Mystery Case Files 11: Dire Grove, Sacred Grove

It’s time to put an end to a specific chapter in Mystery Case Files’ history. The last game before it was handed over to Eipix, a move I daresay I dread, it’s a pretty important game. So let’s look back and see what’s what.

Mystery Case Files. I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single MCF game here before, have I? The last game I played was the previous game in the series, Fate’s Carnival, and that must’ve been years ago. Also made by Elephant Games, though I was unaware of it at the time since I wasn’t keeping  track on goings on behind the scenes at that time. Thirteen years down the line and sixteen sequels later, it’s impossible to ignore the impact Huntsville had on the HOPA scene in general.

So going into this game carries with it an incredible sense of expectations. And knowing it was the last handled by a studio other than Eipix, makes that sense all the more heavy for it. Would Elephant leave the series on a high note or trundle out and throw a mess in Eipix‘ lap?

Well!

Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove, Sacred Grove
(Elephant Games, 2014)

Something strange is going on, a winter has fallen upon Dire Groven like none other and animals are stalking and attacking the inhabitants. Magic and spirits seem to be on the rise again and a conflict between the local druids and hunters is brewing with no resolution in sight. You must return to Dire Grove.

Mystery Case Files was for the most part a series of standalone stories involving the “Master Detective” which ranged from simple organized crime to magical foulness afoot. The only returning storyline was that of Ravenhearst, a mansion on the coast to which the detective was forced to return multiple times. Those three games (Ravenhearst, Return to Ravenhearst and Escape from Ravenhearst) are still some of the best HOPA out there, packed full of atmosphere, dread and brilliant (for the most part) design.

But between these games, Big Fish Games (who were the developers of the series at the time) opted to instead send the detective on single outings. Whether it was to the carnival, swamp or tourist trap, there were cases galore to get stuck into.

Dire Grove was such one game. Although it did acknowledge a timeline, it was practically entirely unrelated to the Ravenhearst story. It followed the detective on their way home from Ravenhearst when they got caught up in a blizzard. Thrust into events, the detective had to find and save four students who were caught up in an ancient curse. At the end of the game, the evil spirit was trapped and the students saved, wrapping things up quite neatly.

But apparently, five years down the line, Elephant Games thought otherwise. Not only do we have to return to Dire Grove to settle a years old dispute, but it turns out that the detective’s arch nemesis is at it again. Somehow. Personally I felt like the connection to the Ravenhearst storyline was entirely unneeded, possibly even detrimental. I liked the structure the series had up until this point, a few unrelated cases inbetween going back to Ravenhearst.

But be that as it may, we’re back in Dire Grove and wouldn’t you know, it’s another winter landscape. For whatever reason, Elephant Games was really into that whole snow and ice thing during this time. The white and blue palette makes a return with a vengeance and there are very few scenes that don’t features environments drowned in various whites and purple hues.

Which is pretty standard for a setting such as this, colored by a constant dusk. And in perfect honesty, it’s probably the most beautiful snowy landscape I’ve ever seen in a HOPA. I’m halfway convinced they just took photos of snow and painted everything else on top. Cause damn they did really well with the snow. All the different shadings and reflecting light and how it piles and… and… well, I think it’s cool! I’ve never seen such a photorealistic snow before…

The fact that the graphics are good should come as no surprise, though. While I may not agree with all the design decisions Elephant Games makes, it’s none the less hard to argue with their production values. And they have a tendency to do things differently from time to time which I enjoyed. Like having dialog options:

True, the dialog options don’t really matter and are more a list of things you can click and have to go through each one. As far as I could see, there was no failure state and you could never go back and rehear the dialog which… was a bit weird, in my opinion. Still, I’ll take a thin veneer of freedom over none what so ever. A full-fledged dialog tree similar to those in old adventure games is definitely something I want in my HOPA eventually.

Another thing they did differently was a quite welcome addition in my opinion: gender. When starting up the game, you’re asked what gender you are and/or what gender you want the Master Detective to be. I can not remember a single time I’ve seen this in a HOPA before and that’s quite surprising, if you ask me. You can change it any time you want in the main menu options which is pretty nifty. I can’t really say I thought the voices themselves were that good, they had a strange, robotic feel to them. As if they were both generated by a good but not perfect text-to-voice-program. But then, lacking voice quality in a HOPA isn’t exactly unheard of and I do wish more studios would put much greater care into the talents.

Unless this was actually the two voices they preferred. In which case… hey, need to hire a new designer?

I honestly can’t see this as a big thing to implement and I’m not sure why more studios don’t give this option. The amount of spoken text by the protagonist/narrator is minimal in the grand scheme of things, probably not even 100 lines and there’s plenty of voice actors out there willing to give it a try, professional and amateur.

Anyway, just wanted to highlight those things cause I really liked them. Now on to parts I didn’t like so much.

One new, bold idea Elephant Games tried to bring to the table was the act of deduction. Basically, you gather up a bunch of clues which should realistically tell you what’s going on. The evidence here is primarily made up of notes and journals but other objects factor into it as well. The issue here is that… well, you don’t actually get to deduce anything. There are no wrong turns for you take on your train of thought because… well, your thoughts don’t matter.

Instead you run around, find a bunch of notes and evidence whereupon you’re told you have enough evidence and you can click the Deduction-button. The game then helpfully plays a little video for you, narrated by the detective, telling you the conclusion they reached. Not you. They. You’re then told to go talk to a subject who will then proceed to tell you you’re kind of wrong on this, give you an item you need to proceed and point you in another direction.

In other words, you don’t actually do anything. Now, this sort of system can be hard to imagine and design. But luckily you don’t have to look very far to find a game that actually did this very thing and actually asked you to put things together: Enigmatis by Artifex Mundi. In that trilogy you’re given a whole pile of clues which you have to group together logically to make progress in the case. You can’t actually go wrong and arrest the wrong person or ruin the case. And sure, you can just randomly try evidence without thinking logically and eventually you’ll get it right. BUT the simple act of asking you to put things together, even if it is just a pretend freedom is a BETTER system than… this.

That’s not to say I’m entirely against it, it does add a fair bit to the notion that the player is a detective and the cutscenes were really beautiful and enjoyable to sit through. So the game is better for them but this concept needed to be further expanded to be even more engaging.

Many other cutscenes were also pretty neat to look at and experience. Rather than attempting some terrible 2D morph animations (that I love to harp on) they instead opted for static images but moved and zoomed in such a way that it gave the illusions of movement. And again, the production value was really high.

And in other news, the music was pretty great too.

Now, worth noting in this review is that I decided to up the challenge a bit for this one as I wanted to test a theory. In my last review, I complained that the map wasn’t particularly useful because it only pointed out one thing you could do. Well, this time I shut off practically all help systems and went into the game mostly blind. Cause I wanted to test whether I had merely become complacent in my playing of HOPA or if they were genuinely difficult and I was just too good.

Well, I can now confirm that without the majority of help systems, including hints, skips, map pointers and sparkles denoting interactive areas, that the majority of HOPA have started using them as crutches. Instead of designing environments to draw your eyes to areas naturally, there were multiple times where it was borderline impossible to tell if an area was going to be important without clicking on it and even then, if you weren’t spot on, it wouldn’t activate.

I’m pretty good at telling if areas are interactive or not without help but even I was stumped on multiple occassions. And truth be told, if I didn’t have the built in walkthrough, I never would’ve found some areas.

Sure, this is very similar to how old school adventure games used to do it, sometimes they were as obfuscated as this game. But that’s why it’s important to only to take some aspects of the old adventure games and learn the lesson from bad aspects.

This game also reminded me of old school adventure games in another way: lots of inventory puzzles. Perhaps not as advanced or weird as in Sierra or Lucas Arts games but they were there. A lot of items came incomplete and needed to be assembled or interacted with in some way to start functioning properly. Never particularly complicated, mind you, it was typically just along the lines of “Flashlight needs new bulb” or “Grinder needs a new cable and disc”. Basic stuff but it adds another layer of interaction which I greatly approve of.

Hidden object scenes were also properly interactive with various kinds of scenes on offer. Lists, silhouettes, pairs, while it may not be as varied as I know some other HOPAs can be and are, if you have at least three then I think you’re doing pretty well. Overloading with different kinds isn’t necessarily much better as it can feel a bit bewildering being constantly asked to learn a new mechanic and then rarely using it after that.

So a balance is definitely needed and I think, in general, Elephant Games are pretty good at this. Unfortunately where Elephant tends to fall down is in the puzzle departments. They can definitely do well but most of the time they phone it with a pretty standard array of puzzles to keep you occupied and keep you out of cupboards. So expect the typical array of memory games, jigsaw and timing puzzles.

The big thing with this game are the… well, I don’t really have a word for them. Really big puzzles? I know some reviewers like to call them “super puzzles” but the term never really fit with me.

They’re essentially a mix between hidden object and puzzles. To finish the puzzle, you have to complete various puzzles of various kinds; sequences, jigsaws, code breaking, a whole different kinds of them. But when you first arrive at the puzzles, most of them will be unavailable due to missing critical pieces. So you either have to find what they’re missing, either through finishing other puzzles or by finding them scattered about, or you manipulate the environment in such a way that the puzzle starts working.

Maybe you have to redirect sunlight to melt ice or you have to lead a squirrel by giving it nuts. They’re pretty damn varied and some of them are quite hard. As I played the game entirely without hints or cheats, the only option I had to continue when I got stuck was the built in guide. And let me tell you, I got stuck a whole lot. They’re not necessarily the most intuitive designs, often it was a matter of trying the most unlikely and other times what you needed to do was just… impossible to figure out on your own.

Basically, without hints or clues it became borderline impossible. And no, I don’t consider “clicking around randomly” to be an actual solution. If it’s come to that, then the designers failed. Pure and simple.

But there’s no denying that it definitely lends something unique to the game. When I played the bonus chapter and alternate ending, the difficulty had been drastically lowered (without asking me) and they were a lot more fun when you weren’t frustrated that nothing seemed to be working. Yes, I did know going in that it was going to be obnoxious to play it without hints, I just didn’t understand HOW frustrating it actually would be.

The other puzzles just aren’t very interesting to talk about. Some do feature a twist or two on the basic formula but there’s nothing to really make them stand out. Even without any sort of hints or skips, I got through the majority of standard puzzles pretty easily. Which isn’t too surprising, it’s rare for a puzzle in a HOPA to stump me for very long these days.

However, all of this said and done, one thing this game highlights for me is that the game, and series as a whole, has become… sanitized. I still remember Escape from Ravenhearst as a truly chilling and frightening game. After playing that game I had to sit back and think “Wow, that actually terrified me in parts.” which doesn’t happen very often. Most of the entries in the series were known for their, at times, quite gruesome imagery. Not just murders and death in general but the aesthetics and design tended to impart this feeling of absolute dread.

Throughout playing Dire Grove, Sacred Grove, I never felt this. I never felt scared or terrified and I certainly never felt like I was in a bad place. However, I went back and played Fate’s Carnival while writing this review and can’t help but to feel that that game was also quite… tame. The original Madame Fate was perhaps not the scariest of games but there was a dark humor seeping through the entire game which I found exciting to put it mildly.

But this game is probably the most generic I’ve seen from the Mystery Case File series yet. It’s technically a good game with good production values, maybe even a good story if you’re into that. Especially if you have no prior connection with the series. Even though it’s technically a sequel to the sixth game in the series, you’d be excused for thinking it was entirely standalone. Outside a few, brief moments I never felt like I was actually revisiting a place I’d been before. If you swapped the title for another Elephant Games series, like Mystery Trackers or even Haunted Hotel, it’d feel right at home.

Yeah, there’s totally a hotel there and with just a few tweaks of the story, it totally could’ve been haunted. Actually thinking about this makes me wonder if this wasn’t just a Haunted Hotel entry that they retooled and repurposed to fit somewhat into Mystery Case Files.

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t like this game. Or that you have to dislike the path they took with MCF or what it was turned into. But, I will say that I don’t think that Elephant’s style was a good fit for this series. Perhaps Eipix was a better choice to helm the series. It’s at least possible! I still enjoyed the game but… well, when I replay this series, I sincerely doubt I’ll be revisiting this game.

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