November was another busy month in the casual game realm, as developers increasingly realize what we've known all along: games are better with more adventuring! Here's a look at the most adventure-oriented casual titles of last month, plus a peek ahead and what's to come.
Note: Neither Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull, the latest installment of the groundbreaking hidden object hybrid series, or [game=]Crime Lab: Body of Evidence[/game], the casualized reimaging of Art of Murder: Cards of Destiny for the Nintendo DS, is included in this feature, as both will receive full reviews shortly.
Avenue Flo: Special Delivery
A year ago, PlayFirst’s popular Diner Dash series broke free of the restaurant for a whimsical lite adventure called Avenue Flo, and this year the gang from DinerTown are back in Avenue Flo: Special Delivery. Having saved the big day for Miss Big’s wedding the last time out, this time Flo must rescue a baby shower, as a pack of “pampered puppies” have destroyed everything at the last minute, and only our resourceful waitress can put it all right again in time. It’s another trite premise, to be sure, but really it’s just an excuse to get players out into the neighbourhood, talking to everyone she meets, collecting items, and solving all kinds of puzzles and minigames along the way.
Apart from the premise, just about everything in the sequel is a carbon copy of the original game. A rare third-person casual adventure, you’ll guide Flo through the same three distinct parts of town, performing an ever-expanding variety of different tasks, from exercising dogs in the park to cutting and decorating cookies to fetching keys from a playful alligator. Of course, nothing is ever straightforward. Often one project requires solving several other problems first, so you’ll frequently be on the move to meet smaller conditions in order to proceed. Cleaning some dirty tablecloths in a laundromat may sound easy, but the washing machine is on the fritz, Flo’s out of tokens, and the dryer is already in use, and resolving these dilemmas will take her all across town.
There are familiar faces everywhere you go, like Bernie the bookworm and the Scrub Brothers, and everyone’s got something to say – literally, as the surprisingly large cast is all fully voiced. Most townsfolk are willing to help in your quest, but often have needs of their own in return. Fortunately, as you try to juggle numerous goals at once, Flo’s task list “napkin” is constantly updated, always making it perfectly clear what your objectives are at any given time. The map is equally helpful, not only showing you the various locations in town, but highlighting who you’ve met and what you’ve accomplished at each place, whether it’s the Dessert (don’t-spell-it-desert) Oasis, Fantasy Eye-Land, or the Baby Chic Boutique, to name just a few.
Obstacles run the gamut from super-simple inventory application to a diverse array of standalone puzzles and minigames. Assuming you’ve fully explored your current area, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be at a loss for what object to try where, so the lack of any kind of blatant hint feature shouldn’t be a concern. The other puzzles can be far more challenging, whether it’s choosing baby outfits from strict criteria, memorizing orders to help wait tables, wending your way through maze-like traffic jams, or sorting books on rapidly moving conveyor belts at the library. Each starts out simply, but almost all of them overstay their welcome by forcing a series of five straight, increasingly difficult versions of the same activity. As with the first game, better spacing of repeat tasks would have been far preferable, if at all, but they do all offer the option to skip entirely. There are no hidden object tasks in the conventional sense, but throughout each neighbourhood are scattered items to collect, including shower balloons and recyclable bottles to trade in for subway access to new areas. All this is wrapped in the same bright, cheerful graphics as before, once again accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack that really makes the game feel like a Saturday morning cartoon. If you’re in the mood for a few hours of breezy, lighthearted gameplay, then, you’ll probably find just what you’re looking for being served on Avenue Flo.
Hidden Object/Adventure hybrids
Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles
Sherlock Holmes is once again moonlighting in the casual realm between full-fledged adventures. For the first time, however, the great detective’s newest case is based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself – although only barely. Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles is only very loosely based on the famed novel of the same name, as Holmes and Dr. Watson head to the posh Baskerville Hall to investigate an alleged family curse. For generations, the Baskerville heirs have been murdered, apparently by a great mythical beast, and now the latest family descendent has asked for help. Ever the skeptic, Holmes agrees to the challenge, but what he discovers defies rational thought, as the sleuth must travel back and forth through time to the scenes of each Baskerville’s death for clues to the mystery.
The game’s basic format is similar to most other casual adventures. You’ll move between ever-increasing rooms of the grand manor, collecting inventory items, scouring occasional hidden object scenes, and solving a wide variety of puzzles. Many of the objects needed to advance come in scattered sets, whether coats of arms fragments, candles, or code symbols. This can feel a little random at times, as often you’ll begin acquiring object pieces that have no apparent use, but it does ensure that every scene is packed full of items to scavenge. Inventory puzzles are intuitive to a degree, like starting a fire or etching an engraving, and objectives are plainly clued through hotspot comments, though many of the results are mystical in nature and require leaps of logics to accept. Continuing that theme is a medallion you’ll fill with jewels that empower Holmes with special abilities like extra strength, speeding up time, or seeing in dark areas. This is entirely contrived for a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but it adds a nice layer of interactivity and puzzle solving to the adventure.
Hidden object scenes have a tendency to pop up out of nowhere, but they’re very fairly infrequent and nicely designed, with easily identifiable items, at least on the casual difficulty setting. The harder mode makes items more challenging to find and lengthens the rechargeable hint feature for highlighting missing objects on the list. The tougher setting also impacts the many standalone puzzles, a nice mix ranging from sliders to tile-swapping to diverse jigsaw variations. The bypass option is still present, but it takes longer to access and the puzzles themselves are sometimes more challenging. The easier mode at times makes things a bit too “elementary”, as it rather quickly highlights interactive objects in the main environments that you probably won’t wish it to. That’s about the only blemish on an extremely user-friendly interface, however. A minimap not only shows you what rooms have current objectives, but you can instantly transport with just a click, removing much of the common lite adventure backtracking. When finished collecting a set of items, a popup window also asks if you wish to go straight to its source, which is usually a welcome convenience.
All this does cut into the play time, of course, but the game will still provide a few solid hours. The Collector’s Edition adds a substantial amount of bonus content with tougher puzzles that could take as much as a couple hours to work through. The extra segment challenges you to investigate another few deaths in a new area outside the manor, and only then is there any real attempt to resolve the actual mystery behind the killer hound, the original “ending” being rather anti-climactic in itself. Both versions contain the same crisp graphics and clever use of both past and present versions of the manor’s interior locations, each filled with eerie touches that emphasize a noble but troubled family, from stuffed mythical beasts to lab-experimented canine corpses to haunting portraits visibly distorted by death. Apart from item comments, the game is fully voiced with quality acting as well, and Holmes’ adventure fans will be pleased to know that the same actor reprises his role here. The orchestral music is also impressive, though at least one repeated piece is a bit overwhelming for the quieter onscreen events. Even so, it’s an attractive, polished presentation overall, and though much of the game bears very little resemblance to Doyle’s original classic, it’s an entertaining investigation in its own right that any casual adventure fan can enjoy.
Nightmare on the Pacific
Step aside, Titanic. Move over, Poseidon. Make way for the Neptune. In most respects, Little Games Company’s Nightmare on the Pacific is a fairly standard hidden object adventure: you’ll progress through an expanding series of environments, collect inventory to get past obstacles, solve the occasional puzzle, and scour the odd screen for lists of random junk. The difference is, here you’re doing it on a sinking ship. And what a difference that makes! While not adding any actual time pressure or tangible danger, the decision to set the game aboard the ill-fated Neptune luxury liner still trapped in a deadly storm at sea makes this one of the more dramatic and richly atmospheric casual adventures around. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there’s a solid game built around its disastrous (in a good way) premise along the way.
Playing as a young woman frantically looking for her husband and children, you’ll need to make your way past a variety of environmental barriers on this doomed, deteriorating ship. Hallways are flooding, walls and ceilings are collapsing, and regular passages are obstructed by debris and door locks. To overcome them, you’ll need to collect tools for such things as pulleys, rope slides, and other makeshift equipment. Some of these you’ll find simply by exploring, while others come only from completing the hidden object tasks. These screens are fairly cluttered and the list items are arbitrary, but a rechargeable hint feature will help you past any rough spots. There is no such feature during the standard adventuring segments, but objectives are clearly displayed in pictures along the top of the screen, and any interactive hotspots sparkle to alert you to their presence. The same isn’t always true of screen exits, which occasionally makes it difficult to know where you can and can’t go, though a minimap will show your position in the ship’s layout. You’ll encounter a few traditional puzzles as well, from door lock sliders to quizzes on sea creatures. These feel a little forced under the circumstances, but any can be skipped.
Visually the game doesn’t stand out, but it offers decent hand-drawn images of the ship, from private compartments to the dining hall and casino, even out onto the wind- and rain-lashed decks, though usually the circumstances dictate these scenes look more ruinous than opulent. Strangely, the display occupies only a thin middle section of the screen, the rest reserved for your inventory and objectives, which is a bit excessive. There are a few impressive cinematics of the ship’s ongoing demise, but the low resolution of these cutscenes makes them regrettably hazy. Where the mood is really cranked up is the sound department. Often forsaking music altogether, the sounds of the storm are omnipresent and foreboding, and a wide range of water effects are thoroughly convincing, as are the echoed pleas for help spurring you on. Some of the voice acting is a bit stilted, but you’re usually alone and the protagonist rarely speaks, and there aren’t any non-interactive hotspots to click on merely for observation. Rather than feeling like an omission, the lack of music perfectly suits the situation, as the dramatic tension comes from the desperation of the scenario itself. This sucker’s going down, time’s running out, and your kids are still missing. How it all turns out depends on which version you buy, as the Collector’s Edition includes and alternate ending, along with a bonus prequel chapter and strategy guide. You really can’t go wrong with either version, so really it’s whatever floats your boat. (Or sinks it, in this case.)Continued on the next page...
Platform(s): Mac, PC
Platform(s): iPad, Mac, PC
Platform(s): Mac, PC