Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Eventide 2: The Sorcerer's Mirror

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

But how did the hidden object criteria turn out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Haunted Hotel: Eternity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 October 2016

Criminal Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The 5 Outlastiest Moments in the Outlast 2 Demo

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

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

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Riddles of the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 7 October 2016

Warhammer Vermintide Video Review!

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

Check out the video below to find out!

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Bathory: The Bloody Countess

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

On to the hidden object criteria!

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

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

Care to guess my objection to Bathory's HOSs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 October 2016

Still More Hitman Gun Crime!

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

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

You can check out the video below!

New York Mysteries: Mafia Secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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