Empress of the Deep:
The Darkest Secret
You'd think if someone wanted you to save all of humanity they'd be a little bit more forthcoming with information. Juicy items like who you are, why humanity is in danger, and who's trying to kill you might come in handy on your quest! But, then you wouldn't have the kind of excitement of exploration and mystery that you get in the Myst-like adventure game Empress of the Deep: The Darkest Secret, just released for both Windows and Mac.
Empress of the Deep is completely mouse-controlled and features a wide variety of puzzles to solve. In fact, other than the hidden object scenes, none of the puzzles seem to repeat, and a few are really inventive. For example: a puzzle involving setting chess queens on a board without any of them killing each other. Some old favorites like the Towers of Hanoi make an appearance, but because they only appear once, it's like seeing a familiar friend in an unfamiliar place, not like some games where one more image scramble puzzle will make you toss your computer out the window.
Empress of the Deep continues the trend of games that are adventures at heart but include hidden object scenes. This seems to be a trend that aims at bringing in more casual players to the adventure market, enticing us with something familiar and then introducing serious adventure elements once we're hooked. While it's billed as a hybrid game, Empress of the Deep is much more adventure-like than anything, squeezing some of its complexity off in favor of a few casual-friendly mini-games and design elements.
Analysis: Calling Empress of the Deep "Myst-like" is high praise indeed, and it's hard to believe a casual game could earn that kind of a compliment. It doesn't match Myst in terms of gameplay length or sheer depth, but it certainly evokes similar emotions and carries with it the awe-inspiring sense of being in a gorgeously rendered realistic-yet-unearthly place. A world under the ocean, in this case.
The plot manages to be trite yet completely compelling at the same time. I had identified the "ending plot twist" from the moment its agent first appeared, yet the game kept pulling me along through sheer creepiness and subtlety. Towards the end of the game the voice acting and script get a bit histrionic, and my character made one statement that made me say "Oh, come on," to the screen, but I'm still overall impressed with the storytelling. The game does end with "to be continued," but it's not a cliffhanger ending. The immediate danger is resolved, and it's more that there's a new world to explore, and I for one can't wait to explore it.
Empress of the Deep's hidden object scenes suffer from the objects being too well hidden. In some cases, not only are the scenes heavily monochromatic, but the objects being looked for are semi-transparent! I'm a veteran hidden object player, and I ended up using a couple of hints per round. Thankfully, the hint meter is very quick to refill, and there doesn't appear to be any penalty for random clicking either.
Empress of the Deep: The Darkest Secret sets its goals high and creates a strong environment filled with good puzzles and unique mini-games. What it lacks in storytelling and depth it more than makes up for with atmosphere and gameplay.