By John Walker on June 25th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
I am not here. I’m back to full-time on RPS in a month, in the meantime up to all manner of secret projects the likes of which would make you far too excited. And in my time away, I’ve not had cause to worry one bit about my co-owned business, in the hands of my phenomenally talented colleagues. Well, until I noticed something pretty serious had happened. A Castle-based PC game had been released on Steam, and not A SINGLE WORD has been written about it. WHAT IN THE?
Castle is, without doubt, a television programme on the television. But more importantly, it’s utterly, wonderfully daft. The tale of Nathan Fillian’s millionaire Richard Castle, crime writer turned crime solver, teaming up with New York’s finest via his connections through the mayor. Each week they solve a murder, and have hijinks along the way! Earlier series were fun, funny, and packed with references to Firefly, and it muddled along in a pleasantly gentle way. But last/this year’s season six has taken things to a whole new level, that means anything tangentially related to it deserves a look. Except for, it turns out, this game.
Season six of Castle didn’t so much jump the shark, as line up miles of rows of the aquatic beasts, and then fly over them in a rocket ship. Whereas previous series had seen Castle always suggesting an outlandish and unrealistic means or motive, the most recent run saw those things actually being the case. One episode genuinely confirmed within their universe the existence of time travel. I imagine you are now checking to see if Castle is on Netflix. It is not. Now you are torrenting Castle.
Sadly the game possesses none of this. In fact, throughout what is a thinly embellished hidden object game, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Castle: Never Judge A Book By Its Cover might not even be an officially licensed game. (I’m sure it is, I stress for legal reasons, but it sure as heck goes a long way to looking like it’s not.) There’s no actual appearance of the cast, either in film, photograph or even audio form. Instead it’s pretty crudely rendered drawings of people who look a bit like the Castle cast, their words silently written on screen. It doesn’t even have the theme tune! Seriously, that’s pretty much why I installed the thing – to enjoy the moment where it cut from the game to have a fountain pen fall past the New York skyline and stab the ground to form an A, DUR DUR DURRR DURR DUR DURRRRR.
Okay, I admit, I was assuming the game was going to be shit, and was hoping to write about how shit it was for comic effect. But then it was a hidden object game, and, well, shut up, I like them. Not this one, not very much, but I can’t help being drawn in to the nonsense of trying to find the bowling pin in the mess on screen. Fortunately, Castle: Blah De Blah is a very bad hidden object game, so I shall still yet write about how shit it is.
I argued a few years back that the evolving nature of the hidden object game was likely to herald a return for the point and click adventure. I think you can crown me King Right Of Rightland, and bow before me. But this silly old rubbish from whoever Gunnar Games are is very much stuck in that missing-link phase, the ugly, malformed mess of a game struggling to crawl on land, its weak lungs dragging air in through barely adapted gills, neither elegant swimming fish nor gaily leaping lizard. Hidden object screens are tied together by scrappy old bits of string in the form of murder mysteriarising. There’s a murderer about, killing off authors and critics and publishers or something, and you’re off to find out who before the credits don’t roll and it snaps abruptly back to the intro screen.
Unlike EVERY SINGLE episode of Castle, the killer isn’t the slightly-too-famous-for-that-tiny-role person we met in the first ten minutes who then wasn’t mentioned again for a while, so points for originality there. Instead, it’s the person it would have been in an episode of The Mentalist (before The Mentalist went its own direction of stark raving mad this year, I should specify). It’s a subtle distinction. You won’t care.
So you have to gather objects for your inventory (a word I’ve realised that after fifteen years of writing about adventure games, I still don’t know how to say out loud), and then click them on a thing elsewhere. At which point they will be thrown from your inventory, because what are the chances you’re going to need a screwdriver again? Oh, one hundred percent. Every chapter.
There’s some vague stab at laboratory work, and interrogating suspects, but these don’t even manage to match the heady heights of the execrable CSI games, and for the most part you’re clicking the air conditioning dial on the washing machine, or adding a type writer key to a door lock combination which opens up a puzzle so tedious it’s far more entertaining to sit still and watch the “Skip” timer fill up than actually try to solve.
But I love the world this game is in! It’s so fantastically strange, a universe that only exists in these casual proto adventures, where ordinary people hide keys for their sock drawers in elaborate puzzle boxes buried at the bottom of the sea. In one scene you need to go into a bar’s toilet, because a suspect is in there. So you’ll need the key. But the barman, he doesn’t have one. It’s in the basement. He gives you a special lever to open the basement door.
The restroom key, it turns out, is kept behind a metal door embedded into the wall, sealed by a mechanism that requires you to slot in a metallic family crest. The crest is hidden in two parts, one behind an intricately complex drawer-opening puzzle, the other secreted in the back of a clock, stapled in place on the inside of the backboard.
At another point, for barely comprehensible reasons, you need to get a can of fizzy pop from a soda machine. It costs two dollars. The only way to get two dollar bills is to dig one out of a flower bed, and recover another from a inside broken washing machine in a locked basement in a different part of town, missing both its dial and drainage hose.
So yes, it’s awful. But the sort of awful I played straight through in four hours, on a day that provided me with stomach ache. Because it’s compelling. Not to find out who the murderer was – that felt wholly irrelevant. And, it turned out, not because it was Castle – the game may as well have been about the cast of Balamory for all it added to the canon. But simply because it was there, and there were trowels to find.
Don’t buy Castle: Thing-A-Me-Do, because it doesn’t deserve it. But do check out some properly decent casual adventures, like Big Fish’s wonderful Drawn series, or any of SpinTop’s eight billion equally great no-frills hidden object games. Right, I’m going back to my secret projects. Which today is grumbling about stomach ache. Sorry for the interruption.