Dark Parables: Rise of the Snow Queen

Quick mini-review: The gameplay kind of annoyed me: one of the repeating puzzles I really disliked, and I spent a lot of time wandering around trying to figure out what to do next. Possibly my own fault for playing with some of the clue sparkles turned off. But still.

On the other hand, the Dark Parables sequence is really, really growing on me. They all link together! In the previous game about the Frog Prince, you learn one of his four wives, Snow White, divorced him. She went home with her sick child to the Mountain Kingdom and became the Snow Queen. The magic mirror from Snow White figures in, as well as Kai and Gerda, and I suspect her wicked stepmother is a significant antagonist in one or more future games. It’s a really neat weaving together of many fairy tales.

The art was gorgeous, the voice acting was minimal and functional. Overall I’m reasonably happy with it.

The Royal Trap

I am playing The Royal Trap, which is an otome visual novel from Hanako Games. (That means it’s a piece of illustrated interactive fiction targeted at women.) I’m barely into it and I already love it. I can’t help but compare it to Choice of Romance, from Choice Of Games, because not only are they both interactive fiction of a court-and-intrigue bent, they’re both nominally about romance and they both feature a fantasy world that isn’t quite ours, especially when it comes to gender power structures. Choice of Romance was a decent intrigue-style game (I’ve played parts 1 & 2 of that game) but it didn’t really work as a romance. I’m not far enough into The Royal Trap to draw any conclusions but it’s starting out extremely promisingly.

In Choice Of Romance, the gender structures were designed to be equal and open to whichever gender the player chose. Social-marital dominance was based on birth order and wealth rather than gender, which eventually became a bit weird, especially for a romance. Romance is a genre that relies on a lot of awareness of social gender structures, and ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in a romance is about more than just the pronouns and equipment. The social structures around gender matter, whether a character goes along with them or rebels against them. Dramatically changing the social structures and still producing something romantic can be done, I’m sure, but I think it requires a deft hand and a lot of subtle worldbuilding.

So far in The Royal Trap, while some of the power structures are shifted (girls inherit land, but become ‘Wisdom’ to their spouse’s ‘King’ and they seem to be required to marry a prince in order to inherit), boys are still ‘the rougher sex’. This helps some in producing the feels essential to a good romance, I will say.

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(12 hours later)

Okay, I’ve gotten a Happy Ending for each route. I don’t feel much motivated to go for Bad Endings and Normal Endings when I haven’t already gotten them. But I do feel like I can comment on the visual novel as a whole now.

And it’s great. Each of the routes is about something; each route unlocks a different part of who Madeleine is. Meanwhile, there’s an entire story taking place in the background, and it’s the same basic story but the choices Madeleine / the player makes influence the entire shape of the final story behind the scenes.  And it’s a good story, an important story. An easily spoilable story, alas.

The creator recommended playing through the routes in the order: Oscar, Gaston, Nazagi, Callum, and I agree that this approach really, _really_ worked to get the whole story, unfolding layers at a time. And what I think of as the final twist, revealed at the end of the Callum route, becomes both dramatic and uplifting. But if for some reason you only play it once, Oscar’s route is a really thrilling and exciting story while only scratching the surface of the deeper goings-on.

Hanako Games is having a sale until New Years; all games are 50% off.  The Royal Trap is easily worth $10. Long Live The Queen, which is a Princess Maker style game without the dungeon crawling that I’ve also played, is definitely worth $5.

Awakening: The Goblin Kingdom

I just finished the main part of the third Awakening game, The Goblin Kingdom. Much to my surprise, it had an actual plot! The previous two games really were more of ‘explore a setting with a bit of a backstory to it’. This plot did not try for fully voice-acted NPCs, thank God, and the ‘cut scenes’ were narrated rather than acted.

The plot was simple but definitely there. It had a mild surprise at the end, even, and it laid down lots of foreshadowing for the next games (I assume).  Gameplay-wise, it had more complex hidden object scenes, with more work required than just clicking the object. Once I had to put objects back! And I really liked a scene where I had to find locations through a telescope– that was a presentation I took special note of because it has so much potential.

In Moonfell Wood, the menu-accessible minigame was a solitaire-style card matching game like Mahjong. I like Mahjong. In The Goblin Kingdom, it was a tangrams game, which I find a lot less fun. I only skipped a sliding tile puzzle, which I really hate, but I kept being tempted on the tangrams.

Now to finish the epilogue and, eventually, move onto Skyward Castle.

Quick Thoughts on Moonfell Wood

I just finished Awakening: Moonfell Wood yesterday evening and moved directly onto The Goblin Kingdom (a Collector’s Edition this time!)

Moonfell Wood continued the pretty imagery and interesting puzzles. The plot was so thin as to be summed up by a series of four paintings and while the climactic Big Reveal as presented by the Witch you spend the game searching for was neither climactic nor a Big Reveal, I didn’t mind too much. Nice scenery and very little horrible voice acting made up for a lot and at least the lack of a big Reveal gave me the opportunity to fill in my own gaps. I was delighted to move onto Goblin Kingdom, which is very much a ‘next chapter’ rather than a ‘next story’.  (And it’s already had narratively interesting puzzles!)

The Exiled Prince and Child of the Forest: HO Game (mini)reviews

I played Dark Parables: The Exiled Prince a while ago. The story stuck with me better than the story of the first game, maybe because it actually told more of a story.  It was a weird story– the Frog Prince as a cursed immortal marrying fairy tale princess after fairy tale princess, and eventually being cursed to turn others into frogs.  The mechanics were Dark Parables mechanics and the fairy tale princess tombs were creepy and interesting at the same time. I have notes that refer to the Frog Prince as Phantom of the Opera-like.  Overall it wasn’t great and wasn’t bad, and did fractured fairy tale well.

I also just finished the main content in Rite of Passage: Child of the Forest. It’s my first completed Collector’s Edition and I haven’t really touched the bonus content other than to notice that it seemed to be more ‘the complete game’, with replayable puzzles and achievements and more bits of story and puzzle and so forth. I mean, that could just be the Rite of Passage games but I don’t think so. Anyhow, I’m glad to have it because I like being able to improve my score and collect achievements and stuff. At least for a definition of ‘like’ that includes ‘obsessive annoyance that I haven’t’. And I’m very glad to get the extra bits of story because I’ve always been annoyed by the hooks to said content in the ‘standard’ games I’ve completed.

As for the game itself, well, I downloaded it because it has had consistently solid popularity at Big Fish since it was released, more so than most of the games I’ve glanced at. I don’t normally go for the creepier/moodier games but this didn’t seem likely to contain much in the way of horrible hospital creepiness like that one game I tried and didn’t buy. And in fact this wasn’t any more disturbing than the Dark Parables game. And and AND it had a decent story! I mean, you have to allow for WTFery puzzle placement (but I never found myself annoyed by it) and you have to allow for a token ancient civilization (they’re like elves in fantasy fiction) and you have to allow for terrible voice acting and goofy cheap animation. So, allowing for all of that, the story started off in media res with a much stronger sense of urgency than I’ve encountered to date, with a mostly consistent setting and hidden objects and puzzles that were thematically relevant to the current bit of story. The setting was a bit random and unexplained (magically dark forest next to swamp, ship graveyard, port, what?) but I just pretended there were zombies beyond the forest and it worked fine.

The art never blew me away; I never even found myself noticing anything nice about it, but the music seemed to have a little more work put into it than any other game I’ve noticed. There were a couple of places I explicitly noticed it and it did a lot of mood work. Not jawdropping or anything but definitely there. The puzzles weren’t challenging if I was patient and not child-distracted, but they were fun (I played on Experienced mode, the middle tier. Perhaps I’ll try the hard mode sometime.)

Overall, I liked the game. I want to play with it some more. I think it’s a good toy with an extremely tolerable narrative.

Next up I’m going to play either the next Dark Parables game (inspired by the Snow Queen), the next Awakening game, or Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove. I’ve also got the Drawn sequel lined up…

Hidden Object Game mini-reviews: City of Cyan and Curse of Briar Rose

I’ve finished playing two more Hidden Object games in the past couple weeks (one last night) and I wanted to get down a few brief thoughts.

City of Cyan was the worst attempt at a story I’ve ever seen. It started out with a bit of potential but had absolutely hideous voice acting that just didn’t stop. That should have been my first clue. I don’t even remember the puzzles because the attempt a story was  just nightmarish. The protagonist would wonder aloud why she was doing ridiculous things, comment on stuff that didn’t make sense– and there was a lot more than some hidden object scenes that made no sense. Flee far away.

I have another game in the series, Meteorite, that I will probably also play. Because I have it. If it is also really awful, maybe I’ll do a detailed blogging of my playthrough just so I feel like I got my money’s worth.

The next game I played (started and finished last night) was Dark Parables:Curse of Briar Rose. Because I’d felt so burned by City of Cyan I started with the worst site reviews on Briar Rose and then hesitantly picked it up.

It was fine. It had a lot of Hidden Object scenes, except they were Fragmented Objects instead, where you find broken pieces of some object you need to open a gate. I’d heard about that before and I think I like it; I like the feeling of cleaning up a location. The music was mildly atmospheric and the story was presented in a way I suspect is ideal for a hacked-out HO game.

Basically, in the beginning I was given a kind of silly motivation by a voiceover. And then… that’s basically it, save for what I put together looking at the scenes. There were a few inscriptions here and there. My viewpoint character never spoke. I can see now why the ‘Mystery’ framework is so popular for HO games. Being allowed to tell myself the story through the scenes I encountered was just splendid. Sometimes I built up suspense for myself that didn’t pan out (“what’s in that chained and locked cabinet in the princess’s room? Oh, her Mom’s Scepter, that’s all”)  but when any possible plot point turned out to be just another use of the primary game mechanics, I… didn’t mind. Right now I have a vague story in the back of my head about what happened to Briar Rose and her family and it’s… pleasant. It’s not as good as a great story told to me but it’s significantly better than a terrible story.

It also managed to convey an excellent sense of pacing. I remember Drawn doing this well (but not how it did it) and Awakening had a little of it and City of Cyan not at all. In Dark Parables’ case, it worked because there were several elements of a few collection-based progress locks scattered throughout the game. As I acquired the pieces to complete the locks, so I got closer to the end of the game.  It definitely contributed to a mild sense of urgency that kept me up much later than I’d planned to finish the game.

It wasn’t a perfect game by any means: the final puzzle was a new mechanic (always bad), I only tolerated the reuse of the same scenes for new HO collections, and some of the evocative locations were lessened by a truly silly map layout and the utter randomness of what was hidden behind progress locks. A little rearrangement could have done wonders for the self-narrated story.

But if it’s a choice between City of Cyan and Curse of Briar Rose, run, do not walk toward Dark Parables.

#blog