting at what the problem that needs to be solved is. So I'll look at an open manhole cover, and the small item floating down in the sewer, but since clicking accomplishes nothing, I'll have no idea what I should be looking for to solve the puzzle. A net? A hook? All that's left to do is visit every screen and click on every item, or just rely on the Hint button - neither is a good option. There are also a number of questionably-built puzzles, with instructions that don't make sense, or controls that aren't precise enough. I didn't skip any of them, but I came awfully close, and would have felt entirely justified in doing so.

Chronicles is such a beautiful game that I want it to be better than it is - the graphics and locations are gorgeously built, but the gameplay which takes place in them just isn't up to snuff. I should love a game that uses Silent Hill 4: The Room as inspiration, but there's just too many rough points to recommend this title. By the end it gets so shoddy that the developers play two hidden object scenes in the wrong order, transforming them into 15:0 screens, and somehow no one noticed. Hopefully this is just one bad effort from developer 8floor, whose 'Portal of Evil' I enjoyed quite a bit.

Although, come to think of it, that had one incredibly buggy puzzle as well...

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

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Exotic Accents of Hitman: Thailand!

Yup, it's another trip to the world of Hitman, where, for no reason that I can possibly discern (other than, you know, the laziness or cheapness of developers) everyone in Bangkok speaks with American and English accents!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

HOGuru Previews - Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders

It's another game preview from the good folks at Artifex Mundi! This time it's Prince of Persia-themed, as well as being another entry in the unofficial 'herbalist' series of games that give players a chance to make the healing potions that keep adventurers spry and vigorous!

While the game may be a little short on Hidden Object Screens at the moment - there are only two, but both are fully integrated into the story - the art is fantastic, the monsters adorable, and the puzzles clever! Of the hidden object betas I've played, this has edged out Grim Legends 3 to be the most promising one.

Enjoy the preview, and check back here once the game has been released!

(Hopefully they'll drop that last S before it's released, though.)

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Agent Walker: Secret Journey

Wartime isn't a particularly popular setting for Hidden Object Games - they are, by their very nature, not particularly combat-intensive - so I was excited to see how the developers at Brave Giant were going to handle the combination. They've made the safest possible choice, deciding to look towards the first name in uncovering mysterious secrets during WWII: Indiana Jones. There are certainly worse places to go looking for inspiration. The game puts players in control of Agent Walker, who is dispatched to retrieve the Spear of Destiny - a relic of unimaginable power - and keep it out of the hands of the Nazis, who would no doubt use it to conquer the entire globe!

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

It's not fantastic. The screens tend to be loaded down with huge amounts of random nonsense that don't make a lot of sense for the location in which they're found. About half of the items on any given screen can be trusted to make sense in the ancient temple or French dock they're discovered inside, but the rest will be a tangle of playing cards, origami and children's toys. The items themselves are universally well-drawn, and the art style is consistent, but logic is lost more often than it should be. Especially in the most ludicrously out-of-place hidden object screen I've ever come across (pictured above). Agent Walker smashes open a fallen tree only to discover that it's been stuffed full of rope, coins, a live grenade, and lit candles. That's just madness.

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

It's a pretty even split here - while many of the HOSs are traditional 12:1 screens, there are also quite a few integrated screens. These are either well-built mini-puzzle screens, or the much rarer 'clean-up' screens, where the player is given a list of items to find, but within the narrative of the game they're removing them to uncover the puzzle pieces or lock mechanism parts hidden behind. If a game is going to use 12:1 screens, this is one of the best ways to fit them into the story.

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

Despite a few lacklustre HOSs, Agent Walker manages to deliver a compelling story. The puzzles generally fit the theme quite well, with the resourceful Agent Walker called on to repair shoddy technology, escape from deathtraps, and dodge deadly pursuers. Also, she kills a lot of people. A surprisingly large number, in fact. As a war-themed game, I know this shouldn't come as such a surprise, but I was legitimately surprised at the sheer volume of Nazis that Walker does in, whether by springing deadly traps or simple wielding the eldritch artifact she'd been sent to track down.

Sadly, Walker herself remains the game's weak link. The developers have made the odd choice to go with a silent protagonist, which robs the player of the chance to get to know and like the person they're controlling. Instead of Walker explaining her thought processes and making exciting revelations, whenever the plot needs to move forward the game pauses for stilted narration which lays out what's going on. It's a baffling decision on their part.

While I may have some misgivings about the developers treatment of their main character and facility with hidden object screens, Agent Walker is still a winner. With its unique setting for the genre, breakneck pace, and wonderful art design, it was a joy to spend three hours with. Sure, it may be derivative, but Indiana Jones would fit perfectly in the world of hidden object games, and if Spielberg isn't going to give us an official game, I'm glad developers like Brave Giant have stepped in to make it a reality. I look forward to Agent Walker's next adventure - assuming all of this game's clunky aspects don't make it into the sequel.

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