I've got a new obsession, and for once it isn't some wildly unsuitable and clearly uninterested bloke. My gaming PC is currently in the computer equivalent of the intensive care ward in a hospital, and as it also acts as the monitor for my games consoles, I'm stuck with my work laptop sans 3D card for the foreseeable future.
So, what's a gaming nut to do? Since I needed something low-spec, I figured I'd go and check out some casual games. Part of the reason I haven't before is the name--"casual" somehow applies it's not something you can get into too deeply, will have low production values, be short, and way too easy to boot. Not something that a proper, hardcore gamer like myself would play. In reality, they're just games that are designed to be easy to get into, and can be picked up and put down around the rest of your life--I find myself just as absorbed by some casual games as I have been with titles in other game genres.
Since I love mystery novels, one of the first games I tried out was Mystery Case Files: Huntsville. And so began my new addiction--the genre of 'hidden object games,' sometimes known as 'scavenger hunt,' or 'hide and seek games.' The basic premise is, you are shown a picture (or photograph) of somewhere piled high from corner to corner with clutter, and given a list of items to find in the picture within a certain time limit.
If any of you have read any of the Where's Wally? series of books, you'll understand that this is something that sounds deceptively easy. The fact is, the human brain only consciously processes a certain amount of information from what the eye can see, otherwise we would be 'overloaded' with data from the outside world. It can only register what it thinks is important, and disregards the rest. This means that searching out those objects within a 'busy' image can be very, very tricky indeed. Once you've found an object after staring bleary-eyed at the monitor for what seems like forever, it seems obvious, but nonetheless seemed impossible to be hidden in the image at all at first.
So, here's the first three of my personal reviews. I'll write more when I get some time. The games are usually available for an hour's free trial, and after that the full version usually costs $19.99 (approx £10). They can be bought from Web sites like Big Fish or Gamehouse Games, although some titles are exclusive to one or the other.
Big City Adventures San Francisco
Developer: Jolly Bear Games
This is, as the title suggests, set in various environments in San Francisco including Alcatraz, The Mission, and North Beach. The environments are bright and colourful, with neat little animated touches, for instance cockroaches climbing the walls inside a cell in Alcatraz, and gently swaying lanterns outside a restaurant in China Town.
You choose an avatar to play as--Mum, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Brother or Sister, although this is a purely cosmetic choice, and doesn't change the gameplay at all. At the beginning of each level, you will receive a postcard from your avatar with some trivia titbits about the location you are due to visit.
The game has 60 levels, although I was disappointed after the level 20 to find that instead of 60 unique locations across San Francisco, there were just 20, and gamers would visit each area three times. Knowing there was no chance of discovering somewhere new, I somewhat lost interest in the game after level 20 or so.
You're never stuck as hidden gold coins in each environment give you the options for hints, extra time, and bonus points. They replenish automatically, so if you use up all your hint coins on one level, you'll find more hidden in the next one. If you just hold on to them, you'll find extra points coins instead.
My biggest problem with this game is the mini-games between each level, which are often frustrating and tedious--there are four, jigsaws, snap, and two matching games. Replayability is also an issue, as the game doesn't generate a random list, but rather is deliberately sloped to become harder as you progress through the levels--meaning that in your first look at places up to level 20, all the objects on your list will be very easy to find, but by your third visit are likely to be only partially visible behind other objects.
The frustrating mini games are all that stop Big City Adventures San Francisco from being one of the best Hidden Objects games out there.
My score: 7/10
Hidden Expedition: Titanic
Developer: Big Fish Games
In this game, you play the role of a freelance treasure hunter sent to recover items from the underwater wreck of the ill-fated ship the Titanic.
The locations you explore include the deck, bedrooms, and staircases as you move through the ship gathering items for your sponsors. Mini games inbetween the levels include piecing together eerie, old photographs related to the passengers on the ocean liner, finding special item sets, and finding 10 times one item in a single image.
The underwater images of the doomed ship are atmospheric and spooky, and trivia about the boat between the levels is by turns horrifying and fascinating (telling you facts, like for instance, what the people left behind on the boat did to while away the time as they were waiting for the vessel to completely sink and for themselves to drown). However, a disclaimer at the start of the game states, "Any resemblance to authentic historical or scientific fact is unintentional." So is this real history or not? Hmmm...
I frequently found myself running out of time in this game and having to restart levels, as the allotted time for each series of rooms frequently seemed to not be enough. The amount of time left is shown as an oxygen gauge, and when you run out of oxygen, you must abandon the current diving mission and resurface. There are a limited amount of oxygen tanks hidden in the wreckage, which, when clicked on, slightly increase your oxygen levels and the amount of time you have. Hints are always available, but as they decrease your oxygen levels drastically, are frequently not an option.
Well presented, atmospheric, but definitely one for those who like a challenge.
My score: 8/10
Developer: Goggii Games
A much more lighthearted game than the last one, Paparazzi puts you in the shoes of the man (or woman) everybody loves to hate--a paparazzi photographer. You are tasked by your editors to investigate a series of would-be scoops by gathering photographic evidence from a variety of locations to prove a story is legit. For example, when on a story about a star reputed to be pregnant, you have to photograph items visible through her gate, including baby cribs, dummies, and strollers.
In between the hidden objects levels are amusing mini-games which see you trying to grab pictures of the nutty celebrities you have been stalking. They will pop up in various places in the picture on screen--but only for a second or two--and you have to get your lens on them and snap a decent photo before they disappear again. You also get a bonus round for every story--a kind of a spot the difference, where you have to circle as many items that have been moved or changed in an attempt by the star to "cover up" whatever it is they're hiding.
Depending on how good your photos look, will determine on which page your story ends up, and your high score at the end of the level. I loved Paparazzi, my only complaint is that the game seemed to be over way too soon.
I really enjoyed the zany humour, and exposing the daft celebs that populated the games world. However, replayability is a bit of an issue, as there are few locations, and upon reloading the game, the items I needed to search for on the list appeared to be much the same as the first round--possibly because the items needed to be the same to make sense in the stories.
My score: 7/10