Zynga, the house that FarmVille built, has really felt like a one trick pony of late. It seems like every time we turned around last year there was some new clone of their original mega-hit with a new coat of paint on it. Sure, the developer made some attempts at minor diversification, such as the almost interesting Empires & Allies or the so-atrocious-I-wouldn’t-wish-it-on-the-rabid-drug-crazed-child-molester-stabbing-me-in-the-eye Adventure World (starring Indiana Jones!), but for the most part Zynga has been content to gussy up FarmVille and release it time and time again. Even the sequel to one of the few titles in the Facebook developer’s catalog that dared to be different, Mafia Wars, received a very FarmVille makeover last October.
Now, in the early days of a brave new year, we finally get a game out of Zynga that isn’t a cut from their same ol’, increasingly threadbare cloth. Hidden Chronicles is, as you might have guessed from the name, a hidden object game. Does this brave new endeavor bear fruit or wither on the vine?
It is impossible to discuss Zynga’s latest title, Hidden Chronicles, without making direct comparisons to 2011’s top recommended game Gardens of Time. Both titles feature the same hidden object gameplay taking place in locations around the world. Both games put a heavy emphasis on ‘grinding’ the same scene over and over again to increase rank. Both feature a building meta-game where structures must be placed to accrue points needed to unlock the next scene. Both allow players to participate in timed bonus rounds when visiting a fellow gamer’s property. Heck, both games even utilize time travel for their stories; Gardens via time machine and Chronicles via psychic abilities. Fortunately, Hidden Chronicles has a few new tricks up its sleeve to make a free visit worthwhile.
The most noticeable new addition to the core hidden object gameplay is the Superclue, a multi-part puzzle embedded in a scene. Superclues appear in light blue on your item list and challenge you to complete a task rather than simply click an object. One such puzzle challenges you to balance a scale, for example. Searching the scene revels a scale with a 6g weight on it. To complete the task three 2g weights must be found and put on the opposite side of the scale. Superclues continue to appear at irregular intervals while replaying a scene making them a welcome bonus.
Another nice addition is a handful of mini games that can be accessed after the completion of some scenes. These are basic casual games, some playing on the hidden object gameplay, some not. An early mini game involves piecing together a torn up document like a jigsaw puzzle while another involves physically rummaging around in a desk drawer to find coins or poker chips. Unlike Superclues, these mini games are available after every play though of an eligible scene. While these sequences can be skipped, the fifty-thousand points gained from their completion will be far too much temptation for anyone grinding away to increase their rank and can rapidly lead to burning out on the once novel diversion.
Aside from sporting a more interesting Mysterious Death plotline, the remainder of Hidden Chronicles is Gardens of Time 101. You spend in-game or premium currency to add decorations and buildings to your personal plot of land whose sole reason of existence is providing an outlet for Facebook’s traditional “Your money or your friends!” extortion racket. At least it is initially easier to expand you territory in Hidden Chronicles than most Facebook games. This fact is offset by the absurd number of giftable objects required to complete buildings.
This latest iteration of Zynga’s game engine, as we’ve seen in all their latest offerings, does an admirable job of rendering your mansion reconstruction project in a gorgeous isometric perspective. The engine scales beautifully to any resolution and, aside from some minor graphic overlap problems with the mansion, looks great. The only oddity about the building mode is that it fails to share any common style or theme with Hidden Chronicles’ 2D art where most of the gameplay takes place. The darkened mansion and surrounding forest juxtaposes oddly with the bright, colorful hidden hidden object scenes while unlocked decorations hold no connection to our progress through the adventure.
The 2D hidden object scenes and character art fare less favorably on a technical level than the build mode. Quality of these art assets ranges from acceptable to slightly ugly. Moving elements are scarce making most scenes feel flat and lifeless. Scene compositions themselves also feel a little sloppy. Good games in this genre tend to follow their own consistent, if wacky, logic when scattering stuff around. Hidden Chronicles lacks that coherence in its own worlds and too often feels random or lazy, such as asking the player to find a wine bottle in a scene that has a shelf full of wine bottles in the background, none of which are the item we are expected to click on. Another sequence asks us to find a “clamp” in a room with two different types of clamps. Click the wrong one and kiss your combo goodbye. Hidden Chronicles also falls back far too often on the old crutch of making the object being sought drawings on a wall or shapes in the clouds. These examples are the rookie mistakes and easy outs from when the genre was young and are simply unacceptable by today’s standards, particularly from a developer of this stature. Occasionally the odd shapes of bounding boxes on a few objects caused more missed clicks than normal as well.
Hidden Chronicles finally one ups Playdom’s chart topping offering in the audio department. Where Gardens supported a whopping two pieces of music that will drive the average player to mouth-frothing, mute-switch-toggling madness after a few play sessions, Hidden Chronicles features a different theme for most of its scenes. Special kudos are due for the the scenes that eschew music altogether and elect to go with ambient sound instead. This background noise soundtrack plays particularly well on the first scene set on the Orient Express and a later one in Central Park. The ascending collection tones as you click your way up to a high combo multiplier is a particularly satisfying audio touch.
Taken as an overall package, Hidden Chronicles is mediocre. It just doesn’t have the sparkle and polish of its elder Facebook competitor or stand alone products such as the latest offerings from Big Fish. This title has a rushed and sloppy feel as if it was put together by a B-team in an attempt to cash in on a perceived trend. Even the beautifully rendered mansion layout feels as if it were unceremoniously ripped from one of the developer’s other, more polished titles. Another problem I have with Hidden Chronicles is one I have with nearly all of Zynga’s games: The friend’s list laundering scheme hits too early and too hard.
None the less, Hidden Chronicles is a nice diversion. Fans of the hidden object genre will be pleased to have a new alternative to get their seek n’ find fix and the few new additions to the gameplay make it a worthy visit. As for myself, I walk away feeling a disappointed. Zynga should keep in mind that their competitor didn’t become the most recommended game on Facebook by being the first in a genre, but by making sure they were the best.
Hidden Chronicles is available for free on Facebook.