The first Escape From Paradise was a great game. It had good puzzles to figure out, generic but addictive mini-games, and it had a lot of charm with the chibi-like characters with their big heads. All in all, it was a good “island survival” game that incorporated other casual game genres. Its sequel, however, was a major disappointment.

Maybe I just had my hopes up a little too high, or maybe it was dumbed down because the challenges were deemed too tough for the casual gamer; either way, the game feels like a series of chores. A series of chores with sub-par minigames to make up for the lack of riddles.

The entire game focuses on collecting jewels and tikis, and in order to do so, you need to:

  1. Lead your monkey all over the place looking for tiny 2×3 pixel jewels hidden in the grass and trees;
  2. Complete quests;
  3. Complete mini-games.
  4. Catch all the fish, dig up all the fossils, and catch all the birds.

There are multiple problems with this way of finishing a game.

  1. Those jewels are tiny. If you realized that you missed any AFTER you’ve done point 2 as well as 3, you’ll end up leading your monkey around the entire map looking for a few colored pixels.
  2. The quests are easy – there is no challenge in them at all. They come with clear directions and end up being just a series of chores.
  3. The mini-games range from match-3, hidden object, click-management…to sudoku. Name any one person who’s good at ALL of those. You’ll have to be, since there are no hints or extra powerups in sudoku or match-3. And they’re long games.
  4. Birds are VERY hard to catch.

On top of that, there’s the control scheme. You can either left click and drag a person to a spot, or you can left-click and right click. Sounds simple right? Now add to it that right click and dragging the map moves it, and once you select someone, you can’t access the map. So in order to move someone across the entire map, you’d end up doing a whole lot of dragging. The map is this tiny box at the bottom of the screen that can’t be enlarged, and has no significant markers. In other words, getting around is very frustrating.

Graphics and sound of this game is just as good as the last one, if not better. The core mechanics – hunger, thirst, sleep and social – stayed the same. Load times are minimal, and you can quit and autosave any time you like.

Escape From Paradise 2 isn’t necessarily a bad game. It’s still a fine casual game, but it seriously pales in comparison to the original. It’s just a bad sequel. It’s a step backwards. For $6.99, it’s a deal if you enjoy any of the mini-games.

If you are getting this game, I highly recommend getting the strategy guide with it. It is superbly written, with clear directions and great screenshots, even a map with all the locations. The only downside to the guide is that you can’t print things out.

After the big hit that was Azada (still is, really – the walkthrough page gets hundreds of hits everyday, easily.) I waited for its sequel with baited breath. We were promised many things – bigger, better, more Azada-ness.

What I didn’t expect was a shorter game that took only an hour and a half for me to finish and a lack of challenge overall. I can understand that the first one might have been a little too hard for the casual gamer that are used to Match-3’s, but this is ridiculous. Most of the “books” clocked in at just under 3 minutes for me; there’s almost never a question of which object to use, the game held your hand all the way. When I couldn’t find something, the game obligingly points out where it is for me with a penalty of 4 minutes (nothing, compared to the 40 they gave you in the beginning).

When you’re well and truly stuck, the hints system allows for an unexpected way to get a hint without sacrificing time. Simply click on the hint button and see which page allows for a hint, then look around to see what you’ve missed. No need for a penalty.

There are certain mechanics that are somewhat inventive and new, such as the bury-wine-turns-into-vinegar-in-100k-years trick, but even that harkens back to Day of the Tentacle. Some of the puzzles seem to repeat itself; in two cases we had to click on one page, gets someone’s attention, flip back to another page, and take stuff. Of course, the guy turns around so quick we couldn’t get everything at once, so we just kept repeating the motion and he keeps falling for it.

Like in the previous installment, mini-games abound, but this time integrated into the “books” or storyline. No  sudoku this time around, or English pegs, thankfully. No slider puzzles either. In trading for the more inventive puzzles, even the mini-games were a bit of a let down. When you finish each book, its mini-game is available for replay. I wish the books themselves were left there for a playthrough as well, but I guess that wouldn’t fit well into the storyline.

Graphically, Ancient Magic is easily the best looking game in the casual market. With its 3D rendered background scenes with proper perspective, the only thing that can compete with it is Dream Chronicles. Even DC doesn’t have the kind of resolution Azada has – 1024 x 768 vs. DC’s 800 x 600. No contest there. Azada’s graphics are sharper and more detailed, objects being picked up are never pixelated.

The orchestral score performed with a real orchestra – no stock music here! – is impressive as well, and while I usually just leave the sound off or very low in games like these, Ancient Magic’s music is worth a listening to.

Is it worth $6.99? You betcha. $20? Not for an hour and a half of gameplay, it isn’t. If you load up the trial and each puzzle takes you 10 minutes to complete, it’s worth it for you. If you breezed through it, wait for a 40% off promotion.

I was quite enamored with the first Flood Light Games’ Agatha Christie game, Death on the Nile. To be frank, enamored wouldn’t be quite the word – I loved it. I’ve also played it too many times to be productive in my other endeavors. It was a seriously groundbreaking hidden object game. It had puzzles, it had adventure elements, it was detailed, well-drawn, and it was everything a hidden object game ought to be. I’ll also never forget that it came first.

Peril At End House is a bit of a mixed disappointment, in that regard. It does a lot of things right – 1024 x 768 resolution that runs smooth as silk, lovely classical style music in the background, unobtrusive sound effects, a puzzle in every room. However, it suffers from a lack of innovation. I guess the problem is mostly me (as will be for other gamers who has played the first game) and I’m expecting too much. Instead of getting something new, I’m getting more of the same. While this isn’t necessarily unwelcome, the time between the last game and this one led me to believe that there would be more.

This second Agatha Christie game from Floodlight games is very much like the first one. You start off with Poirot deciding that he will pursue the case, go through the rooms of each of the suspects, look for objects, find clues, and the mystery is linearly solved for you along the way. What differs the Agatha Christie games from the usual run-of-the-mill hidden object games is the attention to detail. Everything is crisp and clear, scenes are very well composed with most of the objects in plausible places.

Death on the Nile was a great game, and Peril at End House is, at the core, the same game. There aren’t any surprises – the quality is there and the puzzles are there. Instead of the old videos in between scenes, we now get a comic telling the story instead. The “saloon” where you can interview the suspects are now replaced by “CLUE” cards. “Interviews” are one-sided and really just a card in the page.

If you’ve played the first one, you will want to play this one. However, the rooms feel a lot less populated and I cannot help but feel that the game was rushed. Peril At End House should’ve been an “improvement” considering how successful the first game was, but instead of the boost in production values, there has been a cut. It’s still worth getting despite of it all; the scenes are still beautifully composed, and the story is still quality Agatha Christie.

I actually looked forward to this game. I anticipated it. I waited for it. If there was a line, I was waiting in line for it. After having all these high expectations (afterall, it’s the first and only game based on one of my favorite movies) I must say that I’m sorely disappointed. It’s like opening a box of really nice looking chocolates only to find that they’re all cherry creams.

Dirty Dancing is very much like a box of assorted chocolates. Technically. In a box of assorted chocolates, you get the caramel crunch and the mint creams; occasionally you’ll run into an undesirable “nougat” or “orange cream.” This is a game of mini-games – 10, to be exact, with one extra one to spend all your points on to decorate. Unfortunately, these mini-games range from “rather interesting” to “dreadfully boring” as well as “almost unplayable.” I’m going to go through each of these in turn.

Breakfast Buffet
Easily the best of the bunch. It’s a drag-3 in a hexagonal format, not unlike Cindy’s Sundaes. Instead of the usual match-3 in a line, Breakfast Buffet allows you to match anything that touches, which makes the game a bit easier. When a match is made, the progress bar on the left increases. When it fills up, you finish the level.

The introduction of flies, desserts and rotting plates makes it a bit more interesting. When you match desserts, you gain “shuffle plates” and you can hold 3 of these at a time. Clicking on them shuffles the entire board. Flies and rotting plates prevent rows from being dragged and seem to work exactly the same way.

Pinhole Mahjong
A semi-interesting solitaire card game that plays like mahjong. You get more cards as levels go on, but it doesn’t really get more challenging.

Bellboy Bedlam
Well, they’ve got the Bedlam part down. You have 4 bellboys, a bunch of customers, and 4 rooms. The bellboys will stay at their post and perform their individual functions. When you drag them to a different location they will perform a different function: greet, check-in, clean, and check out. The only issue is that rooms take too long to clean, and there are too many customers. This is the one mini-game that I didn’t find very playable at all.

Talent Show Search
An object hunting game. With drawn objects that are outline and flat color only. There are drawers that can be opened, and things hiding behind others, but the objects are just too crudely drawn for this to be enjoyable. The objects are also not very responsive; even if you find the right object, it might take a few tries for your mouse to pick it up.

It’s pinball. Nothing more, nothing less. There are some good song snippets to be had, that’s all.

Dance Contest
This is the supposed highlight of the game. There are 6 songs in all to unlock, and 3 levels of dancing for each. The premise is pretty simple: circles will appear on the ground with a radial green bar that indicates when you should click. Technically, it does it right on the beat, but the best place to click is 1/4 beat before it hits the end. Now, couple that with a sound effect that comes in just a bit late and you’ve got a rhythmic disaster on your hands. If you turn off the sound effects, this game is VERY playable with decent music. With sound effects on, this game is impossible.

Video Jigsaw
A jigsaw puzzle where the image is a looping video from the movie dirty dancing. I wonder why they didn’t loop an extra few frames in each backwards to make the transitions smoother, but it almost looks like it hiccups. This is a very high scoring game, and if you want to unlock all the other games early, this is the one to play. You can rack up enough points in 6-7 rounds to buy up everything else easily. Each finished puzzle also unlocks a movie clip where the audio is too low compared to the rest of the game, and isn’t viewable again unless you do the puzzle again.

Melon Mayhem
Slider Puzzle. Not much special about it at all. Make a path by moving dancer slider blocks to let a melon through. Very, very low scoring.

Log Balance
Move your mouse from left to right to keep yourself balanced on the log. Jump over knots, and slap fishes. (No joke.) It’s a bit of a non-game. You can ignore the fish if you like.

A simple trivia game for the movie Dirty Dancing.

This is where you can place furniture in your cabin and buy additional things for the pool and patio. There are 2 rooms and two outdoor locations where you can arrange furniture and generally play house. You can use the money you’ve accumulated during your mini-games to buy stuff. There are lots of stuff to buy, but to what end?

Dirty Dancing tries to be many things, but the lackluster presentation as well as the horrid sound effects (low quality), on top of the already generic mini-games made it one of the worst games I’ve played this year. This will only appeal to fans of the movie, and even at that, it didn’t appeal to me and I sat through Havana Nights.

I don’t know about you, but I think I’m beginning to get hidden-object-burnout-syndrome. Thankfully, there are enough twists and turns along the usual path to keep me entertained. Hidden Relics, albeit short, definitely kept my interest up unti the very last chapter.

Hidden Relics does quite a few things right: high resolution, clean objects, bright environments, extra things to hunt. It also has a great collection of mini-games that almost rival Azada. Added innovations like a handbook of what objects look like as well as bonus hidden objects to hunt for that can only be found using special gadgets add to the fun.

Let’s start with the environments. Hidden Relics feature clean, crisp backgrounds in layers so things are hidden both in, behind, and on top of the backgrounds. Objects are photo based, so it’s pretty clear what everything is. If you’re unsure what you’re looking for, there is always the handbook – an encyclopedia of exactly what you are looking for. Everything trick in the book is utilized: in plain sight, with a corner showing, with a corner of an unrecognizable piece showing, with the alpha channel set to 10% (ultra transparent pair of scissors you’ve got there!) as well as other ways of hiding objects are all here.

I’m pretty darn good at these games. Now, I can generally go through them with plenty of time left the first time around, but this one had me stressed quite a bit over the last few hard-to-find objects. Namely, the ones that I couldn’t even see after I click on the hint button. This game definitely ranks as one of the hardest but still possible ones out there due to the sheer number of hints you can have.

Speaking of hints, the game starts you off with 5, which is quite generous. When you see a little magnifying glass in each scene, you can pick it up and it’ll add another hint to your count. I’ve had up to 10 at one point, finding one in every scene. There’s another bonus to hunt as well that isn’t as necessary: the gas can. Basically, traveling from one location to the next costs 1 unit of gas (that applies if you’re going to the next town or flying the entire way across Europe) and each location hides 1 gas can to find. It doesn’t add a whole lot to the game play, but it does restrict those who likes to leave a couple in each location and “come back later.”

Hidden Relics has 5 mini-games built in that are quite a lot of fun to do – there are the loads of usual image manipulation ones (jigsaws and sliders) as well as memory and Hanoi’s Tower. They’re not particularly hard, and really just there to unlock another mini-game-like part of the core game. Each time you unlock a “gadget” you can use it in the core game to find special hidden antiques.

These gadgets range from the common ones like a magnifier and x-ray goggles, and mostly you just try to look for things that aren’t there when you don’t have the gadget over a part of the scene. They each have their own graphical filter effects, but the one that really confused the heck out of me was the Sonic Resonator. I don’t know whose idea it is, but this particular gadget twists the image behind it and animates it so you’d get dizzy just looking at it. Its sole purpose is to find special antiques that makes music, but I’m sure it could’ve been better represented than with wiggly lines.

The antique list also tend to “fall off” the screen. There are only so many slots in the “special objects” list, and whatever cannot fit on there is simply not shown until you find some of them. Once you find a special antique, you will be rewarded with a description. That’s it. I don’t see a book full of these objects to look at, and I don’t see a handbook that you can access via the main menu to scroll through at my leisure either. For a mini-game, that doesn’t seem very rewarding. You could skip it and get a lower letter grade, and even if you grades were low you can still play through hard on the next play mode.

Like in other object hunting games, Hidden Relics suffer from the randomization problem. It doesn’t randomize intelligently. If you were presented with two of the same scenes in sucessive chapters, you could see half the list repeated in the same scenes. Certainly makes the game easier, but that’s not exactly its intention.

While Hidden Relics features a higher resolution than other object hunting games (1024 x 768) it is definitely leaps and bounds ahead in terms of its graphics engine. Ravenhearst at 640 x 480 can run pretty sluggishly sometimes, yet Hidden Relics at this high resolution suffers no slow-downs or lag whatsoever on this mid-range computer. Whatever they did to make it so efficient, they did it right.

While I do love the new resolution, I can never understand why the HUD is huge. I mean, it’s huge. Screen real estate is precious; it should be as much hunting screen as possible! The waste of space in this game rivals that of Mortimer Beckett. If you believe I’m being overly critical here, let’s think about it this way. The game screen in this game is 800×600. The entire screen is 1024×768. (800×600)/(1024×768) x 100% = 61%. Let’s look at Hidden Expedition: Everest. (800×510)/(800×600) x 100% = 85%. That’s a whole 24% of screen real estate not being taken up by unnecessary graphical user interface elements.

And by unnecessary, I really mean it. The hint button is huge, the clock is huge, the buttons along the bottom for gadgets all large. Sure, you might argue that pixel by pixel, there’s more object hunting to be had in Hidden Relics, but it’ll all look the same on a 19″ monitor. Not many people play their hidden object games in window mode; the more of the screen used in hiding objects, the better.

Another minor glitch that might annoy some but not others: no alt-tab support. It’s more of a “weird” alt-tab support, since it’d alt-tab to my windows being the native resolution of the game isntead of my usual resolution. No biggie – I can still take notes, but working at the same time is out of the question. Some older gamers prefer their resolution at 800 x 600 at all times, and the 1024 x 768 might pose problems.

Hidden Relics has no “timeless” mode, which could exclude a huge number of gamers. It does save mid-game, but objects will reappear if you exit an area and come back to it (your list will remain the same, but the area will be cluttered again.) When you finish the game once, you can start a new game on “hard” which really just means a more stringent timer. The game isn’t especially long, at 10 chapters, it could easily be finished in an afternoon. The last chapter, however, require you to visit every location, and it can be a bit of a drawn-out affair. Overall, it’s a great game – the pros out-weigh the cons.

There was quite a lot of hype surrounding the release of Puzzle City. I’ve heard that it’s a “new” style of play, and I’ve heard that it’s very “original” and I’ve also heard that it’s a whole lot of fun. After spending some time with it, I’d say that depends on how you spell fun. F-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-n-g? S-t-r-e-s-s-f-u-l? Wow, don’t we have the game for you.

The core of Puzzle City is exactly the same as Puzzle Express. A conveyor belt carrying puzzle pieces move along the bottom of your screen, and your job is to take those pieces and fit them onto the car – I mean city block – above. If your conveyor belt fills up, it breaks down and you’ll have to start the level over. Puzzle City builds upon this basic gameplay by adding lots of power-ups and glitz, but the game remains basically the same.

There are three basic power-ups – the recycling bin, the trash, and the bulldozer. Dropping a piece into the recycling bin will turn it into another piece of the same color, doing the same with it with the trash throws the piece out. The bulldozer will destroy a block on the map, and if you have a 2×2 block, it’d take the entire thing out. There are also room for 10 conveyor power-ups, ranging from ones that slows down and stop the belt to ones that destroys everything on the belt. Especially useful are the ones that changes every block on your belt to a 1×1 block.

In order to unlock these power-ups, you need to create 2×2 blocks of solid color on your map. Each time you do so, a power-up will float nicely upwards and is added to your conveyor belt power-up collection. This is all well and good, but added to the predefined color areas, the game can get downright impossible.

Ah, predefined color areas. They’re lovely things. Basically, parts of the map are colored in faintly, and you have to match the colors. Now, I’m not against them – they add a great layer of challenge. However, they can make the game frustratingly difficult towards the end of world 2 when you need to use lots of 1×1’s, there isn’t any room to MAKE power-ups, you need to make 2 2×2’s of blue, and you’re desperate for power-ups that you haven’t any room to make. A better approach might be to make them optional – 80% of predefined areas filled. Even better – 10x score for filling these areas.

Some games are pretty, some games are flashy. Puzzle City falls squarely into the flashy category. Everything is high-contrast and colorful. I mean everything. The world map is colorful, the map is colorful. UFOs fly all over the place, buildings are shooting up left right and center, cranes are going up all over the city. As you make a 3 block areas into a 2×2 by adding a single block, the entire area is tore down to make room for a big building. Puzzle City is very much alive – something is happening all the time.

On top of it all, each scenario has its own objectives – you could be asked to build special buildings, fill a certain percentage of the map, etc. It serves to both make the game a little easier and keep you on your toes. If you miss so much as a 1×1 block on a predefined area you could be left wondering where you went wrong as your belt piles up, but in other scenarios you could finish up the map by filling a measly requirement.

Flashy isn’t necessarily a good thing; it’s pretty easy to miss a 1×1 block right behind a stack of buildings. Thankfully, Puzzle Express highlights the colors on the map that corresponds to the color of the block in your hand. This is a very helpful feature – I for one couldn’t tell if a building is residential by looking at it. It’s still pretty easy to miss spots, however, in predefined areas. Afterall, I’m looking for a light colored hole in a similarly colored area.

Let’s move on to the city building aspect of the game. There isn’t any.

Yes. You heard me – there isn’t any. Aside from the fact that you’re technically building a city, you are not, in fact, managing any part of it. There’s no budget to keep track of, transportation to arrange, police officers to dispatch, or anything related to a real city sim. “City building” is limited to a graphical “skin” of the game. It can easily be called “Puzzle Forest” if we replaced the buildings with trees, or “Puzzle Garden” replacing those same trees with vegetables or flowers. If you’re looking for Sim City, it’s not here. Puzzle City’s successful city-building is calculated based on whether you fill predefined areas and how big your combined buildings are – the bigger the better. So having one megalohospital at one corner of the city is much better than having single small ones sprinkled throughout.

Another “feature” of the game is “build special buildings.” This involved plunking down single 1×1 brown blocks from your belt to a predefined brown field on your map. That’s it. It’s a little bonus that adds very little to actual gameplay.

That pretty much sums up Puzzle City – it’s Puzzle Express “improved.” In improving, it also bumps up the system requirements. On my medium range PC, it lags a little on medium quality, and high quality slows to a crawl. It does look great on high-quality, so if you can play it on high, do so. The music is canned elevator jazz style, but it’s really not all that bad. The “click” sound got on my nerves after a while, but the sound of the game from the bulldozer and the buildings going up are very snappy indeed.

If you liked Puzzle Express, you’d enjoy Puzzle City. Don’t expect any more than a great Puzzle Express, and you’d have quite a lot of fun. It does get very difficult and frustrating in later levels, but thankfully there is an option to play it on easy. Puzzle City saves after every level, and it’ll last quite a while, even if you’re good at this sort of thing.

Spiderz! is not an original game. Despite the fact that the “genre” hasn’t really been revisited in quite a while, it is basically a clone of Tangle Bee.  The latest game I’ve seen using it as a mini-game was Stone of Destiny, and it used the gameplay element with crystals and lines of light that comes out of them.

In Spiderz!, your job is to untangle groups of really cute, fuzzy spiders in varied colors. Each spider is connected to another via a line, and you can click and drag any of them around to move the spiders away from one another. Once their lines are untangled (not crossing each other) the spiders fall asleep. When you untangle everyone, the mission is accomplished.

Spiderz! attempts to make the game more interesting by adding a bee that could attract your spiders, and a grandpa that scares them away. Both can be shooed away pretty quickly; the bee you throw, and the grandpa you can keep out of your way for a while by putting him over a flower. In some missions, your spiders keeps moving in a circle, and in others some will crawl and move away once in a while, making your job a little more difficult.

The graphics in Spiderz! is very pretty – hardware accelerated graphics in a puzzle game is rare, and this game comes alive with it. Fire glow and sparkle, spiders bounce up and down separately.

Even though Spiderz! doesn’t really do much in terms of gameplay, what it does, it does very well. If you enjoyed Tangle Bee, go ahead and pick this one up. If not, try it anyway to see if you like the “original” i.e. not cloned to death gameplay. It’s a very addicting game that might surprise you.

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