Showing posts with label Big Fish Games. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Big Fish Games. Show all posts

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Game Review: Mystery Case Files: Moths to a Flame Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 23rd August 2019
Platform: PC

This is quite a delayed post. I actually played Mystery Case Files: Moths to a Flame back in the autumn, but I haven’t had chance to write a review until now. Sorry about that.

So, Moths to a Flame is the latest instalment of the Mystery Case Files series, which is currently in the hands of Eipix Games. I – like a lot of MCF fans – was a little less than enthused by the last game in the series, The Countess. It wasn’t a bad game as such, but it just couldn’t hold a candle to the early Ravenhearst games. Not much can, to be honest. Although I thought The Countess was okay, I pretty much came to the conclusion that I was done with Mystery Case Files. I’ve seen other people saying the same thing when new titles come out… this series is pretty much done now. No more Mystery Case Files games for me.

And then they release a new game, and we all fly to it like… ahhhhh.

Moths to a Flame is set up as one for the fans. In fact, the storyline would probably be a bit confusing for anyone who hasn’t played at least some of the earlier titles in the series. The Mystery Case Files unit – and the Master Detective himself (the player-character seems to be male in this instalment, though obviously that’s a controversial subject in the series) – are under attack. Some files have been stolen, and an ‘Archivist’ (with a grudge against the MCF agency) is holding a group of agents hostage in order to draw the Master Detective into a twisted game.

The game involves visiting recreations of the settings of some of the detective’s iconic cases (specifically, Ravenhearst, Madame Fate’s carnival and the boarding house from Broken Hour) to piece together the puzzle of why this is all happening. These recreations are housed in the Zenith Museum of Oddities, which is part prison and part tribute to the Master Detective. You have to navigate your way around the museum to solve the case and free the other agents.

The game design is very good here, with lovely attention to detail in the scenes. Obviously, a big draw for MCF fans is the recreations of settings from earlier games. These were well-done, and there was a definite attempt to capture the intricacy and style of those games. However, the problem with offering recreations of iconic scenes from earlier games is that you are openly encouraging comparison with those games. And, for those of us who love them, the new game will fall a little short.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s missing from these facsimiles of Ravenhearst and Fate’s Carnival, but something is missing. I think the game – like most of the later MCF series – lacks the darkness of the earlier instalments. I don’t mean it’s too bright and colourful, but rather that it’s just a bit… harmless, when compared with the disturbed malevolence that rippled under the surface of the other games. So, although there’s a good attempt to capture the visual feel of previous chapters, Moths to a Flame doesn’t quite capture their soul. (Also, I missed the theme music. It really felt like it should be there for this one, and it sort of was at times, but, again, the soundtrack lacked something when compared with, say, Escape from Ravenhearst or Fate’s Carnival.)

Gameplay in this one, as expected, is pretty slick and has all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect. It’s standard point-and-click on the whole, with movement between scenes (without too much distracting back-and-forth). There’s a Custom difficulty level (yay!), collectibles and morphing objects. The puzzles are a mix of HOGs and mini-games, which you can replay afterwards on the CE. Some of the reviews I’ve read have commented on the welcome return of the Rube Goldberg puzzles, which were a characteristic feature of some of the earlier MCF games (most notably Fate’s Carnival). I was happy to see these but, like much of the game, the Rube Goldberg puzzles were a shadow of their earlier counterparts. They just lacked the intricacy and weirdness of some of the early instalments.

However, Moths to a Flame does have a very classy (and unexpected) element to its gameplay. I’m loath to say much about this, as it’s a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t played or who has only played the demo. All I’ll say is that something I thought was going to be a bit of annoying feature has a brilliant twist to it that I very much enjoyed!

As this is a first-person, single-player game, all eyes are on the player-character – in this case the Master Detective. There’s very little detail given, as is usual for the MCF games, though the motive behind the antagonist’s actions does suggest that the character’s reputation precedes them. This isn’t the first time someone has become obsessed with the Master Detective, so the success in the previous games has certainly brought the detective to people’s attention. Not, sadly, to the Queen’s attention this time, as Moths to a Flame eschews the once familiar phone call from Her Majesty to kick the adventure off.

Of the NPCs, the most interesting one is the antagonist. The others (the agents who have been taken captive) are, at least, a bit more well-rounded and a bit less whiny than the NPCs in some other games. They can’t complete the adventure for you, but at least they don’t just sit and demand that you perform tasks for them. The Archivist is the one who gets a bit more attention, as it’s his obsession that has resulted in the storyline happening at all. Unfortunately, once again, the game hampers itself with its own continued reference to older games. The Archivist was fine, as antagonists in HOPAs go, but by encouraging a comparison to the Ravenhearst arc, the game was drawing attention to the fact that he’s a far cry from Charles Dalimar (he’s not even Alister Dalimar). There was a moment, part way through, where I thought there might be a twist ending in which it turned out the Archivist was a Dalimar, but sadly that was not to be.

I played the Collector’s Edition, so there was a bit of bonus content. The main feature of this is the bonus chapter, which in this case is a sequel chapter (more a sort of coda to the main adventure). This didn’t add a lot for me, as it all felt a bit arbitrary – as though the developers knew they had to extend the gameplay for a little longer, but couldn’t think of any more storyline. Outside of this, I enjoyed being able to replay HOGs and mini-games, and to have another chance at getting Achievements. The bonus content also includes a Souvenir Room (popular with some) and the usual wallpapers and extras. It’s all as you would expect from a HOPA Collector’s Edition.

So… has Moths to a Flame redeemed the Mystery Case Files series? The jury’s out on that one. It was a better instalment than I was expecting, but those early games just set the bar too high. I suspect I’ll play the next game (which is already out, since it took me so long to write this review!), but my heart hasn’t been torn away from Ravenhearst yet.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Mournful Loch Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 14th April 2017
Platform: PC

This is a slightly delayed review. I actually played this game last month, but I was tied up with GM Fringe theatre reviews and some other commitments so I wasn’t able to post this right away. I’m also aware that I said in my last game review that I was taking a break from the Phantasmat series, and that my next post would be a Poirot Project one… oops… neither of those things were true! Sorry!

My last game review was for Phantasmat: Behind the Mask, and I decided just to continue my play through the series. I was a little confused to discover that the next two titles were unavailable: Phantasmat: Town of Lost Hope and Phantasmat: Reign of Shadows were removed from the Big Fish Games catalogue earlier this year (not sure why). So, the next available game in the series was Phantasmat: Mournful Loch, which was developed (as all the instalments since The Endless Night have been) by Eipix Games.

Unfortunately, Mournful Loch feels a bit phoned-in. I’m not sure what the removed instalments would have added to the series, but playing Mournful Loch immediately after Behind the Mask didn’t really work for me. There were some notable similarities between the two stories, which only served to highlight the weakness in the later game’s storyline.

You play as an archaeologist/researcher who is setting out to explore Logan Castle in Scotland and hoping to discover a lost ancient artefact. The castle was the site of a historical (in the vaguest sense) massacre, and you believe something valuable was lost as a result. When the boat you’re in crashes (naturally!), you have to navigate your way through the creepy castle, past malevolent ghosts, and through inexplicably intricate locks and puzzle systems to find… whatever it is you’re meant to find.

And that’s the main problem with Mournful Loch. There’s no real sense of purpose or objective. The backstory as to why you’ve arrived at the castle is pretty sketchy, and the ‘history’ of the castle is vague, inconsistent and – at times – so historically suspect that it’s bad even by HOPA standards. As I say, there are similarities between this story and the one in Behind the Mask: you are faced with a series of malevolent ghosts, dealing with and dispatching one after another (I described this in my last review as being the closest a HOPA comes to having an ‘end of level boss’). The problem with Mournful Loch is that there aren’t really any backstories or explanations for the ghosts – who are they? why are they malevolent? what has this got to do with the artefact? what the hell is the artefact anyway? how many more times will the word ‘artefact’ be used? The game didn’t really answer any of these questions, and so what we’re left with is a paint-by-numbers storyline where puzzles have to be solved, baddies dispatched and objects restored, simply because this is a HOPA and that’s what happens.

Design-wise, this is very much of the standard I’ve come to expect from Eipix. Backgrounds and cutscenes are beautifully illustrated, with stylish detail and smooth animations where necessary. The colour palette tends towards blues and greys in this one, but that seems to fit with the ‘eldritch-esque’ feel to the overall story. There was much less sense of NPCs altering and ‘descending’ into evil – a detail that has characterized the previous instalments of the series – but this also meant that there was none of the cartoonish ‘monster’ illustrations that marred the design of Behind the Mask.

Soundtrack and sound effects were also as you might expect from a HOPA by this developer. Overall, though, there was little innovation or surprise in the game design. I have no real criticisms, but also no specific praise. Again, this game feels a bit phoned-in. It’s competently created, but a little bit mundane.

And this comes through in the gameplay as well, which is very much as expected. It’s point, click, move between scenes, pick up items for the inventory, use items from the inventory, complete mini-games, complete HOGs. There is a bit of back-and-forth between rooms (which I don’t mind), and one short cut that you discover part way through to cut down on this (also something I don’t mind, as it made sense within the game’s geography). Most of the inventory items were used in a logical way, and the plus-items (ones where you find something and then have to fix it, or locate additional parts for it to be usable) are pretty straightforward.

To be honest, the gameplay is also a bit mundane in this one. The HOGs (which can be switched for Match-3) and mini-games are very easy. The progression through the game is also easy (though the bonus chapter suffers from too much confusion about objectives and next steps). The game has a Custom difficulty option – yay! – so I was playing with longer recharge times on Hint and Skip, minimal sparkles, minimal black bar instructions, and no tutorial. I didn’t have to use Hint much at all during the main game, though I found I had to use it (and the jump map) in the bonus chapter, but more on that below. Generally speaking, there’s just a lack of challenge with this one.

The game does have some NPCs, but there’s much less interaction with these than in previous instalments. The interactions (and cutscenes) with the malevolent ghosts are limited, which means that we don’t get much of a sense of them as characters. There is some more sustained interaction with the sinister Boat Man (who originally brings you to Logan Castle), but admittedly this is marred by some slightly dodgy voice acting (an accent that’s meant to be Scottish sounds much more Northern Irish). Outside of this, though, there’s very little characterization going on in Mournful Loch. Even in the highlighted word puzzles, which are often used for exposition and backstory, the information that’s revealed is very limited.

I played the CE version of the game, so there was some bonus content. The main attraction – as always – was the bonus chapter, but this was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t completely clear whether this chapter is a prequel or a sequel (I think it was the latter), or how it related to the events of the main game. In the end, it mostly served as some additional gameplay (using some of the scenes from the main game, and a couple of new ones), rather than a development of the storyline.

In addition to the bonus chapter, the CE has all the usual extra features, including achievements, replays on HOGs and Match-3, collectibles and morphing objects, soundtrack and wallpapers.

So, all-in-all, Mournful Loch was a bit of a disappointment. It’s competently made, but with nothing special or surprising about it. The visual design meets Eipix’s usual high standard, but the game is let down by a rather confused and unexciting storyline. I don’t have any major criticisms of the mechanics here, but I like HOPAs that integrate these into a story I can (at least temporarily) buy into. I probably will try another Phantasmat game, but maybe I need a break and another series for a while!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Behind the Mask Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 18th December 2015
Platform: PC

I did intend my next post to be a Poirot Project one (I’m up to ‘Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan’ now), but I haven’t quite had time to finish it yet. I have played another HOPA game though, so I’m sneaking in a quick review of that before I get back to Hercule.

I’m still working my way through the Phantasmat series. I’m just playing the games in the order they were released, though I’m not definitely sure yet if I’m going to keep going until the latest release. I like the series, but it’s no substitute for Mystery Case Files (my true love). I think part of the problem is that, while the Phantasmat games (so far) are well-made and fun to play, I miss the recurring characters from Mystery Case Files. Each Phantasmat game is, essentially, a standalone adventure, and there’s no suggestion that you’re playing as the same character from one game to the next (in fact, I think it’s pretty clear that you’re not supposed to be the same person). Still, as standalone games, they’re good fun, and Phantasmat: Behind the Mask (from Eipix Games again is a decent (if slightly confused) instalment in the series.

The game begins with you receiving an invitation to a family reunion from your cousin Patrick. There’s something a little bit off about the invite – the details of the party seem a little vague – but you set off in your car nonetheless. Surprisingly for a Phantasmat game, you manage to get there without crashing your car, but the Ward Mansion is all locked up when you arrive. Patrick calls you on your mobile to ask you to let yourself in, and that’s when the puzzles start.

I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say that, when you get into the Ward Mansion, you run in to some fellow party guests. They… aren’t dressed in a contemporary style. If you’ve played the previous games in the series, you’re already expecting at least some of the characters to be ghosts, so this isn’t too much of a surprise (again, I don’t think this is a spoiler, as there’s no way you’d imagine that these characters are alive). The curious part is trying to work out why you’ve been invited to this family reunion, and what Patrick is up to. Things begin in an unsettling way, but soon get a bit darker.

There’s a lot of really good stuff in the Behind the Mask storyline – including some grimly bizarre stuff at one point – but it’s also a bit of a mess. The Patrick plotline seems to be the main thrust of the game, and you solve puzzles to resolve this (it all seems to have something to do with a clock). However, about half an hour/an hour into the game (probably about the point the demo ends), you resolve this – at which point it’s revealed that there’s something else entirely going on. I liked both aspects of the story, but I struggled to see how they fit together. By the end of the game – including the bonus chapter (more on that shortly) – I understood what was going on in the main storyline, but I’m totally confused about Patrick and the clock. What was he trying to achieve? What was the significance of the clock? Turns out… that’s not really important.

I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed with the storyline in this one. As I say there are some great aspects, but it just doesn’t hang together. I’m happy to be a bit baffled by HOPA storylines – I’ll even forgive glaring plot holes – but I don’t like it when I just can’t follow the story at all. The Patrick subplot in Behind the Mask was just too inexplicable for me.

Storyline aside, the game is beautifully designed. It’s got that classic Eipix style, with each scene illustrated in a stylish and detailed way. However, it’s not quite of the same standard as the previous instalment, Dread of Oakville. NPCs are well-drawn (on the most part), but not fully animated, and the dialogue animations are a little stilted. The cutscenes are interesting – not fully animated, but drawn with an off-beat style that I enjoyed. The music is as you might expect from a HOPA, but it doesn’t really stand out, which is a shame given one part of the plot. Again, though, the design is a bit disappointing after playing the previous instalments of the Phantasmat series. One of the things I’ve really liked about the games (which I’ve mentioned cryptically in previous reviews) is the subtlety with which the NPCs alter as the game goes along (trying really hard to avoid spoilers). Sadly, that subtlety is absent in Behind the Mask, and the NPCs go from ‘normal’ (and reasonably well-illustrated) to ‘evil’ (cartoonishly rendered) in the blink of an eye. There are a couple of egregious examples of this, which really made me miss the light touch of earlier games.

I feel like this is quite a critical review, so I do want to say that I did enjoy the game. It’s just not a standout HOPA for me. The gameplay in the main game is fairly straightforward and logical. You move between rooms, picking stuff up, using inventory items, interacting with NPCs. Inventory items were, on the whole, used intuitively – though I was frustrated with finding that a fountain pen was intended to lever open a drawer at one point, and the bonus chapter gets more convoluted and unclear about next steps. But in the main game I found that I barely had to use Hint (and never Skip), as the gameplay was so straightforward.

Perhaps… just perhaps… the gameplay was a little bit too straightforward. Behind the Mask isn’t a particularly difficult game. The HOGs look great, and everything is nice and clear, but there isn’t much challenge with this one. I completed some of the HOGs easily in less than a minute, and the mini games were similarly simple. It is a tricky balance, though, and on the whole I think I prefer this level of difficulty to the more impenetrable challenge of other games, which has you over-clicking the Hint button.

Behind the Mask has some gameplay features that are expected from Eipix, and from the series at this point. There are four difficulty levels, including Custom (yay!). I played with no tutorial, minimal black bar hints, minimal sparkles, and medium mis-click penalties, Hint and Skip. There is also a jump map, which you discover in-game part way through, but you probably won’t need to use it too much, as the back-and-forth is limited here (it’s always quite clear when you’ve ‘finished’ a room). As with previous instalments, there is the option of playing Match-3 instead of HOGs as well.

The NPCs in Behind the Mask are pretty important to the story, and very much present in the game. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the hanging-around-asking-for-help type (à la Gregory Logain, my HOPA nemesis). In this one (and I don’t think this is really a spoiler), the NPCs are the antagonists. Once you get past the pesky Patrick-and-the-clock plotline that opens the game, you meet the assembled ‘family reunion’ guests in turn: Abigail (a herbalist and orchid-grower), Claude (a musician), Norman (a big game hunter), Lisbeth (an artist), Patrick (he’s back!), and then… the other one (definitely no spoilers for that one though!).

Unusually for a HOPA, the NPCs function almost like end-of-level bosses, or at least as close to end-of-level bosses as you’d get in a HOPA. As the game progresses, you meet each of the members of the Ward family, find out a little bit about their backstory and the threat they pose, and deal with them. The backstories are, mostly, the best bit of the game – though that tells you something about my tastes, to be honest. They’re tantalizing revealed through oddly-illustrated cutscenes, and they’re generally really disturbing. Claude and Norman’s, in particular, are the stuff of proper horror fiction. It’s almost a shame how straightforward it is to neutralize them.

Sadly, though, these ‘end-of-level bosses’ get progressively easier and quicker to investigate. The amount of time you spend with Claude is much longer – and more developed – than the time you spend with Lisbeth. Still, it’s an interesting twist on the format, and one that I’d like to revisit in a future game.

I played the Collector’s Edition for this one, and so there were some extras. Firstly, there were morphing objects and collectibles. These were pretty easy to find so didn’t detract too much from the main gameplay. The CE has some limited Achievements (I think there were four altogether), and a Souvenir Room. There’s no endgame with the collectibles or Souvenir Room, but they add a couple of extra tasks to the game. The bonus content includes replays on HOGs and mini-games, and a second chance to find any collectibles you missed first time round. You can also replay Match-3 for a while, if you fancy it.

The main attraction of the CE is, of course, the bonus chapter. I have mixed feelings about this one. Story-wise, it’s great and really adds an extra dimension to the plot of the main game – though I think if you played the SE (without this additional material), you’d be even more baffled about what’s going on than I was. However, the gameplay leaves a bit to be desired. It’s far less intuitive and logical than the main game, and I found myself constantly reaching for Hint to explain what I had to do next.

I do feel that I’ve been quite negative about this one, which I didn’t intend. It’s a fun game, and some of the backstory is wonderfully dark and brutal. It’s just not the strongest instalment in the Phantasmat series, and some features felt a bit phoned-in. If I compare Behind the Mask to a lot of the other HOPAs I’ve played, it certainly comes off well. But compared to the rest of the series so far (and to my beloved Mystery Case Files), it’s a bit of a let-down. I haven’t decided yet whether the next game I play will be the next instalment of the Phantasmat series. The completist in me wants to keep going with them in sequence, but it might be time for a break. I’m not sure… but even if I do play a different game next, I’m sure I’ll come back to the series again in the future.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Dread of Oakville (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 10th July 2015
Platform: PC

I’m continuing my journey through the Phantasmat series with the fourth title: The Dread of Oakville. The series is still in the competent hands of Eipix Games for this title, and this one really has a ‘classic Eipix’ feel about it (in the best possible way). Unusually for me, I played the Standard Edition of this one (because I had a free game coupon that was only redeemable on SEs) – it’s been a while since I played an SE!

So… surprise, surprise… The Dread of Oakville begins with you driving down a dark mountain road, as a storm begins to gather. Suddenly, a landslide forces your car off the road, and rocks block the way behind you. Of course it does. You find yourself in a tunnel, a locked gate in front of you, and a blocked road behind. The only way to continue is to find a way to unlock the gate and enter the town on the other side.

The town is Oakville and, as in other instalments of the Phantasmat series, it is deserted. There are missing person posters scattered around, and you quickly find the driving licence of a young woman called Josie Grimes. What happened to the people of Oakville? And how are you going to escape? It’s not long before you meet one of the residents who seems friendly, though if you’re familiar with the previous titles in the series then you’ll have a good idea what to expect from him.

The storyline in this one had so much potential. There’s a creepy woman, an apocalyptic prophecy, an ancient entity contained in a tree, and a sinister puppet called Mr Nightingale. However, the execution is rather fragmented, and it’s not particularly clear how the elements fit together. For the first time in the series, I was left a little confused as to which characters were alive and which were dead, and I couldn’t quite work out which ones were working together (and what the intended to achieve). There was a bit of a paint-by-numbers quality to the storytelling in this one, with the Big Bad (Mae Grimes) pretty much being bad for the sake of it. It’s a shame, as some of the apocalyptic elements (see below) worked so well (and I’ll even admit to enjoying the jump scares in this one), but the narrative just wasn’t quite coherent enough for me.

Although the storyline of The Dread of Oakville was weaker than some of the previous instalments of the series, I loved the design of this one. It is really excellent, and definitely Eipix at their best. Scenes are beautifully detailed, and the HOGs were clear and well-designed. The soundtrack is also a real plus point, with evocative and atmospheric music that doesn’t loop too much. I do enjoy it when the soundtrack shifts with the action of the game (not all HOPA soundtracks do this), and the music here does just that. The cutscenes (though there aren’t many) are well-illustrated and integrated into the narrative.

But the real highlight of the design in The Dread of Oakville is the impending apocalypse. In my reviews of the earlier Phantasmat games, I mentioned how much I liked the way the design of the NPCs shifts as you learn more about what they are. The Dread of Oakville takes this to a different level, with a really unsettling shift early on in the game. Without giving too much away (there are a few shocks and scares early on in the game that it would be a shame to spoil), the design of the not-quite-living characters in The Dread of Oakville is classy and cinematic.

However, it’s the rain that really makes this game. In mad Mae Grimes’s prophecy/plot, the apocalypse is due to come in the form of a cataclysmic storm that will destroy the world (or destroy Oakville – Mae’s a little unclear on that one). When you first arrive in the town, it’s overcast but still fairly dry. By the time you meet your first NPC, dark clouds are gathering… and then the storm starts. Now, The Dread of Oakville is far from the only HOPA to include constant rain as a backdrop to gameplay, but it does do it so well. It builds up gradually, with rumbling thunder, before driving down in a relentless torrent for the second half of the game. The sound design is great, with the rain effects balanced well with the music, and the storm is beautifully illustrated. I know it might sound a little odd, but the rain was probably my favourite part of the game!

In terms of gameplay, The Dread of Oakville is pretty standard HOPA fare. You move from screen to screen, clicking stuff, picking stuff up, using items from your inventory. It’s fairly intuitive and logical (though the fragmented storyline meant that I occasionally lost track of what I was doing and had to use Hint). There are three difficulty settings, plus Custom (yay!). I played with my preferred Custom options (no tutorial, no sparkles except on HOGs, longer recharge on Hint and Skip), and this worked well for me.

My main criticism of gameplay would be that the HOGs and mini-games are on the easy side. In fact, some are very easy to complete. I enjoyed the variety with HOGs – there are straight item lists, morphing objects, items to be assembled and silhouettes – and the fact that there are no repeats, but there just isn’t quite enough challenge. The mini-games are fun and well-designed, but again they just aren’t particularly challenging. It’s a tough balance to reach, though, as I’m aware I’ve grumbled in previous reviews about mini-games that are too difficult. I also know that all players are different. Nevertheless, as I’d completed the game within three-and-a-half hours, I just don’t think there was quite enough gameplay in The Dread of Oakville.

And now it’s time for my regular rant about non-player characters in HOPAs… I’m a bit frustrated, to be honest, as I’ve been rather impressed by the use of NPCs in the Phantasmat series so far. As you may remember from previous reviews, my biggest pet peeve about HOPAs is NPCs that set you a task and then stand around watching you complete it. Why don’t they help you?? At least with Phantasmat, it seemed that some explanation was given for why the people you encounter weren’t too keen on helping you out.

Sadly, though, we move towards Gregory Logain territory in The Dread of Oakville, and that’s guaranteed to wind me up a bit. At first, it seems like things are progressing nicely: you meet a suspiciously friendly resident who encourages you to stay in Oakville for a while, and a creepy little girl who sings a horrible nursery rhyme at you and then disappears. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t continue. You soon end up hooking up with Josie Grimes and her dad, who have that irritating tendency to say things like ‘We’re going to need fuel for the Limo. I think there’s a barrel in the basement.’ Before standing stock still and watching you. Sigh. I’ll go down to the basement and look then, shall I? And I’m guessing I’ll also need to search the house for a funnel and a hose. Jeez. To make matters worse, the lack of full narrative coherence means that it’s not always completely clear who you’re meant to be helping, and why. I couldn’t quite get my head around what was going on with Ansell Grimes – exacerbated by the fact that a bit of dialogue skipped at a key moment, so I didn’t get to see the full interaction. Despite this – and this is definitely a personal gripe – I will say that the NPCs are illustrated very well, and the voice acting is very good throughout.

I just really don’t like being told to do stuff by NPCs in a game where you can’t answer back.

As I said above, this was a rare Standard Edition for me, so I didn’t get chance to try any bonus content. I believe the Collector’s Edition has a bonus chapter (which I didn’t really miss, as these haven’t been a strong point of the series so far), a jump map (again, I didn’t miss this), Match-3 options for the HOGs, collectibles and achievements.

Overall, an enjoyable game, but not the strongest instalment of the Phantasmat series. Design-wise, The Dread of Oakville is excellent, with some really stylish and impressive features. But it’s let down a bit by a fragmented narrative and lack of challenge in gameplay. Still, it’s not put me off the series, and I imagine I’ll keep going with Phantasmat for a while yet.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Endless Night Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 11th January 2015
Platform: PC

Another game review for me – and another instalment in the Phantasmat series. I’ve been really impressed with these ones, though it’s making me wonder how I’ve managed to miss this series up until now. The third title in the series is Phantasmat: The Endless Night, and it saw another change of developer. The original Phantasmat game was developed by Codeminion back in 2011 (see my review here). The sequel, which had a similar narrative but a different setting and characters, was developed by ERS G-Studio in 2012 (see my review here). There were no new Phantasmat titles until early 2015, when the series development mantle passed to Eipix Entertainment.

I’ve played quite a few games by Eipix – and they have got form for picking up series and reimagining/developing them – so I was curious to see how much they’d changed the format of the games. Also, having really enjoyed the first two Phantasmat games, I had high hopes for The Endless Night. And I wasn’t disappointed on either front – this one is a definite recommendation from me.

The game begins with the standard HOPA intro sequence… you’re driving your car down the road at night (this time, taking your daughter Aimee to her prom), when something happens and you’re forced off the road. Just before the crash, you’d been talking to Aimee about the devastating accident that killed a load of people at Prom 1965, so it comes as little surprise to discover that this history forms the background to the mystery in the game. That’s right: the ‘Endless Night’ in question is, in fact, Prom Night. Your car accident has left you apparently stranded in 1965 and the aftermath of the horrific accident. Oh, and your daughter’s been abducted – it wouldn’t be a HOPA if your daughter wasn’t in some sort of peril.

I loved the prom storyline that opened The Endless Night. I’ll say something about the game’s design below, but I loved the way the devastation of the accident was evoked and the introduction of the underlying mystery. Several hints early on suggest a sort of Carrie vibe, as the first non-player character you meet is a bullied ‘nerd’ who may or may not have been responsible for killing everyone. (Unlike in some other instalments of the series, there is absolutely no doubt that the NPCs you’re interacting with are ghosts. These are definitely manifestations of people who died in 1965, though they don’t know that.) However, not long into the game, the Carrie-esque story gives way to something more like My Bloody Valentine (if you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what I mean) and a quite different story starts to unfold. By about halfway through, you’ve pretty much left the prom behind, and your exploration of the town is much more focused on the underlying cause of the killer accident.

As this is a HOPA, there are some minor narrative issues and inconsistencies. I’m not sure how old my player-character was supposed to be – and I certainly couldn’t work out how old my PC’s dad was supposed to be – and there was a little bit of suspension of disbelief required. But this is expected of HOPAs, and in some ways it’s part of the charm. Overall, The Endless Night has a really strong and compelling storyline. I liked the swerve away from prom to something different, and I enjoyed the ‘twist’ at the end – although I did guess what was coming, I thought the ‘clues’ were very well-done. So, in terms of story, The Endless Night is way above average for me.

The earlier Phantasmat games were beautifully designed, but I think Eipix have really brought it up a notch with this one. Scenes are detailed, evocative and stylish, with some items and objects being particularly well-illustrated. The prom debris scattered across several of the scenes is a nice touch, and it adds to the general feeling of care and attention to detail. Probably the biggest change of design with this game comes with the use of live actors for cutscenes and dialogue interactions. Live actors in HOPAs are a bit of a divisive issue, but I feel they’re done well in The Endless Night and the animation style makes the transitions between static animated scenes and live action as close to seamless as you’ll find in a HOPA. (The voice acting is all good too.)

On the whole, I’d say that, design-wise, this is the best instalment of the series so far. The only aspect that doesn’t stand out particularly is the music. It’s a perfectly appropriate soundtrack, which doesn’t loop too much and (mostly) mirrors the game in its tonal shifts. But it’s not especially memorable and wouldn’t have been out of place in any number of HOPAs.

While this is a HOPA, so there’s plenty of moving around scenes, hunting through junk piles and finding inventory objects to use, there are some distinct touches. Eipix have also introduced a few features of gameplay that, while familiar from other games by this designer, weren’t included in the earlier Phantasmat titles. There’s now a Custom difficulty option (yay!) and a jump map (meh). The HOGs are more varied – so there are lists, morphing objects, silhouettes and word clues, and some HOGs combine two or more of these. There are also hidden collectible eye symbols (thankfully not morphing) on each screen. It’s not all change though: there’s still the option to switch between HOGs and Match-3 if you fancy it.

That said, my biggest criticism of The Endless Night is to do with gameplay. The game starts off pretty intuitive and logical, with clear objectives and tasks. However, once you leave the school building (and the prom) to investigate the accident, things get a little less intuitive. Objectives are still clearly stated, but there’s quite a bit of back-and-forth, and there isn’t always any logic or common sense behind this. I found myself using Hint and the jump map quite a bit during the second half of the game, as I was losing a clear sense of the what and why of my progression through the game. Coupled with this, inventory items aren’t always used logically. A pet peeve of mine is using coins as screwdrivers – and this is extra frustrating when there’s clearly a coin slot nearby. If you’ve got a magnet and a coin, and there’s a gumball dispenser (with a coin slot) nearby, it’s totally annoying to discover that you have to use the magnet, not the coin, on the dispenser. I really don’t like having to use Hint to discover how to use my inventory items.

So far, characters have been a big part of the Phantasmat series. Despite not being a huge fan of NPCs in HOPAs, I enjoyed the way they were used in the first two games. In many ways, The Endless Night makes similar use of NPCs, though there are substantially more of them. As I’ve said above, this game uses live actors to enhance cutscenes and interactions, but there’s also the addition of a daughter-in-peril character and a stranger who seems to be in the same boat as you. This is a distinctly well-populated game, but it still gets round the problem of inactive NPCs (the ones who set you a task but refuse to actually help you complete it) through the fact that everyone is trapped (and unaware of what is really going on).

A number of the characters share a bit of backstory with you when you first meet them – this is usually a little bit of explanation about what they were doing at the time of the accident, or about some unresolved business they still have. A lot of this is simply set up for a task (e.g. finding an object that will serve to conclude the unresolved business), but some of the NPCs present you with backstory that’s unexpectedly moving. This is usually in the form of some misguided guilt about the fatal accident. In some cases (especially the ghostly fire crew), this is truly sad and adds a sympathetic dimension to the game that’s rather unusual.

I played the CE version of The Endless Night, so there was a bit of bonus content. Firstly, there was a bonus chapter, which was a prologue rather than an epilogue (as in the first two instalments). I’m not sure this prologue added very much to the story though. You play as one of the NPCs from the main game, and the primary objective seems to be to discover more about your own backstory. Gameplay here is even more confusing than in the latter part of the main game, and I really struggled to keep track of the what and why. This was an extra bit of gameplay, which is always nice, but it didn’t really add to the main narrative.

Other bonus features include concept art and soundtrack, achievements, a Souvenir Room (a chance to go back to each screen and look for an additional hidden object) and a Match-3 game. There are also replays on each of the HOGs (with an additional achievement for getting stars on the replays) and a chance to find any eyes you missed during gameplay.

In case it’s not clear – and setting aside minor niggles – I really liked this one! Stylish design and gameplay that’s just difficult enough (challenging, not frustrating) – but it’s the story and characterization that really won me over. I’m definitely going to be checking out the next title in the Phantasmat series.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Crucible Peak Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: ERS G-Studio
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 6th December 2012
Platform: PC

Hot on the heels of playing the first Phantasmat game, I jumped straight into the next one in the series. I really enjoyed the first one, and the rest of the series (or at least the earlier instalments) all seem to have quite high ratings. It would be quite nice to have a new series that I can rely on (the closest I’ve come since Mystery Case Files is PuppetShow, and these are a bit hit-and-miss). So let’s see how the Phantasmat series shapes up…

The second game in the series is Phantasmat: Crucible Peak, and there’s been a change of developer. This one was developed by ERC G-Studio (now Amax Interactive) in 2012.

You’re a skier in this one (not sure if you’re supposed to be playing as the same person as in Phantasmat), and the game begins with you looking forward to a dream ski trip in the Alps. But shock! horror! a terrifying avalanche puts paid to your plans. You find yourself trapped in a little town called Alpion, which appears to be abandoned. As with the first game, your primary objective is to find a way to get out of the town and on your way. However – again, as with the first game – you are intercepted by one of the few residents of the town, who tells you that something wrong is happening. Naturally, your secondary objective is to find out what on earth’s wrong with Alpion.

The town has been deserted since another catastrophic avalanche many years earlier. The local resort is apparently still open, but there’s no one staying except a young man called Otto, who you meet earlier on. The resort owner offers to help you, and so you start to travel around the area, meeting a couple of other residents along the way. Gradually, the true mystery of Alpion is revealed… or, at least, it would be if you haven’t played the first game. Somewhat disappointingly, the storyline and mystery has almost exactly the same structure as the first Phantasmat game. While it’s quite possible that you guessed the ‘twist’ in Phantasmat, there’s no need to guess at all in the second game – it’s just the same twist. This is a bit of a shame, but it didn’t completely ruin my enjoyment of the game.

The game’s design is stylish and well-done. The frozen backdrops are beautifully rendered, and the character illustrations are also great. As before, the non-player characters are illustrated but not fully animated. The dialogue animation is okay – though there are some occasionally clumsy movements – and the voice acting is great (except in one case, which I’ll come back to). The HOGs are well-designed here. They are undoubtedly quite dark, but the difficulty level is just right for me. (And although I didn’t play them much, the Match-3 games are just beautiful.) Soundtrack and cutscenes are well-done, though these aren’t quite as stylish as those in the first game. Or maybe the novelty value was higher for the first one – Crucible Peak is an enjoyable game, but there’s an undeniable feeling that it’s treading the same ground as Phantasmat.

The gameplay doesn’t hold much surprise for HOPA fans: it’s move-around-and-find-stuff as usual. There are three difficulty levels, but no Custom option. I played on Advanced (the middle level), meaning I had slow recharge on Hint and Skip and some misclick penalty. Advanced is also meant to limit the number of black bar hints that appear during the game, but, while it does do that, the mini-games annoyingly have instructions displayed as default so there’s no setting that will remove these. There’s also no jump map in this one, but you can switch between HOGs and Match-3 should you choose. In my review of the first game, I praised the intuitive and logical gameplay, as well as the way HOGs are integrated into the gameplay. Crucible Peak began in a similar vein – it was pretty clear what you had to do and why you had to do it, and inventory items were used in a common-sense way. However, as the game progressed, I found myself using Hint a lot more. The back-and-forth began to get a bit much, and I sometimes forgot what task I was meant to be completing. Inventory items were mostly common sense, but there were a couple of things that I had to use in an unexpected way.

I don’t want to keep reflecting back on my previous review, but Crucible Peak is in many ways so close to Phantasmat that I can’t really avoid it. And so… once again, in my review of the first game I commented on the use of NPCs. I liked the way NPCs worked in the first game, and so was happy enough for them to be used in a similar way in Crucible Peak. Yes – they have that HOPA habit of telling you to help with something and then standing back while you struggle through the task alone, but that makes sense in the context of the storyline.

There was a feature of the NPCs in Phantasmat that I couldn’t say too much about without giving spoilers. Well, Crucible Peak does the same thing (and I still don’t want to give any spoilers). And, on reflection, I think it’s even better second time round! The NPCs are given more detail in Crucible Peak – they’re given names, for instance, and a slightly more developed backstory. My favourite of these was Schultz, whose story went from vaguely HOPA-creepy to incredibly moving in just one cutscene. Nevertheless, there are some slightly odd moments – the development of Otto’s accent is just strange, and I don’t think the voice acting is at its best here. I can’t pretend that the motivations of all the NPCs makes sense, but a lot less suspension of disbelief is required than with some games.

As I played the CE for this one, there was some bonus content. The main attraction is, as ever, a bonus chapter. But this turned out to be a disappointing. As with Phantasmat, the bonus game is an epilogue chapter that feels a little bit tagged on. It adds nothing new or different to the story, and simply gives you another half an hour of gameplay. Other bonus features include concept art, soundtrack and achievements. There are also replays on HOGs, Match-3s and mini-games, as well as achievements. The game does offer one unusual bonus feature – character profiles for each of the NPCs. These profiles flesh out some of the backstory you discover in the game, as well as offering some little extra details. This quirky little feature adds to the overall feeling that Crucible Peak is developing its NPCs in a bit more detail than Phantasmat.

So, overall, I did enjoy this one, and I spent a happy 5 hours or so completing it. I feel like I enjoyed Phantasmat more, but I wonder if that’s because it had a real novelty value to it. Perhaps I would have like Crucible Peak more if I hadn’t been constantly comparing it to the first game! Nevertheless, I’m definitely liking this series, and I think it’s quite likely I’ll be playing the third Phantasmat title before too long.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Codeminion
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 6th January 2011
Platform: PC

I had a couple of game credits and a bit of spare time, so I thought I’d try out a game series I’ve not played before: Phantasmat. I saw the most recent title (Remains of Buried Memories) listed on Big Fish Games, but it seemed to have mixed reviews. I know this sounds weird, but it was the negative reviews of Remains of Buried Memories that convinced me to try the series. Bear with me on this… A number of the bad reviews of Remains of Buried Memories were from people who were comparing the new game (unfavourably) to earlier instalments of the series. These reviews were so effusive about the early titles, they convinced me to give them a try. I’ve been looking for a new series to replace Mystery Case Files in my affections, after all.

So I started with the first game, Phantasmat, which was developed by Codeminion (later titles were developed by other companies). And I’ll say up front, this is going to be a positive review. I really liked this one!

The game begins – like so many others – with your character driving down a dark and rainy road. And would you believe it? You crash your car and end up in a strangely deserted town. This is fairly typical HOPA stuff, but it’s done very well here. You’re quickly introduced to one of the non-player characters (more on these characters shortly), who directs you to the local hotel – which is ominously named The Drowned Dead Hotel. You’re advised to ask for help and use the phone only – apparently this is not a good place to stay the night. However, when you enter the Drowned Dead, the hotel’s owner (another NPC) tells you the power’s down, the phone’s not working, and you’re going to have to help fix things.

And so the story unfolds… your overall objective is pretty straightforward. You just want to leave. Each step of the game is supposed to move you closer to this goal, but every time you solve one puzzle, you’re thwarted in the next step. This forces you into a secondary objective, which is to solve the mystery of the abandoned town and its curious remaining inhabitants. Again, this is fairly standard HOPA (one might almost say clichéd), but the storytelling in this one is really good. It’s a compellingly creepy story, which unfolds through some interesting techniques.

The game’s design is pure Gothic-y HOPA. It’s dark and creepy, with some detailed settings and scenes. The colour palette is dark, but not too dark to find hidden objects in the HOGs or inventory items scattered around the scenes. NPCs are illustrated, though not fully animated, but there’s nothing cartoonish about them (there’s also a kind of cool aspect to the illustration of these characters, but I can’t tell you what it is without spoilers!). There are also a number of cutscenes – again, illustrated but not fully animated – that are really well-integrated into the gameplay. The game makes interesting use of the cutscenes, so although there are a fair number of these scenes (and also breaks for dialogue with NPCs), they’re not unwelcome interruptions.

Another aspect of the design I enjoyed was the soundtrack. While it doesn’t quite hit the dizzy heights of the Ravenhearst music (what does?), it’s really good, with a number of distinct, atmospheric themes that vary throughout the gameplay and don’t loop too frequently.

So, on to the gameplay itself… this is also well-done. Phantasmat is absolutely a HOPA, so there are no surprises with gameplay. It’s point-and-click, move between scenes, pick stuff up, use stuff from your inventory, play HOGs and mini-games. However, this is a great example of how less is most definitely more in these games. There are no morphing objects, no collectibles, no jump map and no ‘plus items’ – all of which can be a tad distracting if you’re trying to immerse yourself in the story. The gameplay here is also intuitive and logical – you look for objects that are directly related to your overall objectives, and use items from your inventory in common-sense ways (often, though not always, shortly after finding them).

One detail of gameplay that I enjoyed was the way HOGs were integrated into the overall story. There are three difficulty levels in this one (but no Custom option, sadly), and I played Advanced (slow recharge on Hint and Skip, misclick penalties, limited black bar tips). I had assumed that this difficulty option would not include sparkle indicators on HOGs, so was initially disappointed to see the ol’ sparkles appear almost immediately. However, I came to really like the sparkle indicators in this one – and I’ll try and explain why. Quite often, the sparkles appear after you’ve entered the scene, sometimes even after you’ve interacted with other items/NPCs within the scene. So, for instance, you talk to someone, and then realize that you’re going to need a screwdriver. Suddenly, there’s a sparkle to your left, and you click to have a rummage through a pile of stuff. Sure enough, you find a screwdriver. It’s as though you’ve spotted something out of the corner of your eye and gone to take a closer look. This is a great touch, which integrates the HOGs into the very intuitive gameplay and keeps you fully immersed in the storyline. While the HOGs are junk piles, they do make sense in context.

However, if you really don’t want to play all the HOGs – and the game is heavier on these than on mini-games (of which there are only a few) – then you can switch to a Match-3 game instead. I tried this a couple of times, and while they were beautifully designed, they seemed to take a lot longer to complete than the HOG itself. And, of course, they do draw you out of the story a bit.

Now, if you’ve read any of my other HOPA reviews this year, you’ll know I can sometimes have strong feelings about NPCs in these games. So, it might come as a bit of a surprise that I was more than happy with the fact that Phantasmat involved sustained and repeated interactions with three NPCs. In fact the story is essentially about your interactions with these characters.

The first you meet is a young woman, who instructs you to go to the hotel but tells you it’s a dodgy place. As I’ve said about some of the other features here, this is fairly standard fare. But there’s something quite sophisticated and stylish about the way you interact with the NPCs in Phantasmat (there’s two more after the young woman – the creepy hotel owner and a weird old woman who lives in one of the rooms). Yes, they do have that HOPA habit of telling you that something needs to be fixed, and then standing back while you do all the work. But there’s a reason behind this, which becomes clear as the game progresses. There are some really nice touches in the way the interactions work in Phantasmat. Although the dialogue scenes are standard – though nicely done, with no irritating voices – the effects of the interactions are… interesting. (It would be unfair of me to say too much more, as I don’t want to spoiler any of the game’s little surprises.)

I played the CE on this one, so there were a few extras. There’s a bonus chapter, which is an immediate epilogue to the story. I wasn’t blown away by this, as it doesn’t really add anything to the story (and, in some ways, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense given the main game’s ending). But it’s a little bit of extra gameplay (about half an hour’s worth), which is nice.

The game also has achievements, replays on HOGs and mini-games, and a chance to have another go/a first go at the Match-3 games. This last feature could easily suck you in for a few hours!

I’m trying to put my finger on what I enjoyed so much about Phantasmat. It’s certainly stylish and atmospheric, but no more so than some other titles. The gameplay is straightforward and intuitive - though there's a bit of back-and-forth throughout - and just the right level of diffculty for me (I hardly used Hint at all, but I didn't find things too easy). But it really is a story-driven game, and that story is developed using some neat techniques that I haven’t seen before. Ultimately, I play HOPAs to immerse myself and switch off from everything else – Phantasmat was definitely one to lose yourself in, and I’m looking forward to exploring the other titles in the series. I wouldn’t say it’s replaced Mystery Case Files in my affections, but to be honest I don’t think anything ever will.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Game Review: Dreadful Tales: The Space Between Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Entertainment
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 3rd January 2019
Platform: PC

I had a couple of game credits to spend on Big Fish, so I thought I’d take a chance on a series I hadn’t heard of before. The Space Between looked like pretty standard haunted house stuff, and the reviews were good. Turns out, the reason I hadn’t heard of the series before is that this is the first Dreadful Tales title by Eipix. But the game’s publicity – and a couple of little in-game hints – definitely appears to be suggesting there’ll be further titles in the series. And if The Space Between is an indication, I’ll probably be giving them a go.

The Space Between is a bit unusual for a HOPA, because it has a framing narrative, rather than a straightforward intro scene. And it quickly becomes clear that the first-person perspective in the frame story isn’t the first-person player-character of the game. (It’s never quite made clear who the first-person character in the frame story actually is.) The game begins in a curiosity shop, and the PC is shown a strange box by the shopkeeper. He begins to explain the story behind the box… and the game begins…

The main game is the shopkeeper’s story – you become the characters in his tale. This is a pretty cool device, and not one I’ve come across before in a HOPA. As I’ve said, the story is a haunted house one – with little echoes of Amityville: Mark and Martha Spencer have bought a house (unseen) to ‘flip’. It’s falling to pieces and filled with piles of junk (handy!), as well as being miles from anywhere. Within minutes of the Spencers arriving, bad things start to happen. The ‘bad things’ are pretty much as you might expect, though there are some nicely off-beat touches to the backstory that I enjoyed.

The game’s design is fairly characteristic Eipix stuff – it’s dark and atmospheric, with some well-detailed scenes and animations. The music fits well with this overall design. While there aren’t any real surprises design-wise here, there are some carefully rendered details (particularly when you find evidence of the house’s former occupants in the form of documents and newspaper clippings). It’s a pretty stylish game with some great artwork – if I have one criticism it’s that (unusually for me) I found some of the scenes too dark, and I really struggled to make out the morphing objects and collectibles. I don’t normally have a problem with this, so I think the design is particularly dark here.

The frame story is one unusual feature of The Space Between, but there are a couple of other surprises in store. When the main game begins, you play as Martha – so, the usual female-character-saves-the-male schtick. However, there’s something unexpected around the corner. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler… in The Space Between, you switch player-characters at various points in the game. So, although you start out playing Martha, you will at times also be playing Mark. I really liked this twist, and at one point in particular it leant a properly cinematic feel to the game. (There is another fun surprise to the gameplay – quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a HOPA before – but I know revealing that would be a spoiler!)

This is a HOPA, so gameplay is mostly point-and-click movements from one screen to another. There are different difficulty levels, including a Custom option (yay!), and Hint and Skip are available. There’s also an interactive jump map, though I didn’t use this. HOGs in this game are mostly junk piles – but at least there’s a reason for this – but there are also some variants with silhouettes, assembling an item, and one very very creepy ‘find the pictures in the storybook’ puzzle. There are also mini-games here, which are fun but not too tricky, and there are also some in-game tasks (like climbing walls and hitting targets) that give a bit of variation to gameplay. None of the puzzles or tasks feels impossible, but they’re pleasantly challenging. I didn’t use Skip for any of them (yay!).

However, while the HOGs and mini-games were enjoyable, the game does suffer from the perennial problem of illogical and counter-intuitive gameplay as you move between the screens. It’s not always apparent what you have to do next, and some items in the inventory are used in incongruous ways. This is something I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, because it is really frustrating to have to use Hint just to find out how to use everyday inventory objects. It’s also annoying to have to run back and forth between rooms, over and over again, to see if there’s anything new to do. I much prefer games to have clear objectives for each stage and, if possible, to attempt a scenario that’s vaguely plausible.

Once again, I seem to also have a gripe about characters! This is becoming a recurring theme! In The Space Between, you begin playing as Martha. She’s a typical HOPA player-character – running around, finding things, doing puzzles and generally getting stuff done while Mark (the NPC at this point) stands around having a good think. If you’ve read my previous game reviews, you’ll know that I hate it when NPCs send you to find/do something, while they just stand around ‘keeping an eye on things’. There are plenty of moments like this in The Space Between – at one point, Martha has to visit almost every scene in the house, hunting down items and discovering evidence to explain what’s going on, while Mark stands next to a door, claiming he can’t get it open.

Of course, all this changes when you switch to playing as Mark. Except… it doesn’t quite. I had high hopes for Mark. You get a little bit of his backstory revealed as you’re playing as Martha: Mark’s a horror novelist suffering from writer’s block. This doesn’t really go anywhere though, and it doesn’t add much to his character apart from some light moaning about not having written anything lately. You see, it turns out that Mark is almost as useless when he’s a player-character as when he’s an NPC. The ‘Mark’ sections of the game are characterized by internal dialogue (whining) and catastrophic mistakes. I was quite pleased to switch back to being Martha again!

I played the Collector’s Edition, which has a bonus chapter. This is a prequel chapter, and you play as a different character, which fleshes out one of the bits of evidence you find in the main game. It’s not a long chapter, and there aren’t many surprises, but it’s a bit of decent extra gameplay that draws on one of the more grisly scenes from the main game. As well as the bonus chapter, the CE offers achievements, morphing objects and two different sets of collectibles (moths and cassettes). As I’ve said, I struggled with the morphing objects and collectibles in this one. Fortunately, there are replay scenes for all of these, so I did manage to get the cassettes after I’d finished the game (which gives you a neat little endgame treat). Finding the moths gives you a code for a ‘souvenir room’, but I didn’t have the enthusiasm for trawling back through all the scenes to get this. I’m not really sure what the point of the morphing objects was, aside from the fact that they are pretty much de rigueur for HOPAs now. The final extras in the CE – aside from downloadable artwork, videos and music – are replays on the HOGs and mini-games, which is always useful if you’re after all the achievements.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Space Between. Despite some illogical gameplay and a bit of an irritating character, there are some nice unexpected touches here that make the game stand out. If Eipix are planning to make Dreadful Tales into a series, I’ll definitely be checking out the next title.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Game Review: Mystery Trackers: Raincliff (replay)

Developer: Elephant Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 5 May 2011
Platform: PC

I’ve played a few Mystery Trackers games. It’s not a bad series, but it’s always felt a little bit like the poor cousin of Mystery Case Files. I’ve enjoyed some of the titles, including Raincliff (the first one I played). Generally, though, Mystery Trackers titles tend to have a lot of potential story-wise, but never quite develop it fully. That said, I randomly felt like replaying Raincliff the other night – I think this was the third or fourth time I’ve played it.

In all the Mystery Trackers games I’ve got, you play as a detective (very similar to Mystery Case Files in that respect). Raincliff begins with a report of some missing people and a brief intro scene linking them to the eponymous town. The game itself begins in an abandoned snowy town street, with the usual locked shop doors and junk-filled car to be examined.

As you search for clues, you discover hints about the town’s fate, but also quickly encounter one of the missing students. Although most of the people in the town have fled, there’s something stalking the streets, and it’s this unseen foe who is (probably) responsible for the disappearance of the students (who are actually paranormal investigators). There are a few jump scares and animated cut scenes that impede your progress, revealing that the unseen foe really is ‘unseen’ – something invisible is trying to stop you from finding the students.

As I say, the Mystery Trackers games always have real potential, and the story that begins to unfold in Raincliff is certainly intriguing. There’s the invisible foe, of course, and also the discovery of a soporific flower that has been used to incapacitate the students. Later on – much later on – in the game, you start to find information that reveals some backstory to the invisible enemy, and another invisible person with a different agenda makes their presence known. However, the storyline never quite comes together, and you’re left with quite a few unanswered questions and logic leaps that are hard to overcome. (There is a sequel, Raincliff’s Phantoms, that expands a little on the background.) I’ve played the game a few times now, and I’m still not exactly sure why the students were abducted or why everything is frozen.

I will say that Raincliff definitely looks great, and there are some good music loops that add to the atmosphere in places (though there are only a couple of these and so there’s no variation in the music when you reach different parts of the game). Some of the details are really nicely done, and the animation is smooth – which is always a plus when gameplay is going to be abruptly interrupted by cutscenes! It is a stylishly designed game – certainly rivalling some of the Mystery Case Files titles in that respect – and the setting is certainly atmospheric.

In terms of gameplay, Raincliff is pretty standard HOPA stuff. You move between a number of scenes, gradually unlocking more and more landscape as you go. There are HOGs and mini-games throughout, and lots of collecting multiple puzzle parts to open locks. There are three difficulty modes (but no Custom option), and Hint and Skip. However, the gameplay is rather frustrating, and it gets a little tedious towards the end. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in this one – you never really ‘finish’ with a scene, so even towards the endgame you still have to go back to where you started at times. There’s no jump map, so you really do have to click back-and-forth through the same screens many times.

A couple of reviewers have commented on the fact that you sometimes add items to your inventory that won’t be needed until you reach a much later screen. I don’t mind that so much – though you do run the risk of forgetting what’s in your inventory at times. What does grate on me is the illogical and counter-intuitive use some inventory items are put to. Using a stick of butter to grease a rusty wheel or a mobile phone to light a dark space is pretty annoying, but the worst example is undoubtedly the use to which you put a can of petrol. You’re standing right next to an abandoned car, but it turns out you’re supposed to pour the petrol on some ice, then set it alight, in order to get an item that’s frozen underneath. I had to use Hint way more times than I like, despite having played before.

Your player-character in this one is the generic detective – again, pretty standard stuff. In some of the other games, there’s a little bit more detail as to what Mystery Trackers actually are, but that’s absent here (it is, after all, only the second instalment of the series). You are also flying solo in this game – in the next Mystery Trackers title, you acquire an animal helper, namely a dog called Elf. Animal helpers are rather divisive for HOPA fans (and I have really mixed feelings about them), so I’m not going to talk about Elf unless I play another Mystery Trackers game this year.

When it comes to non-player characters, Raincliff does one thing really well, and one thing really weirdly. The thing it does well: Because the foes in this game are invisible, and the victims are unconscious, there is no direct interaction with any NPCs. So, there’s no animated dialogue and no odd scenes where an NPC tells you to do something and then just stands around in the background (which I hate – I’m looking at you, Gregory Logain). Later in the game, you do get helpful notes from an NPC, but this sort of makes sense in context. But then… the thing it does weirdly: The whole point of the game is to rescue a group of NPCs. As you approach the endgame, you are finally able to free the students and get them ready to escape. Thing is, they’re still unconscious. So… you just pick them up and add them one-by-one to your inventory with the other items! I mean, what does that imply? That you’re just wandering around an abandoned with a flare gun, a chainsaw and a young man strapped to your back?? This is definitely one of the stranger bits of gameplay here.

I have the Standard Edition of this game, so there’s no bonus content. I believe the Collector’s Edition has some extra gameplay, but there are no collectibles or morphing objects in either edition. The game doesn’t have achievements, and there are no replays on HOGs or mini-games after you’ve finished. There is a sequel though, which I might replay later in the year (just for comparison).

Overall, I like the potential of Raincliff, but it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Illogical and counter-intuitive gameplay makes it a bit of slog towards the end. Still, it’s a game I’ve come back to a few times so it must be doing something right!

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Game Review: Mystery Case Files: The Countess Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Entertainment
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 21st November 2018
Platform: PC

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am a big fan of the Mystery Case Files series. Or rather, I’m a big fan of the Ravenhearst arc within the MCF series – though I enjoyed the two Dire Grove games, and I like going back to Huntsville occasionally for something lighter. I’m not quite at the stage of writing Charles Dalimar fan fic, but I will admit to getting really quite invested in the Ravenhearst story. My favourite Mystery Case Files games are Fate’s Carnival (for the mind-boggling detail and complexity of the gameplay) and Escape from Ravenhearst (which is a truly bizarre and disturbing experience, even if it does have some problems when it comes to gameplay). It’s fair to say that no HOPAs have come close to those two games for me, though I live in hope.

Nevertheless, Mystery Case Files has been something of a disappointment for me since Dire Grove, Sacred Grove – and since Eipix took over the development. I’m still hoping that we can just do a Highlander 2 on Key to Ravenhearst and Ravenhearst Unlocked, because these were just terrible (and inconsistent) instalments of the story. Broken Hour and The Black Veil (non-Ravenhearst games) were okay, but they lacked the magic of the earlier games. I decided to give Mystery Case Files: The Countess a try, since I can’t quite let go of my Master Detective badge yet. I knew it wasn’t going to be another Fate’s Carnival, but I thought it might at least be better than Ravenhearst Unlocked! And I was right… The Countess is somewhere in between.

You play – once again – as a Master Detective, though it’s not clear whether you’re the same detective who had the run-ins with Charles Dalimar and his dad. The game begins with a short intro scene, setting up a story about a creepy mirror and the thing that lives inside it. You then hear a message from the queen (on a tape recorder this time, not the phone) giving you your mission. Lady Eleanor Coddington has disappeared while renovating her ancestral estate, once the home of children’s author Gloria Coddington (Eleanor’s grandmother, you’re told). When you arrive at the estate, it’s closed off, crumbling and massively creepy (as with most of the Mystery Case Files games, this one goes for the Gothic aesthetic).

Early on in the game (and highlighted in the intro scene), you discover that a large black mirror has some significance, and that there is a supernatural creature residing within it who is most likely responsible for the dark goings-on. Your main objective is to find and rescue Eleanor, but this is wrapped up in a quest to uncover the truth about Gloria, the mirror and the sinister force at work in the manor. To be honest, it’s not the most original storyline for a HOPA, and there are few twists or surprises as things unfold. Rescue the girl, defeat the demon, leave the house.

This is a haunted house game, and it’s very much in the expected style. The colour palette is dark, though I didn’t find scenes too dark to identify objects. As with the other Eipix MCF games, there are some great bits of illustration here – the creature in the mirror is particularly well-done – but there are some fairly bland elements too. NPCs are illustrated but not always fully animated, though they are a big step up from the cartoonish characters in Key to Ravenhearst and Ravenhearst Unlocked. The cutscenes are well done and integrated into the gameplay without being too jarring. There’s also a nice scene in a ballroom that reminded me a bit of Escape from Ravenhearst – though it’s much less unsettling (obvs).

In terms of design though, there were a couple of things that frustrated me as a Mystery Case Files fan. I missed the visual nods to other games in the series (unless I didn’t spot them first time round) – a Madame Fate bobblehead here, a 13th Skull decoration there. The music also annoyed me. It’s almost the Mystery Case Files theme (I was going to say ‘iconic’ theme, but I’m not sure the games are well-enough known for me to make that claim), but the refrain is never quite finished. Key to Ravenhearst/Ravenhearst Unlocked played the same trick – the first few notes are played, but it’s not quite the full theme. If I wasn’t expecting my beloved MCF theme, I would’ve said that the music was good – it’s atmospheric and evocative, and it doesn’t loop too much. In a way, the music is illustrative of the game as a whole… it’s almost recognizable as Mystery Case Files, but stops just short of being satisfying.

This is a fairly straightforward HOPA – you move from room to room, putting stuff in your inventory, using stuff from your inventory, and finding mini-games and HOGs as you go. There are some ‘plus items’ (where you have to do something or add something to an item in your inventory), which some people like but I find a bit irritating to be honest. There’s also an interactive jump map in the game. I try and avoid using jump maps – it draws you out of the story if you start teleporting between rooms – but this means that I end up having a bit of back and forth at times. However, The Countess does have another feature that I do like, and that’s the closing off of rooms after you’ve finished a chapter. That’s done reasonably seamlessly here – something happens within the story that makes it plausibly impossible for you to return to your previous location.

There’s a range of mini-games here, some of which are really tricky. I played on Custom difficulty mode (and I do like games where you can customize difficulty), so I had a slow recharge on Hint and Skip. I did still have to use both though, as some of the mini-games were really hard (and some needed lots of fiddly clicking, which I don’t enjoy). There are some almost ‘Super Puzzles’ here – where you have to complete a series of small puzzles in order – but they’re a shadow of Fate’s Carnival’s Rube Goldberg games.

Puzzles aside, I found the gameplay a bit frustrating. The progression from one task to the next wasn’t always logical – I felt like I was mostly wandering in and out of rooms checking them out, rather than consistently searching for Eleanor (who I occasionally forgot all about). Items from the inventory weren’t always used in a logical way either. Often, the what, why and where were unclear, and I had to resort to guesswork and random tries. Towards the end of the game – and I don’t know if this was just because I was tired – I found it less and less obvious what I had to do next, and so I reluctantly resorted to Hint (I even used the jump map a couple of times – shock, horror!).

Obviously, I’m tempted to say that the characters are also a shadow of former instalments. That probably wouldn’t be fair though, as the Ravenhearst arc is a bit of an outlier when it comes to HOPA characters – no game is ever going to come close to creating a character like Charles Dalimar. The Countess gives us some standard fare: the first-person PC is an undifferentiated Master Detective, and the adversary is a demonic creature that we see, but don’t really interact with. There are a couple of other NPCs, with whom you have a little bit of interaction, but most of the characters’ backstory is revealed through cutscenes. An interesting storyline emerges about one of the characters (which isn’t too difficult to guess, but apparently comes as a surprise within the game), which does add a little bit of depth to the story. However, I found it difficult to get really invested in the characters.

I played the CE for this one, and there were a few extras with it. There’s a bonus chapter – which, to be honest, left me a little confused by its ending (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve played it). The CE also has collectibles – the now-ubiquitous but totally pointless morphing objects, and mirror shards – but there’s no endgame with these collectibles, so sadly nothing happens if you get all the pieces of the mirror. There are, however, achievements – and the CE has replays on the HOGs and mini-games, so you can make sure you’ve achieved all you want from a single play-through.

Overall, this is a decent game. On Custom difficulty (no sparkle-indicators, slow recharge on Hint and Skip, minimal black bar instructions), it took me just over six hours to play through. I did find the illogical progression frustrating towards the end, and the story didn’t massively enthuse me, but I probably will play this one again at some point. The big problem is that, while the game is alright if you treat it as a standalone, it is a Mystery Case Files game. But it’s just not Ravenhearst.