Artifex Mundi return after one of their longer hiatuses – there hasn’t been an Xbox hidden object game since May, five months ago – and this time it’s a sequel to 9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Point. Clumsily titled 9 Clues 2: The Ward, it carries on the 9 Clues formula. Instead of campy sorcerers stealing damsels in distress, the 9 Clues series attempts a more horrific tone. Things are less Princess Bride, more Ringu.
Artifex also like each of their numbered series to have a signature move, and it’s no different with 9 Clues. You are a private investigator, and that means occasionally stumbling across crime scenes. Something terrible has happened, and your task is to identify everything that is out of place, from a tumbled chair to a ripped curtain. Once you’ve completed this cousin to a spot-the-difference, you have to sequence them: how did the crime develop?
As signatures go, it’s memorable but – as with 9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Point – it’s rather leaden as a game mechanic goes. Artifex Mundi are so scared that these sequences will prove difficult that they wrap them up in cotton wool and make them challenge-free. The cursor helpfully changes state whenever you hover over a disturbance in a crime scene, and the evidence is helpfully colour-coded and framed, so working out the sequence is just a case of lining them up in gradient order. These signature moments often make us feel like an old lady being helped across the road.
There is no point coming to an Artifex Mundi hidden object game for the story, and the same is true here. It feels like two writers fought over whether 9 Clues 2: The Ward. One thought it should have been an intense Japanese horror, while the other one wanted to make an overblown, Joel Schumacher Batman movie, with the Sandman from Arkham Asylum as the main character. These two writers both get their way, and it shows.
You are a young detective in the 1950s, who receives a call from a troubled therapist at the Mnemosyne Asylum. You and your partner Owen make your way to the Asylum, only to be greeted by the same therapist jumping out of the window as you arrive, which is no way to make an entrance. As is the case with most asylums in modern media, the orderlies are suspicious and mean, and the inmates are worried. A fedora’d villain with Wolverine claws is stalking the asylum, and there’s whispers of a past wrong that they are avenging.
It’s so pulpy that it’s become apple juice. Various film and TV references are employed liberally. Most noticeably, the dialogue and voice acting is creaky as a Resident Evil door. Owen is painfully over-cockneyed, and a nurse has a monotone drawl that syphons life energy out of our body every time she talks. People are dying all over the shop, and the script barely registers the fact. Characters sigh and get on with what they’re doing, and nobody bothers to call the police or, you know, clean up a bit. Even in Artifex Mundi terms, the story and the people who perform within it are distracting.
What Artifex fans really want are the puzzles, hidden object scenes and the low-level graphic adventuring that form one-hundred percent of their output. They’re here and, outside of the naff CSI sequences mentioned earlier, are of a decent standard.
Unusually for the genre, there’s no item that is used on another item, so you don’t have to go trawling your inventory for combinations. We found it strangely refreshing. Our focus was solely on the scenes in front of us, and it gave everything a degree of simplicity, without making things too easy. There’s the odd moment where we found items that clearly would have been useful – hammers and knives are surprisingly common in this asylum – but couldn’t pick them up. Otherwise, the point-and-click stuff was logical and satisfying.
Hidden object scenes were as painterly and effective as usual. 9 Clues 2: The Ward likes to return to old tableaux, which we’re a fan of. It means you can hoover up the remaining items in a painting that you know like the back of your hand – if your hand was covered in detritus. There’s a few items that make no sense at all (what are ‘kins’ when they’re at home?), but generally these sequences are as good as you’d expect from the publisher, if not better.
Minigames are sparse, too, which was to our tastes. While it’s nice to have the pace broken by a sliding puzzle, some hidden object games whack you round the head with them, like you were playing a Professor Layton title. Here, they are employed sparingly, and they were familiar and simple enough for us to unlock the achievement for never skipping one. If a frictionless playthrough is what you’re after, 9 Clues 2: The Ward offers it, and an easy 1000G for one playthrough to boot.
All in all, 9 Clues 2: The Ward is a mid-tier hidden object game. If you’ve already fallen into the Artifex web, and wait for each release with slobber around your chin and a magnifying glass in your hand, then 9 Clues 2: The Ward will not disappoint. It does the hidden object basics with aplomb, and – at least to our tastes – has the right mix of hidden objecting, puzzles and exploration.
But the flaws of most Artifex Mundi games are all the more glaring here. The story and voice acting here are bargain basement, and the attempts at offering something new, in the form of crime-scene investigations, are about as challenging as rolling out bed in the morning. They may as well not be there.
Hidden object loyalists will enjoy their time with 9 Clues 2: The Ward. Anyone else will wonder how something so hammy and cliched could wind up on the Xbox Store.
You can buy 9 Clues 2: The Ward from the Xbox Store