Review: Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar Collector’s Edition (PC)

Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar Collector’s Edition
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Developer: Taba Games
Genre: Hidden Object/Adventure
Release Date: 02/13/2012

Wow. It’s actually been a good month since I reviewed a proper hidden object game. Sure, I managed to fit in three other adventure games, but none like the ones I’m quickly becoming known for.

Anyways, The Cats of Ulthar intrigued me because it is loosely based on a Lovecraft story. Now I’m no Lovecraft freak, but you can’t deny his works have a certain air of interesting to them. Also, who doesn’t like cats? For those of you familiar with the story, that was a joke. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, you’re probably now a bit confused. I guess you’ll have to read it now, or at least look up the plot. Enjoy, either way.

It should be noted before I begin that I’m utterly confused as to why the game is called “Ghost Towns”. Either it is part of series that I’m unfamiliar with, or they did it to avoid copyright issues. You see, there are no ghosts, no abandoned towns, and only one town in the game. The title doesn’t make sense in any way.

Now that I’ve got all of that out of the way, let’s get down to the review itself!

Story

Ghosts Towns starts off with you, a stranger, traveling to the town of Ulthar. There, a young boy by the name of Menes is being tried for murder, and about to be executed. Seems the townsfolk believe he summoned a large group of cats to rip apart an old couple in the town. Claiming innocence, he tasks you with helping him out before his sentence can be carried out.

You discover that the only way to discover the truth is to repair a giant cat statue in the town square. It is said to have the power to reveal the truth. As you find each missing piece, you’re given a little chunk of what really happened. In addition, there are newspaper, journals, and letters strewn about that add some back story to the proceedings. Since some areas are locked off, this means you slowly get new information.

The story is actually pretty interesting because of the way it is told. The slow burn keeps you coming back for more. That being said, there are some issues. For starters, your character is a faceless, voiceless entity. Apart from narrating cutscenes, he or she has no personality. Also, the big twist can be seen coming miles away, and while there are a couple of surprises the game manages to hold, you’ll know who the real culprit is long before the game bothers to tell you.

The bonus chapter included with the Collector’s Edition adds a further conclusion to the story. It’s a well thought out epilogue. However, the main story ends well enough on its own that players won’t feel cheated if they don’t play through it. That is, of course, unless they catch the plot hole that the bonus chapter fills in.

I enjoyed myself with this tale. It just needed a bit more polishing to become something truly good. That being said, it was definitely above the average for the genre.

Graphics

The characters are all done in 2D form with very little in the form of animation or even changed expression. Menes’ sister, for example is pretty poorly thought out design. She looks like she is full of contempt rather than worried about her brother. She seems to be in the game so they could have a pretty face to market with. I say this because the character she is based on is a boy in the story. Funny how that kind of thing works.

The art design isn’t the strongest, but it does give the impression of a dingy town. Ulthar definitely fits the bill in that regard. I’m not entirely sure if this game was supposed to be creepy, but there are a bunch of cats hidden throughout the town that look like they’d be more comfortable in a horror film rather than a hidden object game.

The effects are pretty standard for the genre. There is some decent running water, a cat running across the screen, and spider webs waving in the breeze. The most amusing one is when a cat scratches you if you click too many times during a hidden object puzzle. The cat isn’t onscreen, but the claw marks show up, and the screen goes red. I found it funny.

Audio

Cats of Ulthar uses a musical style that is very common for the genre. It uses strings and pianos to create a very moody atmosphere. It’s creepy, dreary, and yet somehow still upbeat at the same time. It’s pretty decent background music, and is very unobtrusive when you’re playing the game. It’s not worth listening to outside of the game, but that’s because it wasn’t designed for that.

There are no voices in the game, but there are plenty of sound effects. These are also pretty standard. You’ve got rain, animals scurrying on the street, and even a hissing alligator. It’s nothing special, but it does what it needs to.

All of this being said, you can play the game with or without the sound and get roughly the same experience. This one isn’t all about the atmosphere, so the other stuff is mostly dressing. If you do play with the sound on, you’ll get a decent experience that won’t hurt your precious eardrums.

Gameplay

Once again, things control smoothly here. Everything is done with the mouse, asking you either to click on things, or drag them to where you need them. You do this with items in your inventory, and during various puzzle sections. Moving from place to place is as simple as moving the cursor towards the exit until it changes into an arrow. A click later and you’re where you want to be, or at least on your way.

The main goal of this game is find various small cat statues and place them along one big one in the center of town. These are hidden away, and you’ll need to solve various environmental puzzles in order to get them. You may need to find a shovel to dig one up, find oars for a boat, or solve a combination lock.

Once you have brought a cat statue back, you’ll be given a picture puzzle to complete. There are a few different variations of these. The most common is the jigsaw puzzle, where you’ll be given four pieces at at time and be asked to create the picture you see below. There are also puzzles where you rotate pieces, swap pieces, and slide them around until they are in the right spot. Completing these gives you another section of the story, as well as an item to move you forward elsewhere.

There is more backtracking than usual in this game, or at least it seemed that way. It seemed every item I found would be used in an area on the other side of town. When I used that item, I’d get something else that would send me right back over. This gets worse as the games goes on because you open up more areas. It’s not an uncommon thing in this genre, but it just seemed worse here.

Hidden object puzzles are in this game as well. You’re given a list of items and are asked to find them on a static screen. Completing this task will reward you with a new item to use. There are several spots in the game where these puzzles show up. You’ll have to return to them a few times each before you get everything.

Overall, this is a pretty standard hidden object game. The only thing I can say that somewhat sets it apart is all of the picture puzzles. It’s a big focus in this game, whereas you usually only get a couple of them. If you’ve played any other game in the genre, you know what to expect here.

Replayability

Like pretty much every game in this genre, the adventure’s length depends on your own skill. Even then, it will likely not take you more than four or five hours to go through the game. The hint system can help speed that along, as well as the ability to skip any traditional puzzle in the game.

The CE comes with a bonus chapter, which offers close to an hour of extra content. That’s important, as you’re not going to get much play otherwise. Of course, this is balanced out by a higher price. You have to be willing to pay a little extra for more play time.

While there are multiple difficulty settings, it isn’t worth it to replay the game on a higher setting. The puzzles will be the same, and the story won’t change. This is a linear game with only one outcome. Once you know all of the tricks, subsequent playthroughs will be downright boring. This is a one and done kind of game.

Balance

The multiple difficulties do different things. Firstly, they adjust the length of time it takes for you to be able to use hints. Also, you may or may not incur penalties for random clicking. This penalty is that cat scratch thing I mentioned earlier. This prevents you from seeing the screen or clicking for a brief moment. This is more of an annoyance than anything. The harder difficulty will also not show you all of the interactive objects.

In essence, the lower difficulty settings are there to save you time. The game isn’t hard to begin with. The character will give you strong hints about what you need to do, or even flat out tell you what you need. All you need to do is remember what goes where when you finally find it. Since the puzzles can all be skipped, you will never be stuck for long. The CE also includes a strategy guide. So even if you run out of hints, you can look ahead and see what to do.

These games are all about progression, and Cats is no exception. It will gladly push your forward should you get stuck.

Originality

There are a couple of elements to this game that I haven’t come across yet in my hidden object adventures. That isn’t to say they are new, but this game does stick out a little compared to the ones I played.

Everything revolves around a central hub. You need to find those statues and bring them back to a specific place. Every location is revisited at some point, but it all leads back to this one spot. Also, the use of visual puzzles to unlock story content and items needed for progression was interesting. The game offers a consistent theme to come back to, which helps tie the game together in a nice way.

That being said, the core of this game is very generic. This game’s aim to please a specific group of people, and does little to rock the boat. Veteran players will get exactly what they’re looking for here.

Addictiveness

The point and click style of play is always addicting. It offers complex game mechanics with simple controls. Working your way through puzzles, or exploring new areas, is simply more fun with a mouse for this kind of game. It’s why fans of the genre keep coming back for more.

I finished the game in two extended sittings. This has become commonplace for me. While only a couple of these games has been all that remarkable, they’re still fun to play through, and solving puzzle after puzzle is very addicting.

As per usual, it won’t be the story, presentation, or ingenuity that keeps you coming back for more. The gameplay does that all on its own. It is remarkable that I can review so many of these games in such a short span of time, and still not get bored. There aren’t many genres that I can say that about.

Appeal Factor

This game knows who its audience is going to be. It clearly puts forth a product that will appeal to fans of hidden object games and very little others. However, it still maintains that accessibility that is a staple of the genre. I’ve come to really appreciate that.

Some may be drawn in by the Lovecraft connection. I warn against that. I’ve read this story, and all this game really does is take some names from it. The theme is different, and the supernatural tone is pretty much nil after the first hour or so. I also found the changing of Atal’s character to an attractive young woman to be a shameless act. There was no need for it.

This is a game for the players, not the scholars.

Miscellaneous

For bonuses, the CE offers the standard package. Beating the game unlocks concept art, wallpapers, and the ability to listen to the game’s soundtrack on demand. There’s nothing special here, but they’re nice inclusions.

The real key is the extra chapter. It finishes the story and provides and additional hour of content. Without it, I’d call the CE a wash. Again though, this kind of thing is one hundred percent the standard of the genre, so Cats does nothing special in this regard.

The bottom line is that this is exactly the kind of game fans want, and they’ll be the ones to get the most enjoyment out of it. It does what it is supposed to. Nothing more. Nothing less.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Below Average
Audio: Mediocre
Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Very Bad
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: Decent Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

If you like hidden object games, then The Cats of Ulthar will hit the spot quite well. It isn’t anything exceptional, but does plenty of things right. It doesn’t have any glaring problems to set it back, so fans will get an enjoyable experience. Lovecraft fans may be piqued by the connection to one of his stories, but this game is merely inspired by the tale. Don’t come in expecting a great homage, and you might have some fun. This is a standard game in the genre, and does a fine job at that.

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