Although you wouldn’t necessarily put it in the same category as Pokemon, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto, the Mystery Case Files series is one of the most successful video game franchises out there. The series has sold millions of copies and it’s the most successful adventure game franchise of all time. Now even though I’m a big point and click gamer, I’ve actually never played a Mystery Case Files game until this one (Although I did download both Ravenhearsts and Dire Grove on BFG’s Black Friday sale recently). I’ve always meant to try the series out – it’s just there’s always been some other game to review or that has taken precedence.
So I decided to take the plunge and pick up 13th Skull for $13.99 from Big Fish Games (it’s $19.99 if you’re not a member of the site) and see how the latest game in the series fared. In a year where we’ve seen excellent adventure games like Disgaea Infinite, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and DarkStar: The Interactive Movie , was the newest Mystery Case Files game able to hold its own?
In 13th Skull, you’ll be playing as the nameless speechless detective protagonist that has main evented the previous Mystery Case Files titles. I only know this due to veiled references to previous games throughout my playthrough. It’ll be interesting to see how those prior games fare since I played the newest game first.
This time, the detective has traveled to the bayou of Louisiana to solve a very unusual kidnapping case. You see, a young family bought a supposedly haunted plantation and the father, one Mr. Lawson, discovered a treasure map that he felt would lead him to an old pirate’s treasure. Unfortunately for him, he appears to have been spirited away in the dead of night by what appeared to be the ghost of the pirate itself. That’s where you come in. You’ve been hired to find Mr. Lawson and see if the treasure, ghost pirate and other superstitions of the region are all hogwash.
Now the game’s premise is all well and good, but the further you play the worse the story gets. You can pretty much see the would-be twists and swerves coming from miles away. There’s a swerve regarding the kidnapping that is pretty good, but it’s then followed up by a Scooby-Doo ending and then something straight out of John Carpenter’s The Fog. This in and of itself isn’t bad mind you. The game is for casual gamers after all. However, when compared to other Adventure games, the story does feel a bit weak and also heavily padded with backtracking and fetch quests that don’t really add to the story. Once you “beat” the game, you’re treated to a “bonus game” called 13th Skull: Last Rites, which is really just the natural continuation of the game after its boogedy boogedy “ending.” That’s a lot of words in quotation marks, isn’t it? My problem with the bonus game is that only the people that purchase the collector’s edition will get this, and without it, the game just ends abruptly and kind of stupidly. The Last Rites bit is still pretty groan-worthy, but at least it gives a proper ending to the whole affair.
Now, in spite of my trashing bits of the story and the fact anyone who is actually from the Bayou will no doubt be offended by the way the game portrays the region, I still had a lot of fun with the characters and progression of the game. There’s a neat cast and crew here, all of which are portrayed by real actors with Full Motion Video (Man, is that making a comeback or what?) and I enjoyed the story up until the ending when I actually have to FIND the thirteen skulls. From then on the game takes a nosedive into hackneyed writing, but the majority of the game did amuse me and make me feel I got my $13.99 out of the affair.
Story Rating: Enjoyable
Like most adventure and/or hidden object games, 13th Skull is primarily well rendered but static images. There isn’t a lot of movement or animation in the game, but everything looks nice and there’s a lot of detail to the images, which is nice. Actors portray each character and the full motion video is laid onto of the computer graphics almost seamlessly. The overall effect is nicely done and I had a lot of fun watching the actors in the game perform their parts.
There really isn’t a lot one can say about the visuals here. Most gamers will wish there was a little more animation to the game, but at least there’s an hour or so of video footage, which is a lot of fun to watch. Casual gamers will certainly be happy with what’s on their monitor while more experienced adventure games may be left wanting.
Graphics Rating: Enjoyable
As mentioned previously, every character in the game is acted out by, well, actors, and the full motion video shows the actual people in costumes as if this was a play instead of just voice acting. Now I’m a fan of FMV games and to see it slightly incorporated into 13th Skull was a lot of fun, but I can’t deny that the actors are more dinner theatre/community college level than what we’re used to on consoles these days. That being said, it’s still better than what we saw in games like Resident Evil 1 two generations ago, and so as cheesy as the acting was, I still had fun with it. I will add that in the last puzzle of the main game, and throughout the Last Rites bit, the acting did annoy me greatly and I found myself telling the game to shut up as it kept saying the same five lines over and over again with maddening frequency.
The music of 13th Skull is fine. It has enough background tracks, and while there’s nothing here that ever got stuck in my head or had me humming along, none of them were either distracting or annoying, and that’s all you can really ask for. Sound effects fall into the same boat. There aren’t a lot of sound effects, but what’s here sounds like it should and serves its purpose. The most annoying noise in the game comes from this horrible little yap yap dog that never shuts up, and I was sad to discover I couldn’t use my hammer, wrench, or garden shears on it.
Sound Rating: Enjoyable
4. Control and Gameplay
13th Skull is basically a first person adventure game. You’ll be traveling to a lot of static locations (with even more backtracking…) and you’ll be solving various puzzles to help you advance through the game. The puzzles basically come down to one of four types: hidden objects, block sliding, minesweeper, and combining objects. The last puzzle in the main game involved map reading and the last one in Last Rites is a poorly done logic puzzle, but at least there is some variety rather than a lot of adventure games these days that are either JUST hidden objects or JUST combining objects.
Unfortunately I feel the line between a mediocre adventure game and a good one depends on whether said puzzles directly connect to the plot or not. In the case of the 13th Skull, we have both. About half the puzzles are thematically involved with the story. Sure it is utterly implausible that a pirate (ghost or otherwise) would have this many puzzles set up to create a path to his treasure, but hey, it’s a video game. What’s bad is that the other half of the puzzles are just there as padding to extend the length of the game. “Oh, I’ll help you detective, but first you have to do XYZ for me.” With XYZ being things like finding dolls, picking up garbage or killing weeds. Puzzle padding is one of my pet peeves (Aliteration!) for this genre, and 13th Skull has its fair share of it. This was disappointing.
Another disappointment was that the game has some bugs. In an attempt to add replayability to the game, quite a few puzzles have randomized solutions that will change from playthrough to playthrough. Unfortunately, I encountered two puzzles where the randomization was so buggy, it almost stopped the game from being playable. For example, in the latter half of the game, you have a secret door with four dials. You need to turn the dial so that the right sigils are showing in the correct order. You can find the sigils and their order inside a fountain that you must clean using chlorine. Once you do so the solution shows up in your casebook. All well and good, right? Except that the game steadfastly refused to accept the solution. After a dozen times of trying the solution and getting nowhere, I checked the strategy guide that came with the collector’s edition. It told me I had done everything correctly. That left me with two options. The first of which was choosing to skip the puzzle (This lets you proceed as if you have beaten it but you lose the chance on getting an “achievement” which is as useless as gamerscore or trophies for console gaming), but instead I just played around with it and eventually learned the first sigil in my casebook and the fountain was incorrect and by just randomly fiddling with the dial it opened. This was frustrating and I’m an experienced gamer. There’s no way the game should have been released with a bug this severe, especially in a puzzle game, but at least there is a failsafe built in to help you proceed. I also encountered this issue with a sliding block puzzle and a different fountain puzzle. With the block puzzle there was no way to go back once you had messed up, so you have no choice but to skip, and with the fountain puzzle, I solved it and once again discovered that the solution in my casebook and the solution the game wanted weren’t actually matching up. I was happy to see the randomization for the puzzle solutions at first, but when the solutions you find in-game fail to actually match up with the solution the game is looking for, that’s pretty bad and a pretty easy coding job to fix. Sloppy programming here.
Overall, what was here was decent. I think Big Fish tried to make a deeper game than their staff was up to skill wise and they made a few programming errors that a more experienced adventure staff wouldn’t have screwed up. Still, building a failsafe into the game to allow one to proceed in these situations, even if it was put in to help the stupid, at least makes it so the game isn’t forever stuck in a holding pattern.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Decent
Most adventure games are a very linear “one and done” affair. This, of course, means there isn’t much reason to come back to one, as it will always unfold the same way. This is mostly true of 13th Skull. The game tried to implement a randomization solution effect like some other adventure games have done in the past, but the result actually did more harm than good as we saw in the previous section. As well, the game tries to give the illusion of extended replay value with a “bonus game,” which really isn’t a bonus at all, but rather the actual last 10-15% of the game. If purchasers of the non-collectors version don’t have this, they really should raise a fit as that would be unconscionable as well as ripping the purchaser off.
Finally, the game does offer “achievements” in an attempt to extend replay value. These can be won by collecting 20 insignia tokens throughout the game, beating the game in under ten hours (which shouldn’t be a problem as I did it in six), never freezing in a hidden object puzzle, never “skipping” a puzzle throughout the game and going through every possible dialogue option in the game. These achievements don’t unlock anything and it’s not like you can share them with anyone, so it’s just window dressing or an excuse to try and replay the game.
Overall, 13th Skull offers a scant bit to entice a gamer to play through the game more than once, but only marginally more than the average adventure game. Still, at $13.99, one playthrough should get your money’s worth, although at $19.99 it may depend on if you are a fan of the genre or not.
Replayability Rating: Poor
As the Mystery Case Files games have a reputation for being a “casual gamer” franchise, a lot of people mistakenly assume that the games are super easy ala pure hidden object titles. That’s not really the case here. In fact, some of the puzzles are pretty esoteric and hard, without any really logic or sense behind how you are supposed to know that a particular clue leads to a solution much later in the game. For example, in the Last Rites part of the game, there is one puzzle that can only be solved by looking through a telescope, pointing it at a specific angle and then waiting for about 25-30 seconds for the answer to appear. Then you have to take that answer to a door and enter the name MOSTLY, but not fully, backwards into the door panel. Okay then. As well, the final puzzle in the game involves sticking each of the thirteen skulls onto their proper bodies. Your piece to help you is a list of names and ethnic origins along with a one word descriptor. Unfortunately the descriptors are pretty bad and are usually no help at all. Several of the skulls will be done with just guess and check. How is one supposed to know that the girl in the brown dress behind the captain should have skull #13? The clue is “nurse” but there is nothing medical about her. It’s one of the worst logic puzzles I’ve ever come across and even after beating it and then going into the guide to look for some sort of understanding, it’s still pretty unintelligible. Again, 13th Skull seems to have been made by a development team that was stretching their skills and puzzle making ability pass their actual talents.
Now not all the puzzles are this unclear. Most are pretty straightforward and easy. However you also have the randomization bug I mentioned earlier that messes up some of those, and others that have their own specific issues, such as a puzzle where you have to put wine bottles in a specific order to see a picture. I solved that one easily only to wonder why nothing happened. It took me a second to realize I had solved the puzzle correctly, but it was upside down from how the game could recognize the answer, so I had to turn everything on its head. A bit annoying, and the better made adventure games out there would still have recognized the solution.
Overall, I’d say half the puzzles fall into the fun and slightly challenging category, a quarter are easy and dull, while another quarter are to the point of nonsensical.
Balance Rating: Decent
Not only is this the seventh game in the PC version of the Mystery Case Files series, but there’s not much here that stands out as original or innovative. As I said earlier the plot is a mix of an old Scooby-Doo episode and The Fog, while the puzzles and gameplay are all variations of things we seen numerous times in other, better games. I was happy to see the use of FMV in the game, as it’s always a plus to see this bit of retro gaming make a modern day appearance, but there’s honestly nothing here that makes 13th Skull stand out from the adventure game pack. I’m hoping that the older MCF games I picked up on Black Friday fare better.
Originality Rating: Bad
Despite the game’s programming and plot flaws, I still managed to have fun with 13th Skull. The crappier puzzles and story twists don’t hit until you’re more than halfway through the game, and that first half is a lot of fun, albeit it filled with cheesy acting. There might not be any real originality to the game, but the puzzles are diverse and fun enough that it makes up for their familiarity. It’s also a game that you can put down at any time and come back to without feeling like you’ve forgotten any of the story or where you are. The casebook helps manage the story and all the solutions/clues you’ve uncovered so far and if you’re inclined to use a walkthrough, it’s built into the game as one of your items.
I played through the first half of the game with my girlfriend over Thanksgiving vacation and we had fun with the title. Then I didn’t pick up the game for almost a week and I finished it in a second go-through and it felt like I had just played it the day before. 13th Skull is by no means the best adventure game this year, but it’s one I had fun with – most of the time.
Addictiveness Rating: Enjoyable
9. Appeal Factor
So here’s the thing – I like Adventure games, but my girlfriend doesn’t. Before we started on 13th Skull we tried the demo of Dream Chronicles on my PS3 and she HATED it. She found it boring and lame. Yet the core mechanics of 13th Skull are basically the same as that game, yet she really enjoyed playing it. So it can easily be inferred that although 13th Skull has some bugs and programming issues, it oozes charm and style the way the average point and click PC game doesn’t and is able to draw in gamers the usually eschew both the genre and the PC as a gaming platform. The series also has a big fan following and casual gamers are more likely to be accepting of the flaws in the game that I’ve been critical towards. Looking at sales figures, 13th Skull is already successful and has no doubt given quite a few gamers their money’s worth.
Most people that pick up this game will have fun with it, especially since it’s a fraction of the price most console (and even a lot of PC) titles have attached to them. I beat the game in roughly six hours and that’s a little more than $2.33 an hour. That’s pretty cheap. Even if you paid full price for the game, it’s only $3.33 an hour. I’m pretty quick at flying through these games, so most gamers will have a price per hour ratio that’s even lower. With this in mind, it’s easy to see that the people who pick up 13th Skull will get what they paid for and then some. It won’t be the best game, or even a good one, but at least it’ll be a fun one.
Appeal Factor: Good
I have to admit that I was underwhelmed with 13th Skull after all the hype I’ve seen casual gamers give this series. I was definitely expecting something a little more polished than what I got and the “collector’s edition” really didn’t give you any true bonuses. There are some wallpapers, a “Bonus game” that should in no way be considered an extra as it is part of the main story and is needed unless you want one of the most abrupt and lamest endings in a game this year, and a strategy guide that is poorly put together. Most of these bonuses save the strategy guide would be considered standard fare in a normal adventure game, and honestly, if both had been made available at the same time, I’d have gone for just the standard version… unless it lacks Last Rites.
As a regular game, this was a decent title. Judged as a collector’s edition though, the extras and overall package are sub-par and unless you’re a big fan of the franchise, you are probably better off waiting for the standard version, which will only be $9.99 or $6.99 if you’re a Big Fish Games member.
Miscellaneous Rating: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Appeal Factor: Good
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull is a mediocre adventure game. It doesn’t do anything to really stand out from the pack of point and click titles that come out for the PC every year. It’s a decently made affair that makes up for its lack of originality with style and an interesting story. When all is said and done though, it’s a pretty humdrum experience with a few potential game stopping bugs that should have been fixed before release. Thankfully said bugs can be prevented by using the “skip” function of a puzzle, but it also means you bypass part of the game entirely. I can’t really recommend the game unless you’re a big fan of the series, but there’s also nothing the game really does wrong either. Middle of the road title from beginning to end.