In a perfect world, a games journalist would be completely impartial about the many genres out there. They would share an equal love for MOBAs, cutesy platformers, match-3, rhythm action, CCGs, lifestyle sims and visual novels with ‘panty’ in the title. But any journalist will tell you that, as much as it should be true, it can’t. We are human and have our preferences, and we do not approach every game with the same degree of enthusiasm (luckily, we have the luxury of many different reviewers, all with varying tastes, which mitigates that – a bit).
For me, hidden object games have never filled me with enthusiasm. Whenever one pops up in the ‘New Games’ section on the Xbox, my eye naturally scans over them and I dismiss them. Up to this point, I’d never thought critically about why, but there’s a knotty ball of reasons. It felt like they hadn’t changed or progressed since the dusty CD-ROM days, when you’d spot them in a vertical rack in WH Smiths, and – I swear – half of them seemed to be set on the Titanic. Similar to how some (incorrect) people feel about visual novels, I felt like they were suited to a different medium, and limited effort had been made to make them into, you know, video games. Most shameful of all, I think I made an assumption that they were made for people who were different from me; they were made for people who probably didn’t like games. Some dark part of my psyche led to that conclusion.
So, why hidden objects, and why write a feature about them now? This week, as I was doing my Tuesday routine of scanning the new releases on the Xbox One, I spotted Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises, a hidden object adventure from Artifex Mundi (seemingly the monopoly-holders on ‘lost property’ sims). For some reason, my eye didn’t move on, and the curiosity piqued – probably because I wasn’t even aware of the previous Family Mysteries games, and someone must be buying them – and it made me realise how much I had ghosted them in the past. The time had come for a reappraisal or, to be honest, a first-time appraisal.
So, how to approach the issue? Like any true obsessive, the only way was to dedicate a week, playing hidden object games exclusively. It was only through this over-exposure that I could find out if my -ism towards hidden object games was justified or founded on rude assumptions. The best case scenario: I develop a taste for a whole new genre and broaden my horizons. A worst case scenario: you all get exposed to my hatred and frustrations, as I try to wring joy from a glorified ‘Where’s Wally?’. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Game 1: Nightmares from the Deep 2: Siren’s Call
First off the shelf was Nightmares from the Deep 2. I had been reliably informed that this was a best-seller – the popular choice. It tempted me with a grotesque shark-man on the thumbnail, and you get extra points for stuffing gills onto your antagonist. I was also reassured that the ‘2’ in the title wouldn’t be an obstacle, and that it would be a good jumping-in point.
Summarising the plot doesn’t take long: you’re a museum curator, sent a package that duly gets stolen, which leads you to an island called Kingsmouth (Lovecraft fans will see what they did there). It’s here that you find that the island has been Davy Jones’ed, and a big-bad has stolen a mermaid and a golden octopus statue. He’s using the latter to set a kraken on passing ships, stealing their gold when they scuttle. That’s the story you’re presented with, and – to be honest – it doesn’t really develop beyond that.
Quite a few things hit within the opening minutes. I was genuinely surprised with how pretty the game could be. The environments were painterly, lovingly drawn, and (somehow invoking Ren and Stimpy) the detail and art quality was dialled way up whenever the game zoomed in. This happened as a hidden object puzzle cropped up, and the scenes were a joy to scan.
But, ‘woah’ – then a character arrived. The static, 2D, painted background was gate-crashed by a 3D rendered character model, and – ye gods – the modelling could be monstrous. It was like the dancing baby from circa 1996 had grown up and waddled into a Lovecraft movie. I genuinely couldn’t get my head around it: why would you transpose CD-ROM level characters onto pretty, painted backdrops? The sense of a coherent world or art style sank like a galleon as soon as a character shuffled and janked onto the screen, like Kingsmouth was a limbo for the dead characters from PS1 Resident Evil.
On the positive side, I was also surprised by how prominent the hidden objecting was: in that, it wasn’t altogether prominent. There was Layton-style puzzling, in your familiar flavours of sliding puzzles, jigsaws and pipe-manias. There was point-and-click item-gathering, but diluted so that you never had more than five or so items at once. There was a fair amount of scanning the environment for collectibles, all looking like adorable Lovecraft plushies.
Even the hidden object games, which popped up every 15 minutes or so, had environmental shenanigans to spice them up, where you opened chests or shattered shop-fronts to spot the item that was underneath. The vanilla item-spotting also kind of hooked me. I loved that each area was impossibly messy – does no one clean? – and there were minor spikes in difficulty as objects seemed to blend, to just the right degree, into the clutter and gloom. I never had to use a hint, but was glad that they were there, offering you a game of mahjong in exchange for a solution (a nice compromise, so that you felt like you earned it).
Honest to goodness, I found myself being endeared to the whole thing. The terrible crash dummies that twitched on and off the screen were so bizarre that they became a genuine highlight. The one-note dialogue and monotone voice-acting added to the B-movie kitsch. The familiarity and easiness of the puzzles meant that I never felt any friction completing them (there’s nothing here that a sane person would call difficult), which just meant that I rollicked through the whole thing without ever getting bored, clearing out the game in just under four hours.
Honestly, chuck out all the shonkiness – the characters, plotting, voice-acting and dialogue – and what was left was actually refined. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, from a publisher who has been making the same games for decades. Each new scene was dense with things to do, so there was always that joyful tug to bash in the door to the next area. Rare for gaming, backtracking feels a pleasure too, as you found the widget that unlocked the other widget from way-back-when. I felt comfort in returning to a previous branch, to find that it led to further, more interesting branches.
By the end, I was kind of smitten, and the whole task of playing hidden object games for a week became less daunting. Of course, I had forgotten that I’d introduced myself to the genre by playing its most popular game, and they weren’t all necessarily going to be like that…
Game 2: Dark Arcana: The Carnival
I am still trying to figure out if Dark Arcana: The Carnival is being played for laughs or not.
In a low-budget carnival, a child loses their mum and the police are brought in. You’re the lead investigator, and you enter the – now closed – carnival to find out what the deuce has happened. A deuce has quite obviously happened, as the first person you spot is the manager, in a fedora, looking shocked that you’re there (forgetting the three police cars on his lawn, of course) and tossing a door handle onto the roof of his office before running away. As you can imagine, he quickly went to the top of my suspect list.
And appreciate my unbridled joy as this was rendered to a quality below Nightmares from the Deep 2.
My love for the game became solidified when I finally got into the office, opened a safe and found a scribbled note from the manager about how he spotted the mum walking about his park and thought “I must get her into a ritual”. Not a thought you commonly think, let alone jot down before tucking into a safe. There is always the whiff of erroneous localisation in Artifex Mundi games, and I’m alright with it.
Having played Nightmares from the Deep 2 (positively a veteran of hidden object games, now), I begin to spot some running themes. Both games have a pure, innocent damsel being whisked off by a grotesque villain, with the player always a few steps behind. There’s a looming structure in the background, the ‘Skyrim mountain’, where you know the final showdown will take place. There will be a monkey.
There’s a zany, offbeat tone to Dark Arcana that I like a lot. Every time that I think it’s aware of it’s own campness, it will do something earnest. When I think it’s over-using horror or game tropes, it switches up the game world, or chucks in a puzzle theme that’s more out there. It has found a Tales-of-the-Crypt spot where you couldn’t possibly find it scary, but chuckles are available to be had.
By the end of Dark Arcana, I am certain that I’ve found a taste for hidden object games, and that my wallet is now going to take a hit (and my Achievement score a boost), as I scour each Xbox summer sale for hidden object games to add to my gaming backlog. But, of course, I haven’t played Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride.
Game 3: Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride
I’m on a roll. I’ve enjoyed two solid 3.5-out-of-5 games, and all my preconceptions about Hidden Object games have been blown out of the water. I’ve eaten my proverbial words. They are A-OK.
The plot and world of Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride is certainly different from the Fundark themes of the other games. It falls somewhere close to Pixar’s Brave, with low-fantasy elements, a vibrant palette and some Gaelic/Celtic influences. A woman is travelling by wagon to see her sister, who is due to be married. The wedding party is – the shock, the horror – attacked by a giant bear, and the sister is kidnapped on the bear’s back. The village grabs the pitchforks from under their mattresses, and you set off with the groom to get her back. Obviously, the bear isn’t all it seems to be, twists will be had, and a lot of emoting and wailing will go on. A lot of emoting and wailing.
It’s with Forsaken Bride that I started to feel the burn. It’s near impossible to identify whether it was specific to the game and its quality, or I was just feeling the urge to go and play anything else (there are so many new Xbox Game Pass games out). The game certainly didn’t help. Once again, I was a voiceless, bland protagonist, chasing after another damsel in distress, always a few steps behind, as a mountain loomed in the background. The villain was even copy-pasta’d from Dark Arcana. To give it credit, the monkey was a cat this time round.
I was conflicted about the character designs, as they had clearly employed proper character artists and animators. I hankered for the ‘90s models, although there was still a case of ‘deadness behind the eyes’.
It also doesn’t veer far into the fantastical at all, which is something of a failing: fairies crop up as background characters, and one character might be a witch, but the plot would definitely have benefited from sprucing up the magic and imagination.
The core problem is that Grim Tales: The Forsaken Bride is dull. Everything is earnest and overly familiar. It’s curiously on-rails, even compared to the conservative previous games, as I rarely found myself gaining items that I could use in rooms I had passed. The routine of accessing a room, using up all its items and then moving on to the next room (with an empty inventory) felt like such a waste, and effectively plopped me on a conveyor belt. I can’t remember playing a game and wishing it backtracked more. The twists were also telegraphed, which was somewhat true of the other two games, but at least they did me the service of being a bit more theatrical and overblown about it.
By the end, I was glad it was over. It wasn’t an irredeemably bad game, but its dullness, plus the attrition of walking the same walk for three games was starting to take its toll. Nothing left to do but find time for Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises!
Game 4: Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises
It felt appropriate that the last game would be the one that kickstarted the whole endeavour. New to Xbox One, I bring you Family Mysteries: Poisonous Promises. I was told that this was the third in a series, which only reminds me of how hidden object games exist in a parallel universe that I have completely neglected to visit.
I was overjoyed to find out that the template had been chucked out with this one (maybe I just picked poorly?). Look, I’m a detective! I’m solving crimes! I’m not chasing someone who’s nicked a damsel, and there’s nary a monkey in sight!
In crime fiction terms, it’s a generic potboiler, so it’s not as if it’s actually innovative – it’s just new to my week of fun. A dead woman has washed up on the shore, veins popping with poison. You and your detective partner (uncomfortable flirting happens here, so watch out) are called in, and it becomes apparent that she fell off a yacht where she was partying with her fiancée and sister. Which of the two did it? Dun, dun, dun.
Something fascinating happens when you port a hidden object game into a new genre, and I now see why the majority play out in fantasy settings. You see, the crime scenes are hilarious. You are immediately removing turtles, harpoons, pelicans, chests full of gold and all sorts of other fascinating detritus just to get at a possible fingerprint. It immediately puts Family Mysteries into a ludicrous place and – mostly – it knows that, and has fun with it.
You need a magnet? Don’t worry, the bad guy has just had a delivery of magnets (with a magnet lovingly etched onto the box, in case I didn’t realise). You need to disarm some bad guys? Don’t worry, they are standing away from you, underneath some metal pipes that are being precariously dangled by some rope. Lucky you had a swiss army knife!
I think – I hope – that there was a tongue in the cheek throughout the making of the game. It has, for example, the worst voice-acting I have seen in a game for roughly a decade. It’s almost worth the price alone. One doctor has a Shatnerian approach, and attempts it while being completely monotone. Two cock-er-ney gangsters turn up to mangle the English language. I would advise everyone to give the Bonus Episode a go, as it can only have been voiced inhouse after an office party. There just isn’t another explanation.
The script is equally bonkers. A lifeguard stands in front of a mortified woman, who is worried whether her sister is dead. He says “that Veronica girl? Oh, she’ll turn up somewhere, eventually”. The same woman asks later if her twin was dead. I lead with “I am afraid so. Can I ask you some questions?”. It’s definitely sub-Hollyoaks.
So far, so good, then – all of the vaudevillian campness and rough edges that I liked about the first two games. But then something curious happens: the game tweaks the hidden object mechanics and tries to offer something new. Having rolled out of three games that seemed to make a virtue of adhering to a template, it’s interesting to see.
The problem, of course, is that none of the changes work. In the previous games, there would be a text list of things for you to find. Here, a large proportion present, instead, a silhouette of each item. It might have made sense when localising the game, but I constantly hit my head against the same ceiling, since most of the silhouettes are generic shapes. Which small cylinder did you want this time? Wait, you want a blob with some spikey bits? The human mind isn’t trained to keep vague shapes memorised, while it can happily keep a list of terms (as certain presidential cognitive tests have topically reminded us). Resultingly, it became a real slog, and I broke my duck and had to ask for a hint.
Family Mysteries also decides to ‘hide’ its hidden objects below another layer of objects. The other games have dabbled with this, but they go full pelt for it in this game. The curious effect is that you are never sure if the item you’re looking for is actually there, which makes for an unsatisfying experience. The only way to play is to shift approach: start with clicking everything to remove clutter, and THEN start the hidden object spotting, hoping that you’ve done enough ‘tidying up’ to get to the real task. This feels like busywork, and means you never quite trust that the thing you want is there at all.
There are a few puzzles that repeat over the course, and they also feel misguided. At the end of each sequence, you will have enough evidence to start making conclusions, which means dragging the related evidence over to ringed areas with headings like ‘Victim’, ‘Suspect’, ‘Where?’ etc. That should be simple and enjoyable, but something has been lost in the logic or translation, as they rarely correspond. You’ll end up brute-forcing the solution, which – to be fair – is not particularly punished. There’s also a Puzzle-Quest style minigame where you try to connect gems without connecting your opponents, which leaves me on the fence: on the one hand, it’s wacky and full of the energy I was after. On the other, you soon realise that the odds are stacked and there’s no real way of losing.
(Confusingly, for the bazillionth hidden object game by Artifex Mundi, the click areas were also really small on the hidden object games, meaning some frustrating runs at getting the ‘perfect hidden object game’ achievement.)
As the finish line approaches, and I reflect on the games that led me here, I guess I am most surprised that the latest game is the messiest. For those who may have played them, Family Mysteries reminds me most of the Xbox 360 CSI games, but with no quality control, which isn’t the most desirable of poster quotes.
As I power down the Xbox after a week of hidden object games, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved. You’d be hard pushed to find any game genre where playing four titles in a row wouldn’t feel fatiguing. Plus, there are so many titles out each week that I’ve already built up a backlog just by playing these four. I’ve got UnderMine to play, dang it!
So, were my assumptions about hidden objects fair? It felt, from the outside, that nothing had progressed in the world of hidden objects, and I was right, in a way. But I also missed the point. I felt a sense of comfort moving from one game to the other, knowing what I’d be asked to do, and that my skills were transferrable. It was only when Family Mysteries changed the mechanics up that I realised how much I missed ‘the old ways’, and how much I valued the story changing up between games, so that the hidden objecting didn’t have to. I have a warm, cuddly feeling knowing that these games will always exist, probably.
I assumed that the games were in the wrong medium, that they were better suited to books. I’d hit that one on the head almost immediately. There’s the joy of clearing out a cluttered scene which you wouldn’t get elsewhere, and finding stuff is really only half the fun. There’s the ridiculous plotting, the creative puzzles, and the atrocious character models.
Finally, I assumed that a certain player played these games, and – deep down – they probably didn’t like gaming. Sure, they are probably aimed at the more casual side of gaming, but there is so much splash-enjoyment from a good hidden object game that the thought was hopelessly reductive. I’m a hidden object convert (to a degree, give me a month) and I’ve got the scars to show for it. I’ve outclimbed an octopus, hit a pinata full of cogs, married an ancient spirit, pulled a chandelier onto a bear and defeated a Lovecraftian evil by completing a jigsaw puzzle. What did YOU do this week?