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Hidden Object games
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, © 2008

Format: Game
Review Date:   August 26, 2008

There’s a type of downloadable puzzle game that's spawned a whole subgenre (for the subgenius) called Hidden Object games. You should be able to guess, right about now, funk soul brother, that the point of these games is to find specific objects hidden in a picture. A very simple mechanic, so simple it seems like some enterprising group designed game-development software specifically for this type of game, since many of the games by different developers use the same objects.

I don't just mean the same object, as in they'll both ask you to look for an African mask, but that both (pretty much every one I've played) will have the same graphic for the object, the same exact thing, which, after playing a number of these games, makes you feel like you're playing the same one over and over again.

Which, in fact, you are. The game mechanic is unassailable in terms of change for better or worse. Or so one would think . . . there are slight variations, such as finding fifteen of the same type of object, or looking for the silhouette of the thing rather than having a name to work from, or using clue descriptions to figure out what object you’re supposed to find, or (my favorite, though not the most challenging) using multiple objects on the screen, such as striking a match on a matchbook to light a candle. Also, the same-same-saminess is exacerbated in that different rounds of the game use the same pictures/locations, so that you become familiar with where all the objects on a screen are, even if you haven't had to find them before.

Still, I find myself addicted. With each game I play, I become better at finding objects, until a round that might have taken me fifteen to twenty minutes before now takes a minute and a half, or less. So why am I still playing? As with everything for me gamewise, there needs to be a story that compels whatever puzzle-deciphering I'm undertaking. In some cases the story is so slack and slight that the puzzle is all that drives me forward, making me hate the game by the end, or at least be disgusted by the lack of creativity of the designers.

For example, Abra Academy: Returning Cast has a story that involves, in the climax, hunting over wastes and forests to find an evil magician who's attacking your old magic school. Characters even talk about how they have to travel far and wide to find this evildoer. However, this game, like most, has a single uberlocation: the school of magic and its immediate environs.

I was hoping that, when this necessary trip was laid out, that the difficulty would be increased and the game would be made more interesting through having a sequence of all new environments that detailed the trip the heroes were making. Instead, the same locations were used, in the school, even though the story claimed otherwise.

Stupid, lazy designers.

However, some other games are definitely worth playing. Madame Fate (there are four games, with more to come) have the same dynamic, of course, but a sense of humor and a dark edge to the storyline that is engaging and stands out from all the more kid-friendly but bland-as-hell-and-without-thought fare. More exciting to me is that the designers up themselves with every incarnation, adding more intricate and lovely art design, more difficult and ingenious puzzles, and an interesting and continuing story. The last game, Madame Fate, is definitely worth your time and money, as is the prequel, Ravenhearst Manor.

Magic Academy isn't quite as good, overall, but it has an interesting storyline (even if the dialogue is poorly translated), and the puzzles are intricately woven into the story. Its art design is pretty cool as well. The bad news is the game can't be replayed at all; instead of randomizing the objects needing to be found, as other games do, here they are always the same.

Hidden Relics is also a definite, “yes, spend your money here” item. Granted, I haven't finished it yet, but I'm saving it for last. The game mechanics, of course, are the same, but the story is interesting, as is the implementation, such as comic book style introductions to each chapter, and the interesting mass of clutter you need to weed through in each picture.

I'm guessing these three are second or third generation hidden object games. In the first generation, novelty is all, and so there doesn't need to be anything more than an item hidden in a picture. Later, more is demanded, such as "Why the hell are there all these frelling objects anyway?!", and the better games make sense of the ludicrousness of the game mechanic by tying it into the story.

In Madame Fate, the scenes are from an abandoned (or nearly so) carnival, so trash and debris are expected. In Magic Academy, the items aren't (usually) random, being more of a find-the-object game rather than a hidden-object game. And Hidden Relics has you looking, at one point, for an antique soccer ball. No lie.

So, if you’re looking to waste some time, and feel good about your mad skillz while doing so, give these games a shot. Technically, they’re “casual games”, which supposedly means you can pick them up and put them down with ease. What it usually means for me is that I casually spend seven straight hours completing a game, then pass out from mental exhaustion and lack of food. And if anyone gives you any flak, you can always say you're improving your mind. Or exercising. Your right hand.

Andrew Kozma has been casually gamed since the age of five. His flesh is tender, yet gamey. Please parboil.

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