Thursday, 1 December 2016

Demon Hunter 3: Revelation

Demon Hunter 3 has a proud pedigree to live up to. While the first two games in the series weren't the best HOGs I've ever played, they were by far the most endearingly strange. The first game will always hold a place in my heart due to its use of a photo of Jeffrey Combs as one of its villains, as well as introducing me to my spirit animal, Scarecrow Dentist. The second game will be remembered forever as having perhaps the most proactive villain in the history of HOGs, who had a penchant for both poison and rocket launchers, which exist at the exact opposite ends of the spectrum of possible murder weapons. While DH3 may not be able to compete with its predecessors in terms of raw oddness, it's a better game than either of them, with great puzzles and a plethora of HOSs.

Also the picture of Jeffrey Combs makes a brief cameo.

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

Barely at all. The developers at Brave Giant have found themselves a perfect setting for object searches - a crumbling house situated just above a decrepit church that hides the entrance to a secret underground kingdom. I seriously don't have the slightest idea where this game is set. The previous two took place in America, but this title just goes full-on fantasy with its setting, having the player traipse from a modern setting where cops are investigating a murder all the way to a pseudo-medieval village. This wouldn't necessarily be so peculiar if the main character's adventure was taking her to some bizarre and far-off location - Demon Hunters can go where they like, of course - but she's called in by the police officer from the first game, which suggests that things are once again taking place in America. Perhaps I was a little hasty when I suggested this game wasn't as odd as the previous entries in the series.

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

Demon Hunter 3 runs the full gamut of HOS types. There are construction scenes, 12:1 scenes, silhouettes, even uncovering screens! While I'm fine with the genre-wide move towards HOPAs, in which developers focus more on the graphic adventure portions of their games, and backburner the hidden object scenes to a certain extent, it's nice to see a game really focus on its hidden object scenes, throwing more than a dozen at the player, with never more than a few minutes of gameplay separating each new HOS. They're all extremely well-designed, and a pleasure to play. Other than a single technical issue, that is. The 12:1 screens have the traditional 'white text for visible items, blue text for items which need to be found or made' structure. This generally accurate and well-handled - even the morphing items have their names change colour when they transform. The problem comes with the silhouette screens - they also feature hidden and transforming items, but there's no signal offered to let the player know which items can simply be found, and which are double-hidden. This adds a needless level of frustration to what was otherwise a perfectly-constructed set of puzzles.

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

Again, setting is king here - the ruined church and ancient village are perfect places to find elaborate locks, statues that need to be reassembled, and piles of items to search through. A lot of the standards show up - spinning triangle mosaic, gear strings, and marble sorting all make an appearance. The most interesting and notable puzzles are two imports from the Grim Legends series - the first are the storybook puzzles that do such a great job of offering backstory while keeping the player engaged and searching for mysterious symbols.

The second, and far more intriguing borrowed puzzle is the 'psychic battle' from The Dark City. From time to time the game's main character will come across a demonic force, and she'll have to break through their mystical barriers by finding symbols they're incapable of defending against. It's a great little minigame, and I was happy to see it, but its inclusion is more meaningful than developers reusing a successful invention. It, along with some plot details I won't divulge here, suggest that Demon Hunter and Grim Legends are set in the same universe, and fans of both can likely expect a crossover soon.

Speaking as one of those fans, this is incredible news.

Demon Hunter 3 may not be a bubbling cauldron of madness the way the first two games in the series were, but it's a bona fide success, with great puzzles, beautiful HOSs, and a story that ties up all of the last two games' loose ends, while promising more intrigue to come. Demon Hunter really feels like a Brave Giant game, and deserves its place alongside that developer's best titles.

I just realized that I made it through the entire review without mentioning the huge improvement they've made - there's now an indicator onscreen to let players know if there are collectibles to be found on a given screen. If it wasn't a solid enough game already, DH3 goes out of its way to strip all frustration out of trophy hunting!

Demon Hunter 3 can be purchased here!

Want to see the playthrough which led to this review? The first video is below!
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher!

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.

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!