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Review: The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark

Not actually an American football simulation at all!

The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark is the sequel to The Darkside Detective, a point-and-click adventure game. It is divided into cases, as was its predecessor. The case-based adventure game has become a subgenre of sorts, though I am not aware of its origins. (Oniria Crimes ( “Review of Oniria Crimes) and Nobodies spring to mind. The latter is a different spin on point-and-click, in that the goal is to quietly dispose of corpses.)

Whatever the cause of the trend, it is a reasonable way to break up development and still create a cohesive game, as shown by The Darkside Detective and this sequel. Like the previous game (and like the others mentioned) there is usually some connection between cases, which makes each case feel like an episode rather than an isolated story to itself.

Here you play as Detective Francis McQueen, now-formerly of the Darkside Division of the Twin Lakes Police Department. The darkside isn’t a reference to the yin-aspect of the Star Wars force, but to an alternate dimension or parallel universe where things are kind of screwy (in a different way than they’re normally screwy). The darkside itself doesn’t feature as heavily or directly in this game as in the first one.

Each case follows the same basic shape that detective stories have since Sherlock Holmes first solved a case. There’s the exposition, in which we find out the nature of the case. There’s the rising action when we uncover clues as to who’s responsible or, in the case of point-and-clicks, we cobble together inventory items into solutions to puzzles. And finally, there’s the denouement, when we pull the disguise off of someone and they complain about us and our dog foiling their scheme.

Case locations include an older-peoples’ home (the grandmother of your sidekick, Dooley, lives there), Ireland (not the whole island, but a castle there, the ancestral home of your sidekick), a carnival, a pro-wrestling event, and your highschool reunion. There are also two bonus cases (with a third planned, according to the case selection screen). The first bonus is a nice time-travel case for Christmas (loosely after Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and the other is occasioned by your sidekick’s nephew being missing.

The writing has good humor to it, including some absurdity which I always enjoy. It does tend toward memery in places, but it’s not terribly online. The writing is British English, which is kind of strange at times given the game takes place in America. But it’s not really America is it? It’s a fictional America where British gamemakers have replaced America with a British imagining of an America—bizarro America—where supernatural things happen. In any case, the puzzles tend to the easy side, and are mostly logical.

It took me about 14 hours to complete eight cases and all the achievements. If you want an easy-ish, pixel-graphics adventure game, particularly one with light elements of supernatural themes, give it a look.

Review of Oniria Crimes

A game that doesn’t use the La Llave method.

Oniria Crimes (Badland Publishing: “Oniria Crimes”) is a different spin on a point-and-click adventure. There are six cases that have you investigate and interrogate a crime scene in the dreamworld of Oniria. (In case it struck you as poor wording, it wasn’t: you interrogate the scene itself. Items and furniture give you statements about what they saw when the crime took place.) At each location you will identify three suspects and up to seven pieces of information about each of them (six plus their image), and once you have enough information you can point to two relevant pieces of information per suspect to ascribe guilt or innocence.

The artstyle is nice, with a voxel-based cyber-dream aesthetic. The writing is decent, showing a lot of worldcrafting behind the game. The environments are limited, and not as surreal as I expected for a dream-based game, though some of the lore and writing do have surreal elements. The main departure from a standard graphical adventure game was that there’s only one screen per crime (except for the train), and so each area is much more what-you-see-is-what-there-is. That’s a fine approach, and I don’t think it detracted from the overall design.

I liked the variety of the crimes presented. The inclusion of the minigames gives a nice breakup to the similarity of the levels, though some of them could have been better orchestrated. The other unique features per level were also nice additions. These level-differentiators are especially important as otherwise the interaction was mostly clicking and reading.

The game itself was a little bit of a rough start for me. The basic gameplay wasn’t entirely clear. When you start playing, you understand that you interrogate the items of the crime scene, and you learn that some will add choices to the suspects’ dossiers. But some of the dossier choices are a bit ambiguous. Others are too obviously canards. Even in retrospect, while some of the answers are easily identified, others seem arbitrary.

On the second level you can rotate the room (as you can later on the library level), but it wasn’t formally introduced and I didn’t try hitting the button until I already felt stuck, only to realize there were two other walls to interrogate. Other similar mechanics in other levels were properly introduced, so that made it feel like even more of an oversight.

For whatever reason (on Linux, at least) achievements only show up in Awakeland (i.e., after you close the game). This can leave you wondering if you’ve achieved something only to have several get added when you stop a play session. That’s not a huge deal from the player perspective, but if it’s fixable from the developer’s perspective, they should fix it. Getting the immediate feedback of achieving something is important from a psychology and design standpoint. You want to make sure that players who are rewarded by achievements get them as soon as they achieve the thing, as that makes them like your game more. (To be fair, I have seen this in a few other games before. It’s not clear why they do it this way, so perhaps there is some reason to it?)

One other thing to note: the library level uses a QR code to point to a URL that at the time of playing was no longer in service. Luckily a Steam Guide (Spoilers: Steam Community: “Oniria Crimes”: TheDeluxeTux: “Solutions and Achievements”) includes the relevant information from the missing page. As you can finish and revisit cases, after you finish the game you can go back and see that information without spoiling anything. But from a design standpoint, it’s best to avoid that entirely, even if it’s only for an achievement. Even if you know you’ll keep a website in operation indefinitely, people could still be playing offline.

Despite its flaws, the general shape of the game holds up. I think it’s a nice example of diversity in design helping to cover for some inadequacies. The parts I didn’t like or felt were incomplete got overshadowed by what the game got right, and I felt at home in the gameplay even when I knew it wasn’t quite where it should be.

I got all the achievements over about nine hours. It’s a fun game that begs to see more depth to the world than what the developer was able to bring. Making games is hard, so I understand the limited scope of the world compared to the lore, but I hope to see more titles from them in the future. If you like the genre, Oniria Crimes is worth a look.

Review of Thimbleweed Park

Be sure to check out the arcade, if you can dig up some tokens.

Thimbleweed Park (Wikipedia: “Thimbleweed Park”) is a retro-modern take on the classic graphic adventure game. Made by some of the very people (i.e., Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick) who made Maniac Mansion (among other games), it is set in a run-down town visited by a pair of FBI agents investigating a murder.

Thimbleweed Park definitely shows the experience of the creators and of the art of adventure game design itself. It is a layered story that shifts from the murder to the characters living in and visiting the town. It is a solidly-built game with some head-scratching to puzzle your way through.

The game features two modes of play: hard and casual. I played through on hard first, and I think that’s the way to go. The casual mode is there if you just want to get through the story, but it’s very much a carved-out version of the harder playthrough.

Besides the no-deaths and puzzle dependency methods, each character has a journal or to-do list that helps the player keep track of what’s on the character’s plate at any point in the game. A lot of thought went in to trying to keep gameplay smooth and not let the player feel too stuck or lost, and I can say that I beat the game without getting any hints. That’s a good signal that the game is well made, as my general record for adventure games is that I eventually break down and get at least a few hints before I beat them. (To be fair to me, most of the time I know the solution and only need guidance on some minute detail about where to click or that I needed to do some non-obvious thing first. Like you can’t butter the bread unless you let the butter soften, or you can’t tie your shoes unless you study a knot-tying book first.)

The game was funded via a Kickstarter campaign, and there are some nice in-game contents that reflect those pledges, including the books in the mansion library and the extensive phonebook of Thimbleweed Park. (There are achievements for reading enough books and calling enough answering machines, but even if you don’t go for those it’s worthwhile to spend some time with the backer-contributed content. Some good stuff there. It would have been nice to have an direct interface to browse through them out of game, possibly after beating the game.)

The phone system does play an in-game role as well. The game-related phone numbers (listed in red in the phonebook) are worth jotting down out-of-game, to save the trouble of getting a character to look at the phonebook if you’re focused on a puzzle or goal.

Thimbleweed Park took me about 19 hours to complete, including all achievements. I like adventure games, and I enjoyed this one. Each one has its own quirks and offers a different take on the genre.

Parts of Thimbleweed Park are a comment commenting on the genre and give the player an overview of the process. Ron Gilbert has written a bit about how he sees adventure game development and what he thinks makes a good one (see Grumpy Gamer, Ron Gilbert’s blog), and this game definitely reflects his philosophy of the genre well.

The parts played as a ghost were a high point for me. I think it’s an underrated aspect of games that let you experience foreign perspectives like that. I had a similar feeling in playing Amnesia: Rebirth (where the player-character is a pregnant woman). The character of Ransome the *beeping* Clown was also a fun addition.

If you like adventure games, this one is worth a spin.