For casual game fans, May was something of a split between the haves and the have-nots… or at least, the must-haves and the don’t-need-to-haves. There were several top quality lite adventures released last month that fully demand your attention. Not all of them are “hidden object” adventures, and even the ones that are find themselves on the leading edge of the genre, polishing and refining and occasionally even pushing the envelope in new and interesting ways. And then there are the others. While none of the titles covered here are bad games, there’s a noticeable drop-off in quality between tiers. These games are best recommended only after finishing off the better games first, or if the subject matter is of enough interest to you to smooth over the rough areas. Or, of course, if you have plenty of money burning a hole in your pocket. In which case, can we have some? Whatever your budget, there’s certainly some winners here to choose from, so read on for the best and the rest of May 2011.
(Note: From now on, our casual game write-ups may gloss over certain traditional elements that don’t need repeating for each and every game. You all know the drill by now: first-person, point-and-click, hotspots sparkle, hint systems recharge, puzzles have a skip option, etc. Unless otherwise noted, you can assume that all games covered do include any now-standard genre features even if they aren’t specifically mentioned.)
All write-ups by Jack Allin except where noted.
Mystery Trackers: Raincliff
You’d be forgiven for accidentally referring to Elephant Games’ Mystery Trackers: Raincliff as Dire Grove at some point. To say the sequel to last year’s The Void was “modeled” after Big Fish Games’ popular hidden object adventure is an understatement. From the haunted wintry setting to the disappearance of several university students to the integrated use of FMV, Raincliff shares more than a little in common with its Mystery Case Files inspiration. But for gamers that’s a good thing. If you’re going to pattern yourself after something, it may as well be one of the best, and Raincliff does a solid job of recreating Dire Grove’s winning formula here. Better yet, it delivers such a substantial casual gameplay experience that it’s more than made a name for itself by the end.
As an unnamed detective arriving in Raincliff in search of the missing students, all you find at first are deserted, ice-covered streets and random clues to a deadly crisis the town wasn’t prepared to deal with. As you gradually open up new areas like the watchmaker’s shop, the pharmacy, and a radio tower, you’ll also find warning notes that make it clear your presence isn’t welcome, and you’ll begin witnessing some startling paranormal events yourself. These are displayed in short live-action video clips that you can watch again at any time. That’s all you’ll get for story refreshers, however, as there is no journal, map, or task list to help you keep your bearings. The background scenes are attractively hand-drawn in subdued blue hues, as befits the inclement weather, with falling snow swirling around you and the wind howling in your ears, the eerie soundtrack largely limited to dramatic moments of tension. While not a horror game per se, Raincliff does a nice job of building an unsettling atmosphere, occasionally punctuating it with startling surprises like the appearance of a masked “phantom” and a violent outburst by an unseen antagonist.
Of course, the only real danger you’ll face is succumbing to the many puzzles in your way. Raincliff is littered with logic puzzles, from matching tile edges to plotting paths through conditional obstacle courses to grid-based sliders, some of which can get very difficult by the end. Alas, integration is practically non-existent, the puzzles serving mainly as arbitrary obstacles that limit your progress and require an increasing amount of backtracking the farther you get. You won’t have to hunt down secretly-activated hidden object searches, fortunately. You will do some traditional junk collecting, but these scenes are fairly infrequent, never repeated, and always introduced right on the current screen – a practice far more casual games should follow. Searches consist of straightforward item lists, the only wrinkle being the frequent need to find multiples of the same item. Random items collected here, plus others you’ll gather in your travels, are used to solve intuitive inventory puzzles that will pose little challenge on the easiest setting. Interactive item sparkles are removed on the medium difficult setting, and there’s an even steeper challenge level available that removes the puzzle skip and hint options. You can also keep an eye open for 50 optional frogs as you go, though it wasn’t clear to me what that unlocked once I reached the goal.
Just when you think the game might be winding down, it opens up into a whole new area with all new tasks and puzzles as the plot thickens. The storyline is very thin, revealed largely through conveniently-placed books and notes, but it spins a surprisingly compelling tale that will keep you guessing until the fully-resolved ending. Not that you’ll reach that point quickly, as the puzzle-packed main adventure will easily take five-plus hours to get through. The Collector’s Edition adds almost another hour of bonus gameplay on top of that, picking up a few hours after the original storyline. While offering only a couple new nondescript locations, it provides more of the same generous gameplay experience and adds a distinct twist to the story that shines a whole new light on the town’s tragedy. There’s even a short quiz to test your knowledge and reward you with an epilogue after completion, though the test is all-or-nothing and offers no insights on which answer(s) you might have wrong. Whichever version you go for, however, you should be all over this game like a fresh snowfall. Aside from a disappointing absence of any voicework and a desperate need for an interactive map to mitigate the backtracking, this is a high quality casual production in all respects. Next time someone says “Remember that great game with all the snow in that creepy deserted town?”, this time you may just want to answer “Oh yeah, Mystery Trackers: Raincliff!”
Princess Isabella: Return of the Curse
Take a deep breath… Mmm, smell that? Fresh air! It may not be quite as fresh as 2009’s A Witch’s Curse, but like its predecessor, Gogii Games’ Princess Isabella: Return of the Curse once again represents one of the more welcome forays outside of the stifling hidden object adventure confines. There’s still a traditional foundation of light exploration, inventory puzzles and item searches, but this series spreads its wings – literally – with an ever-present sidekick, special magical abilities, and a tighter integration of puzzles across its dual fantasy world settings, all capped off by a rich presentation of scenic artwork, fully-voiced characters, and an eerie choral soundtrack. The question for series fans is how the sequel could top the original, and while it does feel a little too “samey” in some respects, there are some clever new additions that make it one of the better hybrid adventures available. It’s not so much that there’s anything new; it’s just bundled in a slickly-produced and delightfully imaginative way.
After defeating the witch that cursed her parents’ kingdom the first time around, now the young princess has a family and nemesis of her own. This time, an apprentice of the old witch snatches baby Bella and traps the prince in a crystal prison, and it’s up to Isabella to save the day once again. With a little help from her friends, of course. Isabella’s chatty fairy companion is back, not only as the built-in hint system, but also an active contributor with unique talents of her own (once she learns how to use them all over again). Disappointingly, her powers are the same as the last game: creating water and fire, and the ability to smash fragile objects, but the sequel introduces a second sidekick in the form of a baby dragon. Once hatched, he’s yours for the duration, even after the fairy takes off for a while. He’s controlled exactly the same way, by clicking the appropriate icons in a radial menu in the top corner. The dragon’s “lift” ability acts a whole lot like “smash”, but while he hasn’t mastered fire breath yet, he can muster up a breath of smoke. His final elemental talent is barely used, revealed only in the bonus chapter in the Collector’s Edition. These skills are used quite liberally, and while really they’re just alternate forms of inventory puzzles, it’s a welcome change from the norm, if a bit too easy. On both of the two difficulty settings, any hotspots you can use an ability on are clearly identified, which is more hand-holding than is necessary.
There are also a moderate number of hidden object searches to complete, rarely repeated. Most of these consist of straightforward lists scattered about clearly depicted close-up screens, though you’ll sometimes need to collect a whole set of flies or remove all “evil” influences from a scene. The standalone puzzles are variations of common types and often quite simple, but they tend to feel more organic than in many games. Sure, you’ll still slide and twist and rotate coloured tiles into place or align mismatched rows, but you’ll also route waterfalls to restore power to the fairy village, assemble wooden puppets to restore them to little boys, and mix the correct colour of liquid potions. A few puzzles are repeated, like painting tattoos according to strict conditions and forming correct patterns with coloured gems, but they’re spread out far enough to avoid feeling too overdone. Part of the reason these activities feel more natural is that it’s a very unnatural world. Once free of the castle, you’ll discover a fantastical land full of sleeping dwarfs, trolls, mermaids, and giant insects, and you’ll explore gingerbread houses, Shire-like hill houses, and Rapunzel’s tower. But it’s a cursed land, possessed at first of a purple haze and spirit-bubbling, bog-like aura. Once cleansed of its evil influence, however, each screen is transformed into a vibrantly-coloured healed version of itself. In either condition, the environments are attractively hand-drawn, and the joy of watching the visual metamorphosis is an enticing motivation throughout.
The end goal is the witch’s castle, and though you’ll make it there regardless of which version you play, how you get there will be different. The standard version thrusts you straight into a final timed HOG-off against the witch (done just like the first game, in which you must find your lists of items before the old hag), which feels a little abrupt, though a suitably climactic ending to the three-plus hours spent reaching that point. The Collector’s Edition includes a bonus segment before the endgame, allowing you to explore the witch’s “trophy tower” for more than another hour before the big showdown. This generous segment has you transporting into different fairy tale worlds to free captives like leprechauns and a frozen phoenix, and then again into very familiar locations, revisiting castle scenes from the first game (now visually enhanced) to fix the telescope in the observatory and kill Venus Flytraps in the greenhouse. There are surprisingly few hidden object hunts in this chapter, but it does include the most memorable, which is a moving scene with random items rising and falling on pedestals. The standalone puzzles are more frequent, feel more tacked-on, and rely more on generic tasks (Simon, Match-3) and twiddleware challenges, which isn’t as satisfying as the main adventure, but the diversity of the new locations more than makes up for some lackluster puzzling. Whether that’s worth paying double the price is up to you, but whichever you choose, Princess Isabella: Return of the Curse is sure to keep you spellbound for a refreshing several hours of casual gaming.Continued on the next page...
Platform(s): Android, iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Mac, PC
Platform(s): iPad, PC
Platform(s): iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Mac, PC