Natalie Brooks fans rejoice! Our heroine is back, and she's... in high school? Well, not really, although she does spend some time there. Natalie Brooks: Mystery at Hillcrest High — the third in the popular hidden object/adventure hybrid series — is back and better than ever. Alawar Games has brought Natalie back home to the town where she grew up with an adventure that starts with a letter from an old-school chum and ends in a wild hot air balloon chase. In between is action, adventure, mini-games, loads of puzzles, and yes, some hidden object goodness as well.
After a brief cut-scene involving the aforementioned balloon and a cliff-hanger, our story begins as Natalie picks up the mail. Much to her surprise she finds a letter from an old friend, Chad. Soon she will discover the hidden message inside the letter, and the race is on, a rollicking action/adventure featuring mayhem, treachery, kidnapping, robbery, and lots of things that go boom. But first she must track down Chad. And then his friend Kitty. And then figure out why Chad was kidnapped. And then figure out what the Black Cat gang is up to. And then... well, you get the picture.
With this, the third in the series (Secrets of Treasure House and The Treasures of the Lost Kingdom) Natalie Brooks has made the leap into true point-and-click adventure. Hover your mouse cursor everywhere and watch for it to change to denote areas that are of interest or things that can be picked up or manipulated. Pretty soon you will be unlocking doors, breaking windows, uncovering hidden passages, etc. that lead to different areas. The player will wander back and forth between the areas (sometimes several) finding inventory items, solving puzzles, playing mini-games and mini-puzzles, and occasionally wandering into a hidden object scene or two. Eventually everything will be solved and you can move on to the next location and next chapter of the story.
As you continue through a chapter you will uncover more and more things to accomplish. Fortunately there's a handy "goals" scroll being kept so you can keep track of everything that is necessary to get through the area. A scrolling inventory also helps keep track of what you have and what you have left to do. And of course there's Natalie herself, giving you hints and letting you know when you've done something wrong.
The quality and difficulty of the mini-games and puzzles ranges from simple to mind-boggling. There is a nice mix of old and new to be had, as well as some mini-games that are pure arcade-style fun requiring nothing more than speed and dexterity. Although the characters and cut-scenes continue in the cartoony, hand drawn style the series is famous for, the adventure scenes have moved to the three dimensional and photo-real. This makes the wider variety of games and puzzles possible, as well as adding another dimension (ha!) in the handling of certain objects, such as a 3D teddy bear bomb that you must rotate and manipulate as you disarm it. The game has a handy refilling hint feature, as well as the ability to skip the mini-games and mini-puzzles.
Analysis: Natalie Brooks: Mystery at Hillcrest High makes the leap to true point-and-click adventure hybrid without losing the wit and humor that made the games so fun to begin with. The art, while certainly not going to give Dire Grove a run for its money, is still refreshing and adds to the gameplay experience. In certain areas lighting, weather, and other factors enhance the look-and-feel of the game. A lively soundtrack and sound effects serve to round out the experience.
Are there drawbacks? Yes, a few. Some of the arcade style games are a bit jerky or difficult, but they can easily be skipped. The art is nice, but there is better out there. A hint feature for some of the more difficult mini-puzzles would have been nice, as well. On the plus side the game is longer than most, especially if you don't skip the mini-games. You can look forward to several hours of challenging casual gameplay with Natalie. In these days of ever shrinking gameplay and ever more simple mini-puzzles, Natalie Brooks is a breath of fresh air.
Natalie Brooks: Mystery at Hillcrest High is fun, casual gameplay at its best. With this game Alawar shows its determination to go toe-to-toe with the big guns of the hybrid field, Mystery Case Files and Hidden Expedition. The narrative structure is delightful, the games and puzzles fun, and the action cut-scenes thrilling. Quirky, charming, exciting, and just plain fun, give Natalie Brooks a try! Even if it does mean going back to high school, however briefly.