BigFish Games prove time and time again that they're not going to get stuck with one formula. Innovation galore!

User Rating: 9 | Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst PC
The Mystery Case Files series has quite a proud history, having spawned no less than 5 games already (not including other similar games by BigFish). The basic design is that of a casual game similar to the old "Where is Waldo" books - you go through room after room packed full of hidden objects, some of which you must locate within a certain timeframe, solving an unfolding mystery in the process. To anyone who hasn't played a similar game before this may sound simple, but one glance at one of the rooms in MCF games is enough to baffle the most keen-sighted. Objects are sometimes hidden so masterfully that you might spend several minutes looking for some of them.

As a casual game, players are free to leave the game and return to it at a later time, which also sometimes helps clear the brain and find the item that has eluded you last time you played.

With a premise so simple, it begs the question of how such a casual game could remain interesting over several years. The main reason for this is that BigFish games, creators of the Mystery Case Files series, continue to modify the playing experience with each and every sequel, introducing new elements of gameplay that surround and eventually merge with the "seek-and-click" portion, to make a game that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the "basic" Huntsville game, everything revolved around the item-filled rooms, so each level was only about solving a few different rooms and then continuing on to the next level with more rooms to search and less time to do so. "Prime Suspect" introduced some very interesting and enjoyable puzzles (like memory, lingual and jigsaw-type puzzles) at the end of each level. The original "Ravenhearst" put some more complex puzzles in-between the rooms as we explored a haunted mansion. And "Madame Fate" went on to combine all elements, with roughly a third of the time spent on solving some very complex and mind-boggling contraptions. Everything from "Hangman" word games to mathematical puzzles and sequence games were introduced, some of which were exceptionally ingenious.

With this line drawn so clearly in front of us, it is hardly surprising that BigFish games have finally made the leap, and taken the entire series to a whole new level: transforming "Return to Ravenhearst" into a fully-fledged adventure/puzzle game which to many may even remind of such games as "Myst" and "The 7th Guest". In "RtR", the player travels freely throughout the mansion, seeking puzzles to solve and proceeding at his or her own pace. Naturally, the main emphasis is still on the fun "Find the Hidden Item" portion, but it is now equally integrated with the objective of looking for new puzzles to solve and trying to figure out what to do with the rewards.

Ah yes, the rewards. Being much more of an adventure game now, "Return to Ravenhearst" introduces an inventory system where the player collects physical rewards from solving the item-hunting rooms. These rewards, themselves items, must be used in specific places in order to open up new pathways to advance in the game. For instance, a grate in the sewers underneath the mansion cannot be opened with the wrench you got in the first screen because the bolts have all rusted. A touch of rust-remover would help, if you could only find it! Of course, neither item would help if you can't find the way down into the sewers at all, which requires solving other puzzles along the way.

Unlike its predecessors, Return to Ravenhearst does not often require you to play the same item-filled-room puzzle more than once or twice. Instead, you will play MANY DIFFERENT room puzzles in a single play-through. Additionally, the game is no longer based on levels - you are free to explore the mansion as you like, and will play the different puzzles whenever you encounter them. This means that the time limit that was imposed on you to solve each level, in previous games, is now gone. Instead, the clock will simply keep ticking, and when you finish the game you will be scored based on how long it took. Removing the time limit made the game much less stressful and more accessible to those of us that don't like to think under pressure, a very smart move on BigFish's part.

Additionally, you can now use hints to help or even skip every puzzle in the game if you just can't be bothered, AS MANY TIMES AS YOU WANT. In return, you'll be paying with 30 minutes of clock time, so your score will suffer, but it does mean that ANYONE can reach the end of the game even if they encounter a puzzle that's just too difficult for them to solve! This makes Return to Ravenhearst the most accessible game in the series yet - you can't get stuck, so unless you're playing specifically to get a high score, nothing is stopping you from getting the satisfaction of having completed the game.

The plot of Return to Ravenhearst is also quite interesting, and involves a nefarious horror scheme that would put Josef Fritzl to shame. Although the video cutscenes that intersperse the adventure are a bit forced (and badly-acted), they only take up a very small amount of time and help convey the story that unfolds as you play. The plot thickens as you go, much like it did with the original Ravenhearst. The game really gives a nice sense of accomplishment when completed, and unless this is your first attempt at the Mystery Case Files series, the whole game should not occupy more than five hours of your time. And even with a strong central plot, you can pick it up and put it down whenever you want. Lastly, like all other MCF games, many of the puzzles work a bit differently each time you play, so the replayability value is VERY high even after having solved it a couple of times over.

All in all, I applaud BigFish Games for their ability to evolve their games beyond the original premise and game design, something that is SORELY lacking with many game series today, and also for the fact that they make some of the best puzzles I've ever played. I would recommend this game heartily to anyone who likes puzzle games in general, and due to the many new features included (especially the ability to skip any puzzle you like), I think it may also be suitable for younger children who could not play earlier games in the series for lack of such features.

My final piece of advice: If you want to know whether you should buy this game, all you need to do is have a look at some of its screenshots - they tell you everything you need to know. Enjoy your return to Ravenhearst!