Review: Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake Collector’s Edition (PC)
by Aaron Sirois on December 4, 2012

Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake Collector’s Edition
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Developer: Big Fish Studios
Genre: Hidden Object/Adventure
Release Date: 11/21/2012

The Mystery Case Files games are like the kings of casual adventure titles. Big Fish develops them in house and spares no expense when it comes to making them into an event. They went out and got Lea Thompson of Back to the Future fame to star in this newest entry. While she may not be an A-list actress anymore, that’s still a pretty big deal for this kind of game.

To put it bluntly, the expectations for this particular hidden object game are much higher than comparable titles. This is an experienced development team that has put out several winners. Is this among them, or have they stumbled?

Story

You play as the “master detective”. When the reality show “Ghost Patrol” encounters something they aren’t quite equipped to handle in the ghost town of Bitterford, you get called in to help clear things up. While most of the crew abandons you almost immediately, you’re greeted warmly by the psychic Cassandra (Thompson). She uses her powers to start you off on a journey to solve the mystery of what happened to the town decades ago.

There are several issues with the story that keep it from being as good as it could have been. For starters, the acting of the real life actors is horrible. They are hamming it up big time. This would be fine if the whole game was supposed to be a bit silly, but the plot is actually dead serious. We’re talking dead children here. Thompson in particular is quite horrible, which is sad.

Another issue is that all of the important events took place decades ago. There’s no sense of urgency because you can’t save anyone. No one is in any danger either. In fact, you discover that the whole mess was caused by an evil relic that possessed the denizens of the town. That relic is still exactly where it last fell all those years ago. Since no one visits this town, and the relic was buried in a hidden room inside of a collapsed building that no sane person would dare enter, it gives you the feeling that all of your investigating is actually causing problems instead of solving them. Sure, there is some desire to help the lost spirits that haunt the town, but they lose that good will when they constantly jump out at you from the shadows. I stopped caring about helping them and thought more about how useful it would be to have a proton pack from Ghostbusters.

There are some good things in what the story does. It is a constant presence rather than a quick set up and a hasty end. There’s an actual sense of progression here. Also, there are some nifty bonus videos that show the Ghost Patrol crew at work right before you were called in. They suffered from overacting, but it was more fitting here and made for some laughs. Unfortunately, these pluses aren’t enough to make up for the rest of the package.

Graphics

Shadow Lake goes for a full on realistic look to compliment the live actors. It kind of works, but lacks that hand drawn aesthetic that most fans go for. The town certainly feels like a place that was abandoned in a hurry and then left to rot. Although one would suppose all of the missing/dead citizens would have been investigated more thoroughly. I guess earthquakes in Maine really freak people out. The live action sequences are fairly well integrated, apart from a spot that is used several times in the game. In this case, there’s an awkward jump as the game loads a canned video.

The game makes good use out of 3D objects. When you use various tools to interact with the game, it looks pretty darn good, and far above the norm for this type of game. It is certainly more polished in general. Using the live actors was a good choice, as I didn’t miss the customary awkward looking human models these games tend to have.

The production values for this game are definitely a step above other games in the genre. If you dig the realistic look over the hand drawn aesthetic, this will work for you.

Audio

Once again it’s time to talk about those live actors. The hammy overacting is best represented by the voice work they provide. Cassandra sounds like a overly exuberant mother reading a book to her child. It seems like she’s trying to do all of the voices to make it exciting. It doesn’t work.

Musically, the game hits all of the typical notes. There’s plenty of creepy low key music that fits the game but manages to be wholly unremarkable. You’ll be hard pressed to remember how any of it went after turning off the game. At least it fits the game.

Sound effects are a solid point for this game, as there are a number of them for pretty much everything you do. Using a screwdriver on a rusty screw makes the appropriate noise, as does starting a truck. There are some nifty ambient noises to keep things nice and creepy as well. If there’s one part of the game that actually works positively towards the atmosphere, it’s the effects.

Gameplay

The bare essentials of the genre are here in full force. You’ll use the power of your mouse to investigate areas, add items to your inventory, find hidden objects, and interact with various obstacles. Moving from one place to another is as simple as moving the cursor towards an exit and clicking when it changes to an arrow. There’s a nifty map feature that will take you to the game’s nine primary areas, although you’ll still have to travel on foot to get to any one specific screen.

Hidden object sequences are a tad different from the usual formula. When you’re in an area with stuff to find, the list will pop up, and you’re free to search the whole screen, and often one or two more areas, to find all of the stuff you need. There’s also some sort of explanation as to why you’re finding this junk. It turns out that random objects are imbued with psychic energy. Finding them all lets Cassandra commune with a nearby spirit and point you to a new area of interest.

There’s also a reverse hidden object mechanic at play. Cassandra will give you a group of drawings that match up to areas on your map. You have to find these areas and place the drawing over them to charge them with psychic energy. This often involves putting objects in the correct place or opening a new area. This is a nifty change of pace, although the game uses these way too much for my taste.

Another oft used mechanic is a puzzle where you have to put together a video that has been broken up into several square pieces. That’s right. It’s a video instead of just a picture. These puzzles could have been a ton of fun, but some genius decided to attach a badly done physics engine to it. Rotating pieces in an absolute pain, and you can bump other pieces out of the way, making placing a single piece a frustrating endeavor. It’s annoying when you have the puzzle solved, but still end up wasting an extra minute because the game won’t detect that the piece is in the right spot.

There are some more traditional puzzles in the game, but they are few and far between. There’s a simple light’s out game, and a another easy one where you figure out the combination to a safe by digging through a ledger. There are a couple of poorly designed puzzles that ruin the experience. Another safe in the game involves using letters instead of numbers. I knew the code, but there was no logical way to enter it. Another puzzle had me putting runes in the correct order. However, there was no way to know that I also had to bolt those runes into place. I ended up having to skip these puzzles because of poor instructions.

There are a few items that you’ll have to use repeatedly throughout the game. However, the item doesn’t stay in your inventory. For example, I grabbed a ladder from the library and used it to get into the doctor’s office. I then had to go back and get this ladder to use in about three different locations. Any time I needed a ladder, I had to go back and grab it. I would have just taken it with me at all times, but the game insists that you use the map to travel to locations instantly, which means you won’t head back through the area where the ladder was last left. The night vision goggles were another problem area. You had to manually use them every time you went into a dark area. It would have made much more sense for your character to automatically pull them out for an area you’ve visited before.

For the most part, the game plays fine. It’s just that a couple of really silly design choices ruin the overall experience. It’s been a while since such a game has felt like such a chore.

Replayability

Completing the game takes a few hours, and the bonus content can add some time to that. In this case, most of the bonus content is found inside of the regular game in the form of morphing objects you can collect. As long as you locate the area where these are unlocked early on, you can find them while you complete the main game. If you didn’t find that area before you beat the game, you can still go back and find everything without having to replay the main game. That’s good.

Once you’ve found everything, there’s no reason to go back. There are technically two difficulty settings, but these just affect how easy it is to find things. The puzzles don’t get harder, nor do the locations of objects differ in any way. Like most games in the genre, this is worth only one go around.

Balance

Apart from those tricky puzzles I mentioned before, the game is a breeze to go through. The only times I was really in trouble were when I needed to match up a drawing and simply didn’t realize I had to go to another spot on the map in order to find the right spot. The basic puzzles and hidden object scenes were easy enough to figure out, and random clicking is more than enough to get you by if you have trouble finding that one last object.

The hint system is interesting, as it only highlights something if you’re in the right spot. Otherwise, you get a bit of text that tells you roughly what you need to be doing next. I rather like that, as it doesn’t just beat the game for you. Still, the hint meter fills up rapidly, and it’s very easy to rely on it if you just want to plow through the game.

Originality

This is the ninth entry in the series, and one of hundreds of hidden object games to come out recently. It is incredibly hard for such a game to stand out. However, I haven’t yet come across anything like the video puzzles in another game. I’m sure there’s a few examples out there, but I haven’t played them myself. This helped the game stand out to me. The inclusion of live actors is also the best I’ve seen for such a game, if only in terms of how it looks. The acting may be sub-par, but it works well enough on the visual level.

Beyond that, this is a very typical entry in the genre. It does things a little differently, but none of it is really new and/or exciting. I’ve said it before, but this is not the genre to look into if you’re looking for originality.

Addictiveness

This is probably the hardest time I’ve had playing such a game for an extended period of time. The reason for this is because the game constantly repeats itself in terms of the objectives it hands the player. Cassandra sends you to a location, you find hidden objects, you go back and get drawings, you match the drawings up, you go back to Cassandra and do one of those video puzzles, and then she sends you to a new location to repeat the process. This happens more than half a dozen times through the game, and it got old very quickly. The lack of thought put into the pacing makes this one of the easier hidden object games to put down.

I still managed to complete the game in a mere two sittings, but that alone speaks volumes. Normally, I beat these games in one extended sitting. I’ve made that a habit of mine. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it with Shadow Lake.

Appeal Factor

While this game may be made by one of the more prominent developers out there, and has a franchise name tagged onto it, fans are simply not going to be impressed. The repetitive mission structure, overused/buggy video puzzles, and god awful acting make this an less than appealing package.

If you do want the game, the Collector’s Edition may or may not be worth it. The bonus level is short and simply unlocks those morphing objects. Finding all of those offers a clue to the next game in the series, but doesn’t enrich the story in any way. There’s a developer interview, which is nice, and some wallpapers/screen savers if you want to show the game off on your desktop. Big Fish does offer some nice rewards for players who buy CEs though, so that should factor into your decision.

Miscellaneous

Like I said, the bonus content mostly deals with the extra level and the morphing objects. There’s also those hidden videos you can find. There are two of them, and they’re hard to miss if you’re a veteran of the series. The developer interview is nice, and something I wish every game had. Normally, such a thing would push a game’s bonus content over the top, but the uninteresting extra gameplay kills that momentum.

This game is a pretty big letdown. I figured that Big Fish puts out so many hidden object games that they would know best how to make a good one. However, they overreached with the live actors and “physics based” video puzzles.

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

Short Attention Span Summary

Shadow Lake isn’t terrible. In fact, it does a lot of things right. The core gameplay is intact and does things a bit differently from most other games in the genre. Visually, the game works thanks to a more realistic approach that gels with the live actors. However, those same actors end up hurting the game thanks to some seriously hammy overacting that kills the game’s story and makes it hard to listen to. Some of the puzzles are broken messes that are frustrating to play. Even the bonus content is suspect, as you’re not likely to get more than half an hour of extra time out of it. This game is about as big a letdown as it could have been.



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