"The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock." If you've ever read The Lottery, or one of its numerous clones, you should be familiar with the rise of the hairs on the back of your neck, the creeping sense of fear. Welcome to Strange Cases: The Tarot Card Mystery, a game that manages to convey that overwhelming sense of dread so well you may find yourself glancing over your shoulder in paranoia as you play.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." Okay, enough of that. Strange Cases: The Tarot Card Mystery is a new hidden object/adventure/mystery hybrid by Sulus Games. You play FBI agent Claire Ellery assigned to a case in a fishing village so small it can't be found by GPS, which should be your first hint that something's rotten. You've been called out on the case of three girls who have been kidnapped. The local police are uncooperative, and a mysterious stranger keeps leaving you odd clues on tarot cards scattered around the place. What's an FBI agent to do?
At first Strange Cases: The Tarot Card Mystery seems to be a pretty generic story: basic kidnapping, uncooperative local authorities, dark and spooky small town, etc. Then the mayor and doctor start acting suspiciously and it goes downhill from there. Like all hidden object games, there will be lots of items to find. Unlike most hidden object games, many of the items are actually useful in your search for the culprit!
Tarot cards you find will either give a written list, a group of silhouettes, or an object (or objects) of which pieces need to be found. It's a lovely way to integrate the hidden object lists into the game without breaking stride. Some scenes will include all three types of tarot and you can work back and forth between the cards or concentrate on just one. Some items go into your inventory and will become useful later. Navigation is either by moving within the scene (indicated by an arrow mouse change) or through handy Polaroid photos that accumulate in the case file. Just click on a pic to return to that area.
Analysis: There are many, many hidden object/adventure/mystery hybrids out there. What makes Strange Cases: The Tarot Card Mystery any different? The story. The artwork. The mini-games. Oh, and how all three are seamlessly integrated.
Although the basic plot has been done many times before, as you work through the narrative it begins to dawn on you that there is indeed more going on than the game tells you. This happens gradually, in the tradition of the best horror/mystery stories. The art for the dialogue scenes has a lovely washed hand-painted feel, while the HOG scenes are bright, clear, 3D and photorealistic. Surprisingly the two styles work well together, each heightening the mood of the story. The mini-games lean heavily towards logic and puzzle solving rather than just being iterations of games you've seen before. There's at least one mini-game/puzzle that could have been lifted directly from a room escape game.
Hidden object scenes themselves are a pleasant surprise. Each view is bright and clear, with very little clutter. No burying objects ten deep in a room and trying to find something in the resultant mess. A refilling hint timer is always welcome, as is a skip function for the mini-games. There's also a handy mute feature in the options if the atmospheric music and sound effects become annoying. Handy cursor changes round out the playability of the game. A magnifying glass will let you know when something needs to be investigated further, a rotating gear will indicate something that needs to be manipulated, and an arrow points the way to other areas to explore.
Unfortunately there are a few minor problems that can detract from gameplay. The "click area" when picking up items in the hidden object scenes is so tight that the point of the mouse cursor needs to be directly on an object. Multiple incorrect clicks will result in a spinning cursor, forcing you to slow down, and this can happen quite often even while trying to pick up the correct item. Broadening the click area would have been a good idea. The story itself, while fantastic, is way too short. You will leave the game wanting so much more.
Seamless integration, though, is what makes Strange Cases: The Tarot Card Mystery stand out from the pack. From the dialogue scenes to the hidden object scenes to the mini-games, everything flows so easily that you might find yourself several moves into a mini-game before you realize what has happened, leaving you to enjoy the deepening sense of paranoia. Are the cops in on it? The Mayor? Everyone? Play Strange Cases: The Tarot Card Mystery to find out.