In the deluge of hidden object games that come out each year, there are a few that stand out. There’s the campy Nightmares from the Deep series, which puts a Pirates of the Caribbean spin on Lovecraft, and there’s the Eventide series, which leans on Slavic fables to create a fantasy world that’s not your traditional elves and goblins. But neither of them are a patch on Family Mysteries, and when a new installment comes out, we rub our hands with glee.
The Family Mysteries games, unlike any of the other Hidden Object series, bear little resemblance to each other. The first game, Poisonous Promises, was a crime-scene investigation in what felt like a telenovela, with evil twins and double-crosses. The second, Echoes of Tomorrow, was time-jumping sci-fi and felt like a soft-edged Terminator. And now we have Criminal Mindset, which is a good scientist-versus-mad scientist romp where you aim to neutralise a plot to create a mind control serum for the military.
If there are connections between them, aside from developers Brave Giant and publishers Artifex Mundi, it’s a near-future setting, some Doc. Brown-style gadgets, and plots that make zero sense when put under any kind of scrutiny. They are ridiculous, over-blown yarns with shoddy voice-acting, even shoddier animations, and more double-crosses than an evening playing Among Us.
It’s no more true than with Family Mysteries 3: Criminal Mindset. You play Dr. Nancy Bradford, a neuroscientist working in the field of mind control. But don’t worry, it’s good mind control, as the dogs you are testing on are well-fed and willing. Plus you plan to use it for the betterment of mankind by stripping addictions from people, which isn’t unethical at all. But, alas, the funding is drying up and, unless a benefactor arrives, you won’t get it over the finish line. In comes the Neurotech Group, a shady megacorp who offers a ten-million dollar grant if you come work for them, and obviously you agree. You can probably see where this is going.
In the background is a subplot about your parents, who died in a “mysterious car crash” (we’re not altogether sure what a “mysterious” car crash is), having worked with Professor David Webster, who is now the CEO of Neurotech Group. Again, you can probably see where that is heading.
There are a multitude of ways it doesn’t make sense. But picking holes in it is like picking holes in a sieve: it would be missing the point. Instead, what’s refreshing about Family Mysteries, and Criminal Mindset in particular, is it avoids the Artifex Mundi hidden object formula. There are no damsels in distress and ringwraiths as baddies. If you’re feeling a repetition when playing hidden object games, pick up Family Mysteries and you’ll be golden.
It’s not just in the story and setting, as Brave Giant are probably the best of the hidden object alumni at puzzles and hidden objecting. Most other hidden object titles veer from benignly easy – so much so that you don’t have to engage your brain at all – to stop-start in difficulty, with puzzles that beg to be skipped. Family Mysteries: Criminal Mindset sits smack-bang in the middle, and it feels just right.
The hidden object puzzles lean heavily on interacting with the environment before you ‘see’ the objects you want to find. Once you understand this is what Criminal Mindset wants you to do, you get into a two-step state where you clear up the environment first, and then play Where’s Wally to collect the listed items. It’s clear, intuitive and good fun, and there’s variety in the hidden object scenes. Some play out like graphic adventures, with you needing to use items on others, while others are scrapbooks, where you have to pick up parts of a picture to complete a bigger picture.
There are a couple of puzzles we disliked – sliding puzzles always get us, and we lost patience with a sokoban-style crate-pusher – but there’s a real variety to the ones on offer here, and they can be pretty taxing. We’re getting towards becoming hidden object veterans now, and there were puzzles we hadn’t encountered before, including two real highlights: a bomb cube that needed diffusing, with puzzles on each of its sides, and an escape room scenario where you have to find an exit while under the pressure of asphyxiation.
The art is standard for Artifex Mundi now: the landscapes and hidden object dioramas are pretty good, while the character animations are hilariously awful, matched only by the facial animations. Their faces gurn and warp, as someone uses a blending tool on Photoshop rather than any kind of conventional animation. There’s a hilarious scene where a character hulks out, injected with super serum (we’re not entirely clear how this connects to mind control), and it fails utterly. But it still made us laugh.
Don’t be under any illusion: while we have a lot of affection for Family Mysteries 3: Criminal Mindset, it’s the same affection we have for Nicolas Cage movies. The craft here is particularly poor in places. There’s a twist that we realised in retrospect, so we can only assume that the game failed to actually reveal it. The item interactions have an annoying habit of requiring you to ‘zoom in’ before you can use them – a shovel needs to be extended, a charm needs to be taken off a bracelet – when you could have merrily used them without that zoom-in, and you just want to get on with things. Generally, the dialogue, plot, animations and voice-acting wouldn’t have been good enough for an Uwe Boll movie, and that’s saying something.
But tune into the B-movie stylings of Family Mysteries 3: Criminal Mindset, and you have a hidden object game that dares to be fun. It pushes back on the Artifex Mundi template, and while it doesn’t do anything you’d classify as unexpected, it at least makes you snort and chuckle as it goes through those motions. There’s a flow to the puzzles, but not at the expense of challenge, and you’ll arrive at its multiple endings with something approaching satisfaction. Artifex Mundi take note: this is how we’d like hidden object games in the future. Feel welcome to chuck more of them Brave Giant’s way.
You can buy Family Mysteries 3: Criminal Mindset for £12.49 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S