Tess is looking for an escape from her reality, a world where she is overcome by fear and loneliness. She is tormented by her older brother who taunts, "You're stupid and weird!" Her father has gone off to war and her mother works in a factory making weapons. Tess spends most her time alone until the day she picks up a mysterious orb and is transported to Sphera, a new puzzle-heavy hidden object adventure by Sandlot Games.
When frightened Tess first arrives in Sphera, she meets Zuchary, a walrus-like king who assures her of his help while explaining: "This world was created by the dreams of ones like you, the dream world of the forgotten children . . . You cannot go home until you confront your strongest fears." Tess has to promise him she'll continue no matter how difficult things seem. At that moment, you'll know you're in for a formidable and wondrous odyssey.
Navigate through the mesmerizing world of Sphera, gathering objects and clues as you go, by the click of your mouse. Zuchary, true to his word, will provide hints in both casual and expert modes of play. In casual mode, you'll be given the additional assistance of cursor icons that indicate graspable items and interactive areas, no penalty for random clicking in hidden object searches, a sixty-second hint recharge and the ability to skip puzzles. On the other hand, if you're looking for increased challenge, expert mode has a slower hint recharge and none of the additional support given to casual.
You'll join Tess as she confronts nightmarish scenes of child-sized skeletons, monsters threatening to devour her, and dungeons of trapped souls along with imaginative daydreams such as a bee with a mechanical unicorn, a room covered in gold leafing, and an Escher-esque hedge maze. Alternating from beautiful childhood fantasies to twisted fears and dystopic visions, every scene in Sphera is a gorgeous piece of art, mostly hand-drawn with intricate details and an atmospheric soundtrack that is perfectly paired to each environment.
Analysis: Sphera contains a generous blend of puzzles and hidden object scenes to keep you actively engaged throughout your adventure. The puzzles do not lean too heavily on any one device and are comprised of: jigsaws, physics, sliders, and matching puzzles plus item-combining and rebuilding tasks. None are overly challenging yet each puzzle is uncommonly interesting and aesthetically pleasing in a style that's reminiscent of the Drawn series (the most recent of which, Drawn: Trail of Shadows, was just released). When you complete a puzzle, you are rewarded with even more intriguing animations, special effects and new scenes which make progressing through Sphera a captivating experience.
It's necessary to note that, although the protagonist is a child, the story contains disturbing subject matter and complex concepts making Sphera a mature-themed game. Yet, seeing as Tess learns self-esteem and how to conquer fear on her journey, Sphera manages to have a positive, uplifting message. You can't help but feel good when Tess beams, "I actually did it!" Because of this, disappointment might hit when you reach the finale.
Many of the opening scenes foreshadow what's to come but the twist ending is still a disconcerting jolt: it's curt and dark as well as a bit vague and unexplained. By this point in the game, though, you are thoroughly immersed in Tess' world of Sphera and most likely longing for more. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just a sign of how engrossing this game can be. Sphera is of average-length for hidden-object/puzzle adventures and it goes even further in its impact. Sphera's originality, unique artwork and fantastical scenery far outshine any shortcomings it might have. Playing Sphera is well worth the experience, just be sure to have a cheerful something or other standing by for when you're done. No wonder Tess is hugging that cuddly teddy so tightly.