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!)