Review: DinerTown Detective Agency (PC)

DinerTown Detective Agency
Developer: Absolutist
Publisher: Playfirst
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 06/25/09

The Diner Dash series has spawned many a spin-off, such as the Wedding Dash series, Cooking Dash, Fitness Dash, and Dinertown Tycoon, just to name a few. Those games involve some frenzied clicking and the need to keep track of many things at once. DinerTown Detective Agency takes a somewhat slower pace, relying on finding clues and taking the time to deduct facts from information given by various informants rather than time management. Let’s see how the foray into a different genre pans out.

Bernie the book worm and mystery aficionado stumbles upon a magazine ad for a Private Eye kit. The possibility of solving the kinds of mysteries he reads about compels him to drop the $99.00 for the kit. Upon receiving the kit, Bernie starts tackling cases that crop up all over DinerTown, with Flo of Diner Dash fame accompanying him. If you’ve played the other Dash games, a lot of the faces you’ll see in this game should be familiar to you. Even if you haven’t, you won’t be missing out on anything except maybe for, “Hey, I’ve seen that character before!” moments. The story is mainly conveyed through a character giving a quick rundown of each case, a couple of lines exchanged between Bernie and Flo, and a brief blurb from the culprit after you solve each case. You won’t be solving any murder cases here as the cases range from, “someone’s been replacing all the toys in cereal boxes with veggies” to “someone broke into Mr. Big’s office and made a huge mess.” They may seem random, but some are actually linked to a bigger picture, as you’ll find out after you solve the last case. While not particularly deep, the plot is fairly lighthearted and serves as a good basis for a game like this.

The graphics are bright and cartoony, which fits the overall mood of the game. The suspect snapshots in the case journal each have alternate poses when you hover over them. The character portraits have blinking and talking animations, but are otherwise static. One useful touch is that the magnifying glass flashes whenever you’re near an item on the list that can only be spotted with it, which is rather helpful considering those items tend to be rather small. The fingerprints in the fingerprint matching segments do look like real fingerprints and are easily distinguishable from each other. They did do a good job of making the objects blend in well with the environment and thus harder to find. There are comic book styled introduction and conclusion scenes that look good. There’s also book cover style images for each case you solve, but you only see them right after finishing a case.

The soundtrack fits the detective motif, though the music that plays while solving puzzles is mostly subdued, to the point where I didn’t really notice it much most of the time. That’s a good thing in this case, considering having loud jarring music would not be too conducive to concentrating enough to solve said puzzles and find those proverbial gold needles in haystacks. There’s also the standard sound effects for when you click in a right or wrong place and for when your hint button finishes recharging.

There are two modes of gameplay: freeplay mode and story mode. Freeplay mode consists of only hidden object puzzles; there are no cases contained therein, you just pick a location and have at. Story mode is where you actually get to solve cases. When you begin a playthrough in story mode, you’re prompted to choose between timed and relaxed mode. In timed mode, you have a limited amount of time to get through the hidden object portions, and time is deducted from the timer if you click in the wrong places too many times. In relaxed mode, the timer is nonfunctional and you can click around with impunity. In addition, the P.I. badge ensconced in each hidden object screen awards extra time in timed mode and points in relaxed mode.

Solving each case in story mode consists of three parts: searching for objects and clues, narrowing down suspects based on clues you find, and interviewing people for information that will lead to discovery of the guilty party. In the hidden object parts, you’re given a list of items to search for. Some require the use of forensics tools to find, namely powder for fingerprints, drops for stains, and a magnifying glass for objects too small to see with the naked eye. Six of the objects will be clues that will classify six people as suspects. Sometimes you’ll also need to assemble pieces of objects and use them on the right hotspots, such as putting together a pair of scissors and using it to rip open a punching bag. All information related to the case is recorded in the case journal. If you get stuck, there’s a hint button that reveals the location of one of the objects when clicked on. You can use it as many times as you want, but it takes time to recharge after one use, and not using it nets you more points towards your total score. Some cases also have puzzles to solve. While you can bypass these if you’re not in the mood to do them for whatever reason, doing so will lower your score.

After you finish the object finding portion, you then have to eliminate suspects from the list. This can be accomplished in various ways. At times you’ll have to match fingerprints found at the scene with those of possible suspects. Other times you put together jigsaw puzzles showing that three of the suspects have alibis, thus proving that they couldn’t have possibly committed the crime. Another variant involves placing a series of pictures in the order indicated by the prompt, such as, “These clothes are as colorful as a rainbow”. Upon doing so, the pictures will turn over to reveal pictures of the suspects. Those outside of the time brackets above the pictures are crossed out as suspects.

Finally, it’s time to pin down the culprit from the remaining suspects. Bernie posits three theories from the clues found in the object search. Each suspect has a checklist of these theories with a “Yes” or “No” column next to them. You narrow down suspects by checking whether any of the theories describe each suspect based on hints given by informants i.e., “Toshiro has a black belt in aikido. He must be nimble on his feet,” and, “Unlike Marco, I never read men’s magazines”. Oftentimes you’ll have to infer what you need to know, as you’re not always told outright. Once you’ve determined who fits the criteria, you deem each suspect innocent or guilty. If you don’t deem the right person guilty, you’ll simply be told to look at your choices again. I’ve found that the getting the checklists right is less important than fingering the guilty person; I tried purposely checking off a wrong choice while marking the right person guilty, and the game let me continue anyway. Naturally, making any mistakes does negatively affect your score. In story mode you receive a score after every five levels, which takes into account how many times you used the hint button, how quickly you solved each hidden object part, and whether you made any mistakes in the second and third parts.

I found myself getting through the cases quickly, partly because I kept wanting to solve another case after I finished one and partly because the game leaned on the easy side. The variations in gameplay helps keep things interesting, and they’re implemented creatively here. The forensics bits reminded me of the ones present in the first and fourth Ace Attorney games, and while they’re not as elaborate in this game as they are in those games, they’re well implemented here. However, the lack of climb in difficulty as you progress through the game drags down the appeal of marathon sessions a bit, as doing too many cases in a row starts to feel somewhat repetitive due to how quickly you can get through each and how you’re essentially doing the same thing over and over. I rarely needed the hint button, I never came close to running out of time in timed mode, and I was usually able to pin down the culprit on the first try. The text that displays when you hover over a hotspot does a good job in telling you what you need to use on it, so the only thing left to do was to put together the necessary item. The only puzzle that gave me some initial difficulty would be the computer chip puzzle, and even that I was able to figure out relatively quickly.

Another factor adding to the easiness of the game is that failing in any part of the case carries no real consquences; you’re just given the chance to try again. In any mode but timed mode, you can use the old “click every last millimeter of the screen until you find something” strategy with no penalty. You essentially have to use this strategy for the fingerprint duster and the eye dropper since you’re given no hint as to where to look, though you’re not penalized for clicking on an incorrect spot when using forensics tools even in timed mode. While this is somewhat realistic, given that you wouldn’t get any hints anyway in real life, it does get somewhat montonous systematically sweeping the entire scene with clicks until you stumble onto the clue. Most of the time the clues are in places that make sense, but very occasionally, you’ll bump into something that’s placed nonsensically i.e. a footprint on a window.

After you’ve solved all twenty-five cases, the only things really left to do is improve your scores or try going through story mode in the mode you didn’t pick the first time around. There are no unlockables to be found here, and the cases remain the same through each subsequent playthrough, though the list of objects you’re asked to find does vary somewhat each time (naturally, the clues associated with each suspect remain the same). You can upload your scores to the online leaderboard, which provides some incentive to earn higher scores.

The overall lowish difficulty level makes this game a good pick for kids or those new to games. The amount of recognizable characters gives the game more appeal. Considering the size of the casual audience and how it’s been growing, combined with the fact that the game only costs $19.95 ($9.95 if you’re a member of PlayPass), I can see this game selling a good number of copies. Those used to the faster pace of the Diner Dash games may be less than appreciative of the slower pace in this game, but those who like sleuthing will enjoy this.

You do need to keep an open mind when searching for objects. For example, one of the things you need to look for might be “bunny”, but bunnies of the warm and fuzzy, chocolate, and stuffed varieties all count. In the same vein, “pin” can refer to both a safety pin and a straight pin. On the other hand, there was one place where I had to find four bags, I got down to one bag left to find, and there was a paper bag, backpack, and a drawstring bag. Only the paper bag counted towards the tally. Having just one image of the object in mind as you search can cause you to overlook the item you actually need. While this does add some challenge, it also seems a bit arbitrary as to what the game will register.

The Scores
Story: Above Average
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Decent
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable

Short Attention Span Summary:
DinerTown Detective Agency is a rather enjoyable and humorous take on the hidden object game. It includes a variety of mini-games that helps prevent the game from feeling too repetitive as well as exercises your deductive skills. While it doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot in increasing difficulty and progression through the game, it’s also not easy to the point of becoming boring. It’s a fun way to pass the time and won’t break the bank.



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