Twisted Lands: Shadow Town (PC Review)

Game Review: Twisted Lands: Shadow Town
Release: September 20, 2010
Genre: Adventure, Puzzle
Developer: Alawar Entertainment
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $19.95

What starts out as an innocent treasure hunting trip on the sea turns into a dark and creepy adventure through uncharted lands in Alawar Entertainment’s Twisted Lands: Shadow Town.  You will spend your time unraveling the mystery surrounding both the disappearance of your female companion Angel, as well as the decadent environment you find yourself in.  Starting out on a stranded beach with nothing on your person, your quest will take you through abandoned ships, haunted houses, foreboding woods, chilling churches, twisting labyrinths, and more.  You’ll find clues left behind by previous occupants in the form of newspapers, journals and even supernatural events as the dark and sometimes disturbing story weaves its way towards a nice surprise climax.  And once you’ve finished the main story, you’ll gain access to a bonus chapter that expands on a side story, giving you even more story goodness.

Twisted Lands: Shadow Town is an adventure puzzler.  You’ll be interacting with the game through mouse clicks on interactive screens, so this certainly qualifies as a casual game.  The story is definitely dark without being cheesy (cut-scene graphics aside, which ARE cheesy); in one particular journal entry I actually squirmed a bit reading about the plight of one of the former inhabitants.  The game is never particularly scary, but the dark tone and content might be a little mature for very young audiences; teens should be OK.

You will navigate through the game by collecting items, solving puzzles, using said items on other items, and working through hidden item puzzles.  The puzzles are nicely varied (and in what might be a first for the puzzle genre, there is not a single Towers of Hanoi puzzle) and will reference clues found in different parts of the game.  While the puzzles are never too difficult, you will always have help at your disposal in three forms; a graphic journal that nicely auto-updates with the most current clues you’ve found, a skip bar that will allow you to skip a puzzle if you spend too long on it, and a walkthrough that is available at anytime from the main menu, complete with videos to show how to solve any puzzle (or, for that matter, what to do at any point in the game should you need a guide).  The game also provides help via a clickable help icon on screen that will show you where to click on the screen to progress.  This help icon will recharge over time, but there’s no limit to the amount of help you can receive.  The hidden object puzzles are nicely detailed and are used as a way to add items to your inventory, since you will keep one item each time you do a puzzle that will be used somewhere else on your adventure.  You can also use your hints on these puzzles to identify items.

From a gameplay perspective, Twisted Lands nails the playability aspect by never letting you get stuck to the point of frustration.  Majority of the steps that need to be taken at any given time are fairly intuitive, and when you uncover new items, you will generally have an idea of how that item should be used in the game.  And if you somehow get stuck, you have a plethora of help at your disposal.  The game also looks fantastic (cutscenes aside); every screen is highly detailed with good lighting effects and crisp imagery. Sounds and music are also well done, allowing you to get nicely immersed into your experience.  Navigating the screen with your cursor is also intuitive thanks to nice on-screen indicators when your mouse is over an interactive object.  Overall, the presentation of this game is top-notch; combine that with a story that has a dark tone to it, and you have a great casual puzzler for older audiences.  It’s not as dark as Phantasmagoria, 7th Guest or 11th Hour, but it will keep you engaged.

The hidden object puzzles, while nice, are reused, a theme that also encompasses backtracking in general.  While revisiting areas is unavoidable in an adventure game, you will often find yourself running from one end of the world to the other and back again when you get a new item; and without a world map to quickly travel, you’re left with a lot of clicking.  You also will be visiting the hidden object puzzles multiple times, but when that happens seems arbitrary.  I sometimes got stuck and had to use clues only to have the game take me back to a hidden puzzle I’d solved hours ago that had an item that I didn’t know I needed.  The clues are there to be used, so it’s not the end of the world, but I felt a little cheated out of finding things out for myself by having to resort to it (and since there was no indication that I needed to backtrack to this point, I wasn’t likely going to find the puzzle without the clues).  Finally, while there is a dark overtone to the game, there’s never a sense of urgency.  You are on a mission to save Angel which is always presented as a critical issue, but you’re given infinite time to explore the world, solve puzzles, and read lore, and the action is delivered in a very passive way.  The bonus chapter gives a little more sense of urgency with how it presents the story, and seeing this makes you wish it existed in the first 5 hours of gameplay.  The game plays quickly, but this is as much a byproduct of the accessible hint system and the way the game hooks you in and doesn’t let go as it is actually being short.  You should get about 4-8 hours of gameplay from the game, and it should go without say that being an adventure puzzler, there is no replayability once you complete it.

vttym’s take: I’m a sucker for hidden object puzzle games, and when you throw in a slew of other puzzles, a good story, great atmosphere and a fantastic help system, I found it impossible to stop playing.  You’ll want to keep seeing how those items in your inventory are going to interact with the world, or how the story is going to twist and turn as you make your way through.  Throw in a bonus chapter, and an interactive guidebook to help you through any tight spots, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more complete package for an adventure puzzler.  There’s a 60-minute free demo available, so you have no reason not to check it out, and see for yourself.

Just be ready to be hooked once that timer runs out.

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