Off The Record – The Italian Affair

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! It’s time for another Eipix game and you know what that means! Time to whip out the looking glass and find every conceivable error in the game… EVER! Yes, the gloves are off for this one. No more Mr. Nice Guy, I gave the last game of theirs a pass so to restore my honor, there’s no WAY this one is getting out safe.

Off the Record TIA - BannerOff the Record: The Italian Affair
(Eipix, 2014)

You’re supposed to be on vacation. After cracking the Linden Shades mystery wide open, you need time to recover. But when “The Fox”, a gentleman’s thief that was supposed to have retired, strikes again and steals a highly valuable artifact that was said to be night impossible to steal, there’s no way you can turn down such a story. But as you arrive in Venice, the location of the last heist, you’re quickly confronted by the thief himself, asking for your help… off the record.

I just came up with that blurb? Did you like that bit at the end? “Off the record”? I did… that’s why I wrote it, sounded cheesy enough. And that’s the end of my review. Thank you so much, see you next time!

Off the Record TIA - Scene 2

Oh, all right, let’s talk a bit more about the game. The bit at the end there, “off the record”, was entirely intentionally cheesy from my side simply because that’s what this game is. Cheesy. The plot really is nothing new under the sun and setting it in Italy changes very little in that respect. If anything, a romantic mystery in Italy makes it all the more cheesy with an extra side of bland sauce. I found myself predicting the plot bit by bit as I went along and it wasn’t particularly challenging to figure out the final twist.

But furthermore, I find it to be an extremely lackluster sequel to one of my favorite Eipix games. Linden Shades was peppered with mystery and an almost horror-like atmosphere as you explored the old orphanage and figured out what was going on. The added supernatural theme helped a great deal to immerse you in the story, the red ghost and the added aspect of children’s imaginations was stellar. It was like a good, British detective story.

On the flip side, The Italian Affair, isn’t much of a detective story at all, being more of a romance story and not a very original at that. If you’re in the market for a romantic story then great! If you’re not, this alone should be enough to warn you away.

Off the Record TIA - HOS 1

But the problems with The Italian Affair go deeper than mere story. The gameplay is simply far too easy and far too easy for it to earn the Adventure letter of “HOPA”. There really is very little challenge involved here, things came far too easily to our journalist main character to feel worthwhile and there’s no real free roaming aspect to the game at all. Items are often used very close to where you got them and once you’ve finished an area you’re off to the next, never to look back.

And if that’s the sort of design you’re going for then your story better be top notch to keep me wanting to see what happens next and here that simply wasn’t the case. The Fox’ relationship problems didn’t concern me one bit, the characters felt very flat and uninteresting and the dull, droning voice work did nothing to alleviate this either. And there were a lot of characters but I was hard pressed to remember any of them and for a while I actually thought some of them were modeled after the same guy. It took me half a game to figure that The Fox and the first guy you meet weren’t the same. Was I being inattentive or was the graphics just that bland?

Well… I think it’s the latter one, at least for me. I ran into a similar issue when I reviewed Danse Macabre: The Last Adagio. The real world simply bores me and then I’ve even been to Venice in real life so it doesn’t even have the appeal of letting me go somewhere I’ve never been either. The graphics are technically good, the artists really gave it their all but, again, compared to Linden Shades, which is not only set in real life but even part of the same franchise, there’s no life at all in the scenes. It lacks color, that oomph that really makes you sit up and pay attention.

Off the Record TIA - Scene 4

A few locations did manage to stand out but they were rare. Most of the time the colors felt incredibly muted, as if someone dialed down the saturation of all colors in post processing. Because I can see where there should be tons of color and yet it never pops. Amusingly, that’s something the bonus chapter did much better but more on that later. I get that it’s supposed to be set in reality… sort of, mostly, kind of, but then I can tell from experience that Venice is nowhere NEAR as idyllic as they suggest. For one, it’s practically deserted and I don’t care how much construction they’re doing, Venice is practically NEVER deserted. So I don’t get why they felt the need to aspire to something then half ass it. Either go realistic or don’t, trying to go down the middle of the road is just… uninspired.

I’m not particularly fond of the cutscenes either. Eipix continues to use mostly paper cutouts to try and tell a story and when compared to other studios, like Five-BN, that use 3D and 2D graphics very effectively it comes off as almost lazy. Which I know it isn’t but that’s how it feels. Morphing and moving 2D sprites will only get you so far. It’s, again, stuck in the middle: not simple enough to get the job done but not be distracting nor good enough to be considered actual animation. I know how they did it, we did something similar in one of our school projects and we were students!

Just saying, if live actors were good enough for the first Off the Records, they’d be good enough for this one.

Off the Record TIA - HOS 3

But I always try to find something positive in everything I review and Eipix did do a really good job with the hidden object scenes here. Not only did I look forward to them, the game featured a pretty wide variety of hidden object scenes. Ranging from standard to silhouettes to chain interactions, no two felt alike. But surprisingly I came away enjoying the standard list ones the most. While I appreciate the change, the others rarely felt challenging and were more fun than anything. The list scenes, on the other hand, gave me a much more satisfying challenge.

A few even had mini hidden object scenes in them as part of the interactivity. That were of a different kind than the scene it was in. There was a lot interactive objects in the scenes in general and that’s another plus.

The puzzles ended up being pretty good too, though not really all that challenging. There seemed to be a rather large amount minigames this time as well though I admit the difference between a puzzle and a minigame can be rather small and hard to define. But if I can’t think my way out of a puzzle but instead have to rely on reaction speed then I consider it more a minigame than a puzzle.

Off the Record TIA - Minigame 2

This is a tricky thing to deal with. Do mingames really have a place in this genre? I say yes, of course, but I also know that others have complained when the minigames became far too taxing for them to keep up, stopping them from enjoying the game. And while that’s an aspect, I wonder if the minigames presented are really worth the time and effort. Most of the time they feel like they’re there to simply take up space and time instead of adding value to the game. Like I said, it’s tricky thing and I don’t think there is a right answer here, not really.

What I can definitely say, though, is that I hated the collectibles. They went way the hell overboard on this one, having you collect not just one thing throughout the game but FOUR. Four collectibles! One is enough to engage me. Two, and I’m intrigued. Three, now you’re testing my patience. Four, this is a joke. Collectibles are nothing new but it tends to be a matter of finding an item in every single screen. First time I ever came across this was in one of the Ravenhearst games, then it was morphing objects and to no-one’s surprise, that’s one of the collectibles here. Together with fox figurines, scrolls and letters that spell out “The Italian Affair”.

Though what really grinds my gears is the fact that not all collectibles are in every scene. You can find a fox figurine in every locations but the morphing objects, scrolls and letters are scattered throughout the game. So how do you know if you got everything in a screen? You don’t. Outside of the figurines, there’s no indicator if there’s anything else in the game. So either you spend a lot of time combing through every little nook and cranny of every screen or you either cheat by looking in the walkthrough or simply ignore them. So they’re either an enormous time waster OR they’re completely unnecessary.

Off the Record TIA - Puzzle 1

What I ended up enjoying the most about the game was the bonus chapter. That’s the one time I felt the old Linden Shades magic come back and I felt right at home. The additional story was immediately more engaging than anything the last four hours or so of main game ever produced. Suddenly the plot revolved around murder and conspiracies, all taking place in a hospital with deadly traps hidden in the basement… no jokes, there’s an actual friggin’ pendulum of death beneath the hospital. Shady nurses, murders disguised as treatments gone wrong, government officials conspiring to rule the world (or something)!!! WHY WASN’T THIS THE MAIN GAME!?

Had the bonus game been the main selling point then I probably would have come away a lot happier. But I’m not happy with this game, not even remotely. It was a slog, I played it less for my own enjoyment and more for… well, this. To review it. Perhaps that’s partly my fault but it’s not like I have problems admitting I was wrong so every game always has the chance to impress me, tell me I was wrong. And I went into it wanting to like it. If you’ve missed it, I loved Linden Shades and I was expecting more of the same great stuff. But this is an Off the Records game that went… off the rails!

CHEEEEEESE!

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