I’m a couple of games short of completing every Artifex Mundi title on the Xbox. I know, I know, sound the bugles. Very proud I am of it, too. Over the course of playing them all, though, I don’t think I could point to anything that I’d call brave, innovative or new. Don’t get me wrong, I love their hidden object games to death, but they’re comfy slippers to put on occasionally. They don’t offer things like ‘change’.
Well, hold the presses, as we opened the Microsoft Store this morning to find the latest Artifex Mundi hidden object game, Queen’s Quest 5: Symphony of Death, releasing as a free-to-play title. A free-to-play title! It’s the first Artifex game to do so, and it’s a dramatic move for a publishing house that’s so slow to change that they stand stock-still.
It raised plenty of questions. Hidden object games are, by nature, single player and finite. They’re short, too, so it doesn’t leave much time and space for a player to spend. How exactly were Artifex going to recoup their costs?
Artifex Mundi are banking on us all being terrible at puzzle solving, as they are monetising their hint system on Queen’s Quest 5: Symphony of Death. Before, the hint system was on a cooldown, with solutions being offered once you’ve floundered long enough on a puzzle. Now, it’s completely locked behind a paywall. You get a hint currency, with hidden object hints costing one coin, while skipping a minigame costs five. You start with six as a gratuity. Hidden object fans, start doing the maths: work out whether you would have paid in other titles.
It may sound sketchy, requiring you to pay for help, but it’s not. It’s incredibly generous. Too generous, perhaps. Artifex Mundi games tend to land on Xbox a couple of years after PC, so there are countless walkthroughs and guides out there; why pay for a hint when you can load up a gamefaq? Regardless, we didn’t load up a guide once. Our six free hint coins were left unspent. We genuinely wonder whether Artifex will try this again.
Artifex Mundi have resisted the temptation to dial up the difficulty or make things opaque. Queen’s Quest 5: Symphony of Death isn’t ridiculously easy by any means; it tends towards ‘fullness’, as there are situations where you will have over a dozen items and plenty of rooms to use them in. But that’s it: its minigames are eminently solvable, and the hidden object games are no more obtuse than before. In fact, Artifex have added more handholding, with several puzzles giving you audio and visual cues when you are on the right path.
Artifex no doubt have their big-data departments, and have already done the analysis on whether this will make more money or not for them. Perhaps this is a loss leader, a gateway drug, to see if it gets more people hooked to hidden objecting. Whatever the reasoning, it boils down to a fully featured game, completely free.
It’s a good one, too. One of the best that Artifex has put together. If you’re new to hidden objecting, don’t let our comments be taken out of context: this isn’t a patch on The Witness, Turing Test or any number of other top-tier puzzle games. But it is smooth as caramel, rarely offering a sticking point and keeping you engaged from beginning to end.
Why is it so abnormally good in comparison to its peers? For our tastes, it’s one of the more open hidden object games. It trusts you to wander five or six screens at a time, and be laden with a huge number of items. In the hidden object tableaux, there’s a lot to do, too. Virtually every item has to be uncovered in some form, making the scenes far more interactive than usual. Generally, it puts a bit more trust in the player than usual, running the risk of confusing them. We felt more tested, and thanked Artifex for the opportunity.
The quality’s in the story, too. Again, context: Naughty Dog aren’t going to be looking over their shoulder and worrying about Artifex. It’s still hokey as a cokey. But it actually feels like a story, with plot developments and shifts, rather than a single objective running through a three hour game. There are about three different villains, and probably double that number of objectives. It was genuinely exciting to see the plot careen from fantasy monster to fantasy monster.
But our highlight was the alchemy. Concocting potions isn’t new to an Artifex game – it’s the central motif of the Eventide series, for example. But using your little alchemy carry-all to turn yourself into animals, from bats to mice to gorillas (?) is a colourful, unexpected twist on events. The animals you talk to have better personalities (and voice acting) than half the human cast, so they’re consistent highlights.
We rarely see an Artifex Mundi game reach the dizzy heights of a 4 out of 5. They’re too set in their ways, too janky to justify the loftier scores. But by toying with their payment model, Artifex have given us one of their best hidden object games in Queen’s Quest 5: Symphony of Death, effectively for free. So, sound those bugles again: Artifex Mundi, welcome to one of your few 4 out of 5 scores. Keep the innovation coming.
You can buy Queen’s Quest 5: Symphony of Death from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S