Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake
I imagine, being a member of the Mystery Case Files celebrated detective agency, you're probably used to getting crank calls. You know... the people telling you the ghost of Elvis is living in a peanut butter jar in their fridge, or a poltergeist called Windows Vista is living inside their computer. But when one particular psychic who acts as a consultant on a ghost hunting television show calls begging for your help in the deserted town of Bitterford, Maine, you suspect there might just be something bigger happening than someone wanting their fifteen minutes of fame. But in Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake, the latest hidden-object horror adventure from Big Fish Studios, there might be something more sinister afoot than heavy fog and low-budget reality television. As you travel throughout the lonely streets, it quickly becomes clear that something dark doesn't want you there, and it might be bigger than you can handle alone. Unfortunately, that's just how you're going to tackle it... minus a little eccentric radio support.
Once you finally meet up with Cassandra, the psychic who summons you, you quickly discover Bitterford has a shadowy past. With Cassandra's direction, you'll be forced to travel all over the town, visiting various locations and hunting down clues and information that will slowly give you a better idea of the mystery hanging over the town. Seems like one mysterious, irresistible item might be at the center of it, but considering the bloody path its left in its wake, do you really want to find it? Luckily for you, you've got a trusty scooter, and simply clicking on the map, then any known destination, will immediately take you right to it. Cassandra will give you drawings of locations the spirits have revealed to her, and you'll need to track down each spot depicted to imbue it with the psychic energy there. Additionally, you can expect hidden-object scenes to send you crawling all over different locations and perspectives to find everything listed. Don't worry... the hint function will point you where you need to go if you need a bit of help.
Analysis: In a way, Shadow Lake is at once scarier and darker, and somehow simultaneously cornier than its predecessors, packed with tense moments and jump scares that you'd think would clash with the likes of Jack Talon and even Cassandra's incessant nattering... and yet they don't. Apart from Jack "YO PRISONERS" Talon being the actual best, the patter and cheese feels like it rides comfortably alongside the quiet, frightening mood of the rest of the game, providing a sort of wonderfully self-aware humour and over-the-top characters. In one case, really, really over the top. Really. The actual mystery you'll be solving is surprisingly intriguing because it gives you so little of the big picture in the beginning, and the slow revelation as you travel around town is handled very well. The downside is that if you miss finding the two "secret" tapes left behind by Ghost Patrol, you'll also be missing out on some backstory and exposition that fleshes out the game's narrative. And more Jack Talon.
Luckily, Shadow Lake is surprisingly big, and definitely easy on the eyes as a whole. It also doesn't hurt that there are both big and subtle scares that do a lot to keep you on your toes and dreading every corner and closed door. Shadow Lake asks you to be more of a detective in its gameplay at times, instead of leading you around by the nose. While some of the puzzles are still a little silly, a lot of the typical adventuring comes down to spotting clues and tracking down all the little hints and items you need to put it all together, which is somehow more satisfying than having it all spelled out for you. You're always given a direction, but the game stops short of making you a little bagged lunch, ensuring your hair is properly combed, and then driving you straight there itself. The downside is that Cassandra's constant nagging starts to grate, especially since her gameplay elements are so repetitive. Lady, just post your drawings on the fridge or something and I'll get to them when I'm good and ready! And stop giving me supernatural shopping lists! Tell the spirits I said they're obsessive-compulsive jerks!
The inventory items available on the small radial menu quickly become annoying to have to rotate through. The multi-room hidden-object hunting is an interesting idea and actually handled fairly well, though the premise for it is sort of silly, especially when piled on top of the whole Auto-Drawing thing. At least the hint function has been significantly improved since its horrible mangling in Escape from Ravenhearst, making for a much more player-friendly experience overall. With the map allowing you to leap around at a click and the uses for items typically being logical and straightforward, Shadow Lake's gameplay is largely grounded in a way players who hate fashioning keys out of rubber duckies and soda cans in other games will appreciate.
Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake isn't quite a perfect game, but its gorgeous production values and dedication to providing an engrossing experience make it easy to recommend checking out for any fans of spooky mysteries. Ultimately its biggest flaw winds up being repetition, and the constant Auto-Drawing reconstruction and item hunts in dark locations won't be for everyone. However, the game's fantastic atmosphere, impressive length, and unexpected gruesomeness at times make it a ton of fun. Especially if you don't mind a little harsh language. "Butthead"? MY VIRGIN EARS. I just hate to think of what it's doing to Maine's tourism board. Castle Rock, Derry, and now Shadow Lake? "Come to beautiful Maine, where the sunsets are gorgeous, and the unspeakable ancient evils stay with you forever! Buy one get one ice cream sundaes!... the sundaes are also cursed."
A Collector's Edition is also available. It contains a bonus chapter, art gallery, strategy guide, and more. Remember that Big Fish Game Club Members pay only $13.99 for Collector's Editions (or 2 club credits), and collector's editions count 3 card punches of 6 total needed for a free game.