[update! Big Fish Games is making a change to this game so that highlight of hints is turned off by default and it will be an option to use it.]

Having played Travelogue 360: Paris twice, I have high expectations for the second installment: Rome. Very high expectations. Perhaps unreasonably so. I expected the same gameplay with better quality graphics and sound, since the game should improve. I also expected more of a storyline, since their web site told me so long before the game was out. What I got was better graphics, a storyline that doesn’t fade into the background, more – and better – mini-games, a smaller hud, and – the only real bad part is coming up – a new built in hint system that basically ruined the game.

Let’s start with the good stuff. As far as object hunting games go, Travelogue 360 is the stuff of dreams. Instead of just a flat scene that you can find objects in, it allows you to change your view with the right mouse button – if you’ve ever played with a Quicktime VR, it’s exactly like that – and hunt for objects in the entire room, from the ceiling to the floor you’re standing on. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Objects in Travelogue 360: Rome (360:Rome) are a mixed bag: some are very well hidden, blending into the environment; some are just scattered on the floor randomly; some are so big and loud you couldn’t miss them if you try. All are realistically shaded so it doesn’t look like it’s been simply tacked onto the background. On occasion I do run across some blurry, small objects, but nothing unrecognizable. There are times when it can be unreasonable, however. In a room full of lounge chairs, I was asked to find a lounge chair. A line drawing of a lounge chair. In another instance I was asked to find a “playing card,” but not the queen of diamonds that happened to be at my feet. One other time I was asked to find a key, but only the key on the ceiling and not the key hung on the wall.

There are a great variety of mini-games in 360:Rome – I especially enjoyed Scopa. Scopa is a numbers addition game disguised in a card game, and it’s simple and takes just a bit of strategy. The other mini-games seem to have been dumbed down; jigsaw pieces are no longer rotated, and the suitcase packing game now has outlines of objects. I don’t see how this is an improvement, but Scopa made up for it. Wordsearch with images instead of words as hints is a stroke of genius, as is the memory game near the end. I won’t ruin that for you, but I think memory games should be like that from here on now and forever.

360:Rome has, by far, the best original storyline I have seen in a casual game yet. You can read the online story on their website. The game doesn’t give you the entire story, but rather snippets of it in forms of letters and postcards that you can purchase from ye Olde Emporium. Each chapter begins in the form of an old “chapter excerpt” that gives away cryptic clues to how the chapter will go, with hints of what you have to find. It’s a very nice touch. Like in 360:Paris, each time you finish collecting all the items in a location, you get a fun fact that you can read in the Travelogue at anytime. That’s a nice touch too.

Big Fish Games chopped away part of the hud in this game by 1) making it semi-transparent 2) putting the list of items in a scrolling list with arrows, and 3) making the buttons to your travelogue as well as the menu smaller. However, this doesn’t really work. The scrolling list gave me another thing to click, and it looks bigger than the hud in the last game because of the purely cosmetic navigation ball in the center of the hud, as well as the list of items which protrudes right into your field of vision on the right.

Complain, complain. What would be a better idea, you may ask? Since 360: Rome highlights only the items that are in your field of vision, why not just show only the names of items that are in your field of vision and hide the rest? There usually are only 1-5 of them visible at a time, and that would fit neatly in a single line across the bottom of the screen. The ball in the middle is purely cosmetic, and so is the giant zoom slider. To those without a mouse wheel, I’m sure we’ve learned to use the CTRL and Shift keys to zoom in and out. The hud would be half the size, and if anybody complains, that’s what a tutorial is for.

Here I come to the most disappointing part of the game for me: the items that are in your field of vision are highlighted on the list. With this built in “hint” system, all the items in a location can be found in under two minutes. I clocked myself. So instead of the long journey it promised to be, the entire game lasted less than 2 hours. Unlike other games of the genre, it didn’t feel like I was exploring an area and becoming familiar with it as well being surprised by what’s there. It felt like I was … well … dragging the screen around until an object on the list lights up. I wish there was a way to turn it off and play it without the highlighting. No such luck.

Then here is my favorite part of the Travelogue: once you’ve finished a chapter you can explore any part of the game you have already visited. That includes replaying the mini-games, checking out the sights, reading the notes and clues, and rereading those lovely snippets of chapter summaries. I could go back and play Scopa over and over again with random cards. That is awesome. I could go back and play “find the difference” with the same 6 differences. That is not. I can’t choose a location and play it with a random objects list either, and that’s rather disappointing, after being presented with the Travelogue. That’s almost like saying “you can look, but you can’t touch!”

Music in 360:Rome is lovely, and maybe because I simply don’t like the accordion, better than the music in 360:Paris. Sound effects seem to be recycled for the most part, and that’s not a bad thing. Atmospheric sounds are fitting to each location and fades into the background without jarring your senses.

When it comes down to it, with all the bells and whistles of 360:Rome, 360:Paris was a much better game. With just a few tweaks here and there, Rome could’ve been much better, but seems to be hindered in its creative process by the dreaded beast of “usability.” It may win a few fans to the genre, but to us object hunting connoisseurs (and we are many) it’s a bit of a turn-off that it’s much too easy. I beat the game in two hours, using no hints. There was never danger of failing a mission because…instead of the alloted 30 minutes, I was done in 5 minutes flat! Is it worth the trial? Yes. Install it, and if the hints highlight doesn’t bother you, go ahead and get it. Is it worth the buy? Questionable. 360:Paris lasted me for weeks. Hopefully, somebody will come up with a hack to turn it off. (Or a patch? Maybe?)