Nobody likes a colon more than a hidden object game (no, not like that), and we’re duly presented with one in Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises. Currently on its third installment on the PC, Artifex Mundi has chosen to port this, the first in the series, for us lucky Xboxers.
If you’ve dabbled in hidden object games, Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises veers away from those you may have played. Instead of the horror, fantasy and steampunk examples we tend to see on our side of the platform divide, Artifex Mundi have chosen a crime-scene investigation theme, which makes for a refreshing difference. You’re cast as a detective, investigating a body that has washed up on a Miami shore, and it’s bloated with deadly poison. It’s not ruining anything to know that this is a murder, and it’s probably connected to a boat that exploded offshore earlier that night.
There’s a good reason that Miami was chosen for the location, as there are hefty sloshes of CSI: Miami and Miami Vice in the cocktail. There’s chest hair, sunglasses, martinis and luxurious yachts aplenty, and everyone looks glamorous and attractive (although, curiously, many of the main characters look alike, which never surfaces to be part of the plot).
Transposing the hidden object genre to a sunkissed police procedural makes a lot of sense. Crime scene investigation is probably the closest the real-world has to hidden object-finding, and a criminal case is a perfect housing for a sequence of puzzles. But while it works well in theory, the hidden object genre has some inherent oddities that make the mix bizarre. The object scenes, by nature, need to be messy and full of unrelated items to make the object-hunting challenging. But when that object scene is a crime scene, and it’s full of knives, guns and harpoons, with your detective choosing to ignore them as possible evidence, the immersion starts to wobble.
But that might be beside the point. The tone isn’t completely serious (whether or not that’s intentional is up for debate), and it makes the weirdness of the crime scenes somewhat moot. One-part kitschy melodrama, and two-parts Police Squad, the tonal wrapper is appropriate for a plot that has telegraphed twists and turns, and loopholes that you could sail a catamaran through. It’s best to give you an example: I was the victim of a failed drowning. There was no way for the killer to know that I was still alive, yet somehow he had still prepared and paid for a kidnapper to wait at the shore as I emerged from the sea. There’s foresight for you (and a mixed message about whether I’m better alive or dead. Make your mind up mate!).
These moments are littered throughout FM:PP. Two henchmen stand under a girder that has been precariously hoisted on a rope. A bad guy manages to avoid a gassing because he happens to stow a gas mask in his Gucci suit. Some magnets are needed to get nails from a drain: luckily, the bad guy had a delivery of magnets just that morning.
The script is in the same scarcely believable vein. Cops and doctors say frank and horrific things in front of traumatised victims. Characters presented as benevolent – and won’t become evil later, honest – say surreptitious and moustache-twirling things. I would hazard to say the script is bad – no, terrible – but seeing it through a Frank Drebin lens where the game world is a vibrant parody of the TV and movies we know, just about redeems it.
And the voice-acting. Oh, the voice-acting. I am not overstating things when I say that it’s some of the worst in modern gaming. My favourite character is a doctor, a complete scene-stealer: he talks in Shatnerian stops and starts, but with the monotone of a Nimoy. It’s hilarious, and worth finding a Youtube video to experience. He’s not the only delicious nugget of voice-acting to be found (some cockney gangsters are criminal), and it’s hard to imagine that the voices were done professionally.
There’s more to hidden object games than the story and tone, so how does the gameplay deliver? With Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises, Artifex Mundi have had a run at adapting their standard template, and that should be applauded. Hidden object games tend to be on the conservative side, so it’s nice to see some ideas creeping in. It’s a shame, then, that they are almost all on the bad side.
For those of you who may be unacquainted with hidden object gaming, you are regularly presented with a tableau that has dozens of items strewn about like a Where’s Wally afterparty. You then have a list of items running across the bottom of that tableau, and it’s your job to scan the picture to find them. Click them and the item is removed, leaving you fewer items to spot and a progressively easier puzzle to complete. In previous games, there have been some dalliances with this formula, including environmental puzzles where you have to ‘Interact’ with an item to open or smash it, revealing other items inside.
In Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises, Artifex Mundi has decided to dial up the latter to its extreme. Almost every item is hidden underneath another one, so a great deal of interaction is needed to get to the items on your list. Again, good in theory, but this means that you are never reassured that the item on your list is actually visible. There are some UI triggers to help here, but it’s not enough; you will often find yourself in a limbo state where you’re not quite sure whether you can actually start spotting items or not. Items that phase in and out only add to this uncertainty.
The game also decides to add versions of the tableau where the list is a series of silhouettes, rather than a list of names. This is fine when the silhouette is unmistakable – an octopus or a knife, perhaps – but quickly becomes frustrating when the silhouette is generic (a cylinder or disc), or the item you’re looking for has its silhouette obscured. It was a psychological quirk that memorising silhouettes was far, far more difficult (and less satisfying) than memorising a word or term.
Hidden object games have never just been about item-spotting (there is an argument that the name of the genre is a misnomer, as only a small proportion of the games are spent searching through stuff), as there are plenty of puzzles to overcome. FM:PP offers a couple that repeat throughout, including your conventional lock-picking and one that caught me a little unawares: a Puzzle Quest-style matching game where you try to connect your colours without connecting your opponents’. It’s utterly bizarre, as it’s meant to correspond to a bout of fisticuffs in the main game view. I was absorbed at first. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the odds were stacked in my favour (it might well be impossible to fail), which removed the lustre.
As another deviation from the norm, the case is broken up into sections, and you are tasked with making conclusions based on your accumulated evidence. This is represented by a list of evidence post-its, and some rings for you to plonk those post-its. The rings are titled ‘Suspect’, ‘Victim’, ‘Location’ etc. In another example of ‘good in theory, a bit arse-about-tit in execution’, the logic of where to put the evidence is muddled, and you’ll spend most of the time brute-forcing it. Luckily, there are few punishments for doing so.
As someone who is relatively new to hidden object games, but has played a few to get calibrated for the review, it is fascinating to encounter one that tries much that is fresh, but succeeds at pulling off so little. Even things that have become second-nature in Artifex Mundi’s previous games, like the click area for hidden objects, seem problematic (they are annoyingly small and liable to lead to errors). It should be noted that, while these changes are infuriating, they aren’t enough to stop you from completing the reasonably short sub-three hour campaign and bonus mission. And please do play this bonus mission: it’s directed and made by a different team, and the standard is somehow lower in terms of writing and voice acting. It takes an overblown approach to the material that left me bemused, but heartily entertained because of it.
All of the above makes Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises a puzzle. For a seasoned hidden object player – particularly those who feel oversaturated with the horror and fantasy themes of the Xbox One library – I can give a Kevlar-guarded recommendation. The CSI-theme suits the material well, and – while they don’t necessarily work – the innovative elements attempt to shake up a template-heavy genre.
And if you haven’t played a hidden object game before? It’s hard to make a case, as there are better examples from the same publisher. There’s joy to be had playing through such a shonky, over-egged plot (and even eggier voice-acting), but you could get a similar satisfaction watching ‘The Most Absurd Moments of NCIS’ on Youtube. It’s a curio, then, but one that can be left for others to find.