I wasn’t going to review this game. Then something happened… no, actually, nothing happened. Up until right now when I started writing this, I was unsure whether I was going to review it or not. But then I realized… I don’t speak enough about mediocre HOPA.
I’ve spoken about ERS Game Studios before and how easily they slip under the radar. They make a lot of HOPA, some of their franchises quite iconic, but except for one or two of their games I never really get stuck in with them. Sure, I liked Song of the Phoenix but even then it was more of an accident that I liked it than it was good design. So, let’s talk about the next title in the Spirits of Mystery!
When you wake up one morning, your nanny has some grave news for you: all your magical animals have been stolen. You’ve cared for those animals since you were just a small child and they are your friends, there’s no way you’ll let someone steal away with them in the night. So you quickly set off after them and it doesn’t take long for you to pick up a trail. A trail that leads straight into evil and you’re the only one who can stop their nefarious plans to raise the Dark Minotaur.
That’s about what I can remember of the plot and considering I just finished the game a few days ago, that’s impressive. To call the entire story standard fare for a fantasy HOPA is to put it mildly. Putting it harshly would be saying it’s trite, dull and less of a story and more of an excuse. Going after some magical animals only to get wrapped up in a plot to resurrect some evil power is the height of coincidence not to mention anything about how uninteresting it actually is. I mean, a princess going after her possessions? I know they make it out to be like the animals are her friends but they never actually interact as friends. All they do is give her items when she feeds them. Doesn’t really seem like love to me, more extortion: give me items or no food for you!
Maybe I’m being overly harsh with the princess but it’s one of the most consistent thoughts I had throughout the game. That she was only there because the villain was so inept that he was more or less caught right away. And she only remained in the way because the villains kept making bad choices, like not killing her right away. She’s not even important to the story, she’s not special, she’s just a spoiled kid who wants her animals back. The villain’s plans don’t require her for anything so how she’s not removed the first chance they had is beyond me.
I get that there’s only so many times you can write a story about a magical and special princess before you lose your mind but I’ll take that over a story where she’s entirely secondary to the story. The store keeper that pops up from time to time has more urgency to bring their evil plans to an end so why aren’t we playing as her? At least she has some personality.
And speaking of the store clerk, the game’s sole addition in an attempt to innovate is that the player turns invisible from time to time. You’d think that would be a bigger thing than it is but it’s really just a solution to three different puzzles followed by a time where you’re invisible but nothing is ever made of it. You get this potion from the store clerk and the first and second time as a natural progression but the third time it actually took me some time to figure out that I had to backtrack to the store clerk to get the potion. Both times before there was always a “quest” associated with it, some item I had to bring but this time it was just a matter of going back a last time. And… that’s not okay.
So much in this game makes no sense and I’m not talking about the plot. Solutions rarely come naturally and there were plenty of times where I was stumped and couldn’t progress without trying items randomly. Now, part of that problem is on me because I chose to play the game on the hardest difficulty where they don’t spell things out for you. In many HOPAs, when you click on something, you get a bit of flavor text describing the item in question, whether it’s relevant to the gameplay and what you have to do to it to progress. “This shelf lined with books is incomplete. I have to return the three missing books.” is an example I just willed up but it’s real enough that I totally believe I could’ve seen it in game somewhere. And I hate them.
They give away the solution far too easily and I never have to think. So when I saw the option to turn off these so called “black bar hints” I was all for it ’cause I figured I’d be in for a real treat with vague and obscure flavor text that only described the object, not the solution. This is something I would like to see from other developers down the line. This game is fairly old for a HOPA (I don’t think Eipix was even making games when this was released) so maybe it’s already changed.
But what I didn’t expect from the game was that it turned off the black bar virtually entirely except for some canned dialog when you do something wrong. And in a fantasy game that’s a bit of an issue because half the time the objects you’re looking at are a mess of parts or they have no real equivalent so you’re kind of at the mercy of the game to tell you. And guess how this game delivers all of its descriptions? That’s right, through black bar hints. So what do you get? A game entirely devoid of descriptions.
Now, I could go into detail about how stupid this is and point out that hints and descriptions are, or at least should not be, the same thing. So if you’re gonna play this game, for the love of all that is dear to you, do not play on the hardest difficulty. The middle difficulty should do just fine.
Speaking of something else entirely and perhaps somewhat more positive, the graphics are okay. I’m not super fond of the design in general, the colors are very muted and there’s a lazy feel over all of it. It’s a fantasy game that never really aspires to much more and I find that very tedious. Nothing really stands and I fail to remember anything wildly unique. But I won’t say it’s bad, just safe… and perhaps that’s where ERS prefer to be, I don’t know. All I know is, I don’t like.
To no-one who read my blog’s surprise, the muted colors really hurt the game in my opinion as I expect fantasy HOPA to be colorful and vibrant. It’s what makes them fun to me. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t mind a dark fantasy HOPA with serious themes but that’s not this game, it’s whimsical story about magical animal friends and their princess that happen to get embroiled in the resurrection of a big evil that goes nowhere.
In other words, the game doesn’t earn its claim to darkness and the graphics simply clash with the story it’s trying to tell. And it commits a cardinal sin by being in 4:3 resolution, meaning not widescreen, something that by 2012 (late 2012 even) should’ve been a thing of the past. The previous game in the series was also in 4:3 resolution so it’ll be interesting to see when they decided to join the modern world and stop forcing me to lower the resolution on my TV so I can play it (it won’t start otherwise).
but the graphics are still quite good even if it stumbles in some areas. But it feels overwhelmingly outdated for even a HOPA from 2012, a time when other studios were publishing far more impressive stuff. Hell, Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake was released in November 2012 and that franchise has had widescreen support for years. Now, not everyone can be Big Fish Games (sadly now defunct) or other similar studios but ERS has never struck me as a small publisher so the money must’ve been there.
Another aspect that fully adequate but still a bit disappointing was the hidden object scenes. Though not solely list-based, they were by far the most common and the only other type of hidden object scene were what I call “story book” scenes where you have to find an object on the screen and place it where it belongs for the story to progress. Well, without the story this time. But even they were kind of meh and there were only like… three or something so lists were still the overwhelming majority. They were fairly challenging, though, but sometimes for the entirely wrong reasons and the interactivity in the scenes was sparse at the best of times.
The story book scenes were far more interactive but it lacked strong visual clues as to where the first couple of items were hidden. Once you found the first item(s) it was typically quite easy as it was a chain of events after that but finding the first one could be quite tedious as they often required interaction to be revealed but they were poorly indicated and you often ended up just… dragging the cursor around hoping for it to change, indicating interactivity and that’s not how I want to beat these things.
The only thing that made them somewhat unique was that you had two screens to each story book scene and the objects you found could go in either two. But it was rarely difficult to figure out which one it went in and it would’ve been a better bet to maybe have three screens, even, to up the challenge a bit more. That said, they often sported a ton of color which always pleases me so I’ll give them credit for that without a doubt. I just wish it bled into the rest of the game more.
That said, there were some locations that I really enjoyed and every so often the game would surprise me with a really awesome design, like the featured picture at the top of the page. I just wish there was more of it and that the designs that were cool carried more importance than just being cool. Again, referring to the featured pictured, I was honestly quite excited when I first saw that because I thought I’d actually see those creatures at some point in the game. But alas that was not meant to be as it was just a relatively simple puzzle and then nothing more. Hell, I could write a whole franchise starring those six as the baddies so I’m quite disappointed they didn’t even warrant a cameo in this game.
As for the puzzles (this is a HOPA after all), they were quite easy in general and te ones that might’ve offered a bit of a challenge often had the answer revealed on the puzzle (like the picture above). I have very little patience for this stuff as it reduces the puzzles to a glorified lock and not actual gameplay. And while you could turn of black bar hints, there’s no such option for the blatant answers on the puzzles. So while one section of the game was entirely removed, another was far too easy.
That sums up the entire game for me. For everything good, there’s something negative. Well, except for the music, there’s just no excuse for the music. It’s alright but there’s very few tunes and they seem to be on an endless loop. So the music would drive you insane whenever you got stuck and you eventually heard the same song over and over again. And the hint system is completely useless, the kind that only tells you if there’s anything to do in the immediate area and if there isn’t then it just pathetically holds up its hand and goes “I got nothing, press me in another area of the game?” or something to that effect. I hate that system, it’s never been good in any game.
So maybe the game does come in under the bar, mediocre but leaning towards bad. And I really don’t recommend it. While I enjoyed Song of the Phoenix, this game does nothing to pull me into the world at all.
I don’t know how the rest of the franchise stacks up but this felt like filler, there because they had to have something and couldn’t come up with anything else. Like I said, I don’t recommend it and it’s not because it might be bad but because it’s entirely forgettable. It’s mediocre fodder for the masses that I sincerely doubt anyone remembers today, four years later. So why review it? Well, because I can’t just talk about good or bad games, there is middle ground and that’s important to note. Cause otherwise it’s easy to get stuck in extremes and not appreciate nuances.
I think that, anyway…
If this review seemed… meh… then it’s only because the game itself inspired so little to actually get upset or elated about. I promise, next review is going to be a little bit more modern.
Oh! AND HAPPY HALLOWEEN!