Whispered Secrets: Enfant Terrible…is

There’s really little more I can say about the run-of-the-mill paranormal HOGs. I mean it, they are all the same and each time I try out a new title thinking I can find something worth critiquing, increasingly I am coming up empty. Yet think about how delighted I was to stumble upon “Whispered Secrets: Enfant Terrible” over at Big Fish Games. Here was something upon which I could hang my morphing hat/beach ball. Finally I had something to say.

Ethan sucks and he should die.

Ew. Unfind me this instant! His introduction should give you pause, as if I need one more courderoyed soggy man spoiling my evening stroll.

Your pathetic attack is easy dismissed by collecting green orbs and the movies of Pauly Shore.

You are an idiot and you should be haunted by bad dreams because you forced me to listen to your bad excuses. Go play pachinko like a man.
I don’t want to help you.
Bye. Bye. Die.
Hey Pumpkin McScareCrow! You can have him.

Rid yourself of familial obligations in Darkarta: A Broken Heart’s Quest

At first glance, “Darkarta: A Broken Heart’s Quest” plays like your run-of-the-mill HOG game: tracking and backtracking, finding pieces of strange objects, unusual amulets that unlock mysterious books. Further playing reveals that “Darkarta” is remarkably dull and I’ve channeled most of my opinions into snarky photo captions. Yet, there are two high points that make the game worth trying out.

There goes the husband. Hopefully a non-White magical person will come to his rescue and save him. I’ve got a drawer handle to find.

First, some of the puzzles are quite beautiful and entertaining. While I usually lose patience with “move the pieces until they’re in the right order” puzzles, a few of the incidental games are challenging enough to be enjoyable. While overall “Darkarta” is typical for the genre, there are incidental areas and objectives that feel carefully thought out and crafted.

I particularly liked the multi-layered elements of this puzzle.

Secondly, and in my opinion, most importantly, “Darkarta” features some of the absolute worst voice acting I’ve heard from HOG games. The male antagonist sounds like the manager your car salesman brought into the office to sweeten the deal and the female antagonist harpily harpies as if The Little Mermaid’s Ursula didn’t change everything when it came to the female villain.

No.

And don’t get me started on your playable character. She is supposed to be trying to find her kidnapped child after discarding her injured husband, yet the emotional acting comes out in spits and spurts, not unlike the diesel fuel you’re tasked to find. The games does come with a CROWBAR OF DESTINY, which is always a treat, but there is very little here to warrant playing beyond the demo, which I didn’t and you shouldn’t. There are better HOGs out there. I promise to let you know when I find one.

She literally says this while her child is being held hostage by an immortal being on a buffalo. A BUFFALO.

“Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders” gives you a middling outlet for your white savior complex

I’ve mentioned “Orientalism” before when discussing a game, but “Persian Nights: Sands of Wonder” is one of the more blatant examples of using another culture—or the Western fantastical narrative of that culture—as setting for a story. I use the word setting not merely as the physical space where the story plays out, but as a visceral backdrop, a design element that informs the plot and characters of the story. And while in my previous invocation of the term on this site it was merely as accent to an otherwise enjoyable game, “Persian Nights” relies on its exoticism as an excuse to deliver an amateurish hidden object game (HOG) with little to no challenging elements.

This is Darius, or as I like to call him, Default.

Your character is Tara, outlined in the beginning exposition as a local healer trying to discover the source of the blight upon her land. I use local lightly here as she is portrayed as an American-accented white woman, at least in her voice and the few moments where we see her hand. Soon she teams up with the blue-eyed Darius, also trying to keep a magical talisman away from the evil Zaved, a bearded grand vizier to the ailing king. We’ve seen elements of this story before, done better if not done more accurately.

This is Zaved, or as I like to call him, Not-Jafar.

When Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Dastan in the Prince of Persia film, there was some talk of white-washing, but the full force of that critique would come for later films as we all became a little more aware of the way entertainment continually plays to the lowest common denominator: a white guy. Author John Scalzi once said: “In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.” Developers decided that their main demographic was and always would be white men, who either wanted to play a hyper-masculinized version of themselves, or as a female character whose body was up for continual critique. Game creators still make those choices today, sometimes making the default-white-male intentionally as a provocation to what is deemed a loss in status; aloss that largely exists within their own minds.

This is Minu, or as I like to call her, Moaning Myrtle.

However, in the widely ignored realm of HOGs, the demographic appears to be the white female. So often these games, particularly on the Big Fish Game platform, have a curious vanilla woman in the protagonist role. Her actions are nearly always reactionary as she stumbles from room to disorganized room to reassemble one puzzle or another to rid the land of evil. “Persian Nights” falls into this category as well, giving Tara no larger roles than nursemaid to Darius and the figurative laundry-picker-upper of a world in disarray. The exoticism of the scenery, the “Other” nature of the villain, even the fantastical creatures, all serve to allow this woman to have some culturally-adjacent adventure and join her male companion in becoming the white savior.

I never got around to the terrible voice acting and writing in this game. Right before this screen shot, Default shouts: “Here yo go. Don’t drop it.” as he tosses the magical lamp across a chasm.

As I have mentioned before, you may argue that I look too deeply into a $7 game few people will hear of, let alone play. Yet, I need to emphasize that it is sometimes the “lowest” forms of a medium, those most accessible to the most people, that require the greatest scrutiny. There are enough people critiquing the world of AAA games—some much better than myself—but on this site, I have to look at these middling games, because what begins as casual soon becomes conventional and even small games should do better.

Your character in “League of Light: The Game” doesn’t want to be there either

I don’t know if there is a prequel to “League of Light: The Game,” but there has to be some previous explanation to the pumpkin-headed golem sidekick our investigator carries around. While the impish gourd is quite useful in some areas, its sudden appearance in the carriage/car (inevitable accident in 3…2…1…) left me slightly disconcerted. Granted, I’ve been away from the HOG genre for a time, but to think that we’ve turned our fall harvest into slave-like automatons will give me pause the next time I need to bake a pie.

Ok, I’ve checked. Apparently this is “the latest thrilling adventure in the League of Light series” so I’m guessing Pumpkin Head has a back story.  And while I may dive into the series’ catalog to shed some light on its manifestation, I’m not keen to do it now as I’ve just slogged through the demo portion of this current chapter.

Your character is talking about the green smoke bomb and not the abomination across the carriage.

I have to give “League of Light” credit where it’s due: the graphics are visually appealing and the motions graphics in the manipulation scenes are better than the norm. Pumpkin Head, for all its creepiness, is especially well acted by the animators, and perhaps its that sense of personality that drives me right into the uncanny valley. So, well done? Yet the game, like most of its cousins, suffers from the same bloated hide and seek gameplay that has, unfortunately, completely redefined the HOG genre. Room by room, area by area, the most challenging puzzles amount to nothing more than those that take the most time, have the most tiles/items to manipulate, have to most tracks to…back track. Only the inclusion of an interactive map actually makes these games playable.

When HOGs try to be adventure games, it is almost always terrible. Don’t do this.

What “League of Light” does okay visually, it makes up for in horribly dull voice acting. My character — I chose the female voice — is so completely uninterested in her investigation, in the happenings around her, of the strange vegetable companion she travels with, I found myself rooting for her complete demise. Thankfully, the demo ends with a cliffhanger after you’ve been poisoned, but I’ll stake a slice of pumpkin pie on it that you don’t actually die. You’ll want to, but you won’t.

The riddles used as clues in this HOG was actually clever.

The story in “League of Light” is hardly worth mentioning, but I will, since I’ve already started the paragraph. A masked man has captured the world’s best…thingies? thieves? investigators? red-heads? I’m not sure, but they’re pitted against each other in the most dangerous dullest game. You will eventually team up with buxom red-head named Fox — because of course she’s named Fox — as you battle against the evil…Mads. I can’t…anymore…wait! You get to collect owls. Owls are nice.

If you want me to respect your story line over multiple issues/books/movies/games, then put a number in your title. Make it plain to me that I’ve missed something important by jumping ahead to number seven and damn me if I decide to proceed forward without that backstory. Yet, it is still your responsibility to make number seven just as compelling and playable as number one, otherwise, why would I bother? “League of Light” is pretty middle league as far as HOGs go and pretty light on enjoy-ability. I wish there was more for me to critique, but there’s just not a lot of “there” there.

Picking up garbage is not as unpleasant as it sounds in Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7

There are seven of these games. Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7, I’m assuming, picks up where the sixth iteration of the series leaves off. I think. I have no idea. This is my first time playing this game and while a person with a tiny bit more gumption might go back and research the rest of the titles, I’m of the opinion that I will find much more of the same. That doesn’t mean Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7 is derivative, but since this will be a short review, I will proceed with the assumption that the gameplay and objectives are consistent throughout the series. Also, I don’t care.

Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7 lacks pizzazz and visual depth, but the game never pretends to be something more than a casual distraction. Produced by Casual Arts (it’s in the name), VA:PR7 (as it’s known in the industry) consists of typical hidden-object games interspersed with a variety of other puzzles. There appears to be a story about a campground, or a national park. I didn’t pay attention. What did draw my attentions were to two aspects of the overall game itself.

Look, everyone’s going to start with the catfish and the eel. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

First, it feels slow. Not slow in progression or in story line, but slow to play. One of the non-HOG games was a typical memory card-flip game (that, for some reason I had to play twice, with the exact same placements). The action of flipping cards and then waiting for them to reset to flip two more cards was tedious. I’m not sure how your mind works, but in any memory game, speed is the key for me. If you give me one or two seconds to wait to flip some more cards, I’m going to lose interest and possibly forget one of the card placements. It’s not that my attention span is that short, it’s that your typical memory game is nothing more than pattern recognition and the faster I can create the pattern (in my head) the better. The slowness didn’t only mire this puzzle, but the overall game, with strange pauses after finishing a level before giving me the screen to continue. For a second or two I found myself wondering if I really had found all the items and then, slowly, the result square appears. Even in a relatively pedestrian game like VA:PR7, pacing can make or break a player’s enjoyment.

Which hammer do you want? There can only be one.

Second, and this is a little nitpicky, most of the characters are computer generated, yet in many of the HOG scenes there are cut-outs of real photographs of people vacationing. I’m curious if these are vacation photos of the development team or image gleaned from the internet. If the latter, I hope the team obtained rights for those images, because it would be weird to find a picture from my kayaking vacation in the middle of a casual game being retailed for $6.99. Just putting that out there so we all thing about fair use moving forward.

Overall VA:PR7 is an inoffensive, but slow HOG/jigsaw/memory/etc. game. The focus on spotting wildlife and picking up garbage that can be recycled is a nice feature of the HOG games and certainly made me concentrate on those two objectives before the run-of-the-mill items. There is some potential here with a little tweaking on the pace of play, perhaps VA:PR8 will take up the challenge.

Don’t forget to write a salty headline for Dark Parables: Return of the Salt Princess

The most frustrating thing about Blue Tea Games/Eipix new release at Big Fish Games, “Dark Parables: Return of the Salt Princess,” is that the game itself is absolutely beautiful. The scenes are stunningly detailed and rendered with a mystic atmosphere. The items are baroque in their design and feel like true relics of a long past, rich kingdom. The jewels sparkle, the metals gleam, and each sprite seems lovingly crafted to be a stand-alone image. What makes this frustrating is that the game, itself, is terribly dull.

I dig the premise, as I have said before, fairy tales are kind of my thing, so while some story paths are well worn, “Return of the Salt Princess,” is a nice change. After a relatively impressive opening sequence (at least for this genre) our first interaction with another character unfortunately reveals the corrosive underbelly of this magical world. The voice acting…is horrible. See the image below and picture the dialog depicted as being delivered in the same deadpan drone that your average convenience store cashier uses you to offer you a bag for your late night Certs and Funyuns 1:

There’s practically an entire house on you. Just a mo’.

Honestly, if the game would have allowed it, I would have left her there forever. The bland icing on the bland cake is that in the following scene after I have gone to the trouble to rescue her, she uses her “fire power” to blow up the rest of the rubble. The game anticipates an attentive player’s reaction of “why the f*** didn’t you just do that, then?” with a throw-away line of dialog to understand why the f*** she didn’t.

Some of the puzzles, as well, were more complicated than necessary. I’m all for leaving most of the instructions out of unusual puzzles, giving the player a chance to poke around and see what happens (“Madame Fate” is full of those), but when the puzzle, while beautiful, is so clouded in mystery that after five minutes of clicking the player gives up, more testing is needed. I’m not looking for simple game play, but I am looking for just enough feedback in a complicated puzzle (especially if it is the first in the game) to not flail around like some madman wearing magic bracelets.

This guy’s growling and grunting was the highlight of the voice acting. I felt, so, almost scared, a bit.

There was also a strange shifting of game continuity, with a cut scene happening far too early for it to be narratively dramatic. The scene, featuring ole’ Shaggy up there, happens as he attempts to abscond with the Salt Princess herself. You have to shoot him with an arrow (“ranged” weapon the text prompts) and that was fine, but all I had was the arrow; no bow. The scene appears to have been set up to check for the arrow, but not the crossbow. As the cut scene happens, I didn’t have the cross bow because I missed the cuckoo figurine in the one statue base. Yet when I took that to unlock the bookcase in the alley, I only received the rabbit amulet and a goblet. Upon returning to the main square, I used the rabbit amulet on the wolf statue (since wolves love rabbits) and found the crossbow hidden within. Look at those sentences I just wrote. Look at them. All of that fetching happened while the thrilling music was playing and Shaggy, ever courteous, just stood by the precipice while I went through several steps to come kill him.

The map system is for visual purposes only (at least in the demo) no teleporting, so you rack up those steps on your imaginary Fit Bit. As I’ve already mentioned the terrible voice acting, take note that you will have to talk to some of these characters to move the game along and one miss click or two can send you into a repetitious drab dialog hole. These are not only critiques of this game, but problems across the genre and its a genre (as far as I know) that has fewer and fewer developers churning out new titles. Until there is desire (or money to be found) to shake up this style, we’re probably in for more of the same. The same game play, the same worn-out tropes, the same unnecessary back and forth collection to make up for the lack of story. Like I said in the beginning, this game is beautiful and shiny, though that only reflects its flaws much more clearly.

Incredible Dracula IV: Games of Gods finds its personality in its graphics and sound design

Time management games aren’t usually my thing, though there have been a few here and there that I’ve purchased. When I grabbed the demo for “Incredible Dracula IV: Games of Gods” I’ll admit, I did it for Dracula. The Count falls into my area of academic study and I’ve always been curious how he’s portrayed in a number of medium. When I discovered that the games centers around a particularly bored Loki, I was even more intrigued. Now, here is where a normal person would reference the Marvel Universe and Tom Hiddleston. Since the last Marvel movie I saw was Iron Man 2, I am not a normal person. So feel free to “tsk” me from the sidelines as I deny that obvious segue.

Can we talk about Loki’s bunny slippers?

What I found was a charming and sometimes hysterical take on the time management genre. Bored to mischief, Loki tricks Dracula and his zombie butler, Rufus, onto a magical game board of delightful design. The paper/origami styling of the graphics particularly impressed me as a clever take on the board game theme. The characters have more personality than most casual games and the music, while not amazing, was not distracting or repetitive. This is a compliment.

These interstitial cards between levels feel like a confessional for the game writers. I get you, game. I get you.

I moved from Try to Buy with “Incredible Dracula IV: Games of Gods” after I heard the short responses to the various Rufus’ as they go about their tasks. “Ok Lord”, “Whatever” all performed in that deep, lazy drawl that instantly reminded me of Neil from The Young Ones (“Hello, Rick”). There is just enough variation that it never gets annoying (granted I haven’t spent ten hours playing the game) and the interjections when Dracula, himself, finally gets off his immortal ass and takes care of a task are equally funny. This may seem like a minor aspect to pick out and praise, but so many casual games underestimate the benefits of, not only good voice acting, but these little touches that go a long way to add personality to the game.

My Pretty Kitty leads kitten heads to the slaughter so your cat can have a $5 nap

I’m not gonna lie. “My Pretty Kitty,” a new match-3 game by Intersol released at Big Fish Games, is cute. It’s almost insistent in its cuteness. If I had to revert to saying it’s kawaii I would not only lose my sense of integrity, but would have to forfeit all the time I spent studying Japanese, for no one should use another’s language in such a remarkably silly way. Yet, “My Pretty Kitty” demands that you call it kawaii at least once, even if it’s just inside your precious pink mind. I won’t do it. I refuse. It’s cute. That is all.

You have to pay $5 to let Kitty sleep. My cat does this for free…well, for spite.

The developers market the game as “a unique combination of tamagochi and match-3” and I would say that is completely accurate. For myself, the same instinct that made me hammer my Tamagochi to death in the 90s 1 was a little more amenable to that part of the game play. However, the strange pricing of some actions and materials made me wonder why they even needed that part at all. $20 for milk? Not yet, Pretty Kitty. Not yet. The other unfortunate element of this tamagochi-style play is that “Kitty” – you are not allowed to rename your Pretty Kitty – is presented as gendered-female, or at least presented in a feminine aesthetic. Pairing that with the constant need to purchase new clothing, play with expensive toys, and coerce to sleep with money reinforces the “high-maintenance” female trope. The most unfortunate part of this decision is that the majority of players (most likely on Facebook where this game is available) will be female and therefore the trope may slowly edify already biased notions of how women react to and use money. Perhaps that’s putting too much burden on “My Pretty Kitty,” but hey…kawaii.

$100 My-Pretty-Kitty bucks for the colorful feather cat toy. One Hundred!

The match-3 element of the game is what you’d expect, with similar bonuses and power-ups that pervade the genre. Granted, there’s something weird about essentially exploding groups of jellied cat heads and I found myself wondering if we’d crossed from cute into cruel. The little mews as you match pink and purple puss-pusses and then the crash of the explosion when you clear parts of the board made me question why I kept matching and exploding, matching and exploding. I had to have a long talk with myself afterward to make sure I was okay. I am okay.

Without the tamagochi game play, “My Pretty Kitty” would have been a purr-fectly 2 good match-3 game and probably one that I wouldn’t have reviewed as there is nothing too grand nor too unsettling for me to call attention to. Yet the monetary element of the game – and yet I know, this is common, especially among mobile games – felt like a strange add-on and one that has far more connotations than I believe the developers realized. I will suggest that, perhaps, through some sort of expression of the subconscious, the kitties of “My Pretty Kitty” know they are merely paw-ns 3.

Look at the blue-faced cat heads. They know. They understand their own exploitation. They don’t want to be there. They know the others are just playing along. Look at them!

Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire rolls in on fantasy tropes, skin conditions, and collection

While it’s possible that “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” received its name from some Fantasy Title Generator, the title is quite accurate in describing the premise to the new Domini Games offer at Big Fish Games. Yes, the kingdom is enchanted and you, as a master healer must do something to save those afflicted with the “Fog”, but like it’s name, “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” falls into some of the same worn out tropes of the genre, even while it stretches out with bits of interesting game play.

It is the Healer game mechanic that I appreciated the most. Given to you early on, you must find an assortment of ingredients to draft a potion to heal the afflicted person’s particular set of ailments. After the collection, you must discern how each ingredient is used in your Healer box and, while it’s not the most challenging puzzle I’ve come across, it is of a variety that I don’t see often enough.

This is the Healer box. I enjoyed this puzzle, though I could see it getting tiresome if used too frequently.

At the beginning of the game, when you meet Xander, Warrior of the Tar Empire, and he drops a ton of exposition on you, you may think that “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” is not your usual adventure HOG, but after diagnosing and curing his sudden “spikiness,” you’ll find yourself falling back into familiar territory of hunt and place, find and collect. The most infuriating moment for me during the demo, is when Xander, grateful for being cured, hands you a daggar to help you along your journey. Guess what you will use once and leave behind?

I got a bottle of Excedrin and some cough drops if you think that will help, Xander.

The visual styling of “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” is lovely, with over-saturation of greens and violets that emphasize the enchanted-ness of the game. The voice acting, as well, is above par, though the lip syncing, as with many in the genre, can bit a bit disconcerting. Unfortunately, and I’ll lean heavily that it is my own immersion in the genre at this point that informs this, most of the game contains elements that are pretty played out at this point and outside of some interesting characters and a few puzzle mechanics, “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire,” is merely a good example in an ever increasingly mediocre genre. I’m still searching for the game that will breath new life into the adventure HOG, but lately I’m more likely to have spikes growing from my head.

The only riddle you’ll be solving is why you tried Demon Hunter 4: Riddles of Light in the first place

The Egyptian theme of “Demon Hunter 4: Riddles of Light” should have warned me that I was going to have some issues with this game. Too often these games rely on tired tropes of the exotic “Orient” as a stand-in for narrative and game play. Yet, I am ever on the lookout for a game studio to actually try to make this adventure HOG genre into something new but Brave Giant Studio is not quite up to the task.

How many cliches and stereotypes can you find in this image? Bet it’s a bunch!

The voice acting was particularly dull, with the player-character enunciating her excitement or horror with less enthusiasm than a midnight-shift clerk at the Circle K. Aunt Dawn was voiced by an actor who sounds eerily similar to the late, great Carrie Fisher, but the similarity ends there. Even the accents of the two “Egyptian” characters (as far into the demo as I was willing to play) seemed to be variations on Oded Fehr as Ardeth in 1999’s The Mummy, which, I suppose they could have done worse. I’m not asking for Oscar-worthy performances in a low-level casual game, but I am asking to care enough to keep on playing (let alone, buying).

Aunt Dawn introduces you to her new “friend”…even as a joke, I don’t care.

The game play in “Demon Hunter 4: Riddles of Light” suffers from the same convolution-as-complexity as others in the genre. For example: while I have a Sharp Khopesh in my inventory, a lovely weapon, it’s apparent use is for some pruning and disassembly, as such –

Sharp Khopesh -> cuts branch -> cuts strap on goggles -> find pebbles -> create slingshot -> use slingshot on lamp of fire -> fallen lamp scares scorprion.

A better way: Sharp Khopesh -> bisected scorpion.

If your game story, or characters, or setting, or premise isn’t enough to keep my attention, this kind of over-the-top game play will not make up for it. Also, in the one area of the game that could be considered “action,” the double targeting system made the each encounter annoying rather than exciting. The one highlight of “Demon Hunter 4: Riddles of Light” is the visual design of their expositional HOG in the early part of the game, playing on a constellation theme and using ancient Egyptian imagery in a compelling way.

This is actually beautifully done, and I was so interested I forgot to get more screen shots.

I would give this game a pass and not even bother downloading the demo. The genre is filled with less mediocre games than “Demon Hunter 4: Riddle of Light” and studded with a few gems that are more worthy of your time.

Another Car Flip, Another Mystery, and a Paternal Talking Head in Grim Tales: The Time Traveler

According to the in-game screen, “Grim Tales: The Time Traveler” is the fourteenth game in the Grim Tales series. It shows, because Elephant Games appears to have weeded out some of the more exasperating elements of adventure games in the genre. Yet, that doesn’t mean the writers don’t fall into a few trope-traps here and there, especially by opening the story with another woman flipping her car. I’m not sure how many times I, the player, have emerged from the swampy side of the road, head fuzzy with concussion, ready to crawl around in the muck to find the car keys (and medallions, fishing line, and other sundries) only to unlock my upside down trunk and embark on a hidden-object puzzle. I have done this so many times I may as well forfeit my license right now and just travel the world solving mysteries with nothing but an illegible notebook and a crowbar.

What about the O’Grays? The Gradys? The Graysons? You’re gonna by busy.

But those are faults of the genre, and not necessarily this particular game, so it would be unfair to dump all of that criticism in Elephant Games’s lap – though, you did make me flip the car. I also want to reiterate that this seems to be the fourteenth game in the series and I have little recollection of playing any of the others – though I most certainly have – and the strangest, most bizarre part of the start of this game is the fact that I WILL MATTER-OF-FACTLY CARRY AROUND MY DEAD FATHER’S SKULL AS IT PROVIDES COMMENTARY AND CLUES. What the actually hell? Perhaps this is a feature that regular players of the series find endearing and even look for, but Murray the Talking Skull he is not. Granted, BoneDaddy is chatty, that’s for sure, but the Dad Ex Machina game mechanic of only finding certain clues because you have to go all “Alas Poor Yorik” in the middle of a murder scene is a little…disconcerting.

This is not okay. This is NOT OKAY!

One small delight I took from playing through the demo of “Grim Tales: The Time Traveler,” was in actually keeping the pliers and screwdriver in my inventory and using them for multiple tasks! The joy of holding on to a useful tool as I progressed from accident scene to murder scene to garden scene to foiled-bbq scene! This is a minor critique in this vast genre, but as I have said before, making the player discard a useful tool is lazy writing and an overplayed game mechanic.  While the voice acting was pretty good, the writing, particularly the dialog writing left a lot to be desired. I understand that we need to be thrust into the mystery straight away, but the nonchalance of our Aunt Gray as she searches the murder scenes of her nephews is troubling. I expected more trauma, more urgency, more thought into the narrative you want me to spend time with. What makes me place down dollars for a casual game is not necessarily unique game play or visuals, but a desire to see the story through to its conclusion. “Grim Tales: The Time Traveler,” while featuring some of the better puzzle mechanics of its contemporaries, suffers from dull writing and an interrupting ghost dad that, to be honest, talks to his daughter as if she were a moron. She should take that golf club and drive him into the sun.

Dark City: London is an entertaining adventure mired with Victorian cliches…and one harmonica

Has anyone else wondered about the (probably not recent) trend of casual games suggesting that they are “best played with sound?” Has this been a problem in the genre, with millions of players missing out on the truly immersive experience of searching for items in a jacked-up carnival stand? While the voice acting and sound design of “Dark City: London” is well done, I can guarantee that presenting me with a harmonica-playing street waif isn’t the surest way to get me to turn up my speakers. Only second to the bagpipes, the harmonica is a guaranteed way to get me to turn the sound off. Make a note.

Well, old chap, looks like you’ve had a bit of a scrape.

The Victorian setting in “Dark City: London” goosed my academic gland, and while you play as a nondescript Sherlock Holmes type, the rest of the cast and settings are straight out of Olde Tyme Tropes catalog. The filthy-faced street urchin, the mysterious engineer, the cockney cab driver, and the headless demon haunting the newly erected clock tower, all of these are just variations on themes typically used to set the atmosphere during the time of Empire. Unfortunately, the writers at 4 Friends Games also sprinkled in a little of the “Oriental” stereotype, introducing us early on to the Romany “gypsy” fortune teller who signals the doom of the city: “When the great clock strikes, London shall fall.”

Yes…yes. I am sure this banana will be essential to my investigation.

The beginning of the game, working its way through some tutorials of its special features, feels slow and I felt as if it did much more hand-holding than was necessary for the average player. While I appreciate the deduction mechanic, the assembly of clues into particular circles, and then disseminating that information in separate steps felt redundant. Too many years playing escapes games have trained my brain to remember clues and patterns that the mere fact that I have to put the paper on the contraption in order to read the code seems so…elementary to me.

“Excuse me, gov’na, but I’m not sure what kind of ‘play’ you’re wanting, but it’ll cost extra.”

“Dark City: London” is perhaps the beginning of a new adventure series coming to Big Fish Games, and I would be interested to see where they place their protagonist next. The HOG games and puzzles are adequately challenging without being irksome and the time setting and sense of Britain’s empire lends itself to a multitude of adventures, as long as the writers become of aware of lazy stereotypes. If you’re into the Victorian era, Sherlock Holmes, deduction, or just an interesting story, definitely give “Dark City: London” a try.

Skirting a religious minefield and falling asleep playing The Chonicles of Jonah and the Whale

If there is one thing of which I am certain, after twenty-plus years online, is that there is no better place than the Internet for well-behaved, deliberate conversations about religion. Now, with that welcoming environment in mind, I still downloaded the demo of “The Chronicles of Jonah and the Whale,” a match-3 game recently released at Big Fish Games. Considering my own stance on religion and personal faith 1 I went into this game only with an interest in the approach itself, not with a notion to reifiy or deify its message. And while e-fun soft, the makers of “The Chronicles of Jonah and the Whale” seem to approach this game with a clear agenda, the actual fun 2 of the game is what I want to explore.

The ladies in the back are impressed with my spirit.

I would continue by explaining that I don’t see too much evolution in match-3 gaming presently, yet my recent playthrough of Cursed House 5 suggests there are still some games that surprise me with their mechanics and puzzles. Unfortunately, “The Chronicles of Jonah and The Whale” put a premium on preaching and not enough on play. The story of Jonah could be ripe with adventure and daring, presented in a certain way, but this game delays the story until certain amounts of bonuses are achieved. The story is given through “scenes” that have to (have to) be watched in order to continue to the next stages. With strangely Celtic-sounding music in the background, the slow-moving story relies heavily on the Word and less on the words themselves. In a nutshell, “The Chronicles of Jonah and The Whale” is dull.

“Really? I always pictured you taller.”

I only made it to the second scene, “Revelation from God,” expecting something more than dove clip art and a deep voice. God should be thunderous, formidable, and dang-near unintelligible, right. This is God we’re talking about, right? I’ve never understood why some of his biggest followers make God so uninteresting. Yet in the end, my wait to get to scene 2 was in vain. The journey there was relatively passive as well, with what few mechanics outside of matching there were, the instructions for which were sparse, leaving me to decipher their mysterious ways. Near the end of my playthrough I found myself letting the game’s AI make suggestions, guiding me through the puzzles, releasing myself from all sense of personal responsibility as I came to the point of “Revelation.”

“The Chronicles of Jonah and The Whale” may find faith in true believers who continue to explore the narratives of the Old Testament and delight in navigating those stories. But the game will do little conversion, if that’s its goal, and only find itself lost among the waves of better, more innovative match-3 games. If Nineveh is the center of sin, with its scantily-clad women and general fun, “The Chronicles of Jonah and The Whale” is its anathema. The book is better.

“God? Do you know where my shirt is?”

Stumbling through boredom and wishing for death while playing Donna Brave: And the Deathly Tree

Normally I don’t read the reviews on Big Fish Games when I’m searching for something to review. I have found them to be a little to skewed on the positive side, quite possibly due to the avid players on the forum and their love of the genre. I don’t discount them either. We just come to these games from different avenues. Yet, when I saw that Donna Brave: And the Deathly Tree received only two stars out of five, I knew I had to play it.

There is part of me that wants to believe that Madhead decided to create an ironic game that comments on the overall HOG adventure genre. This part of me desires to picture the developers in a far away land, coming together in a meeting and deciding, “let’s take some of the most annoying elements of the games we’ve made so far, add a terrible story line, and produce a game that actually makes the player want to sacrifice themselves to the Deathly Tree.” The meeting ends with many high-fives and the smug satisfaction that their product will be lauded as the death knell of a genre only to be the harbingers of some new exciting medium.

Ha!

Just sit tight, Kathi. Be glad you don’t have to search around for drawer handles and thimbles, mkay?

The collection aspects of Donna Brave are so redundant and ridiculous that any suspension of disbelief left over from accepting the “Deathly Tree” in the title is quickly spirited away from the sheer drudgery that is this game. It’s only saving grace is the map mechanic, allowing the player to see what areas have active puzzles and what areas have been cleared. Trust me, clearing an area has a euphoric effect as you’ll never have to stumble into that morass of a dining room again. Unfortunately, I feel as if I’ve logged my 10,000 steps playing Donna Brave without anything to actually show for it.

“Zey’re……….lethal.” The voice acting would be superb is there was any self-awareness.

Reuniting with an old school friend, Donna Brave is thrust into a arboreal nightmare as her friend, Kathi, succumbs to the lascivious roots of the “Deathly Tree.” 1 Immediately you will see how Donna Brave refuses to subvert the genre by handing you a strange set of tasks to complete while your school chum struggles mere feet away. “Hold on Kathi,” you say, “I have to do a number of strange and inconsequential tasks in order to find the one tool I need to get to you, which I will then promptly abandon. Won’t be a sec.”

Those surrounding Kathi are a cadre of Clue discards and vaguely European relatives. The rooms of the house are a shambles of puzzle boxes and incomplete mechanisms that convince the player that the “Deathly Tree” couldn’t have found a more deserving garden in which to grow. It’s a wonder Kathi and her ilk can function on a daily basis, tree notwithstanding. “Leon! I can’t use the toilet paper unless I unlock the bathroom cabinet after finding both halves of the ostrich key and all I have is half a shovel and a blue gem! HELP!”

The only help this guy gave me was a playing card and a case of the heebie-jeebies.

Generally, as I played through the demo, the switch back between collection and game was so unbalances that frequently I had an inventory full of disparate items that I frequently forgot where the hell I needed them. As the game went on, I frequently forgot to care as well. Thankfully, at the end of the demo, as soon as you find the most important botanical diary – I guess – the leaf, “the one that marks a person for death,” falls on your wrist and the demon roots surround you before the world turns black. I have never wished for a such a woody embrace in all my life.

Reflecting on the mirror imagery in Lost Grimoires 2: The Shard of Mystery

Why does everything have to be “_____ of mystery?” The “Book of Mystery.” The “Cat Hair of Mystery.” The “Discarded Mitten on the Side of the Highway Mystery.” 1 Lost Grimoires 2: The Shard of Mystery leaves little mystery or, for that matter, shards, for the player to suss out. In the opening scene (I never skip scenes) we’re reminded that the evil Drosera, mostly malicious at her malevolent moniker, will find her vengeance against the King and his son for imprisoning her in a mirror. Here is where we are introduced to the mystery of the shard as we see a pair of child’s hand picking up the piece of the broken mirror that has fallen away. Why a magical mirror containing and evil priestess could be accessible to children is a discussion for another day. 2

I’m rooting for you Drosera. Go!

Lost Grimoires 2: The Shard of Mystery is a pretty standard casual adventure game, filled with the occasional HOG and combination puzzles that have become standard in the genre. The game also features what looks to be an underutilized alchemy system that, at least in the demo, is only used thrice. The voice acting ranges from okay to annoying (especially with the prince) but he grows up soon enough and you’ll be rid of that meddlesome cloying chirp. The background music in Lost Grimoires is also among the highlights of the game, though unfortunately it emphasizes the clunkiness of the sound effects during game play. With such urgency in the story line – save the Prince! – it’s a shame that I wouldn’t have found an ill-placed “SPROINGGGG!” out of place.

The mirror imagery isn’t to be ignored. A well-known trope of fairy tales, mirrors are often associated with women, typically women of power. In the patriarchal rewrites of most folklore3 this was meant to connect vanity with evil; self-reflection with ambition. Women, in these rewrites, are to be submissive and uncaring of their own beauty. Oh, they absolutely must posses beauty, but they must be completely unaware of it and unwilling to maintain it, even though it must persist. Drosera’s graying hair, her powerful aura, her villainous up-do, all signal to an aging woman desperate to hold onto power through sorcery, since the beauty of youth has faded. When all your princesses are young, what’s a mature woman to do? Also, notice that there is no queen in this story. Older women are to be distrusted, unless you are the protagonist of this game, the royal medic (whose name I have forgotten), yet that only reinforces my point. As the good older woman, your job is to serve and be invisible. As the playable character you never get to see yourself (at least in the demo), no matter how close you stand to the mirror. Only Drosera can be seen reflected. Perhaps she’s there as a reminder of what happens to women when they become ambitious.

One of the best comments I can give to Lost Grimoires is that I was so bound up in progressing that I forgot to take regular screenshots, yet that also may exaggerate my enjoyment. While the garden maze and exposition puzzles were interesting, Lost Grimoires 2: The Shard of Mystery is still not the game to shatter this genre. The search continues.