We’ve been thinking about what it would take for an Artifex Mundi hidden object game, like Endless Fables: Shadow Within, to get a strong recommendation. I’m reasonably sure we’ve never rated one as high as a 4 or above, but there’s absolutely no reason why one couldn’t get there. You wouldn’t even have to deviate from the formula: the foundations of painterly artwork, engaging puzzles and hidden objecting are all there. Just spend more time on the narrative beyond ‘necromancer captures woman for a ritual and you have to stop them’, spruce the story up so it doesn’t get drab – maybe some humour, something that makes us think, or a genuine rugpull – and Bob’s your elven uncle.
But it never happens. And it doesn’t happen with Endless Fables: Shadow Within, either. Yet Artifex Mundi couldn’t care less, and they certainly don’t care a jot about critical reception. Their hidden object games live in a place of comfort and – they believe – it’s more about satisfying a hungry audience who want more of the same, rather than coming up with anything surprising.
So, with that in mind, we’re going to review Endless Fables: Shadow Within on its own, hidden object terms. How well does it nail the Artifex Mundi template? Out come our patented hidden object ‘Top Trumps’.
In the ‘Trashy Story’ category, we’d give it an average 3 out of 5. Things start well, actually: your antagonist for today is The Sandman, a demonic entity from the Other Realm. I love this guy: he’s a no-eyed deer (haha!), an eyeless dude in antlers, who could have rocked up from Pan’s Labyrinth. When he first arrived I was genuinely creeped out, the first time that an Artifex game has spooked me in any way. Nice.
But he’s the product of one of the most obvious twists in living memory. There’s something about Artifex Mundi games and older men: if there’s one hanging about, you can guarantee that they’ll do something nefarious. The rest of the story is a poster-child for their template. You are Pamela Cavendish, chasing after your abducted sister to stop a ritual that would mean The Sandman destroying the world. Eighty percent of Artifex Mundi games have this exact outline, and Endless Fables: Shadow Within isn’t going to undermine that (made up) statistic.
Let’s move onto the ‘Favourite Franchise’ category. If you’re new to the genre, you might not be aware that they’re broken up into storylines or franchises. There are Nightmares from the Deeps (our personal favourites), Family Mysteries, Eventides and more. They have little signatures, too, with Nightmares from The Deeps having a chest that you slowly unlock with Davy Jones’ coins, and Family Mysteries having climbing sections and some fantastic B-movie dialogue.
Endless Fables: Shadow Within gets a 2 out of 5 because it fails to have anything that you’d call a signature. Part of that is ‘Endless Fables’s fault, as it’s perhaps the most nondescript of the storylines. Each episode is disconnected, and they have no defining characteristics other than a love for fantasy worlds. They stray into similar territory to the Eventide games, but those games at least have a common thread of Slavic fables and a focus on alchemy. Here, it’s a generic sludge, and you’d be hard pressed to get excited about why they exist.
Which brings us to the ‘Cracking Artwork’ category, as Endless Fables claws back some ground. Sure, if you’re into world-building, it might make you throw up in your mouth a little: you’re hopping from realm-to-realm, and there’s nothing coherent about it. You’ll think you’re in a fantasy universe, and then you’re constructing a reasonably modern bicycle. There’s no real thread pulling you from world to world other than ‘The Sandman might be there’ or ‘someone who might help us is here’.
But the disjointedness means variety, and that’s welcome. You’re travelling to the world of the Fluffs, with their pink fluffy sheep and wasp-enemies. There’s a human town being raided by Ghostbusters-like dogs. And it wouldn’t be an Artifex game without jumping into a demonic lava world and a ghoulish, necromantic dimension. They’re all superbly painted, as usual, and everything is moving at a fair old clip. 4 out of 5, then, with a mark deducted for the thinnest of narrative threads that tie them all together.
We’ll give a 4 out of 5 to the ‘Comforting Puzzles’ category, too. Note the ‘Comforting’ rather than ‘Fiendish’. Long gone are the days when Artifex games would aim to be difficult. It’s more about engaging the grey matter occasionally, but not so much that you need to break from your immersion and use a Hint or look things up on a wiki. The minigames here are all drawn from the playbook, and none are new, but they’re also well made and engaging to toy with. We never hit a usability hiccup or difficulty spike, and we got to the end on Expert without really getting stuck.
There’s a tendency to use your inventory more than in other hidden object games. You’ll see the ‘+’ sign on roughly half of the items you pick up, so you’re carrying a lot of incomplete objects that need other items to fix. It works quite well, actually, and isn’t as frustrating as it sounds: you’re effectively carrying the puzzles around with you, rather than leaving them in the environment, and you’re given more items than average to make up for it.
The hidden object games, too, are more involved. If you know the genre, you should know that Endless Fables: Shadow Within sits on the ‘item manipulation’ end, where you have to open drawers, clear cobwebs and smash rocks with pickaxes before you can ‘spot’ the items in the scene. This can seem frustrating – you can’t just play Where’s Wally? from the start – but we enjoyed it. Once you understand what Shadow Within is doing, you enter a two-stage process where you’re tidying the room first, and taking items from it second.
Finally, there’s the ‘Anything New?’ category, which is whether it incrementally, in tiny, baby steps, does anything that progresses hidden object gaming, or at least makes it memorable. Well, it may not be much, but Endless Fables: Shadow Within is the first Artifex game to put collectibles and mid-game achievements into its bonus chapter. This is something that’s been coming for some time and makes a real difference. Bonus chapters have become the norm in the past couple of years, but they’ve always felt vestigial, as they haven’t carried over the collectibles (in this case, jigsaw pieces and dolls) from the main chapters. Here, they do, and it’s a welcome concession to achievement hunters and Xbox owners in particular.
Regardless, we will struggle to recall anything at all about Endless Fables: Shadow Within, so we give it a 3 out of 5 for ‘Anything New?’. That’s mostly down to how closely it hews to the Artifex template. In its puzzles and its story, it’s a perfect average of every hidden object game ever released. It could have been generated by an AI. We might hazily remember the Fluffs, some phallic, purple mushroom-people who have the game’s best moment – in the bonus chapter of all places – as you dress a sheep as a female wasp to distract a wasp guard. It’s tonally bonkers and might have a whiff of sexism to it, but it sticks in the memory. The rest of the game? Not so much.
‘More of the same’ will be music to some fans’ ears. Artifex Mundi hidden object games can be comfort-food, and there’s nothing new or knotty about Endless Fables: Shadow Within. Its story makes no sense, its universe is all over the place, and we’ve seen every puzzle and minigame countless times before – in Endless Fables games, no less. But it also ticks the requisite boxes with the keyword being ‘familiarity’. If you treat these games as a blanket to snuggle into, then this one is fluffier than most.
You can buy Endless Fables: Shadow Within for £12.49 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S