Awakening: The Golden Age has some serious competition for the best HOG ever spot.
Every so often it becomes difficult for me to remember why I like HOGs. I’ve spoken about them before, those near mythical, rare creatures masquerading as really good HOGs only to fall into a slump of mediocre or even bad games. For every review you see on this blog, expect there to be at least two or three, perhaps even more, that I never talked about. Sometimes there’s nothing interesting to say about them or perhaps I feel like I just repeat whatever I said last time… again. And again. Again and again and again.
For as much as I love HOGs, I can never shake the feeling that these games can be so much more. What does it say about the state of the genre, this little corner of the industry that no-one much cares about, when some of the best helpings I’ve had as of late are on my phone or the tablet. Full-fledged PC releases with 2D graphics up the wazoo struggle to give me the experience that I want, no, need from these games. But mobile games can?
So it’s easy for me to become… jaded. Cynical, even. But then it happens. One of those rare, near mythical… things just happen to wander along and I become entranced again. I remember why I fell in love with HOGs and I remember why I love them so much. One of those creatures is “Lost Lands: The Four Horsemen“.
This is the second game in the Lost Lands franchise, now spanning two PC games and a tablet game. It’s the first I ever played so I’m jumping into in the middle of the story, what little of it there is. You play as Susanna, a brave mother who, if I understand things correctly, has already braved the Lost Lands once when her son was kidnapped. This time she is called upon to save the lands from the four horsemen, beings of incredible power that wish to conquer all realms.
If there is one criticism I can level at this game, it’s the plot. It’s not so much that it’s bad, it’s your typical save the fantasy world stuff you see a lot of, especially in young adult adventure stories. It’s trite, it’s done, it’s tried and while it works, doesn’t set anyone’s pants on fire.
However, I really don’t care. Because while the plot itself may not be all that interesting, the world we’re suddenly in turns out to be really interesting. Filled with the usual fantasy creatures, you’re left pretty much to your own devices as you search out a way to defeat the four horsemen and save the universe. There, while traveling this small part of a huge world you will visits the dwarfs, talk with the mermaids and explore a culture devastated by the mere presence of the horsemen.
And it is a rich, exciting world filled to the brim with lore and little tidbits of information scattered about. There’s so much they could’ve left up to cliches but decides to explore slightly further. While we’re not talking Elder Scrolls-amounts of text lying around, it’s far more than we normally get and we’re encouraged to find a lot of it as well since it’s part of an achievement.
Never once did I feel bored looking around the corners, eager to see what I would explore next. As such the simpleness of the story never bothered me because the world itself was interesting enough to keep me going. The many different locales and the different architecture scattered throughout the world whispered of a fantastical land.
Of course, that comes with some issues as well. The major being that the game gets far too big towards the end. It would’ve been fine if the game was designed around a hub or if they’d cleverly written it so the need to revisit places was kept to a minimum. But the way this game is designed, it’s like starting at the base of a tree. At first there’s just one path and it’s pretty simple. But little by little the locales branch off and further along the branch grow little twigs here and there. Eventually the map looks like a huge tree and it’s a bit of hassle to traverse to another branch. And the only way to go there is by way of the base again.
Like I said, it mostly becomes a problem towards the end when you’re mopping up all the straggling puzzles which often meant traversing from one end to the other to pick up any items you may have forgotten along the path.
And while the level design is generally pretty good, there were times when it was difficult to tell what was an area of interest or just visual fluff. Don’t get me wrong, the game looks absolutely astonishingly good. I mean, it’s easily in my top five best looking HOGs ever, if not the best. And for the most part it uses color and visual clues to give you a helping hand in figuring out what parts of the visually stunning environments you care about and which ones you only think look pretty. There were, however, times when I got stuck simply because I had missed some area of interest.
But it wasn’t the norm. For the most part I raced along the game and yet somehow the game never felt short. Each scene is packed with items and puzzles and areas of interest and somehow I never got bored with picking up items.
And speaking of picking items up, let’s talk about the hidden object scenes themselves, the meat of the game. Well, not really the meat in this case, more like… treats. They’re not your standard scenes with simply a list of items to find at the bottom of the screen and some minor interactivity here and there. No, these scenes make so much sense it’s almost scary. I look at them and all I can think is “Yes… this it. This is how it should be.” It’s not the first time I’ve seen this type of scene but a game consisting entirely of them? Unheard of, at least to me.
The way it works is that the goal of each scene is to find one specific item. You do this by finding other items and following a specific chain of events.
You find the hammer.
You smash the table open with the hammer.
Inside the table you find a wrench.
You use the wrench to undo the bolts on a cogwheel.
You place the cogwheel where it belongs.
A chest opens up and inside is the item you seek.
Or something along those lines, often working on multiple sequences at the same time, all in some way key to unlocking the item you seek. It’s actually a pretty ingenious way of doing hidden object scenes, one I fully applaud as it does away with the weary question of “What the hell do they do with all the items they find? Why just grab one thing and why this thing!?” It probably also help that they’re not as numerous as in other games, here appearing now and then to remind you that it’s a HOG and not just a straight up adventure game. It probably could’ve gone straight adventure but whatever, I’m not complaining.
One aspect I wish they did something different with was the puzzles. Unlike the hidden object scenes that were wildly different from the norm, the puzzles pretty much fall into the typical categories. Jigsaw puzzles of various kinds were very prevalent, which I like, but it was pretty standard as far as the eye could see. There was a paint-by-number, labyrinths and your standard variety of code puzzles. And mind you, they weren’t bad by any standard. While some of them were the “repetition” kind of puzzles, the ones where you can’t really fail if you try long enough, others actually had me thinking.
I know, who ever thought puzzles that made you think would be fun! Crazy!
And to sweeten the deal, find all of the machine parts, a collectible, scattered around the world and you unlock twenty “Pipe Dream“-puzzles. Of course, twenty puzzles sound like a lot but it really didn’t take me that long to complete them all. But that’s not what’s important, the important part was that I enjoyed myself utterly while playing them. And a huge part of that was simply because the difficulty kept increasing the more puzzles you solved.
The thing about recurring puzzles is that the more you play, the more techniques you learn to handle the puzzle faster, more efficiently. And as the puzzles increase in difficulty, you techniques evolve, change or become outdated and you learn again. By the end of these twenty puzzles, I had a lot of different tactics that I applied. And I sort of wished I could’ve stayed there, just playing these increasingly difficult puzzles.
And perhaps that is a good way of doing it. Have the story mode be more of an introduction and then have the puzzles hidden in the extras somewhere, where you can indulge in the ones you liked and train on the ones you fell short on.
Or perhaps that’s the wrong way of doing it. I’ve complained about this for a while now but HOGs need to grow up and accept that not everyone playing them are beginners. And building them for beginners again… and again… and again will only drive away those who are you main audience, those of us who return.
No, removing the sparkles that indicate an interactive area is not sufficient in raising the difficulty. Nor is removing the map or the hint function. Well, okay, maybe removing the hint function. But more than anything you make the game more boring, not more challenging. Completing it on Hard is no more challenging than it is on Normal or Easy, it’s just more tedious and you have to wait longer for the Hint to recharge. If I play it on Normal and simply don’t use the Map or the Hint then it shouldn’t be the same as playing it on Hard. It just shouldn’t.
Getting an extra achievement simply isn’t good enough incentive to make me play it on Hard.
But I digress, hearing me complain about that over and over again, review after review must get tiresome. So while I would like to whine about that some more, here’s some pretty art to look at.
And what fine art it is indeed. I don’t know where they got their art degree from but where ever it is, the rest of the industry need to go there and brush up. It loses some of its charm here since it’s not animated whereas in the game, everything just looks vibrant and alive. Each place you visit more fantastic than the last. Though orange has a tendency to dominate the color spectrum, the world has more colors than a couple of AAA games combined. Blues, greens, reds, yellows, it’s all there and it’s all good, intermingling and creating a spectacular feast for the eye.
Perhaps the worst thing I can say about the art is that it’s almost too good at times, my rigid mind immediately interpreting any interesting area that stands out as something important. But more than once there were areas that weren’t as interactive as any other game will have taught you by now.
But when it shines, it really shines.
This is just one of those cases where the art is enough to sell the game to me. When I first started the game up, I was stunned by how beautiful the game was and knew right then and there that I would enjoy this game, flaws and all. It could’ve been the worst HOG I’d ever played and yet somehow I’d still be gushing about it.
Heck, even the cutscenes look good. Of course, I’ve seen better. Hollywood produces near life-like people with CGI these days and it’s getting harder and harder to tell them from the real people. And the game industry is no slouch either, producing movies in higher resolutions than I can count (probably). But for a HOG it’s fantastically high standards, in a piece of the industry where paper cutouts and PowerPoint transitions is considered standard.
Of course, at this point I prefer full motion video (that is to say real actors cut into the game) over the damn paper cutouts.
Perhaps it seems weird to you that I praise the graphics as much as I do and while I agree that graphics aren’t everything, pretending like it’s nothing is not okay either. Graphics do matter, perhaps not as much as the actual gameplay, but I’ll take a good looking game with great gameplay over a shitty looking one with the same gameplay. Anything else would just be weird.
And, to top it off, it has great music as well. Especially track 8. Track 8 is amazing… seriously, developers, name your tracks. Or tell your musician to name them. It’s really boring to talk about track 8 or B. Please?
But I’m not joking when I said the music was great. It has that… old school adventure feel to it. Channeling a mixture of Goonies, Star Wars and Indiana Jones and any given number of adventure movies, it melded together with exploring the lifeless environments complete with ambient sounds just perfectly. It, of course, helps that the music gathers much inspiration from various cultures and styles around the world all while integrating it into a fantastical soundtrack.
One thing I was extremely fond of, a minor thing mayhaps but important to me none the less, was that every time you moved from one place to another there was this low, booming sound. And every now and again, timed with the music and the current task, it just worked so brilliantly together that it was all I could think about for a while. Just this sound effect repeating over and over again. It was beautiful.
But I can’t keep gushing over this game, no game is perfect. So, uh, I guess… the voices weren’t always that good? I kid. Not about the voices but that it seems like a minor thing. It wasn’t. For the most part it was actually good. Or perhaps just decent. Either way, it didn’t bother me. But the dwarfs were really grating to listen to and that’s a problem since the two dwarfs you do encounter seem to have the most dialog.
It goes for a cliche accent and tone of voice, ala Gimli from the movie adaptations of Lord of the Rings. But it just doesn’t work as well, you can really tell it’s not the actor’s normal voice and he struggles to maintain it. The dwarf king is even worse.
However, for once the extra content is actually totally worth it. Not only do you get a bunch of extra puzzles, a gorgeous soundtrack and some wallpapers actually worthy of being put on your desktop but also a pretty meaty extra chapter. It doesn’t really reveal anything new but it’s mostly new places that you’ve never been to and it’s a curious look at events from a slightly different angle and how it all fits together.
Where does this ultimately leave us? With a good game? If you read all of those words above and didn’t just look at the very… VERY pretty pictures… you’d know that. ‘Cause it totally is a good game. As I sit here, listening to the soundtrack (that you got with the Collector’s Edition) in the dead of the night, I can’t really come up with any compelling reason not to play this game. For you, that is, I’ve already played it and I don’t really intend to play it any time soon again.
Does it have flaws? Absolutely but the day I stop finding flaws in games is the day my career as a critic is officially over (if it ever officially begins). But the question I always ask myself is… did the flaws in any way stop me from enjoying the game? And the simple answer is: no.
I really, really, really liked this game. I’d love to play it again for the first time. I sort of wish this was my introduction to HOGs ’cause it would’ve bloody well blown my mind.
Five-BN Games weren’t on my radar before. In fact, when I looked them up I had no idea who they were or even what they had done. After playing this game and looking through their catalog I wasn’t remotely surprised to find another HOG I really enjoyed. But more about that franchise at another time. Gotta save some mystery.
Lost Lands: The Four Horsemen was developed by Five-BN Games.
To find out more about the game and play the demo, visit Big Fish Games here.