So I've been fussing around with a few hidden object games over the last couple of months which is why my progress on this blog has been...infrequent to say the least. Some of them have been crap, a couple of them have been good, but only one has stuck out so far enough to make me want to write about it on here, and that's Dire Grove.
Dire Grove is just one game in a series known as "Mystery Case Files". These have been published on a number of platforms including the Wii and the DS, but their biggest following comes from the PC, which is where I encountered it. Hot on the heels of Ravenhearst, the previous game in the series, it picks up with you (the world's greatest detective) driving through the Irish countryside. All of a sudden, it's snowing in autumn, the temperature is dropping, and the road is iced all to hell making continued driving so dangerous as to be suicidal. You pull off to the side of the road just next to a sign advertising Dire Grove, a quaint little community that is now closed for the season. Just your luck.
Despite the blizzard-like conditions, you can't help but notice the other car parked on the side of the road just ahead of you a little ways. It's running, the door is open, the lights are on, but it's completely abandoned. Who on earth leaves their car wide open and vacant in weather like this? Being the world's greatest detective, you can hardly ignore a challenge like this one, so you decide to find out.
Hidden Object games are pretty much all based on the same premise, which is to play "Where's Waldo?" (or "Where's Wally?" for you Brits) with the list of items presented in each scene. Dire Grove lifts itself beyond this by including a number of more traditional adventure gaming puzzles where, for example, you might have to find a saw to cut through some rope, or a some oars in order to row a boat. Putting these two aspects to work simultaneously does much to break up the tedium of constant pixel-hunting that pervades so many hidden object titles.
The other thing Dire Grove has in spades is atmosphere. Seriously, you're tramping around Celtic Ireland, listening to the wind, seeing the snow fall down your screen, and you just want to shiver involuntarily. The first night I started playing Dire Grove, the heat index was reading 90 degrees but while I was playing I didn't realize this at all. That's what I call successful immersion right there.
So, where does the Blair Witch element come in? Well, as you soon discover, the people responsible for leaving the car running on the side of the road are a group of university students who have come to research the legend of Dire Grove and prove it to be based on a true story. The project leader has left behind a number of camcorder tapes documenting everything leading up to the trip and the bizarre things that have happened to them since they arrived in Dire Grove. Ostensibly, these videos are all shot by members of the team, but you'll quickly notice there are times when all of the students are in the frame and somebody else is holding the camera. I understand the need to get good establishing shots, but in the spirit of keeping it realistic, you'd think it would have dawned on the designers that you can't show everybody in the scene without people realizing it's a studio recording as opposed to the amateur camera work that it's supposed to be. A minor complaint, true, as the scenes are all well-acted and competently shot, but it jars you out of your suspension of disbelief a bit too often.
The legend of Dire Grove also centers around a mysterious figure. In this case, it's a Banshee, the restless spirit of a dead woman who haunts an area important to her in life. A Banshee is no Casper the Friendly Ghost though; she's evil through and through, and out to kill or imprison anyone who threatens her territory. Which, naturally, is what the university students discovered to their extreme detriment before you arrived on the scene. It's a great story, marrying Celtic legend to point-and-click adventure with ease and high production values. If you've not played one of these games before but are interested, Dire Grove is a great place to start.