Friday, 25 November 2016

Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood

Enigmatis ended on something of a cliffhanger - the evil Preacher escaped, leaving the detective to chase him to another town, where he would doubtless to use his hypnotic church bell to restart his serial killing. To be honest, it wasn't a fantastic ending. Enigmatis had been primarily notable for a super solid and surprisingly dark narratives, but I didn't see any logic or value in playing the same story over again. So i was understandably delighted to discover that Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood had something entirely different in store. Picking up two years after the first game, E2 offers a whole new setting, and entirely new villain, and the return of a familiar threat. More importantly, it explores and expands the mythology of the first game in some of the most interesting ways I've seen in a hidden object game.

Now, on to the hidden object criteria!

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

Almost not at all. The game is set in a long-abandoned tourist park (shades of Eventide!), a territory long-since reclaimed by nature. Every time a HOS pops up, it's in the ruins of a tableau or deep in a lost catacomb. The developers have strewn logical items in sane locations, and the result are beautifully crafted HOSs. There's a total of one questionable screen in the entire game - a single desk location near endgame that has a little bit of size and gravity cheating, but this one flaw is overwhelmed by how massively right the developers get the rest of the hidden object screens.

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

It's a solid mix here. There are some 12:1 screens, a number of assembly screens, and even a couple of mini-puzzles. There's a good balance between logical and illogical, and the assembly screens are some of the best I've ever encountered. By far the most impressive is one sequence in which the player is asked to use a black light to find invisible ink symbols on scattered pieces of paper, then use those glowing symbols as a guide to reassemble the code-sheet they're drawn on. I can easily overlook a couple of generic 12:1 screens if the rest are going to be this detailed and inspired.

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

It's not just coherent - this is one of the strongest stories I've ever encountered in a hidden object game. The various elaborate locks and hidden codes make perfect sense in the context of a holiday park that has been redesigned by a murderous madman, and even the beyond objects that the player can seek out for an achievement make perfect sense as part of the narrative - instead of just looking for a bonus transforming item with no connection to the story, the player is tasked with catching glimpses of the illusions that the villain has been using to lure people to their deaths. It's rare to see a developer put this level of care into every aspect of gameplay, and Artifex Mundi should be lauded for their accomplishment.

Enigmatis' great addition to the traditional HOG structure makes a return appearance here, and the developers have outdone themselves in improving it. Digging out pieces of evidence and figuring out how they fit into the big picture of the case is always going to be a satisfying experience, and this is one of the best examples of that mechanic I've ever seen. Enigmatis 2 also swipes a key element from Nightmares From the Deep - a door that has to be unlocked by finding metal tokens, and a mysterious figure who offers a bit of backstory with every piece of the lock the player turns over.

This is one of the thematically darkest HOGs I've ever played. There's mass-murder, demon worship, psychological torture... It goes even further than the previous game in the series, and that was already a flat-out horror title. Really, Enigmatis 2 improves on the first game in every way - the graphics are gorgeous, the story has a number of big surprises, and the presentation is top-notch. This is the third Artifex Mundi hidden object game I've played on the Xbox One, and I'm still impressed by how natural it is to use a controller for what had previously been a mouse-focused genre. Navigation is a breeze, the inventory control is better, and puzzles have all been tweaked to ensure they take full advantage of the thumbsticks and buttons to create more natural interfaces. If a slight drop in hidden object scene precision is the price I have to pay for better controls in every other respect, that's a deal I'm happy to make.

I can't say enough good things about Enigmatis 2's story, though. From its creepy opening to the thrilling conclusion (and satisfying epilogue), it impressed me more than anything else out there in the HOG genre. There are horrific discoveries, dramatic battles, tense setpiece puzzles - basically everything anyone could want from a graphic adventure. I'd recommend this HOG to anyone, and I'm eagerly looking forward to playing the next game in the series.

Curious about the playthrough that led to this review? Check out the first part below!

A review copy of this game was provided by the developer!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Dishonored 2!

No review of this one (as it's not a hidden object game, obvs), but I thought it was worth mentioning here that I recently did a playthrough of the game, which is available over at the YouTube channel!

Here's the first part!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Lost Grimoires: Stolen Kingdom

I just can't get enough of Alchemy-themed games, it would seem. In addition to my well-established love of the Atelier series of games - JRPGs in which an alchemist has to create her way out of troublesome situations - I've enjoyed every one of the botany/alchemy games that Artifex Mundi has put out. Lost Grimoires is the newest addition to that miniseries, joining the first two Grim Legends titles and the Eventide series by putting the player in control of a woman who uses her expert knowledge of the natural world to craft the potions and poultices that allow her to overcome every obstacle in her path.

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

To the most minor degree. This is the first title I've played from World Loom Games, but they're obviously extremely skilled at the fundamentals of HOG design. The game isn't exactly packed with hidden object scenes, but the ones it offers are - with a single exception - utterly gorgeous. The developers have created natural locations for hidden objects to appear in, and play extremely fair with item sizing and placement. I come to Artifex Mundi games for stellar HOS construction, and this title does their track record proud. Only one screen is badly-drawn, with an assortment of giant thimbles and objects that don't match the lighting or geography very well. Honestly, it's not even that bad a screen - and I'd probably give a pass to a game made entirely out of screens like it - but since the rest of the game's HOS are so beautifully drawn, this single mediocre one stands out like a sore thumb.

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

There are a good mix of HOS types here, with most of them completely justified within the plot. Sure, there are a couple of 12:1 scenes, but by and large the developers have gone the extra mile and come up with ways to ensure the HOSs feel like part of the world. There are mini-puzzle screens and integrated screens, but by far the most impressive are the construction screens. I've always been partial to HOSs in which the player is asked to grab all of the parts of an object they need, and Lost Grimoires offers some of the best I've ever seen. The key to their success is a wonderful presentation flourish, where all of the pieces the player has found appear on the screen as parts of an exploded diagram, which then flies together, forming the object they've created. It's a small detail, but it really makes the player feel like they've accomplished something at the end of a HOS.

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

Lost Grimoires features one of the best-structured stories I've seen in a hidden object game. It hits a lot of familiar beats - an orphaned child, family secrets, royal conspiracies - honestly, with the alchemist main character this winds up feeling more like Grim Legends 3 than The Dark City did. While the story may be familiar, the execution is anything but. The game is broken up into a series of three-screen areas, each one with a number of puzzles to solve and HOSs to complete before the player moves onto the next one. This keeps the story moving along at a great clip, with never more than ten minutes or so going by before the next plot revelation. This means that the player will never have to do much backtracking, or suffer from a bloated inventory which had them trying to figure out which of fifteen items they're supposed to use in order to solve a given puzzle.

Most puzzle solving is done through the alchemy mechanic, which is a fantastic creation. Rather than having the player return to crafting stations over and over to assemble the game's dozen-plus recipes, they simply collect reagents and then transmute them into a useful item through a standardized puzzle interface. In each one the player is shown a set of interlocking rings with spheres on them representing the five key elemental forces - every alchemical product requires that the elements be arranged in a certain order to be completed, and it's up to the player to spin the rings and swap the spheres until the puzzle matches the hint image. It's not a completely original puzzle - I've played version of it in plenty of other games. The genius of Lost Grimoires, though, is the decision to assign a specific puzzle to represent a repeated action, and then present the player with increasingly difficult iterations of that puzzle for the entirety of the game. It makes the player feel like they're using a real skill to interact with the game's world, one that improves as they make their way through the game.

Lost Grimoires: Stolen Kingdom is a great game. The art is universally high-quality, the puzzles fit perfectly into the world the developers have created, and the story kept me intrigued all the way through. I don't know if this is going to be the first title in a new series, or just a one-off adventure, but I look forward to whatever the developers have planned next, since they've shown that they can put out a top-notch hidden object game.

Disclaimer - A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher.