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Blue Toad Murder Files – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Having spent most of their development life producing the quiz game Buzz, you can probably imagine the relief on the production staff’s faces when they were told they were going to create something other than a strong-jawed question master. A situation that should not be underestimated in development terms for, as the old saying goes, a change is as good as a break.

What Relentless Software decided to focus on instead was the quaint village of Little Riddle; an area lost deep in the heart of the English countryside and seemingly dreamt up by a mind that had seen great quantities of both The Railway Children and Midsomer Murders. And, just as in the case of the latter, evil stalks the picturesque lanes for the Mayor has been shot and a killer is on the prowl. The villagers need not fret, however, for you, being a member of the internationally renowned detective agency Blue Toad, just so happen to be holidaying in the village. Unable to keep your professional instincts from interfering with your R&R, you can’t help but stick you nose in and begin investigating this unfortunate case.

What unfolds is a game full of larger than life characters, almost in the same way most Wallace and Gromit episodes are. There’s the snotty doctor, the self-important station master, the American, and several others that all do their best (more impressively still through a single voice actor) to add drama, humour and intrigue to proceedings as you go from location to location within the village questioning all those linked to the crime. The aim appears to be to make Blue Toad as interesting to watch as it is to play.

Once a particular suspect has been interviewed a puzzle is presented to the player. Some vaguely stick with the theme of a murder investigation, helping draw attention to certain aspects of the case, but most are just an excuse to put you in a pub and get you to sort out their mangled pipe work.

The quality of the puzzles does vary but generally improves as your investigation continues. Relentless even include a nice touch in that after every few puzzles/interviews you are given a short quiz to make sure you’ve been paying attention to the facts that you’ve been presented with.

The one negative point I wish to level at Blue Toad is that its puzzles are timed, with medals allocated depending how quickly they are solved. Whilst this may not initially sound problematic you just have to play a couple of their brain teasers to find yourself feeling pressured into making quick decisions. Part of the enjoyment of Professor Layton, to whose audience Blue Toad must be naturally aimed, is that you had the time to mull over the problem at hand and come up with the right answer, unrushed by the man in the tall hat. Here, however, it becomes all to easy to churn through the very meat of the game; taking quick guesses as opposed to considered opinions just to earn a shinier bauble. This may not have been such an issue if, over the course of an hour’s play, I had tackled more than the twelve puzzles that Episode 1 contains.

On the positive side, the game does present you with the option of playing through this who-dunnit with up to four players, passing the pad between puzzles and interviews; but this in itself does not make up for the brevity of the package. It may be episodic but at £6.29 for a single instalment (or £9.99 for two) it doesn’t work out favourably on the pound-per-hour or pound-per-puzzle ratio.

I do believe that price should never be a factor in a review score but value is another matter. Look at what either of Professor Layton’s puzzle-laden adventures offer in comparison and you’ll find greater breadth and depth, so Blue Toad can only be recommended to those who have completed both The Curious Village and Pandorra’s Box and crave yet more mental stimulation.

5/10

Edit: please note that only hours after this was posted we received word that Episode 3 of Blue Toad Murder Files would be offered up for free as of 25th February. For more details check out the Blue Toad website.

First Impressions: Henry Hatsworth

On a day like today, what on earth could be more British than Henry Hatsworth? Putting aside that it’s developed by a Florida based studio, Mr Hatsworth is the epitome of Victorian adventurers. A gentleman, if you will. With a bowler hat firmly on his head a fine moustache flowing from the upper lip, he’s ready to set off into the deepest darkest jungles to recover lost treasures from the savages and give Johnny Foreigner a damn good hiding, what, what!

Just as with the last DS eccentric, Professor Layton, the character style is the first thing to set this cartridge apart from the competition. Opening cutscenes will present Hatsworth, his younger friend Cole and their nemesis Weasleby as clichés of a by gone Britain. Cole, in particular, is only a hair’s breadth from uttering the word “Guv’nor” whilst offering to shine your shoes. Playing up to this, their speech, whilst presented in the form of text boxes, is accompanied by samples that match their character with Hatsworth continually huffing and making pompous noises whereas Cole’s sounds seem to be snippets of cockney charm.

The game itself, however, is a platformer. You’ll take control of Hatworth and run and jump him through jungles in search of a mysterious golden suit that is rumoured to have the power to control the world. The locals aren’t too keen on giving up their shiny attire and so their resistence must be put down with swings from your machete and shots from your hunting rifle.

The early levels are very straight forward and the only time that you should see your life counter go down is either through misadventure or experimentation from seeing if that pit in front of you is actually as bottomless as it seems. I’m told that later levels do gain in complexity with the addition of a walljump, allowing access to higher areas, but so far it’s quite a standard affair. Enemies are easy enough to dispatch given enough blows from either weapon, although the odd boss fight crops up, too, to test your resolve.

Where Hatsworth differs from traditional platformers is the delightful inclusion of a Tetris Attack style “parallel world”. Some how your hunt for the suit has opened up a rift between your world and the Puzzle Realm. Any enemies killed in your world are transported to this alternate plane and transformed into blocks. If they are not also disposed of in the Puzzle Realm then they will only return to try and thwart you again.

An interesting narrative but an even more interesting gameplay angle as also hidden within the puzzler are powerups and health boosts for you, too. A tap of a button will see you switch screens and then its a classic “match 3” puzzle setup. Link three of more coloured blocks together and they will be removed along with any monsters they contained and granting you any powerups that they held. Obviously the more that you can remove in a single go the better and so you can always find your eye drifting down from the platforming screen to the grid of squares seeing if there’s an opportunity to setup a devastating combo.

I think it’s fair to say that neither component is exceptional; I’ve played far better platformers and there are many addictive puzzlers out for the DS but both are good and what’s more important is that work exceedingly well together. Much like the Grand Theft Auto, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Birthday Honours

As with The Queen, I feel it my duty to recognise those that have impressed me over the last twelve months and so I welcome you to the second annual BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

For services to music: Rock Band 2

I used to think the solo guitar experience was exhilarating, making you feel like an instant rock star. However, as I have already stated this week there were few experiences last year better than playing in your own plastic band. This iteration on the series builds on its already strong core, whilst the drums and the copious amount of downloadable songs have been a revolution to me, revitalised my interest in this genre.

For services to the Capital Wasteland: Fallout 3

If there was one game in 2008 that I had to force myself to put down as I was in danger of forsaking all others, that game would be Fallout 3. Some may have found the desolate wasteland they were wandering through a chore, I regarded it as a mammoth game of hide and seek. Over each ridge or round the next canyon turn you never knew what you were going to find, from crashed UFOs to museums dedicated to fizzy drinks. The sheer scale of the game was inspiring.

For services against the undead: Left 4 Dead

Despite my original muted response towards Left 4 Dead, the zombie apocalypse has grown on me. It is a game where no story is needed, your goals are obvious and tight teamwork is rewarded. This simplicity is its strength with new players able to delve right in and get just as much from it as grizzled veterans.

For services to engineering: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

Not only does it feature one Trophy Thomas, but also the ultimate Lego set. Once you reach a certain point in the game a light bulb flicks on inside your head and all sorts of crazy ideas begin churning out. To add to my trebuchet, Thundertank, Thunderbird 2 and Seaking, I’ve seen ferris wheels, walking robots, space shuttles and a myriad more creations that make you realise what a flexible toolset you have at your disposal.

For services to puzzlement: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

A delightful DS game that takes a different slant on point-and-click adventuring, combining some devious logic puzzles with a colourful brand of animation. The whole game oozes charm, from a village that is populated with those obsessed with testing your brain to Professor Layton’s nemesis who would prefer you out the way so he can presumably have all the puzzles to himself.

Honourable mentions

Whilst they may be my Top 5 games of the year, I do think a few others deserve the nod.

The continued presence of Halo and Rainbow Six: Vegas should be appreciated. Excluding those with zombies, no shooter has come close to dislodging these pair as firm favourites.

In terms of controlling green clad pixies, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for me was second only to Link to the Past in terms of enjoyment. A great debut on the DS for Link.

Mirror’s Edge would be held in far higher esteem if only the combat wasn’t so frustrating. For me this has great parallels with Sands of Time; if only enemies were completely removed from both games then I would champion them to anyone who would listen.

Although there seems a backlash for Fable II, I still really loved it for what it was. There may be no sandbox world on the scale of Oblivion but I liked what it did for it did it really well.

Professor Layton

My greatest find at Memorabilia was the stall of  a man with a large beard. The beard itself was nothing spectacular, for there were many around that day, but it was the selection of DS games that were amongst his wares and more specifically Professor Layton and the Curious Village, which I have been pining for for some time.

It wasn’t just me, either; Mapoo picked it up at the same time and with just as much feverish excitement.

Expect a bad cockeny urchin accent from the one on the right.

Professor Layton is a point-and-click adventure set around the mysteries of barons death and the investigative mind of the title character. How the mysteries are pieced together, plot is developed and indeed how the vast majority of conversations end, are with bite-sized logic puzzles.

You could be moving matches around to form shapes, figuring out how to takes wolves and chicks across a river or even which of Professor Layton’s hats is as wide as it is tall. The puzzles only rarely seem to connect back with the banter you were just engaged in or the plot at hand, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest as the entire game is merely a flimsy pretext for them to be thrown at you in great numbers and with great variety.

This isn’t a slur on the Prof at all, it’s just as if there are two games going on at once with the delightful French-feeling anime storyline and the constant stream of brain teasers taking turns to entertain. The whole thing is very pick-up-and-play, seemingly designed to attract both gamers and the casual market.

Whereas Brain Training did grab me to the extent it did Ali, this is something we can both enjoy with the DS constantly handed back and forth as we take turns with the puzzles. For her it has the flexing of the mental muscle and for me it has actual gameplay; everyone’s happy.

Portable Recommendations

As my Visual Studio crashes for the umpteenth time today, I sit looking out on the frozen duckpond outside my window and my mind drifts.

Mostly, it’s drifting towards my DS, sitting glinting next to me, and what to play on it now that Ali and I (team effort) have now completed Zelda: Phantom Hour Glass. It was absolutely fantastic but I need something new to fill the void.

Does anyone have any recommendations? Ideally some similar adventure style game would probably be good so as to keep us both amused but I’m open to most things. Has anyone tried Professor Layton?