Dark Arcana: The Carnival|
Play one hidden item game and you’ve basically played them all. The stories and locales may change, but the core gameplay remains the same. Stare at a scene. Look for items on a list. Click on them when they’re spotted. Developer Artifex Mundi looks to remedy this in part by adding puzzle and adventure elements to the mix. In Dark Arcana: The Carnival, neither genre is fully realized. It’s a simple adventure game with simple hidden-object scenes. Though it does have its strengths, Dark Arcana is too casual and too simple to offer wide appeal. It’s strictly for fans of the genres looking for a basic experience.
A brief cinematic opens the game, revealing the game’s beautiful environments. The cinematic also simultaneously introduces players to the generally awkward character animations. In the intro, a young girl’s mother becomes trapped in a carnival’s haunted house. As an unnamed female detective, players must investigate the circumstances surrounding the woman’s disappearance. It’s obvious from the start paranormal forces are at work. The plot navigates a couple twists, but nothing too shocking or revelatory.
Players can click through from screen to screen to explore the carnival. Several items can be picked up here and there by clicking on them. Inventory items are never really combined in any way. Most items are used like keys, though some puzzles do require the use of several items in succession. For example, an electronic panel may need to be removed with a screwdriver before a missing item can be replaced to make a machine operational. Items are used in fairly straightforward ways, though some do create puzzles to solve when they are used.
Occasionally, an area of the screen will shimmer and indicate a hidden-object scene. Clicking on one of these pulls up a intricately detailed screen with an assortment of items. At the bottom of the screen, a list describes which items the player needs to find. Some scenes have items listen in cyan text rather than white. These items require the combination of two or more objects in the scene (e.g., “polished shoes” may require clicking a brush, then shoe polish, then unpolished shoes). Unfortunately, the mouse cursor changes when hovering over any of these combinable items. Any time the pointer changes into a magnifying glass during a hidden object scene, it’s painfully obvious that the item will be combined with something else.
Depending on the difficulty, hints may be available to the player to reveal item locations. These hints require a cool down, though it is easy enough to finish the game without using them. Alternative to finding hidden objects, players can play a Monaco card game. It’s a fairly simple matching game. However, Monaco takes much longer than simply finding all the objects in a scene.
Artifex Mundi deserves some credit for breaking up the monotony of hidden-object scenes with more traditional adventure game puzzles. Many of the developer’s previous games follow a similar structure, and it works just as well here. Unfortunately, neither style of play offers much depth. The adventure style gameplay is extremely straightforward. The hidden-object scenes can usually be completed very quickly and feel somewhat out of place. Most of the puzzles work into the general flow of events and make sense. It’s never clear why a detective is rummaging through an assortment of items, though. The scenes need to be completed because they often contain a key item for a future puzzle. Why does she need to find 15 other items? Why not just walk away after finding the useful ones?
Detracting from the experience further, most scenes are recycled. Without any notice, the hidden-object scenes will reactivate. They start shimmering again, but it’s easy to miss if moving quickly from screen to screen. The other problem with recycling scenes is that players may remember many of the “new” items to find from their past searches. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but reusing these scenes feels like padding the game’s length. It should be noted that on the hardest difficulty, the hidden object scenes do not shimmer. The mouse cursor will still change while hovering over a scene, but it means more pointless searching with the cursor.
A few technical issues also hold the game back. Character models tend to move awkwardly, with motions reminiscent of mid ‘90s CGI. When characters speak, their lips move in unpredictable manners. They open and close without cadence and without relation to the words the characters are saying. The voice acting is equally tragic. All of the characters’ voices are flat and devoid of emotion. Though there is an option to turn the voices off, there is no way to turn off subtitles while the voices are on. This could prove to be a slight annoyance for some.
To their credit, the developers included several features that make the game simpler and more accessible. A journal keeps track of the main objectives and — on the easier difficulties — there’s a helpful map that notifies players where items or puzzles currently resides. Relying on the map may make things too easy, but at least it’s there. The Monaco card game is always available if there’s a pesky last item to find. Payers can even skip whole puzzles outright on the easier difficulties. On casual difficulty it’s almost impossible to get stuck in Dark Carnival, which is an accomplishment in itself.
Dark Carnival should take about three or four hours to finish. A collector’s edition is also available which includes a few extras and an epilogue that lasts another 45 minutes to an hour. The game is enjoyable enough, even if it is too easy. Its story is a little darker and slightly more complex than those found in many of its contemporaries. However, its simplistic structure and rudimentary puzzles impede Dark Arcana from appealing beyond a strictly casual audience.