Wot I Think: Dark Strokes – Sins Of The Father

Oh, sorry, come on in.

I feel a weight of the pointlessness of trying to convince a hardcore gaming audience to give their money and time to a casual game. Clearly there’s a lot of prejudice, a lot of it earned by the crappy nature of so much of the casual market, the rest I’d argue pure snobbishness on the part of gamers. Obvious breakthrough exceptions, invariably published by PopCap, can crossover, but otherwise words like “hidden object” tend to have people click straight past. I think it’s a shame, because I just had a lot of fun playing Dark Strokes: Sins of the Fathers.

As a critic, it puts me in an odd place. I know that the genre inherently falls short of decades of PC gaming. Hidden Object, for all the advancements being made from the straight magazine-page puzzle popularised by SpinTop’s Mystery PI series, is still a peculiarly vapid progenitor of the adventure game. It’s as if the adventure genre is evolving for a second time, this time growing on a completely different branch, and we’re seeing its somewhat ugly forefathers. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t being clever within it all. And if not clever, pretty.

Dark Strokes takes the genre the furthest I’ve seen from hidden object, while still containing the puzzles within. It’s also the first I’ve seen that convincingly has the plot be something in which the puzzles are involved, rather than some hastily scripted nonsense that takes place between finding umbrellas, frogs and chess pieces in a cluttered garage. In fact, it has all manner of other puzzles in the mix, and they’re not simply rearranging torn scraps of paper.

Rather gorgeously presented, the story features you as a rather dashing chap, on a trip with his fiancé to visit his father, after hearing word of there being trouble. And trouble there is! Masked men, known as the Faceless Ones, are kidnapping villagers, and you need to explore the town to find out what’s going on, and rescue just about everyone else. Unfortunately, these rather strange people have locked absolutely every door, box and dollhouse in their town with elaborate puzzles, and then hidden all the necessary components all over the place, including inside each other’s locked items. So no, it makes not half of a bit of sense, but my goodness, it’s compulsive.

What also helps here is the really lovely depth of detail throughout. It would not be unfair to suggest that much of the HO genre cuts every imaginable corner, repeating static scenes dozens of times, crudely told through poor static cartoons and speech bubbles. Not so here, where every location is bursting with detail, even the object hunting sequences enlivened by living scenes, gentle breezes and inquisitive cats. Characters, while not fully animated, are really beautifully painted, and cleverly used.

And talking of beautifully painted, the game’s finest visual moments come as you learn the back story to the game’s antagonist, portrayed through vividly depicted paintings, swishing into existence in front of you, with some really smart direction having the camera suddenly pull out from the painted image to reveal it as just a small part of a larger whole, again and again.

In fact, smart direction appears throughout, the camera used far more interestingly than in many uncasual games, a handheld style allowing some really impressive sudden zooms and pulls as the spooky Faceless Ones vanish into smoky swirls.

And yet, yes, you’re collecting the star-shaped tool to open the box with the star-shaped hole in it, that will reveal the key for the diary that has the clue to the puzzle in the cellar that will offer a lantern used to light the hole that contains the… you get the idea. It’s dumb. But it completely does it for me. It’s a constant sense of progress, of completing puzzles, and that’s rewarding, no matter how trivial it may be.

There’s also the rather useful fact that I still just love playing hidden object scenes. I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s a visual puzzle that can be played with minimal amounts of effort, lulling me into a relaxed state. And best of all, if my game-hating wife comes in, she can’t help but play too, becoming frighteningly competitive about spotting a lizard or hockey stick before I do.

The range of other puzzles in here were pretty decent too, some even offering a degree of challenge. As is the way of the casual world, there is of course a “SKIP” button to take you past anything that might stump you, because – and here’s a lesson the wider world of gaming could learn – these games want to make sure you see the ending no matter your skill.

It’s also pretty big, and it does this without lazily repeating scenes a thousand times each. Rather it constantly expands, with more areas to explore. Although I did notice that the game starts to wane the further you get. While the ending is utter nonsense, it’s actually the hidden object sequences that suffer, losing the extra detail they had in the first half of the game, the interactive elements that let you use items or reveal secrets all vanishing. Complete it, and there’s even a whole new hour or so of story as a bonus chapter (although here the repetition finally appears).

So here’s the thing – I know that each time I write positively about casual gaming, the RPS audience responds with an inaudible disinterest, the sound of scrolling loud in my ears. But you can play this game for an hour for free. And while it doesn’t really get into its groove until shortly after, I think it’s enough for people to decide if I’m out of my mind, or if just maybe there’s elements of relaxed enjoyment to be found in a massive industry we’re far too quick to sneer at.

(Oh, and I know I’m not quite insane, as I was quickly sent another Alawar hidden object to play, and it was utterly awful. I do still have critical faculties!)


  1. Brun says:

    Looks suspiciously like the mask from KOTOR does it not?

    • apocraphyn says:

      It also looks somewhat like a full version of the mask that the nefarious DESCOLÉ wears in the most recent Professor Layton games, (albeit less “Phantom of the Opera”-themed). Which is also a game about puzzles! What a coincidence!

    • Sentient Waffle says:

      Came here to say that, yes, yes it does :)

    • Bhazor says:

      Reaction to fighting him in KOTOR 2

      “Arrrrgghhh! Darth Nihlus!!! Arrrgggghh! The personification of entropy and conflict in a fractured godless universe!! Ahhhhh…. oh he’s dead.

      Huh that was an anticlimax”

    • Alexrd says:

      Indeed. Darth Nihilus mask.

    • mioasdvh says:

      I’m curious if you have an opinion on Pickers. Looks like a hidden object game with an auction house and minor rpg bolted on? http://store.steampowered.com/app/204440/

    • TCM says:

      That — that right there — is the single greatest spambot post in the history of mankind, and the only one I have ever clicked.

    • Consumatopia says:

      A lot of the spams copy other posts in the thread. Copying one that already has a link and changing it to a spam link is pretty sneaky, though.

    • ankh says:

      That really is excellent spam botting, the only one I’ve ever clicked.

    • Twysts says:

      I made this. link to t.co ridiculously similar.

  2. DogKiller says:

    Is that you, Darth Nihilus?

  3. Jamesworkshop says:

    Hey John

    How would you say it stacks up to the Professor layton games, I just finished the Spectre’s Call

  4. TCM says:

    The frig is Darth Nihilus doing here?

  5. Velvetmeds says:

    I want to hit the 5th picture

  6. ambience07 says:

    But this seems fairly light on stroking and sinning…am I in the wrong place?

    • Eddy9000 says:

      From the title I was expecting it to take place in an all boys catholic boarding school.

  7. Turkey says:

    No, Darth Nihilus. I don’t need my windows washed. Get out of here.

  8. Jumwa says:

    John has eerily similar tastes to my own when it comes to games, so I’m tempted to give this one a whirl. The last such game I played being the Mountains of Madness (I believe), and quite enjoyable.

    Before tempting myself I wanted to see if the price range was in something I’d realistically consider, but I can’t seem to find a pricetag on it anywhere on the site in my short search time.

    And yes, that mask is totally straightout of KotOR2.

    • Revisor says:

      I can’t see the price either.

    • alms says:

      I was only able to find the price for the Collector’s Edition which I assume to be a physical copy. It’s about 10 USD.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      Yes, that’s really kind of terrible marketing to not even mention the price on your own website.

      From what I can tell from a search of third-party vendors, it goes for USD$10. I dunno what that means for those who use shillings and ha’pennies.

    • LintMan says:

      Yeah, the lack of price on the website is really strange. I can’t DL it right now to see what the in-game price is, but came up with $10 via google also.

      As for the game itself, it definitely sounds worth a shot. I enjoy the occaisional HO game myself, and they work well as a family game.

  9. Jac says:

    The name of this game immediately sent my mind to the gutter

  10. Nero says:

    I’m always on the lookout for a good casual game so I will give it a go. The last HO game I played was Phantasmat which was rather enjoyable as well.

  11. Revisor says:

    I played a few hidden-object games several years ago and I liked the gameplay, so why not give it a shot and see how the genre advanced? Maybe it will converge to the olde adventures seen from the first person perspective and telling the story via text.

    I hope I don’t have to install any background “game manager” as I had to the last time I wanted to buy a mahjongg game on Popcap.

    Edit: The link to the game redirects me by IP or language to a different store version (to the homepage) that doesn’t contain this game. I’ll give it 30 seconds of attempts, then it’s on to other things. I hate this.

  12. terry says:

    I’m disappointed to learn that RPS readers are a hardcore gaming audience. When did that happen?

    • Nim says:

      We’re on a news blog for gaming aren’t we?

    • terry says:

      Sure, but I read the BBC website too and I’m hardly a HARDCORE NEWS ENTHUSIAST. It seemed a strange descriptor.

    • Shih Tzu says:

      Actually, given the current state of the public’s media literacy, I’m afraid regular readership of one or more of the classier news services (BBC, NY Times, NPR, etc.) DOES brand you as a “hardcore news enthusiast”.

    • TormDK says:

      Terry – Be mindful, for you have entered the hollowed halls of the PC Master Race!

    • Bhazor says:

      Hallowed, dear.

    • Aardvarkk says:

      technically halls are hollow, a bit drafty though.

  13. Robert says:

    I came here because I thought it was a reference to Gabriel Knight. I am disappoint.

    It might have been enjoyable with another name, but now it reminds me of lost love. I pass.

  14. ScottTFrazer says:

    I’m curious if you have an opinion on Pickers. Looks like a hidden object game with an auction house and minor rpg bolted on?

    link to store.steampowered.com

  15. dsch says:

    You might be wanting an extra e on ‘fiancé’ in the third paragraph.

    • John Walker says:

      I can never remember. But I’ve just decided I’m refusing to spell it differently based on sex. That’s nonsense. And everyone’s a “widow” now too. And I mean *everyone*.

    • Bhazor says:

      I used to be married like you.
      Then I took an arrow in the wife.

    • brulleks says:

      ” And everyone’s a “widow” now too. And I mean *everyone*.”

      Good lord man, what have you done?

      I mean, I don’t agree with marriage either but murder is a fairly extreme method for solving the problem.

  16. Megadyptes says:

    ‘Hardcore’ and ‘casual’ gamers are such dumb terms. So is ‘core gamers’ before anyone starts.

    • Groove says:

      I don’t know, I actually think they can be fairly descriptive terms if used sensibly.

      To my mind hardcore gamers would be gamers that go for games with lots of depth or a high skill ceiling. By depth I mean very involved tactical games: your Civilisations; X-Com for a classic example. By a high skill ceiling I mean more twitchy, fast-paced games that require good reflexes and control: many FPS’s; Starcraft (either).

      I’d say that casual gamers simply want accessable games, where they don’t need to learn move lists or strategies, and aren’t heavily punished for making mistakes. An unfair generalisation about casual gamers would be that they want games where you don’t need to think, as they’re dumb and can’t think good. A fairer generalisation is that they want a less demanding game as they understand that games are for relaxing.

      Core gamers is a dumb term, but I always assumed it was a nicer way of saying ‘core audience/demographic’.

    • Consumatopia says:

      @Groove, I think the terminology makes sense, but some games can be both. For example, Mario Kart.

    • Groove says:

      “@Groove, I think the terminology makes sense, but some games can be both. For example, Mario Kart. ”

      Yes! Those are the best games, and they’re how hardcore gamers are made. Accessable, friendly games with a gradual slope into the deep end are what you (almost) always want.

      A very important point indeed is that a game doesn’t need to only appeal to one group.

      The best examples I can think of for turning casual gamers into hardcore gamers would be Smash Brothers on the Nintendo flavour console-toys, and the cardgame Dominion on tables and other flat surfaces. Both require a tutorial of less than a minute to understand and enjoy most of the main game, but take months to master.

  17. Consumatopia says:

    I guess there’s no reason HO is any inherently stupider than, say, 2d platformer. (Saying this as one who really loves 2D platformers). I could imagine if, say, Nifflas, made an HO game, I’d be in to that.

    I guess the thing is that I’m not really looking for the things that John praises about this game. “Relaxed enjoyment”? Um, I have books. And tea. If my only goal is relaxation, I don’t want to look at a screen. If I got this bright rectangle shining in my face and my laptop sucking down watts, I want a more interesting aesthetic experience than “pretty”–some of my books even have pictures.

  18. Timmytoby says:

    I really like the direction the HO games are taking in the last couple of years.
    Easily the most impressive series is probably Mystery Case Files.
    Return from Ravenhearst is the most refined and enjoyable HOG i have played so far. It’s creepy, has some very nice puzzles and doesn’t overuse the Hidden Object Scenes. I’m also a sucker for Rube Goldberg contraptions and they feature very prominently in most of these.

    The 13th Skull was okay, but featured the most hilariously bad video sequences with real actors. It’s a real treat for everyone who misses the cringeworthy FMV games of the early 90s.

    I haven’t played Escape from Ravenhearst yet, but It’s already waiting in my pile of games to play.

  19. ffs_jay says:

    I love that the more interesting HO stuff gets covered here, casual or no. Along with the coverage of more oddball left-field indie stuff, It’s one of the reasons I enjoy this site so much. Not sure what the hell kind of gamer that makes me, other than a very content one.

    Also, I just registered a new account here and the captcha made me complete a tile puzzle. Part of me hopes that’s secretly ironic.

  20. Eynonz says:

    It appears that everyone was thinking the same as I thought when it comes to the mask. Good, Good i’m not weird.

  21. Robmonster says:

    My kids love hidden object games, but so few are suitable for children due to the stories that get tacked on often being a bit dark for them. They did play ‘Pure Hidden’ through loads of times though.

    Can anyone recommend other HO games that are suitable for young children? I already have the Amazing Adventures games from Popcap.

  22. Kefren says:

    I played the demo last night and loved the pace of the game and the visual style, even though it isn’t a genre I would normally play. I contacted Alawar to ask about DRM and they got back almost straight away – no need to go online, you just copy and paste in a code to unlock it after purchase, so you can keep the game even if Alawar was no longer around. That was the final push so I bought the game and carried on playing, really enjoying it so far, it feels like constant revelations.