Cate West - The Vanishing Files is a hidden object game, from developer Gamenauts, that strays as far as it can from the genre without turning into a minigame-focused mystery adventure. In addition to your usual "find all the objects on the list" gameplay, Cate West weaves a number of evidence-related games that keep the pointing and clicking from getting stale. Paired with stellar artwork and an interesting storyline, the final result is something that provides the charm of a hidden object game with new experiences and lighter, more engaging gameplay.
Cate West is an author with a unique psychic ability: she can see places, people and things associated with an item simply by touching it. Working with the police you will investigate 15 full cases, each divided into sub-games that follow the same overall outline. Cases begin with hidden object scenes where Cate searches cluttered locations for clues. The item finding mechanics here are simple: just look at the list and search the image for the objects. You don't have to find all of the items, which is a huge relief, and hints slowly regenerate after each use (though points will be deducted and you may not see the game's best ending).
After clues have been gathered, Cate pinpoints items with strong associations to the criminal for use in the trial. In a slight variation of the hidden object theme, these items are broken into pieces and you must find every part to assemble it. Next, Cate searches for the criminal's hideout by matching a photograph with her mental image, prompting a spot-the-difference minigame. This narrows the location down to a single street where a handful of suspects are rounded up and placed before your eyes. Each profile photo has some basic information about the suspect that you'll compare against Cate's impressions from the evidence, slowly narrowing the choices down to a few. Then it's time to make your arrest.
In court, the suspect gives his or her testimony which begins a fun spot-the-difference/hidden object mash-up game. Instead of looking for items or differences, however, you're given an inventory of items and must place them on photographs of the scene, making sure the left side matches the right. Justice has been served, and it's time to move on to the next case!
Analysis: Games with this sort of mystery-laden atmosphere have always been a draw for me, but I was hesitant to dive into Cate West - The Vanishing Files simply because I didn't want to play another hidden object game. I was very pleasantly surprised, however, at how light this game is on the item finding. Sure, it's still the center of the show, but mixing in the various evidence games really breaks up the monotony and ends up being a lot of fun.
Even though it's a lighter take on the hidden object genre, Cate West suffers from becoming formulaic in its own right. It's a rather lengthy game for a casual title, with 15 cases and almost twice as many locations to visit, but with the same few games repeating over and over it feels a little stale by the end. Fortunately the story is interesting enough to encourage you to forge ahead. Also worth mentioning are the stunning locations and art direction in Cate West - The Vanishing Files. The dialogue-driven cut scenes have an almost manga-style feel, and when you reach a new area you just want to drink in the detail.
It's enough item finding to appease hidden object fans, yet Cate West - The Vanishing files is so much more. It's a carefully crafted blend of experiences that gets just about everything right.