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.

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.

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.