Is it irony or tragedy that what seems to be the last entry in a franchise is also the best?
In the last three reviews of games formerly known as hidden object games I was pretty negative. “Ballad of Rapunzel” felt flat and uninteresting. “Enchantia” proved once and for all that my favorite developer had seriously lost their edge. And “Mystery Trackers” was as safe and run of the mill as you can get in today’s hog breeding business.
And I imagined a simple question on both my readers’ minds:
“If he doesn’t like the games, why does he keep playing them?”
I realize in retrospect that I haven’t really done much to actually sell people on the idea of HOGs and that I’ve maybe even done more harm to their already less than favorable image in the eyes of gamers everywhere.
So the question is fair. If I do dislike hidden object games so much, why do I keep playing game after game? Well, the simple answer could be that I’m simply addicted. If we’re gonna talk about games that trick you into a downwards spiral by using instant gratification, these games are only second to mobile games. But that’s the easy answer and not really a very good one.
No, my answer to the question “Why do you like Hidden Object Games?” is “Awakening: The Golden Age“.
Awakening is one of the most prolific franchises in this particular genre, spanning seven games plus a F2P game called “Awakening Kingdoms“. Check it out if you want a taste of HOGs without actually paying for it. It starred Princess Sophia who awakens (hence the title) from a long, deep slumber only to find her kingdom in ruins. What starts as a quest to find her parents soon become an adventure spanning the world, finding out what happened all those years ago and defeating the true evil behind it all.
The story came to a satisfying conclusion in “Awakening: The Redleaf Forest” and it was feared at the time to be the last in the franchise. However, Boomzap Entertainment, the creators of the franchise, surprised everyone when they six months later released “Golden Age”. More surprising, the game wasn’t a sequel but rather a prequel to the trials of Sophia featuring her ancestor saving the human kingdom from the minotaurs and going on to become the queen of the lands… well, rather hinted at becoming the queen but we’ll get to that.
Set in a time before time when the human kingdom enjoyed a golden age of magic, Sasha lives an unremarkable life in a small village. Like all other humans, she has a gift. Her gift gives her the power to see hidden things. But one night the minotaurs suddenly invade and cut a swath of destruction across the lands. Caught in the middle, you’re forced to accompany the minotaur healer Longhorm and human prince Cedric to save both kingdoms from making a terrible mistake.
As is the tradition with Awakening, you play as a female protagonist in a high fantasy setting. During your journey you’ll see a lot of fantastic locales, heal and ride dragons, play with the local wildlife and interact with a myriad of creatures. You start out running for your life in a small, sleepy village but end traveling the lands to exotic locations and stop royal assassinations. Together with a dashing, young prince and wise beyond his years sage. There’s fighting and adventure and daring escapes!
All in all, it’s a pretty fun romp in a way that I can’t really say the other Awakening games were. The game is entirely standalone which perhaps gives it the freedom that the other games didn’t have. The bigger focus on magic and making it a more common occurrence also helps increase the settings more fantastical nature. Whereas the previous Awakening games were restricted to mostly high fantasy, this goes beyond that and creates something more unique, something with a little bit more of its own identity.
In a “chicken and egg” sort of way, it’s hard to say what helped the other more. Did the setting inspire the art or did the art make the setting? Either way, the art captivated me in a way that no other Awakening game ever truly has. It is, in the best of ways, completely fantastical and I couldn’t help but want to know even more about the world itself. It’s well put together, you can tell someone had a steady hand in the art direction and while it at times borrows a bit too heavily from common fantasy tropes, it never once feels repetitive on a visual basis.
It helps, of course, that there’s so much color that for a while I thought I was living in a technicolor dream. Green is definitely the primary color here but it’s never overbearing and it does fit with the theme and story with blue playing another big part, also fitting with the story. But the game isn’t afraid to mix it up with some truly dark colors either, some pictures feature some truly gorgeous contrast that I can’t help but to admire.
The only issue I have is that the design, at times, fail to give you the direction you need. Getting stuck was an all too often occurrence and it was often due to having overlooked some minor area of interactivity. True, one could say I’m to blame for that but I was playing on the easiest setting and even then the game did a pretty poor job at highlighting areas where I needed to go. Also, for the first time, I think, Awakening features 3D models instead of the 2D paper cutouts that many HOGs use with varying degrees of success. And while it does give the characters more life, the 3D is easily of the worst quality here. I’d rate it about Playstation level, honestly, and not the second one either.
Another area I wasn’t overly impressed with was in the audio department. The voices are for the most part good but the music tends to disappear in all the other goodness. Even listening to it afterwards was a bit of a letdown as nothing really stood out. It’s a good soundtrack but it’s the one area where the game feels a bit too familiar, as if we’ve heard the music a hundred times before. It fit the tone of the game and it never bothered me during the actual game which is a big plus in itself. But it never jumped out at me either, robbing it of that extra gold star.
But a game without good gameplay can be as pretty as it likes and while “Golden Age” doesn’t do much to truly break the mold, it does its best to invigorate old mechanics to make them more palatable. Hidden object scenes are highly interactive, not just in the typical way of using keys on locks to get to the object you’re really after or sub-scenes within the scenes, though it features a lot of that also. But the game also makes you look for keys to unlock the list of hidden objects itself and it continuously mixes up the type of hidden objects you’re looking for. Sometimes it’s a fragmented object scene, sometimes the list of objects form one long chain of interactivity and sometimes, while minor, the objects themselves hide what you’re really after.
The puzzles range from standard to outright outstanding which is better than a lot of games manage to pull off these days. There a handful of memory games, slider puzzles and jigsaw puzzles and variations thereof and in all due respect, they’re done well. But the puzzles that really drew me in were the puzzles like the above picture map puzzle where you’re given a number of clues and have to complete the map accordingly. It wasn’t as hard as it could’ve been but it was still challenging and forced you to use logic rather than guessing or simply keeping at it long enough.
One thing I wish all HOGs would start doing is scale puzzles according to chosen difficulty. ‘Cause I hear you all judging me for playing it on easy but in reality the changes to the actual difficulty is superficial at best, stupid at worst. I stopped playing on harder difficulties because they make the game harder simply by annoying you. The hint and skip buttons recharge slower, which is fine, but to challenge you further the game removes the few indicators of interesting areas they have such as sparkles indicating active hidden object scenes and the like.
In other words, the puzzles themselves never get harder, the game just becomes more tedious to play. If the game offered harder puzzles to solve, I’d play on the highest difficulty every time but as it stands, it’s not worth the aggravation. And having sparkles indicate active scenes didn’t actually help all that much.
Another thing that got on my nerves was the opening movie. Not so much the movie itself, that was fine if a bit generic but you had to click the Skip button twice to make the movie go away. Either they couldn’t get the movie in one piece (and that sounds incredibly fucking stupid) or they screwed up the programming. Either way, one of those things that kept niggling.
As I played the Collector’s Edition I also had access to the Bonus Chapter which adds about an hour of gameplay after but it’s only slightly connected with the plot itself and only serves to further its status as a prequel and spell it out in more brightly colored text. But it does expand the world even further and practically makes me desperate for a continuation of the story itself if only to see how the world expands. When they started showcasing trains and talk about steam engines I couldn’t help but to feel that they were on to something truly interesting.
Otherwise the CE (Collector’s Edition) contained the same bonuses as usual: artwork, music and the ability to replay the puzzles. The only thing I didn’t like was that there didn’t seem to be any way to save the soundtrack. Standard procedure these days is that you can save a copy of the game’s soundtrack but some times they only let you listen to the soundtrack with the game open which to me feels very… pointless. Add to that that I can simply go into the directory and take the music from there, it seems rather unnecessarily cheap to not offer the soundtrack to less computer savvy people.
All complaints aside, however, “Golden Age” is everything I needed it to be and if this is the last installment in the Awakening series then they leave on a high note. It’s a perfect example of what I like to call a “girly game”. Games clearly marketed towards girls without getting dumb about it. Even though it features a prince and a woman saving the kingdom from an evil guy it never feels patronizing. Other games tend to go too far and offer up the whole shebang with a magical wedding punctuating the ending for good measure and everyone living happily ever after but not here. Golden Age has the balls to get a bit dark and never succumbing entirely to the tritest of cliches.
Due its status as a prequel it’s not a half bad place to start if you want to test the series, and HOGs in general, out. The graphics are, for the most part, good, the story is engaging enough and the gameplay is some of the best I have seen in a long time, especially out of Boomzap. Maybe one day I’ll tell you why I said that just now.
“Awakening: The Golden Age” was created by Boomzap Entertainment.
To find out more about the game or try the demo, go to Big Fish Games here.