Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull
After your last investigation, you might have been hoping for a warmer climate, though the humid, rainy swamps of the Louisiana bayous probably weren't what you had in mind. But when a beloved husband and father goes missing under bizarre circumstances and the police can't help, who better than you, master detective, to solve the case? Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull, the seventh in the popular series of hidden-object adventure games, is a beautifully done game about betrayal, treasure, curses, and backed-up toilets, just like Poe would have written about.
The missing man is Marcus Lawson, who had moved to the run-down estate after abruptly inheriting it not too long ago. His daughter, the last person to see him, claims he was taken by a ghost. Understandably, most people are skeptical... though with your track record, you're more willing to believe than others. After all, the dilapidated manor and overgrown grounds seem to hide more than their share of secrets, and not to mention the rumours going around of a vicious pirate who buried his treasure there centuries ago. Sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo to you? Well, maybe you should be careful anyway. After all, you know what they say about dead men telling tales (hint: they don't), and not everyone seems to want your missing person found...
To find out what happened to Marcus, you'll have to use all your skills and prowess... and solve a lot of hidden-object scenes and complete tasks for the townsfolk. People who have something to tell you have an exclamation mark over their heads, but for the most part you'll want to rely on your own powers of observation. Explore the manor and the surrounding area for clues; when your cursor changes, click to interact with people and objects. Text at the bottom of the screen will remind you of your current objective, and you can click "hint" when the meter is full to get some more hands-on direction. Remember to refer to your journal frequently, since that's where you'll record all of your finding, especially any particularly cryptic clues that might be helpful later on.
Analysis: Unlike, say, Dire Grove, which was more than happy to start throwing ghostly apparitions at you within the first five minutes of play, 13th Skull has you spend a goodly amount of time poking at dirty windows and chasing down rats before you even run afoul of your first angry redneck. The 13th Skull is a lot less menacing than its predecessor, and a lot slower paced, with its focus on small town mystery and local legend. Of course it all looks beautiful, with crisp, clear video, rich colours, and fine attention to detail that brings the environments to life and lends them a great authenticity. In addition, you can also play Southern Stereotype Bingo; add a point every time someone says "Shug", "Chile", "Looky here", or "We don't take kindly to strangers", but subtract a point for every dirty tanktop because, well... ew?
As we've come to expect from the series, the 13th Skull offers up a satisfyingly meaty chunk of gameplay, striking a balance between good ol' fashioned adventure game logic and a variety of puzzles designed to get your brain matter churning. The difficulty level rides somewhere between middling and moderate, see-sawing back and forth; the puzzles aren't the complex examples of ingenuity in earlier titles, but they will require a bit of thought and attention to detail. Of course, getting stuck is out of the question since the hint button will always tell you what you need to do and takes approximately ten seconds to recharge.
The biggest change is obviously the inclusion of actual people playing the part of the characters you interact with. While none of the acting or dialogue is spectacular, the cast seems to be having a good time, and the odd-ball characters are fun to talk to in a hokey, "Sci-Fi channel original movie" sort of way (like my boy Cooter over there on the right). Of course, the downside is that if you don't like the character interaction you might be put off by how much of it there is. Considering your input is limited to clicking what essentially amounts to prompts to move the dialogue along, you'd be forgiven for thinking the whole thing feels a little gimmicky. Allowing you some choice in what you said so you actually felt as if you were interacting with them and influencing the story would have gone a long way towards making you feel more immersed.
Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull will probably have an average playtime of around five hours, more if you staunchly refuse the siren call of the hint/skip button for puzzles and clues. It's much more of a straight-up mystery than others in the series, eschewing frights for old-fashioned sleuthing and simple superstition. The ending is a little unsatisfying, but the whole thing is a quality experience from beginning to end that has a lot to offer. Where will the Mystery Case Files turn up next? Will you travel the land like the Scooby Gang in your mystery machine, solving supernatural crimes? Is the bathroom mirror a hint at a future installment? Only time (and Big Fish Games) will tell. In the meantime, grab your favourite detective hat and try out the demo; those clues aren't going to find themselves.
A Collector's Edition is also available. It contains a bonus chapter to play, wallpapers, 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.