***Note: There may be some spoilers below.***
The Gift is an initially promising but ultimately flawed hidden object game from our friends over at Alawar Games. I should begin by saying that Alawar has developed and distributed many interesting titles in the past, so I began this one with high hopes. I was also intrigued by the game’s premise: Set against the background of a cool 1940s noir style, The Gift begins with a series of dead bodies that are unmarked except for strange symbols on each of the victims’ foreheads. Rumors of an occult connection abound, so the police grudgingly bring in a paranormal private investigator. Enter Sarah Mievielle, a disgraced former detective gifted with occult powers. And so the story begins.
Unfortunately, the game ultimately did not live up to my high expectations. There are just too many things wrong with it. For one thing, Mieville is neither as interesting nor as sympathetic a protagonist as I had hoped she would be. A former detective, she was kicked off the police force after making an unspecified “mistake” that resulted in an innocent person getting killed. Now working as a private investigator, she views the Nothingman Murders as a chance at redemption. However, it soon becomes apparent that her interest in reclaiming what she lost takes precedence over more noble aspirations like bringing the killer to justice. In addition, her relentless ambition and frequent disdain toward others (especially her ex-colleagues) make her thoroughly unlikable. I suppose that this wouldn’t be so bad if she was supposed to be the gritty “anti-hero” type; but she clearly isn’t.
Another major problem with the game is that the plot is a confusing mess, which quickly deteriorates to the point where it’s near impossible to figure out who is doing what for which reasons. What is the mastermind after, and why does he let Mieville go after talking to her, without so much as a single threat? Why does some random guy who only appears once prior to the final confrontation suddenly decide to snatch and torture her ex-partner? (And before you ask: No, there was no ransom note, nor any other indication that this was an attempt to draw her out. It just kind of happened.) Why do the bad guys seem convinced that they are actually good guys doing the world a favor? Honestly, I’m asking; I couldn’t figure any of it out. I can only guess that the developers were trying to set up a sequel by leaving so many unanswered questions; but I think they pretty much lost me after this one.
Unfortunately, the worst sins committed by this game lay in neither the plot nor the characters. I could have persevered even through such nonsense if the mechanics—at the very least—had been solid. They were not. Truth be told, they were so sloppy that they killed any remaining enjoyment I might have derived from the game. I could go on about them at length, but for the sake of brevity (and my own sanity), I have summarized my main complaints below:
- Navigation: Normally, a map is the ideal form of navigation for a hidden object game that involves traveling to different locations in a city. It is neat and clean, and gets you where you want to go. Alternatively, if there is no map, players usually travel to locations via branching sets of paths, which create the impression of actually moving around a city. Unfortunately, The Gift eschews both forms of navigation in favor of a bizarre linear movement that carries the player through the city. You only ever move forward, but the locations seem to arrange themselves so that the next area you proceed to is, conveniently, exactly where you need to go! Even for “railroading,” this was a little ridiculous.
- Minigames: In what is probably my biggest beef with the game, the minigame puzzles tend to have almost no explanation whatsoever, leaving it to the player to figure out how to solve them. This tactic was probably an ill-conceived attempt to make the puzzles more challenging. Instead, it only makes them frustrating. The mechanics of the puzzles themselves are also poorly designed. The worst offender is an “untangle the wires puzzle” that I actually had to skip (Note: I HATE doing that) because the wires are so thick, overlapping, and jumbled that it was literally impossible to follow the paths. It might have been solvable if I could manipulate angles or zoom in on the knotted areas. However, since that was not the case, there was really nothing I could do, besides guess randomly.
- “Vision” puzzles: Another weird mechanic involves “visions” received by Mieville that give her hints on how to proceed in a given situation. All very well and good for a paranormally gifted investigator…except that all her “visions” involve super-special “rituals” that are so strange, normal laws of common sense (usually so vital in hidden object games) do not apply at all. Examples: Add a drop of blood to a pile of cigar ashes and you get a ghost? Drop a feather on a dumpster and it shoots across the alley like a truck slammed into it? Grow a giant monster plant to choke the consciousness out of an innocent security guard? Seriously, what the hell?
- HO Puzzles: The hidden object puzzles themselves are probably the least messed up part of the mechanics, but they are also nothing to write home about. The main enjoyment I derived from them was periodic relief in the fact that I knew what I was supposed to do, for a change. Also, can someone tell me why there had to be a duck in every hidden object puzzle? Did the developers have a duck fetish? Were they just being lazy? Did the duck do it? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN????
To sum up, The Gift could have been an interesting hidden object game, but it just needs too much fixing. Actually, if these issues ever were fixed, I’d love to try playing the game again, and maybe write a more balanced review. Unfortunately, this one is probably beyond saving. I can only hope that Alawar returns to its higher standards of quality on the next one.
A review copy of this game was provided to us by the publisher.