Buff the magnifying glasses and clear the notebooks, it’s hidden object time!
The ever-prolific Artifex Mundi are here with their latest blend of adventuring and item-rummaging. This time round, it’s the beginning of a ‘new’ series, something of a rare occurrence for the Mundi. But it’s ‘new’ in inverted commas, as this was a game originally released on PC way back in 2013, when Thor only had one movie out, and Lance Armstrong hadn’t admitted to doping yet.
Regardless, we invite the series onto Xbox with open arms. We’re welcoming because – unlike most Artifex Mundi games – it’s trying something new. It’s not suddenly going to pivot to become a karting game, but it does attempt to convey the feelings of being a detective, surveying crime scenes rather than chests full of trash. For a publisher and set of games that are hopelessly conservative, afraid to make the slightest change, it’s pretty big.
You wouldn’t know that 9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Creek is trying anything new from its opening moments, though. It starts as virtually every Artifex game does, with a captured damsel sending you a note moments before her disappearance, and you packing your bags to save her. Paranormal shenanigans are going on, and an evil necromancer seems to be behind it. It’s bizarre that Artifex rarely deviates from this formula, yet here we are again.
But on arrival in the sleepy town of Serpent Creek, there is a slight shift in tone. Most of the Artifex games opt for a campy, moustache-twirling tone so that the horror stays lightweight. But 9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Creek is on the darker side, playing its horror (mostly) straight, and creating some reasonably palpable tension. Snake-eyed horrors slither in and out of rooms, and it’s at least pushing a 12, when most hidden object games stay resolutely in PG territory. It’s a welcome tonal shift, mostly because it’s alien territory for this kind of game.
9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Creek shows its age in its artwork, though. The hidden object tableaux in Artifex Mundi games tend to be uniformly detailed and painterly, but here they don’t quite meet the quality bar. The legibility is often off, with items in the hidden object scenes being hard to distinguish. More noticeable are the characters and their animations, which are far from the publisher’s best work. There’s a sketchy, thick-brushed look to them all, and we weren’t completely taken with them.
Much of what makes up 9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Creek is conventional, if you’ve played a similar hidden object game. There is the usual graphic adventure stuff, as you collect items in your inventory and begin to use them on locations in the environment. If there’s a quirk, it’s that there are no in-inventory interactions, which is otherwise extremely common in the wider series. You’re not constructing or fixing items in your backpack, and it’s about the only notable difference.
It’s the hidden objecting that is markedly different, though. Occasionally, the ‘9 Clues’ of the title comes into play, and you are given a hidden object scene, but without a menu of items to discover. Instead, you have to scan the picture for clues, which – in almost every instance – means signs of disturbance: a turned over chair, claw marks on the walls, that sort of thing. Find one of them and they will be ringed in red and their name gets added to the list of items, rather than removed from it.
It’s nice to see Artifex and developers G5 Entertainment deviating from the formula here, but it – unfortunately – doesn’t work in any satisfying way. It’s trivial, for one: the developers can’t help but handhold, changing the cursor whenever you’re hovering over a clue. It’s all too easy to fall into a rut of scanning the picture with your cursor to watch for a change, rather than play it properly. And it’s made more tempting by the scenes being murky and lacking in detail. When you’re scouting for the slightest of mud marks in a dark corner of the room, it’s just so much easier to do it with a spot of trial-and-error.
At the end of these sequences, you don’t get to do any deducing, either: the main character pieces together the evidence (often in a hilarious, ‘couldn’t possibly have worked that out’ way), rather than you contributing any of the sleuthing. It’s a missed opportunity: with some simple questions to prompt you to offer answers, these sections might have made you feel like a P.I., and deviated from the formula to boot. As it stands, it’s a glorified cutscene.
Everything else is paint-by-numbers. The other hidden object scenes are extremely simple, with far fewer interactions in them than the modern day releases. Everything is out in the open air, ready to be spotted. And the exploration is always on a tight-leash: you are never given more than a few scenes at a time, and the result is that you can often feel a bit railroaded towards an answer. In our humble opinion, the most effective hidden object games are the ones that have a bit of sprawl to them, encouraging you to remember a large roster of locations and potential puzzle solutions.
There are several entries in the positive and negative columns for 9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Creek. Having played every hidden object game on Xbox, we were chuffed to find a few experimentations: the slightly more hardcore horror tone was a breath of dingy air, and we at least appreciated the attempt to bring in some detective work, even if they didn’t quite work.
But there’s a longer list of negatives than there are positives. This is an older, mustier game from the Artifex Mundi archives, and it’s noticeable in the ropey art and the lack of some of the things we have taken for granted: namely a more sprawling sense of exploration, and more elaborate puzzles. It feels like it comes from an earlier time, when Artifex were less sure that an audience could overcome real challenges.
9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Creek is only for hidden object completionists, then, or for dabblers who want something a bit darker and seedier from their storylines.
You can buy 9 Clues: The Secret of Serpent Creek from the Xbox Store