The recently-launched Hidden Haunts from News Corporation’s social game developer Making Fun represents the company’s attempt to innovate in the hidden object genre. Its main hooks are the game’s photorealistic visuals and a modular city that grows along with the narrative rather than the usual freeform construction we see in other hidden object games.
It’s impossible to see a new hidden object game and not compare it to the more well-established big hitters in the genre such as Zynga’s Hidden Chronicles, Disney Playdom’s Gardens of Time and, to a lesser extent, Vostu’s World Mysteries. Making Fun president John Welch is well aware of the strong level of interest the genre is currently enjoying and cites Facebook’s naming of Gardens of Time as its number one title of 2011 as an inspiration for the development of this game. Speaking with us earlier this month, Welch noted that company “didn’t want to be left behind” by rival titles, so the decision was made to release the game early rather than its previously-intended March release date.
The game’s narrative focuses on a team of specialists with a “sixth sense” seeking to resolve ghost problems in the town of Lost Haven. It was originally intended to incorporate the cliched “missing uncle” narrative hook, but this was removed in order to distinguish the game from Hidden Chronicles and World Mysteries, both of which focus their plots around this fact. Instead, the player works their way through a series of episodes which focus on separate preset buildings around the town rather than a single mansion. The player is then able to construct their own houses and decorations around these fixed buildings, with the map expanding as the plot proceeds.
The supposedly photorealistic environments for the hidden object puzzles certainly look nice, but given the amount of post-processing applied to the picture — not to mention the bizarre objects strewn across the top of them — it’s actually difficult to see a huge difference between the visuals of this game and those of, say, Hidden Chronicles. If anything, using photographs for the settings rather than stylized hand-drawn or computer-generated visuals makes it frustratingly difficult to find the hidden objects in question at times, going beyond the usual fun of the genre into genuine annoyance at times. Mastering the various scenes becomes more a case of memorizing where the fairly limited number of possible objects are rather than having strong powers of observation.
This problem is compounded by the fact that after ticking off the list of objects to find, the player must then identify a final object using a picture which is covered in mist. When the objects are already muddy and shrouded in shadow in most cases, finding this final object is often best left to the Hint function. Offering some challenge to players potentially keeps them interested for longer, but it’s a fine line — dip into “frustrating” territory as this game frequently does and there’s a very strong risk of players giving up and not coming back.
Outside the hidden object scenes, the citybuilding gameplay is very conventional, with the construction of buildings contributing towards unlocking more scenes. Players are also able to visit friends’ villages, though the game does a very poor job of explaining exactly what players are supposed to do when there. Early in the game, the player is given a quest to “hunt a poltergeist” in the obligatory fake friend’s village, but is given no guidance on how to achieve this, leading to further frustration.
The citybuilding component’s visual style also clashes enormously with the photographic puzzle scenes. All game characters are presented as somewhat creepy doll-like personae with disproportionately large heads and don’t quite seem in keeping with the game’s desire to be more “realistic” than other examples of the genre. Similarly, the buildings that make up the city are obviously stylized pixel art rather than photographs or 3D models, giving the whole game a rather inconsistent visual style throughout.
Hidden Haunts has its good points — its production values are good, and players looking for a new challenge in their hidden object games may find things to like here. The game does, however, feel like an obvious attempt to capitalize on the genre’s popularity rather than an effort to genuinely innovate. The frustration factor of the photographic puzzles coupled with the inconsistent presentation makes this feel like a title that needs a bit more work before it can hope to compete with the giants of the genre in the long term.
A hidden object game with some nice ideas that are overshadowed by frustrating, conventional gameplay and inconsistent presentation.
Correction: A previous draft of this story incorrectly stated Facebook named Hidden Chronicles its No.1 Facebook game of 2011.