Despite any criticism I may have, Mad Head Games delivers yet another stunning HOPA.
I’ve been struggling with this post. You might have figured as much since I haven’t actually posted it yet. But it’s not for the reasons you might think. You might be thinking I’m not sure what I think of the game when it’s quite the opposite. I know exactly what I think of the game and I can even put it into words: It’s really good.
But writing a positive review is harder than one might think. Criticizing something negatively is easy but trying to praise something? There’s only so many ways you can say “This is pretty damn good.” If you think negative reviews become tedious, you’d get bored pretty quickly with nothing but praise. It is so dull and uninteresting to read, not to mention write, that I’m not entirely sure one can make his living that way.
I don’t make my living this way but I sure do aspire to.
None the less, I need to write something and I promised myself I wouldn’t skip out on another Mad Head Games.
You wake up in the middle of the night and sense that there’s someone, or something, else in the room. Before you have time to call for your guards, a huge polar bear comes walking out from the shadows and gives you a warning of grim tidings. The princess in the neighboring country has been trapped within a tower encased in ice and if you don’t save her, darkness will spread across all lands eventually. Given new magical powers, you once again set out to save a kingdom and the world, searching for the one thing that can break the curse on the tower: the Ice Saber. But be careful, while the saber can be used for good, in the wrong hands it may also bring about the end of the world.
Dark Realm: Princess of Ice is the second game in the Dark Realm series and while I played the first game and remember I wished to review it, I ran into similar problems then and decided to ultimately scrap the entire thing. But now with the sequel I feel like I have to talk about a company that isn’t Eipix and Boomzap and this fits the bill perfectly. So, Mad Head, prepare yourself for the review of a lifetime!
The first thing I need to comment on is the visuals. This game looks pretty damn good though I do have some minor issues. I tend to comment on HOPA in general as I see many things return across the genre and if it bugs me in one game then it bugs me in another. For instance, I get that the major theme of this game is ice, it’s in the title, and the most obviously dominant colors then are blue and white. However, when designing a game like this it’s extremely important that it doesn’t become too much.
Too pervasive and it starts to dull the graphics because they start to feel the same. I know the game is gorgeous but some environments simply disappear because they looked so much alike. The ones I remember the most are the ones that broke the pattern and suddenly infused the graphics with a lot of reds and greens, like the above picture. These are the moments that stand out whereas scenes just coated in snow and ice quickly dissipate from my mind. It’s unfortunate because I know the graphics are good and when I look at them I see it but when I play it, I quickly forget.
Though your first react with “Oooh” and “Ahhh” when you see the game, it’s quickly replaced with a feeling of just wanting to get on with things.
But while I may complain about that, one aspect of the visuals that receive nothing but praise are the animations. This game has animations for everything and they’re smooth and crisp, way above what I was expecting and what I’m used to. Characters actually look alive, the attention to detail is astounding and when they move they never get lost. Mad Head have always made some of the most stunning games to look at and the quality animation is perhaps the biggest key to their success.
Sure, it doesn’t really look like much from a AAA industry stand point and it loses a lot when it doesn’t move but trust me, it’s one of the best examples of how it should be done.
Another way this game surprised me was with the gameplay. Most HOPA tend to keep you busy by having you solve a puzzle then look for objects then solve a few more puzzles. Mad Head has here introduced a third and perfectly valid aspect that I hope to see more of: minigames.
To be fair, the difference between minigames and simply more active puzzles is a thin line but none the less a different thing. Puzzles rely on thinking, planning and logical reasoning. You think of the solution. Minigames rely on timing, precision and reaction speed. Now this isn’t the first time I’ve ever seen a minigame in a HOPA and like I said, the line between minigames and puzzles is a blurry one at the best of times but this is definitely the first time I’ve seen them in such a huge quantity. And they’re often very exciting, too.
While the game may start off slowly and in a typical way, polar bear not withstanding, it doesn’t take long after the tutorial has finished for the game toss you down a mountain side and ask you steer a cobbled together sled through rough terrain before hurtling off the mountain side at mach 6.
Needless to say my weak HOPA player heart barely survived the sudden explosion of activity and while the game does slow down after this, it never really loses its urgency. Puzzles do eventually gain the upper hand but it’s a terrific way of starting the game off and really offering something that isn’t too common in HOPA: action.
And speaking of the puzzles, they were pretty good. Nothing too groundbreaking, you had your typical jigsaws and code breakers though they did end up being a bit too easy for my liking. This is another time that I will suggest politely that designers consider adding puzzle difficulty. I refuse to believe that it would be that difficult to have several difficulties in the game as puzzles can often be made harder or easier by simply removing or adding one little feature.
For instance, this puzzle here looks deceptively hard until you realize it’s easily solvable by primarily using the right hand side for swapping the two most right pieces. Once you figured that bit out, it was simply a matter of going through the motion. As such, removing that feature would make the game instantly much harder but it can easily be an optional thing. Designers scared that players that can’t complete it and will get stuck are forgetting that we can still skip puzzles and even then, we can change the difficulty for the rest of the game on the fly so why not puzzle difficulty as well.
Minigames could’ve benefited from this as well and is yet another time when it doesn’t really seem that difficult to pull off. The sled thing, for instance, can simply be made longer, no indication other than visual which side the obstacle is coming up on and slightly faster. What I love about HOPA is that so much is optional that they’re already designed for almost everyone. Don’t like puzzles, skip them. Don’t like finding objects, hint your way through them. And just about every Collector’s Edition comes with a walkthrough so that’s yet ANOTHER thing to help the player get through.
The only ones NOT being designed for are the ones who want a real challenge and I feel that’s a missed opportunity. Yes, bit of a broken record but if you’re gonna read my blog then prepare to hear it a lot ’cause it’s kind of my thing now.
Here’s a pretty picture to calm down again.
So if we have the minigames out of the way and we’ve talked about the puzzles then what remains of the core game is the hidden objects. The game sports a pretty impressive array of various types of hidden object scenes, ranging from standard lists and silhouettes to the above where you’re supposed to pick out the correct version of the four. There’s also something I call the “fairy tale scene” which is where there’s a picture and you have to find small objects and put them in their right place. I don’t know who started with those, they’re fun but they’re rarely challenging though some objects can be hard to find. Still, it’s a variation and we like those.
They too are beautifully crafted and there’s a fair share of interactivity even if it’s not too deep. This is where the majority of colors are which is quite pleasant to find since it isn’t always the case. They were fairly easy for the most part, I played the game entirely without hints and skips and never really felt I needed one, at least for the hidden object scenes.
Rest of the game progresses much like you expect it to. You find items, find where to use items and then get more items or a puzzle to solve or the like. It’s a small thing to note but the graphics when you actually receive the item is pretty damn nice 3D art and I hope Mad Head Games continue with this use of 3D art and perhaps even expand it. Lord knows HOPA games could do with a bit more 3D in them.
Some items in your inventory are interactive as well, either needing just a few button clicks to become a usable item or additional items so it can be fashioned into a useful tool. I like this, it harkens back to the days of old school adventure games and their inventory puzzles. And it adds another layer to the game progression which is nice. I wish there were a few more puzzle elements to them and since you have 3D models, perhaps a function where you have to turn and examine items to find clues or secret compartments? Come now, I know this was done in the first Playstation days so surely it cane be done here too.
Another feature and the only recurring puzzle is the gauntlet. It’s your new magical artifact for the game and it allows you to imbue certain items with magic, making them extra special. I do find myself a little disappointed with this, the recurring puzzle is a… not sure what to call it but you chain together icons of the same color and then they break, letting new ones fall in. The goal is then to break a predetermined number of each color to pass. Don’t get me wrong, the puzzle or minigame is fine as is I just wish it got a bit harder a bit quicker. It was really only the last two times or so that it really gave me trouble. Also, each item that you can imbue is always indicated clearly which is a bit unfortunate. It robs me of the pleasure of experimenting in the inventory and for the most part it was obvious enough which items were to be used that it didn’t need such a strong indicator.
It’s also an unfortunately missed opportunity to make the game harder. At least optionally, indicate for those not playing on hard, don’t if they are.
That’s my take on it, anyway. Feel free to ignore it.
So I’ve talked about the visual and the gameplay which leaves me with audio. Now audio I can only talk about quickly because as a written and visual medium, it’s difficult to discuss audio. But I can say it’s really good, the music in particular. I can’t really say anything about the rest of the sounds as they didn’t really stick with me but the music did and if you have the Collector’s Edition, you get the soundtrack as well which is always a nice addition.
For the record, the Collector’s Edition is pretty damn spectacular with tons of extras and a little “making of”-video. Though it could’ve used a little more “making of” than it did since I actually find that very interesting.
Lastly, what I want to talk about is a bit ranty so you can skip this part of if you don’t care about my rants and just want to get to the review part. Because I want to talk about naming conventions here. I mean, Dark Realm: Princess of Ice isn’t that bad, all thing considered, but what happened to just straight up numbering? Dark Realm 2! It works, it’s short and everyone thinks “Woah, a 2! It’s one more than before!” It’s great, we’ve used that system in society for years upon years so why do we suddenly hate it? Hell, I’ll even concede to Dark Realm 2: Princess of Ice. That’s what it says when I launch the game but it’s never seen in any logo or anything.
Don’t take this as me whining at Mad Head Games or anything. This is a more widespread problem and everyone does it. Where are my numbers? Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass it is to figure out in which order the games come? If you only saw Dark Realm: Queen of Flames and Dark Realm: Princess of Ice, how do you know which one is the first? And since one follows the other story wise, it’s pretty important stuff.
All the studios do it to. Does Purple Tide come before Jack and the Beanstalk in the Dark Parables franchise? Does Return to Ravenhearst or Escape from Ravenhearst come first in Mystery Case Files? In some franchises it doesn’t matter because the stories are not connected. In others they are. So keep your subtitles if you want but do us all a favor and slap a number on there when appropriate. For the record, you can skip the subtitles too but perhaps that’s just me. I didn’t look down at Iron Man 2 for not including a subtitle like “Dark Past” or something. It’s simple, efficient and it makes sorting through all these games simple.
Maybe Big Fish has a mandate that forbids this, I don’t know. But I do know that it put me off playing games in the past because I don’t want to have to go into customer reviews, sort by oldest first just to figure what order a series came out in! It’s hard enough to figure what company made what game on Big Fish Games as it is, don’t make it even harder, please.
But whatever criticism I may have voiced, keep in mind what I said in the beginning. I struggled with this review because it was an overwhelmingly positive experience and what seems like major issues are really just… nitpicks for the most part. Blown up to fill a review because what else was I going to talk about?
Dark Realm: Princess of Ice is a must have for people who call themselves HOPA fans. It’s fun, it’s quick, it’s engaging and it has a tremendous pace most of us are probably unfamiliar with. I really like that.