See You In Salem
Still on the search for a cracking puzzle game to tide me over until the next Professor Layton dramafest, I picked up a pre-owned copy of “Hidden Mysteries: Salem Secrets – Witch Trials of 1692” by GSP. It had good reviews elsewhere (when will I ever learn?) and it looked sufficiently different plot-wise to pique my interest.
You arrive in Salem to investigate the disappearances of four girls, only to find that the entire town has shut itself up and there’s no-one to help you. And this is where the major problem with the game arises: in any other puzzler like this, you’d go and talk to people to try and get an idea of where you have to go next and what you need to do. Not here; there are no clues, which tends to leave you blundering about rather a lot. The little booklet that comes with the game doesn’t explain much either, to such an extent that towards the end of the game I discovered a hints option hidden on a menu screen that isn’t even mentioned in the guide. It might have made things easier earlier on, but long before then I’d resorted to a walkthrough (something I usually avoid using at all costs because it always feels like cheating).
In terms of the puzzles, you have reasonably standard hidden object games, some logic puzzles and some that I have absolutely no idea how you’re meant to solve without the walkthrough (unless you’ve psychically discovered the hints menu right at the beginning and even then, I’m not so sure). Puzzle games are great if you know what the rules of the puzzle are, but far too often in this game you’re left dangling as none of them are explained. I’m still not sure how, as a character with no knowledge of witchcraft, I was supposed to figure out what to do to release the second girl from her ensorcellment, or know what the components of a spell recipe are. But then, I’m not sure how I should know which way the town’s apothecary likes their shelves arranging, either. Part of this isn’t helped by the tiny graphics on the DS’ upper screen, but this isn’t true in all cases. If you do get utterly fed up, there is a skip button which allows you to bypass the puzzles, which on one occasion I did actually use because even with the walkthrough and the hints menu, I still had no idea what I was supposed to do.
Other platforms’ version of this game apparently have a map, which would have been really useful, given that until I caved in and found the walkthrough, I was convinced there were only two streets in the town. There are no arrows to show you possible directions for investigation, leaving you randomly tapping bits of the screen just to see if there’s a hidden footpath somewhere. On top of that, the game does a stunning Michael Crichton and just stops all of a sudden, even though the on-screen dialogue suggests there should be something more.
All in all, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity, this game. The atmosphere is spooky and the storyline not that bad, but a few suspicious townsfolk to guide you on your way would have given it a huge boost in terms of both tone and playability. Maybe if I’d found the hint menu earlier, I wouldn’t have felt so flummoxed. But because of that frustration, I’m not willing to go back and give it another go just to see.
And so, the hunt for the perfect puzzle game continues…