Some games are untouchable. No matter what reviewers write, no matter the Metascore, people will buy them anyway. So it goes with the hidden object games from Artifex Mundi. The fanbase is so dedicated, so eager to get their magnifying glasses out, that it could be set in the back of a bin lorry and it would do well. That won’t stop us, though. We nobly continue on our quest to review (virtually) every game that Xbox One has to offer!
There have been eight Secret Order games. Eight (8)! To put that into context, we’ve had eight Hitman mainline games across its lifespan. Sure, there have only been two Secret Order games on Xbox One (the other is Shadow Breach), with the rest on PC, but this series is hardy and popular, and that gets our respect.
Now for the Cliffs Notes on hidden object games, if you’ve never come across them before. You will generally be dumped into a 2D environment, with some locations and items you can interact with. Some you can pick up and put in your inventory, as if you’re in a stripped back graphic adventure. Some need those items from your inventory. Others will be puzzles that are barely Professor Layton-levels of difficulty. Occasionally – and it is only occasionally, which gives the genre a bit of a misnomer – you will come across a slagpile of items, and you’ll have a shopping list of items to find within (no one really asks why you need these items, so move along). Complete everything in the area, and you’re shuffled onto the next. That’s Hidden Object Gaming 101!
This particular one kicks off in a sailboat, with an invitation in hand to the Buried Kingdom (we’re going to assume that your character has been there roughly seven times before). After some tutorialisation, you’re spinning down a whirlpool and into the titular kingdom. The plot’s delivered immediately: the Mother Dragon who protected the Kingdom is dead, and the dragons have gone barmy. Before you can give the dragons some Horlicks to calm them down, you’re subject to a skeleton invasion. A necromancer has come back to unlife and is going to conquer the – now unprotected – Buried Kingdom. It’s all standard enough stuff that you’ll comprehend with ease, even if you haven’t played the previous seven.
Having experienced my fair share of hidden object games now, there’s generally three ways that they vary, and those three things determine whether it rises above the pack or sinks below it. There’s the story, the quality of the puzzles, and how it holds up as a point-and-click adventure.
The story in Secret Order: Return to the Buried Kingdom is… a clumsy fumble. In broad strokes it’s great: a world that’s gone to pot after its ‘Mother Dragon’ kicks the bucket is fine, and tacking on a necromancer who wants to fill the vacuum… well, that’s fine too. The world is a relatively generic fae/fantasy hybrid, with about three different art styles, but that never really bothers me either.
My issue is with how rushed it all feels. Secret Order throws the necromancer at you as a big-bad without any real sense of what he wants, what his character is about, and what kind of threat he offers. He may as well be a dude in a sheet. There are two main characters, one of whom disappears inexplicably for the whole game, while the other does a character u-turn that doesn’t make any sense, because, again, it’s all a bit hasty and not fully explained. Twice I was ambushed in the game, but there was no real sense of who did it, why, or how they got to me. A millisecond-long cutscene pops in and you’re whisked to a location without any sense of how you got there. Artifex Mundi and developers Sunward Games have nailed this kind of thing before, but here it feels sloppy. The narrative falls off the bone like slow-cooked meat (although, now I think of it, there IS a skeleton-harp chimera that’s pretty cool).
It’s also painfully formulaic. I’ve played seven Artifex Mundi games on the Xbox One, and five of them have the exact same plot: a shadowy necromancer steals a young lady and you, the tireless female reporter/librarian/friend, tries to keep up with them. Those are very specific plot beats to consistently hit across six games, and it’s starting to grow a little tiresome. A cursory browse of hidden object forums (they exist, trust me) shows that the community is also growing a little weary of it, so it’s fascinating to see the continued, conservative approach to story.
Next are the puzzles. If anything, they are easier than other hidden object games, almost to the point of being benign. There’s nothing here that’ll get you bringing a notepad out, or hovering a thumb over the ‘skip puzzle’ button on the interface. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a matter of preference, really: if you like your puzzles breezy, with great interactions but ultimately no real challenge (and a constant avalanche of achievements), then this has your back; if you like your puzzles fiendish, requiring a sheet of graph paper to work out, then you’ll probably resent the game.
Then it’s onto the adventuring, the point-and-click sections of the game. More so than in other hidden object games, there are weird, avoidable quirks. The Secret Order: Return to the Buried Kingdom has a habit of giving you two or three items that are effectively the same thing. You’ll have three items that could feasibly cut a thread, for example, and then it presents you with a thread. The game seems to then randomly decide which one was correct, and, in the worst cases, you won’t have the correct one yet. I had a feather duster and a box that needed dusting, but no – the game wants you to get a cloth from the next room to dust it. It’s a minor grievance, but it highlights that the developers have a limited arsenal of obstacles to lug in front of you: generally something that needs levering, cleaning, cutting, setting on fire or dowsing with water.
The rushed story, the simple puzzles and the lack of hidden objects all layer up to make an experience that is surprisingly slight. Even for a hidden object game, Secret Order: Return to the Buried Kingdom is extremely short, roughly two to three hours. And for a game that is supposedly climactic (and I say piffle to that: the game has every opportunity to continue beyond this), it doesn’t feel climactic. I suspect fans of the series will feel deflated.
The Secret Order: Return to the Buried Kingdom on Xbox One acts like a strong trailer for hidden object gaming: it’s easy to pick up, the puzzles are a pleasure to interact with, and Artifex Mundi have mastered the systems that surround it. But it’s only a trailer: too short, too unsatisfying and narratively incoherent to get your teeth into. For the final game in the series, it will leave you, and fans of the series, wanting more.