Why don’t hidden objects ever hide in sunny meadows filled with chirping birds, bubbling brooks, and children’s joyful laughter? Maybe sometimes they do, but last month’s round of casual adventures sure ain’t no picnic. From Dracula’s battle with the Queen of Vampires to witch’s curses, deadly plagues, and demons of the night, there’s a dark theme running through the newest hidden object hybrids. There’s a carnival to be explored, but it’s deserted and run by a deranged dwarf with an axe to grind (perhaps literally); there’s treasure to discover but sharks (both human and fish) who will kill to keep you from it. There’s even a lost world to find, but a demented nemesis is eager to make you a sacrificial meal for hungry pterosaurs. But hey, if wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t challenge, so if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and dig right in, read on and pick your poison.
(Note: Several casual releases this month are not listed here, as The Fall Trilogy: Chapter 3 – Revelation, Tales from the Dragon Mountain: The Strix, and Sinbad: In Search of Magic Ginger will get full reviews of their own in the coming weeks.)
Dracula: Love Kills
by Shuva Raha
As the public fixation with all-things-vampire continues unabated, now we have yet another chance to schmooze with the fangtastic Count Dracula in Dracula: Love Kills. A hidden object adventure with an unusual pedigree, this is a casualised sequel to the full-fledged 2008 adventure Dracula: Origin by Frogwares’ internal Waterlily Games studio. It picks the story up some time after Dracula was ingloriously knocked into his casket and stashed in his crypt by his nemesis Van Helsing. Once back on his feet, the Prince of Darkness is informed by his fiercely loyal henchman Igor that the Queen of Vampires has hijacked his domain and intends to turn the human race into vampires. Now, in addition to rescuing his beloved Mina from the Queen's clutches, Dracula must fight off the challenge to his own dark supremacy. Being a vampire interferes with his plan to kill the Queen, however, so he's forced to propose an uneasy alliance with Van Helsing, who reluctantly agrees that the threat of vampiric world domination is far more insidious than the Count’s lovelorn malice.
Unlike Origin, which featured Van Helsing, Love Kills is played mainly from Dracula's perspective. The unlikely trio – including Igor, whose bickering with Van Helsing adds comic relief to the grim proceedings – flit between late 19th century Transylvania, London, Venice, Paris, Louisiana, Panama and Mont St. Michel, racing against time while the Queen's influence destroys the world, piling it with gruesome mounds of flesh and blood. A lengthy and enjoyable mix of inventory quests, hidden object searches and standalone puzzles, the game has two modes, the harder of which not only offers fewer hints but also increased difficulty for some puzzles. Dracula's vampire nature is laced into the gameplay as well: his superhuman abilities like telekinetic powers and x-ray vision require him to bolster his strength with blood – sourced either from vials hidden onscreen, or directly from the jugular veins of the Queen's racy young minions. However, indulging his insatiable thirst has consequences, which makes Love Kills a rare casual game worth replaying, as the surprising conclusion depends on the choices you make along the way.
The immense range of activities is sure to satisfy any fan of casual adventures, whatever the preference. Gathered inventory items are either used intuitively with other onscreen objects, often much later and in far-removed places, or help complete scenarios which yield new puzzles. The objects blend well into intricately designed screens, and though they sparkle occasionally, eliminating pixel hunting, seeking them all out is still pleasantly challenging. The two dozen hidden object screens are well-stocked, and each set of fifteen era-appropriate objects yields one useful item. Though these scenes are repeated once each, no objects found in the first search are included in the second round. The thirty-odd standalone puzzles and minigames cover almost every sort: jigsaws, object matching and sequencing, tile swapping, sliders, rotators, mazes, gears, checkers, and even mouse control challenges, varying widely in difficulty from easy to quite complex. Many have multiple levels to complete, though any puzzle can be skipped after a couple of minutes.
Progress isn't entirely linear, as Dracula has to juggle all available locations. Helpfully, screens where all tasks are currently done are marked as completed, though they're revisited in later chapters. A map marks active screens and specifies incomplete ones, allowing instant teleporting between them. With over a hundred meticulously drawn, subtly animated screens loaded with little flourishes, Love Kills is a visual treat that combines with the classical background score to create an immersively tense and ominous ambience. Character and event animation is smooth but limited, relying mostly on transitions of static images. There's substantial dialogue, embellished with snappy one-liners, and extensive voice acting both in-game and during cutscenes. But over-the-top renditions and hodgepodge accents, particularly the Queen's minions' hammy threats, make the production inadvertently cheesy, though Igor's oddball portrayal is weirdly charming.
There are numerous awards for achieving pre-set milestones, good and bad, including one for finishing the game under five hours, a fairly demanding ask even in the easy mode. In the Collector's Edition bonus chapter, Dracula searches the labyrinths below Notre Dame for the source of the Queen's power to keep the artifact out of the hands of other megalomaniacs. His team depends on the conclusion of the main game, as does the finale, which comes after another ninety minutes of superlative questing through several new locations, eight more repeated hidden object screens, a lengthy inventory obstacle, and a dozen-plus tricky puzzles.
With Dracula: Love Kills, Waterlily Games delivers big on genuinely high stakes. A shift from traditional to casual adventure could easily be dismissed as a downgrade for a series, but this game proves that a classic tale told with refreshing twists, diverse protagonists who play off each other's discrete personalities, a vast repository of thoughtful challenges, moral dilemmas yielding different outcomes, and impressive art and architecture will produce a winner irrespective of the format. Clocking in at well over six hours with the CE extension, this game has both style and substance, and is worth playing at least a couple of times for all fans of vampires and/or casual adventure games.
Love Chronicles: The Sword and the Rose
by Merlina McGovern
What’s a prince to do after saving an entire kingdom from an evil witch? Why, take a vacation on an isolated island, of course. Unfortunately for this prince, in Vendel Games’ Love Chronicles: The Sword and the Rose, the evil witch has beaten the prince to the punch and enchanted the place just before he arrives. As you help the prince discover the entirely unoriginal mystery behind the island’s curse, you’ll explore a world filled with beautiful animations, a new twist on hidden object tasks, and a bevy of logic puzzles to keep you in like, if not in love, with this casual fantasy adventure.
You’ll know immediately that all is not well as you pull up in your little boat and find the shoreline encrusted in frozen sea water. Fortunately, you’ll find a magic rose that just so happens to thaw ice. Bizarrely, rose petals that you are tasked with collecting throughout the game are also encased in ice, so it’s lucky that you have your magic ice-thawing rose to start off with. Collecting these petals isn’t just a fun add-on, as you’ll also need to thaw ice to move forward at certain points in the game or uncover inventory objects. Along with freezing everything over and turning all the island’s people into crows, the same witch who put an entire kingdom under her curse in Love Chronicles: The Spell has enchanted yet another fair princess who you must attempt to save. On top of all of this, there’s a mysterious beast prowling the island environs, which it seems you may have to contend with at some point.
Drastically altering its predecessor’s format, The Sword and the Rose abandons the fragment search concept in favor of a full inventory item hunt sprinkled with logic puzzles and traditional hidden object searches. As you make your way from the beach to a mysterious castle at the center of the island, you’ll be looking for all types of objects to help you discover and destroy a strange black crystal, the seat of the witch’s power. The scenes you explore, while pretty and fantastical, do have a bit of a retread feel. We’ve seen the moldering old forest with a wise old tree; the castle replete with drawbridge and spooky hidden passages won’t be unfamiliar to casual adventure aficionados (although a sitting room with a fountain in the middle is a bit unusual). However, lovely animations bring a sense of vitality to these scenes. As you travel through an outdoor passageway, pennants ripple in the wind as lightning strikes in the background, and fast-growing trees have undulating branches that softly glow pink, ice blue, and peach as they sway.
Some items can only be acquired by completing standard hidden object searches or various set collections. In an interesting twist, you’ll find an item assembly system early in the game that lets you put together the many objects you find to make one larger item. It’s a refreshing change to actually use all those gears, clamps, and other random detritus. Ever wondered how you could make a fire extinguisher out of a toy monkey, a watering can, and various unrelated items? Well, even if you haven’t, you’ll find out how to do just that in this game. The combinations aren’t very tricky as there’s always a pattern to follow, but they do require that you put objects together in a particular order to complete. You’ll also have to pair certain items in very precise ways in the environment itself.
There is a wide variety of logic puzzles along the way. These are all relatively simple, including the usual suspects like tile puzzles and memory games, but they’re complemented by some nicely integrated minigames, such as knocking beetles off a tree and capturing them, and a simple pattern game that cleverly disguises itself as a session of cross-stitching. The music is a pleasant backdrop to all the needlework and puzzle-solving, with the thumping drums and insistent violins that open the game soon settling down to the more soothing tones of xylophones and harps. The ambient sounds, however, distractingly repeat themselves. The same creaky door sound becomes tiresome after it’s repeated for the millionth time.
After almost three hours spent completing the main adventure, I found the nearly hour-long bonus chapter in the Collector’s Edition to be delightfully quirky, even if its story is just as flimsy. Here you are tasked with finding an inventor, though you’ll never really learn what he has to do with anything or why the witch abducted him. Regardless, your search takes you through a crazy realm populated by sleeping mushrooms that squeak and yawn when you click on them, and tree branches that grow around large, staring eyes. In this quest, you’ll encounter new puzzles and a larger proportion of hidden object searches than in the main game, but you won’t repeat searches in any old locations. Surprisingly for a game called Love Chronicles, there’s very little romance in either version. Still, The Sword And The Rose is quite an enjoyable adventure, though the change of hidden object focus may not be what you’re expecting from a sequel. If you’re new to the series, the unoriginal premise may turn you off at first, but the wide variety of puzzles and pretty animations will soon succeed in winning your affections.Continued on the next page...
Platform(s): Mac, PC
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