Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Exotic Accents of Hitman: Thailand!

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

Saturday, 10 September 2016

HOGuru Previews - Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Agent Walker: Secret Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
Agent Walker: Secret Journey 
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
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.


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!