That horrific realization that things might’ve been wrong for a lot longer than you thought.
A while back I spoke of “Dark Parables: Ballad of Rapunzel” and how deeply disappointed I was that one of my favorite HOG-makers had turned to rubbish. So deeply hurt was I that I lashed out by starting to use a lot of makeup, dyed my hair black and started talking about cutting myself… well, okay, perhaps not that fucked up, I mean, who could ever do that to themselves and come out with an ounce of dignity?
But I was definitely saddened by what I experienced and thought to myself that it was a great shame that it had happened. Blue Tea Games was a great studio, sort of a mentor for me in the world of hidden object games as they introduced me to the genre and taught me what a good HOG was.
But playing the now two year old “Enchantia“, a game not related to Dark Parables, I’ve come to the realization that there’s been something wrong at Blue Tea Games for a lot longer and that I just didn’t see it or willfully ignored it. Because just about every problem I had with “Ballad of Rapunzel” rears its ugly head here. And removed from my nostalgia for “Dark Parables”, the flaws are much, much harder to ignore.
Much like “Ballad of Rapunzel”, and in fact the majority of Blue Tea Games’… uh, games, this falls into the category of FROG, aka FRagmented Object Game and the gist is still the same. When you’re not busy running around looking for interactive areas and actually find a hidden object scene, your task is to find pieces of an object that fuse together and become a usable item. The rest of the game plays like a normal adventure game in that you take the objects you’ve found and use them in the right places to progress in the game.
And that’s just about where anything positive I have to say about the game ends and that was vaguely generic at best. No, from start to finish this game is just that, an utter mess which is very unfortunate.
The game takes place in Enchantia which is a world or a country or an area or something. I’m a bit fussy on the details but they definitely mention Enchantia a whole lot. Enchantia is in turn populated by elves and dwarfs and humans and various other magical beings such as the Skybirds and once upon a time the Ancients. But many, many years ago the Phoenix Queen arrived and started burning the lands to ashes. Eventually they managed to seal her away but they knew the seal would not last forever. And so the prophecy went that soon a Skybird would be born that could stop the Phoenix Queen once and for all. You are that Skybird. And it is up to you to defeat the Phoenix Queen once and for all and bring peace to the lands.
See, when I write it like that, it sounds almost vaguely interesting and appealing but I assure you that it’s anything but. Perhaps it was my own fault, my attitude getting in the way, but the plot quickly became a tedious task to slog through rather than something you eagerly unfold. Because there’s not really much to actually explore as far as the plot goes, it’s used mostly to string together the various locales you go to. Eventually they just stop pretending like they have a plot and ask you to go get four magical macguffins to stop the Phoenix Queen and even here they skimp pretty hard on the plot as you end up getting two of the magical items at the same time.
There’s also a romance subplot but the less said of that the better because it’s so cliche and cheesy that you’d think it was a joke. The game also HEAVILY reminded me of X-Men and the Dark Phoenix Saga. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking they just copied that and put it in a generic fantasy world. Phoenix force comes down to possess someone, that someone turns evil and is killed, then reborn and must be put down again. It all sounds vaguely familiar somehow.
Once you lose interest in the plot, it’s pretty much downhill from there. Graphically this game is quite busy, there’s a lot to fix your eyes on and normally this is countered by the game highlighting areas and/or having the mouse change shape when you hover over an area of interest. This game, as I have repeatedly said, is a mess.
What in this screen am I supposed to fix my eyes on? The center statue? The chest in the middle? The two areas on either side of the statue? What about the orange lanterns near the forefront? Or how about the water to the lower right? Or the tree roots on the left? When the screen is this cluttered, I often come to rely on the cursor to tell me what is of interest and what isn’t. I assume that when it changes shapes, it wants to tell me something of importance. Unfortunately, 90% of the time when you click something here, it’s just flavor text. Oh, the cursor changes shape constantly but it doesn’t just signify interesting areas but a lot of text that I quite frankly don’t care about. Getting fed up with the amount of completely uninteresting text, I started skipping much of the text.
And this, obviously, created more problems. Another way for a HOG to make extra sure that you’re clued in on an important area is for the game to zoom in and give you a much closer look. Here you either take all the items that aren’t nailed down or you hover the mouse around, clicking on things until the game gives you a clue as to what’s missing and how you can set things right, allowing you to move on. Don’t get me wrong, Enchantia have this as well… but there are also times when it doesn’t zoom in. Instead clues are given in the same shape and form as all the flavor text, which we’ve established that I skip. And the art is awful at drawing your eyes to anything of importance.
What this ended up doing was make me confused and had me wasting a lot of time before I gave in and referred to a walkthrough to help me out. When you have to refer to a walkthrough just to find out where you’re supposed to go next, that is not the fault of the player but the designer and poor design. Other HOGs get around this by having the areas close off as you move through the game, giving you a map that highlights areas of importance, a good flow and less backtracking or by making all areas distinct, giving you a rough idea where any piece of a puzzle fits in just from looking at it.
But in Enchantia we have what appears like a fallen pillar that you’re supposed to use a fire orb on to light a fire, how did I not figure that out on my own? Or the time when I’m supposed to put a vase in the hands of a statue, that looks like every other damn statue in the game that you can’t interact with, so water flows from the vase and allows a mushroom to grow. OF COURSE!
There is such a thing as overdesigned and this game definitely fits the bill. Look at the doorway to the left there. It’s a door, how much stuff could you possibly put on one door? And that mural on the right? Pure flavor text, it’s of no important at all except hint at something the game flat out tells you in a few minutes anyway so what’s the point? So I can go back and look at it later and go “Oh yeah, I totally forgot about that!”?
As for the hidden object scenes… or, well, fragmented object scenes? Well… look at it:
It’s a mess, obviously, but this is the sort of place where such a design actually belongs. The more I play HOGs the less into FROGs I actually am, I like to use some form of deduction to figure out where an object might be. If I know the rough size of something then I know where in the picture it can realistically be. Or I catch myself thinking:
“Oh, cone! As in pine cone! Not traffic cone! Oh, you got me there.”
Or just to see how clever they can get at hiding things. Of course, if I’m told to look for a boat, I have to think more steps than one. Yes, it could be an actual boat but it could also be a toy boat? Or a picture of a boat. With regular HOGs there’s always this constant battle against preconceived notions about what a word means and the more you play them, the easier it gets which in turn prompts the designers to get better at hiding stuff.
With FROGs there’s not been much of an evolution because you can break an object into any amount of pieces and hide them as you please, meaning you simply have to look and/or click randomly to find them, there is no deduction to be had. Of course, Blue Tea Games have never made it easy on us by having the objects we’re looking for be overdesigned pieces of jewelry and the like that fits in with the cluttered world. So the fragments you’re looking for come in a huge variety of shapes and forms that you don’t really have a mental catalog for.
But what I will not forgive them for is the manner in which they’ve hidden the objects in Enchantia because they did the one thing I cannot accept. And that is showing me an image of the object I’m looking for then changing it in the scene itself. That’s cheating and I don’t like it. If I’m looking for a specific shape of a specific color then I’d appreciate it if you didn’t screw around with the size and color too much because I’m more likely to just click randomly on anything suspicious than actually look for it. Looking for something made out of wires in a pile of wires, you only have the reference to go on and if that’s not very accurate, it’s down to dumb luck if you find it or not.
Another thing I cannot stomach is when HOGs reactive scenes and it doesn’t fit organically into the flow of the game. Often this means you have to run around, checking in on all the hidden object scenes you’ve done to see if there’s new objects to be found. This is okay if you have to pass these scenes anyway but if I specifically have to take time out of the game just to see if past scenes are active, then I have two choice words for you: fuck and you.
It’s a shame too because again, the quality of the graphics is good. It’s the design that fails it. The same goes for the music which is good if forgettable. Voice acting is good and some puzzles are actually, genuinely good. But more often than not I just ended up skipping quite a few puzzles because they got too tedious to deal with in the long run. The Bonus Chapter in particular was just not good, I didn’t know why I was doing any of the things I was doing. Some puzzles came back and they were tougher but at that point I had already run out of patience so I skipped the majority of them. And they weren’t challenging in the “get a pen and paper”-way but in the monotonous kind of way where you have to get symbols in a certain order by pressing buttons that rotate them or some such.
Had I played this when it was first released, maybe I would’ve liked it or maybe I would’ve seen already then how out of their depth Blue Tea Games really were compared to many other outstanding HOG designers and developers. Maybe the genre just got away from them or perhaps they knew it wasn’t their calling. I dunno.
I do know now that it was a precursor to all the problems I had with Rapunzel and it makes me wonder if I would like the old Dark Parables as much as I used to should I play them today. Maybe I should find out?