Review: Natural Threat: Ominous Shores (PC)

Natural Threat: Ominous Shores
Publisher: Alawar Entertainment
Developer: Alawar Entertainment
Genre: Hidden Object/Adventure
Release Date: 03/01/2012

The premise of killer plants has always resonated with me. This is perhaps because of Day of the Triffids, which I watched quite a bit as a kid. There’s something otherworldly about a plant that can move at will, as well as kill and eat you. I find it so much scarier than a creature feature.

With that in mind, I couldn’t wait to try Natural Threat. I enjoy the gameplay of hidden object games enough, and the concept was comparatively unique. It was certainly something I was ready to dive into.

Does the game do the concept justice, or is this more akin to a modern SyFy movie that no one should ever experience?

Story

The story starts off on a remote island where a geneticist is busy splicing the genes of plants with those of animals. The mutants created are fascinating creatures, no doubt, but quickly prove dangerous. After a lab assistant is killed by one of his experiments, he’s left alone to tinker around without supervision and is never heard from again.

Flash forward fifty years later, and the story turns into a typical horror script. A group of college-aged friends are having a party on a boat when a huge storm sends them toppling into the sea. Wouldn’t you know it, they end up on that very same island with all of those mutant plants. As one of the survivors, your goal is to rescue your friends and find a way off of the island.

The story starts off pretty great. There is a good sense of foreboding throughout, and the atmosphere is thick. It’s also very intriguing when it comes to discovering just what kinds of monstrosities exist on the island. However, it ends up falling flat. The killer, like in most horror films, is that the characters are too weak to maintain your interest. There is very little dialogue, and you don’t get any idea as to who any of these people are. Natural Threat is more about big moments than storytelling, but it forgets that the best big moments are so big because of the weight carried by the characters that are affected. None of that is here. As such, the game loses its luster about halfway through and never manages to get it back.

This is a case where poor execution kills a great concept dead. It simply doesn’t live up to its potential, and ends up an uninteresting mess.

Graphics

Killer plants on a remote island is actually a pretty easy art style to convey when you think about it. All you really need to do is draw a bigger Venus fly trap and you’re good to go. As such, the art style is pretty fantastic. The killer plant aesthetic is combined with a run down and overgrown mansion to create a pretty convincing world. The sparse animations are effective, even if they aren’t technically proficient. When that vine snaps out to grab a mouse, it’s just darn cool.

The humans, as per usual, are a disappointment. Without fail, they look plastic and lifeless. Dollar store brand dolls look about the same. Some look worse than others, but what really gets me is how they don’t fit the d├ęcor of the world they inhabit. It almost feels like a different team did the humans. This is nothing new for the genre, but it was pretty glaring here, especially with the art style being as strong as it is.

The rest of the package boils down to the same kinds of effects we see in every hidden object game. There are plenty of sparkles and items moving as if they had a mind of their own. It does the job, but hardly impresses.

Audio

Without voice acting, the atmosphere of the game is left largely to the music of the game. In some respects, it holds its own. The music is moody, and just what you’d expect from this kind of game. However, the cues that start the music up are random, and more often than not you’re left in complete silence. For example, during one of the hidden object sections, there was no music. Then, it randomly started about halfway through. It did the same thing during story scenes. There was no rhyme or reason to it.

The effects are, again, what you’d expect. They do work at all times though, unlike the music. There are chimes and bells for hints as well as congratulatory noises. When you pry a brick from a wall, the accompanying sound is appropriate. The plants don’t make enough noise for my tastes. True, plants aren’t usually very noisy, but these are supposed to be mutants with animal properties. I think some more noises could have added to the atmosphere.

A few missteps take what could have been a run of the mill aural experience and turn it into a subpar one.

Gameplay

For a change of pace, I’m going to start with the hidden object sections. These runs pretty much like you’d expect. You’re given a list of items to find in a background. When you find an item on the list, merely click on it to cross it off. Once you’ve found every item, then you’ll get some sort of object that you can use in the game to move forward.

There are a couple of odd hidden object sections in which you need to find a large number of one type of object. I call them odd because they only occasionally tell you what you need to find. In one case in particular, you were given a number tally, and had to completely guess as to what needed to be found. It was annoying, to say the least.

Most of the game is your typical adventure experience. There are obstacles and objects in each area. By gathering and using objects, you can move through the obstacles to move forward to new areas. These can be as simple as using a pair of bolt cutters on a chain. However, there are plenty of multi-step puzzles as well. Everything is done with simple mouse clicks and controls well.

There is also a good portion of the game dedicated to more traditional puzzles. These include untangling vines, rotating gems, and other such staples of the genre. Most of these are fine, and can be beaten with enough time and strategy. However, one puzzle towards the end was a little messed up. It involved using a scoop to pick up two puzzle pieces at a time. The puzzle itself was fine enough, but the the scoop would disappear at times and never return. This meant backing out of the puzzle and coming back, which caused no end of frustration. The upside is that all of these types of puzzles can be skipped. You merely need to wait for a meter to fill up.

For the most part, Natural Threat does what it needs to. However, a couple of hiccups keep it from being as good as its peers. These mistakes prove costly in the end. The game needed more polish.

Replayability

Like most adventure games, Natural Threat offers no replay value whatsoever. A single playthrough will put you through everything the game has to offer. The only option for replay is to perhaps play with more limited hints. That doesn’t do enough to make one want to trudge through everything again.

In terms of how much time you’ll get out of that one playthrough, it’s a little longer than standard. It took me about five hours to play through the game. If you average that out for dollars per hour, that’s two dollars per hour. If you find that acceptable, than you’ll get what you pay for. Just know that you probably won’t be able to play the game more than once without getting bored.

Balance

The hint system is standard for this kind of game. You use a hint, it tells you what you need to do, and can be used again in a matter of moments. It does take a little longer to fill up than most hint systems that I’m used to, but unless you get stuck, that won’t matter.

Overall, I actually found the game a bit too easy. The game loves to tell you what you need to do, and seems more concerned with making you travel a long way rather than giving you a tough challenge. The end section is the epitome of this idea. You start at one end of the island and are give a location on the other side. You walk all of the way there, grab a quick item that requires no thought to acquire, and go all the way back in order to get the location of the next item. It was tedious and there was no payoff.

Originality

There aren’t enough killer plant games out there if you ask me. Nature offers a huge variety of plants rife with inspiration and danger. I do appreciate that Natural Threat uses an under-appreciated resource, even if it doesn’t make the most of it.

Beyond that, this is just like any other hidden object game you might have played. This genre is loathe to offer much of anything disparate from what fans want, and that makes sense. These games sell themselves on the story and amount of content, rather than the ingenuity.

Addictiveness

Because of the initial strength of the setting, the game is quite addicting. I played it for a long time before I finally put it down. Of course, when the story proved undeserving of such attention, I started to grow bored with the game. It might actually be getting to the point where these hidden object games are getting old for me, but in this case the blame lies on the game.

The end section really drags on, and by then, it’s hard to care about anything that’s going on. The poor design and the occasional glitch certainly don’t help matters. I played pretty much straight through it, but I didn’t get the same kind of enjoyment that I usually do from this kind of game.

Appeal Factor

While the setting will definitely peak the interest of a few players, the game does nothing else to help it stick out from the crowd. This, coupled with wide reports of the game crashing and not saving will keep many would be buyers at bay.

There is a certain amount of appeal that the game has simply because of its genre. Anyone can play this kind of game thanks to simple controls and an easy to use hint system. Thanks to some of the problems, however, it may actually turn some newcomers off. As such, I’m not going to recommend it.

Miscellaneous

Firstly, there appears to be a section on the menu for bonuses. However, it didn’t unlock after I beat the game. It is possible that there is a Collector’s Edition out there that includes this content, but I couldn’t find it.

Secondly, the game did crash on me. I didn’t think too much on it at first. However, looking into the matter I found that the game crashes often, and that the save is just as often lost. I got lucky on that account, but it is definitely something to consider before picking up this game.

Overall, this is the most disappointed I’ve been with a hidden object game since I started reviewing them. It had plenty of promise, but it did not live up to what it could have been.

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

Short Attention Span Summary
Natural Threat: Ominous Shores started out as one of my favorite hidden object games yet. However, the story fizzled out quickly, the audio bugs annoyed me, and the overall design was lacking. It just isn’t as good as the other games I’ve played, even if it isn’t the worst. As someone who gets plenty of enjoyment out of the genre, I can’t recommend this title. Unless you’re really into horticulture, give this one a pass.

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