Big Fish Games, creators of the Mystery Case Files series, created a huge hype in their forum before the release of the game. And a lot of fans (especially over at BFG) fell for it – I, too. But these days, BFG isn’t my only source of information. Some people over at the Pub had played a beta of the game and found quite some things that needed improving. Unfortunately, when the Collector’s Edition (read: especially expensive edition with a few extras) came out, the ‘beta’ they had played turned out to be the trial version of the game.
But where is the disappointment? Well, there’s a couple of reasons to be unhappy with the game. First of all, as many other long-time fans of the series, I had hoped for a new (and maybe final) chapter of the Ravenhearst story arc. The bonus in the Collector’s Edition of the last MCF game (Dire Grove, which is one of my favourites) kind of hinted it. But that alone would not make the game a disappointment.
BFG didn’t listen to their customers, for one thing. After Dire Grove was released, a lot of people complained about the videos (which you didn’t even really have to watch, then). 13th Skull has even more of those.
All MCF games have been HOGs (Hidden Object Games) or, the last two before 13th Skull, IHOGs (Interactive Hidden Object Games). It was always a game with a lone player doing what was necessary. The last two games, the IHOGs, were set in abandoned places: run-down Ravenhearst Manor and deserted Dire Grove village (and hotel). This way, you moved from place to place, did search scenes to find hidden objects (and one or more objects for your inventory), used the objects from your inventory, solved puzzles and mini-games and thus completed the game.
Now, all in a sudden, you are interacting a lot with other characters. There’s the wife of the missing guy you’re looking for, the housekeeper and groundkeeper, the daughter, some local people, too. All of them come along as – you might guess from the last paragraph – videos. Real actors have been filmed and pasted into the still drawn backgrounds of the mansion in the Louisiana swamp. While the montage of drawn background and filmed characters works a lot better now than it did in the past (although “Toonstruck” still was a good game when it came out ages ago), the mixture doesn’t exactly fit together all that well. In addition, interrogating the various characters adds a new side to the gameplay.
My guess is BFG wants to turn the series into real adventures – only they’re missing one important ingredient for a real adventure: freedom. In an adventure, the player can pick up stuff as soon as they find it (and there are no search scenes in an adventure, of course). In an adventure, there are various puzzle chains that work independently and can be solved in various sequences. 13th Skull has none of those qualities.
Even as an IHOG, it’s not all that good. There are some puzzles that can drive you crazy (and almost led to me throwing my computer out of the window). They are unfair not because they’re hard (they aren’t – the whole game has been ‘dumbed down’ compared to its predecessors), but because there’s no tip for the solution around. Example? During the game, you need to unplug a toilet in the local bar. As a such, not that much of a problem, provided you have the right tool (not too hard to find). But there’s no tip about how to do it right. You see, you have to alternate between flushing and using the tool – you need a special sequence and there’s no hint, no matter how hidden, for it. (At least, there’s none I could find – I checked the walkthrough in the end … the ‘Strategy Guide’ they sell with the CE is next to useless.) This is not playing fair, because you either have to check a walkthrough or the guide for it or have to experiment for ages until you find the right sequence. It is, of course, an explanation for the long playing time they’ve announced: 10+ hours. Nobody in the forum has needed 10 hours to finish the game…
On the whole, even apart from my own troubles with the game (there were a lot of technical issues when the game was out, but I had special issues downloading which I only overcame a couple of days ago), the game wasn’t very good and certainly not good enough to warrant the hype. It’s probably the weakest of the series (which includes two rather light-headed games, the first two) and not even a very good IHOG/adventure hybrid. I’ve seen better.