Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Haunted Hotel 2: Believe the Lies

No one can say that this isn't a huge improvement over the first Haunted Hotel. Likewise, it would be difficult to give it any compliments beyond 'it cleared an extremely low bar'. If I'm being honest, that bar was buried ten feet underground, so as long as HH2 could manage a crawl - mission accomplished. The game starts a year after the first adventure. The man who escaped the first game with a magical cat in tow apparently mailed the Detective's diary to the FBI, and now an agent has arrived at a related hotel to continue the investigation. Will he finally bring the conspirators to justice? Well, considering that this game is attempting to ape the X-Files in every way possible, I'm going to predict no.

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

It's terrible. Exactly as bad as the previous game in the series. The only difference between this game and the last one is that the player isn't asked to go back to the same room over and over again, finding the same items. No, HH2's innovation is to have the player constantly move to new rooms, where they can find the same items over and over again. And by 'same items', I mean literally the exact same items that were used in the first Haunted Hotel. I recognized huge swaths of the previous game's library of images stacked randomly around this new hotel's common areas and private rooms. Thank god the backdrops are all new and never repeat within the game - otherwise this would hold the record for the least amount of new content put into a HOG ever.

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

It's generally 30:1 screens here. No, that wasn't a typo - players will commonly be asked to find 30 items on each HOS. On one level this is refreshing - there isn't much content in the game other than the searches, so at least there's a lot of searching to do. On another level, it's deeply frustrating, because the game's developers weren't up to building a library of objects more than about 120 items big, so players will find themselves searching for the same items over and over again. I would guess that I was asked to find a cork in most of the game's levels, and in one particularly egregious example, I was asked to find a set of binoculars four screens in a row.

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

The game doesn't have many puzzle screens, but the developers actually do a decent job of tying everything together. At the end of each HOS the player will have an item that either unlocks the next room or helps them find the next minigame to make the transition. This actually leads to a nice visual effect - a couple of the minigames are jigsaw puzzles that the player has to assemple, and when they've been completed, the player will suddenly notices that they've been building a picture of the next location they're headed towards. The moment the puzzle is finished the image fades from black and white to colour, and the player can immediately start finding objects there. Yes, it's not a brilliant innovation by any means, but in a game as frustratingly repetitive as Haunted Hotel 2, I was happy to find spots of inspiration wherever I could.

Haunted Hotel 2 certainly is less terrible than its predecessor, but that doesn't mean it's worth playing. Only completionists desperate to see every entry in the series should bother. Of course, since I'm one of those, we can all expect to see a review of the third game turn up here in short order. Hopefully the series will continue improve, and the third time will be the charm!

By which I mean, be the first game to actually be worth playing.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

List! Of Hidden Object Game Reviews!

That's right, it's an alphabetical list of all the Hidden Object Reviews here at the blog! If you're looking for something specific, hopefully you'll find it below! Or if you're just browsing, alphabetically is a good way to do that!

Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden
Alchemy Mysteries: Prague Legends
Behind the Reflection 2: Witch's Revenge
Brink of Consciousness: Dorian Grey Syndrome
Brink of Consciousness: The Lonely Hearts Killer (coming soon)
Campfire Legends: The Hookman
Campfire Legends: The Babysitter
Campfire Legends: The Last Act
Christmas Adventure: Candy Storm
Clockwork Man: The Hidden World
Clockwork Tales of Glass and Ink
Crime Secrets: Crimson Lily
The Curse of Silent Marshes
Dark Strikes: Sins of the Father
Demon Hunter: Chronicles From Beyond
Demon Hunter 2: New Chapter
Emerald Maiden: Symphony of Dreams
Eventide: Slavic Fable
Evil Pumpkin: The Lost Halloween
Ferrum Secrets: Where is Grandpa?
Forbidden Secrets: Alien Town
Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride
Grim Legends 2: Song of the Dark Swan
Grim Legends 3: The Dark City
Haunted Hotel
Haunted Hotel 2: Believe the Lies (coming soon)
Haunted Hotel 3: Lonely Dream (coming soon)
Haunted Hotel 9: PhoenIX (coming soon)
Haunted Hotel 10: The X (coming soon)
Haunted Hotel 11: The aXIom Butcher
Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward
Haunting Mysteries: The Island of Lost Souls
Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK
Hidden Mysteries: Civil War
Hope Lake
House of a Thousand Doors: Family Secrets
Insane Cold: Back ot the Ice Age
Lost Civilization
Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart
Mystery Stories: Mountains of Madness
Mystery Trackers: The Paxton Creek Avenger
Natural Threat: Ominous Shores
Nightmares From The Deep 2: The Siren's Call
Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes
Questerium: Sinister Trinity
Robin's Quest
Sinister City
Small Town Terrors: Livingston
Space Legends: At the Edge of the Universe
Time Mysteries: Inheritance
Vampire Legends: The True Story of Kisilova
Voodoo Chronicles: The First Sign

Haunted Hotel


With this game, I delve back into the history of HOGs, to a time when players were expected to just be happy that they were faced with a screen full of random garbage and a list of specific things to click on. A time before narrative coherence, integrated puzzles, or any conception of fairness in HOS design. I've been here before, when covering Civil War Mysteries, and while Haunted Hotel is nowhere near that dire, it's a little shocking to see a genre which would one day lead to such high points as The AXIom Butcher start out in such a rough state.

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

This may as well be the definition I use for 'worst possible example' of this problem. Every screen is cluttered with nonsense arrange with little to no care or logic. Items are presented with no thought given to their logical size or gravity's effect on them. Colours are changed for no logical reason - even transparency cheating is used, and that's essentially the lowest rung to which a developer can sink. Additionally, the game is wildly inconsistent about what items are called - I'd seen 'lighter' appear on the list of items a number of times, and had found both zippos and little plastic disposable items to check them off the list. Then, towards the end of the game, I spent three minutes searching for a lighter on a set of stairs, only to finally give up and hit the hint button - what had the game wanted me to click on that whole time? A flashlight.

Inexcusable.

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

Not in the least. As the player moves to each new floor of the titular Haunted Hotel, they're presented with anywhere from 1-6 rooms where they need to find items. Their reason for doing so is never hinted at or suggested even obliquely, and while the story segments do mention a few of the rooms they visit, collecting random junk doesn't feature in the narrative. At first the game seems to be going a little easy on the player - they'll have two rooms with 8 items to find in each, but the game will only actually require them to find 14 to move on to the next floor. This ceases feeling like a favour or help in the second half of the game, by which point the player is being asked to turn up 40-something items from five different rooms, and still they only have a one or two item margin for error.

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

There is no whole. There are text-based story segments which have nothing to do with the gameplay. No matter how disconnected the HOSs may seem, the puzzles are considerably worse. After finding all the items on a level, the player is forced to 'power up' the elevator to the next floor. This is accomplished by completing puzzles wholly unrelated to anything else in the game. There's something called 'Energy', which is just clicking on sparks as they fly by - the rest are generic rejects from other titles - untangling cat's cradles, playing bejewelled, Simon Says... it's all random and somewhat annoying.

It's too bad the main game is such a mess since the story - which, as mentioned above, is told wholly through interstitial blocks of text (in a weirdly meta touch, the main character spends much of the adventure reading the diary entries of a detective who previously explored the hotel) which suggest an interesting adventure the game is incapable of showing. Time travel, weather machines, possibly magical totem cats - there's a lot of fun stuff in the story, but by no means is any of it entertaining enough to warrant the frustrating grind that is the game that surrounds it. It just goes to show how terrible most HOGs were at the birth of the genre that this was considered to be good enough to warrant a sequel, let alone a long-running franchise. Still, despite how much I disliked the game, I will be checking out the next one in the series, as it will be interesting to see how developers got from this low point here to something amazing like AXIom Butcher.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Nightmares From The Deep 2: The Siren's Call


I'd played the last game in the Nightmares From The Deep series, and enjoyed it thoroughly, so my expectations were high going into this game. I'll start off the review by saying that yes, they were met, and this is another high-quality game published by Artifex Mundi, but in addition to general production excellence, the game had something of a huge surprise for me. When I first booted up the game, the last thing I expected to find was another addition to my list of hidden object games adapted from HP Lovecraft stories, yet that's exactly what I got. Surprisingly, The Siren's Call is a fairly faithful adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth - just less bleak, and without a troubling anti-miscegenation message. The developers have taken the thrilling plot, creepy backstory, and great monster design of the original tale and reworked it so completely that it becomes almost entirely their own - making this quite an accomplishment even before gameplay elements are taken into account.

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

Barely at all. As is frequently the case, the game is set in a town that's gone through a destructive event - here it's riots and social protest against a terrible mayor. As a result, the streets are a mess, and hidden objects are understandably difficult to find amongst all of the clutter. The screens themselves are beautifully drawn, with the items almost universally fitting the location in which they're found. The developers have even been mindful to avoid the various types of cheating so many games use to ramp up the difficulty level. Here only a few items have been shifted to an unrealistic size, and every time they want to hide an item by changing its colour from the expected they're always careful to establish a light source explaining the change in hue.

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

The game is split pretty evenly between 12:1 and fully integrated, with the fully integrated scenes consisting of bother mini-puzzles and construction screens. The game offers a healthy amount of hidden object games - with the only real drawback being how heavily the game relies on the map's ability to let players know when the next screen is available. This can be a little daunting from a design standpoint at the best of times - give players a map that allows them to fast travel and they're going to use it, but it's generally better to let them find a hidden object scene organically through travel, rather than just looking for a new exclamation point on a map. The Siren's Call has a habit of putting new hidden scenes a good 8-10 screens back from wherever a puzzle is being solved, which more often than not leads to a player getting stumped because they can't crack a particular door, then checking out the map and discovering that way back in the starting village there are two new HOSs to solve.

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

With its setting rife with magical pirates and ancient curses, The Siren's Call earns a pass on contrived locks and elaborate puzzles. These are evil fish-people who've been trapped in time for hundreds of years - of course they're going to get playful when it comes to sealing chests. The game especially impresses with the variety of locations it offers - starting in a Carribean island village, the game moves through a few locations seemingly set in different time periods using a clever and entirely believable conceit which I won't spoil here. The non-HOS puzzles are all especially well-grounded and fit the world - whether I was decoding a parchment, cracking a safe, or just repairing a set of clocks, all of the activities logically grew out of the story which contained them.

I was a big fan of the first Nightmares From The Deep, and The Siren's Call improves on it in every way. A compelling story, wonderful setting, and beautiful art make this one of the most high-quality HOGs I've reviewed. It's also important to mention just how well the Xbox One's controller handles the gameplay. I was initially wary about using a controller for a HOG, but these games have convinced me of its utility. Yes, every now and then the large 'clicking circle' in the HOSs has me grabbing an item other than what I was looking for, but it's accurate the vast majority of the time, and actually makes navigating from screen to screen easier, as well as speeding up inventory management quite a bit.

How good was the experience of playing Nightmares From The Deep 2: The Siren's Call on the XB1? Despite the fact that I already own the third game in the trilogy on PC, and am excited to see the next chapter - the Bonus Game does a great job of teasing the sequel - I'm probably going to wait until it's available on consoles, just so I can play this whole franchise all on one platform.

DISCLOSURE - I received a review copy of this game from Artifex Mundi.

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

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Small Town Terrors: Livingston


After a car crash caused by a stubborn unwillingness to just run over a zombie, the game's main character is thrown into a coma, from which she awakes in plenty of time to discover that the town she was unlucky enough to convalesce in has been wholly run over by zombies! Only by finding some hidden objects, solving some contrived lock puzzles, and, oddly, maintaining her health bar, will she be able to rescue her family and escape the terrors of Livingston!

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

They absolutely do, but the game does a great job of earning it. With the town of Livingston having been entirely destroyed by zombies and associated civil unrest, it makes sense that everything would be a godawful mess. Beyond that, it makes sure that, for the most part, at least, the items players are asked to search for are closely related to the places in which they're hidden. A pantry will mostly have foodstuffs, a police station desk will be covered in tools of the trade - these are well-drawn screens obviously produced by people who cared about making sure that they were internally consistent.

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

It's purely 16-1 screens here. Clean up an area to find the one item the character needs to progress. The game actually cares enough to - usually, anyhow - make sure the item the player is specifically looking for is something that would actually be in the location they're searching. Like the police desk mentioned above - the player needs to find a club to break some glass - where else would they look, logically?

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

The game is broken up into four distinct story segments, with few, if any, items making the journey between them. This gives the game something of an episodic feeling which helps to build a sense of momentum. The player goes from recovering from her accident to starting a search, to entering the heart of darkness, to planning a desperate escape. The hidden object puzzles fit unusually well in the game world, and the puzzles generally take the form of slightly-preposterous locks and rewiring minigames. As a result, Small Town Terrors: Livingston offers an unusually consistent game experience, with little to distract the player from the story it's telling. Even the extra health bar mechanic works well - the main character is recovering from her coma, so she's a little on the weak side, so whenever she needs to perform a  physically strenuous task, like barging through a barricaded door or opening a rusty gate, she'll first have to find some first-aid supplies to patch herself up. In practice this just creates a little more busywork as the player is asked to track down health kits as well as all the game's quest items, but that extra bit of content does a great job of making the game world feel that much more fully fleshed-out.

While Small Town Terrors: Livingston may not be up to modern graphics standards, there's a lot of great content here. Along with a truly obscene number of jump-scares for a hidden object game. The only thing keeping it from being discussed alongside other minor genre classics is the lack of a functional map. The game's four areas are each fairly dense with locations, and while a map is available, it neither shows points of interest not allows fast travel, making it wholly useless. This causes a mildly frustrating amount of backtracking, which is one of the few blemishes on an otherwise great experience.

If you'd like to see the playthrough that led to this review - check out this playlist!

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Demon Hunter 2: New Chapter


At the end of the first Demon Hunter game the stakes were clearly set - the main character had been ushered into a new world full of supernatural dangers, as well as an ancient battle which she was the only one qualified to fight. That's one heck of a way to kick off a franchise, which is why it's so puzzling that Demon Hunter 2: New Chapter picks up the story some 20 years later, after she's already become a world-famous demon hunter who's had countless demon fighting adventures that go basically unmentioned. Why would the developers skip over all of that content? What story was so important that they skipped over decades of adventures to tell it? Oddly, it's the return of the demon from the first game - who the main character has already defeated once (and without too much difficulty, really), rendering him less of a threat than I think the developers were hoping.

On to the hidden object criteria!

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

It's pretty bad. The game is set in largely realistic locations - offices, mansions, hospitals, a dungeon complex, and the developers have taken those areas and absolutely littered them with completely random and nonsensical assortments of items. While there are a few token attempts at building a theme - a hospital hallway might have a microscope and oxygen tank - generally very little care is put into making the items on display make sense. That same hospital hallways also contained a feathered mask, antique compass, and lace doily.

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

Not in the least. Demon Hunter 2 has a few different kinds of visual puzzles - including a couple of fun 'build a Rube Goldberg machine' sequences. By and large, though, the game is made up of traditional list-based searches. Interestingly, these are universally, drawn from the rarest subtype of hidden object screens, the elusive 12:0 screen. In normal 12:1 screen the player is asked to find everything on a list of items, and one of them will be the item they use to solve an environmental puzzle elsewhere. This creates a figleaf in-world justification that the player is 'cleaning up' the screen so that they can find the thing they're looking for. In 12:0 screens, players are given that same list, but once all the items have been identified and ticked off the list, they're handed a wholly unrelated item that they weren't told about. Not only is this strange from a storytelling point of view, it's weird from a design standpoint - it makes it seem like the HOSs are being built without any consideration of the game that they're going to be placed in - after all, how hard is it to draw a puzzle piece or sledgehammer into an already cluttered mess of a screen?

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

Demon Hunter 2 actually holds together pretty well. I've been hard on the premise and the slightly shoddy HOSs, but as a story and an adventure, it's a very well-made two hour quest. It's full of puzzles that fit naturally in the world - starting a helicopter and examining chemicals are transformed into logic puzzles, for example, and the actual plot developments are interesting enough that I was eager to discover the identity of the game's masked culprit. I'll say this for the game - I've played a large number of HOGs now, and this is the first one in which players are twice attacked by RPG-wielding foes.

Like its predecessor, Demon Hunter 2 is a perfectly solid HOG. There's nothing as delightfully odd as that game's 'surprise' villain - a drawing of Re-Animator era Jeffrey Combs who regularly teleported away in a cloud of black smoke - but it's still a worthy sequel. The key elements are all there - demonic conspiracies, injured animals that have to be rescued, and an impressively large number of hidden object scenes. This isn't the best game that Artifex Mundi has published, but it's certainly worth a look.

If you'd like to see the playthrough that led to this review - it starts here:

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Demon Hunter: Chronicles From Beyond

 Demon Hunter: Chronicles From Beyond has the least surprising villain reveal I've ever encountered. I'm truly baffled that the developers could have included this sequence in a game that is, by all appearances, not a parody or satire. I'll set the scene - the main character's foster father has been murdered, and she's come to his house to investigate the death, where she finds his assistant, who professes innocence in any involvement with the crime, and offers to help track down the real culprit. Then, at the end of the conversation, this happens:

Yes, that was him teleporting away in a cloud of smoke, like a cartoon demon. He does this multiple times in the game before he reveals that he'd been working for the main demon villain all along, and each time I was baffled and delighted. If only that was a reaction that the developers were hoping to get from me!

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

It's pretty bad. There are plenty of HOSs in this game - most screens are visited more than once, in fact. Those screens, however, are shoddily-designed to the point of distraction. Not only are all of them flooded with random nonsense beyond all reason or plausibility, but every kind of object concealment cheating a developer can attempt - colour, gravity, size - they're all on display. The strange thing is that this doesn't actually lead to difficult HOSs. The clickable objects are all drawn in a style distinct enough from the backdrops that they garishly stand out from their surroundings, leading to one of the easiest-to-complete sets of HOSs I've ever encountered in a game.

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

It's all 12:1 screens, I'm sorry to report that absolutely no work was put into merging the the searches within the narrative. Glittering areas appear, and the player searches them, finds a single item, and then moves on to the next puzzle or HOS. There's no flair or innovation here, but at least there's plenty of gameplay, and some effort is made to keep the HOSs lively. In addition to the standard 'hidden items' that need to be unlocked, or have a foreground object moved, the game puts 'beyond objects' that constantly shift into the mix, asking players to find an apple, but having it transform into a baseball from time to time, forcing players to click on it at just the right moment. Little inclusions like this make sure that the game is always engaging, even when it fails to do anything really interesting.

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

The narrative follows the main character exploring her childhood home and its environs, which wind up being fairly preposterously random. The creepy house is well-designed and fascinatingly complex, but some of the other locations the player visits seem random and out of sync with the rest of the story. Why is the player travelling to an undersea kingdom and trying to arrange a fight between a shark and a kraken? At what point did things go off the rails, exactly? Things get even more bizarre and random in the bonus chapter, which frames its story as a nightmare that the main character is having after her ordeal battling a demon in the main game. This seems like a flimsy way to justify the completely random series of locations that the bonus level takes the player - from a dentist's office to a jungle to a dilapidated asylum - it's almost as if the bonus chapter was made up of environments that had been cut from other games, then stitched together here with only the barest pretext justifying them.

That being said, I can't be too hard on the bonus chapter, as it introduced me to the Hidden Object Guru Channel's new mascot: Scarecrow Dentist



Demon Hunter: Chronicles of the Unknown is kind of a mess. The story only gets around to introducing demons right at the end, and the whole thing winds up feeling more like a prologue chapter to a series than a narrative in its own right. On a purely mechanical level, though, there's plenty of content here, both in the glut of HOSs and environmental interaction. The story may not be anything special, but there certainly is plenty of game on display.