You’d better have the details of your local optician close by, because you’re probably going to need to make an appointment after today’s game: it’s Microids’ 2014 good-job-there’s-a-hint-button-em-up Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK!

That’s right, it’s a game with a plot about the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. Yes, there are still people out there that dispute the historically accepted events surrounding JFK’s death, but fortunately this game is daft enough that it’s unlikely to stoke the fires of their paranoia. I don’t have much time for conspiracy theories, for the simple reason that I cannot imagine any government being competent enough to keep secrets of this magnitude, well, secret. The Moon Landing deniers are particularly aggravating to me personally. Perhaps one day they’ll all band together, buy a rocket and piss off to the moon in search of evidence. That’d be nice.

Somewhere, at some time, a car crashes. The driver is killed, and thus we have our starting point for a wacky adventure through the shadowy half-truths that lay a shroud over a turbulent time in American history.
Apologies, by the way, for the grey box that pops up in the corner of some of these screenshots. A byproduct of the image capture process, unfortunately, and not something that’s part of the game itself. I'll say this to it's credit, Hidden Files definitely doesn't have a look based around grey boxes.

It transpires that the dead driver was a journalist named Jack Olsen, a man who claimed to have come into possession of shocking new evidence regarding JFK’s assassination. This is a case that goes all the way to the top, right to the Oval Office. Here’s the President of the USA now, meeting with the head of the FBI and looking thoroughly like a bootleg Barack Obama.

The FBI’s response is to assign one lone agent to the case. I know, you’d think such a potentially earth-shattering revelation would require the attention of more than one person, especially given that someone’s already been murdered. Not to worry, though, they’ve got just the woman for the job. When you’re dealing with a sinister conspiracy that manipulates the lives of the unwitting American people, there’s only one person you can turn to: FBI Special Agent Sully. Yes, I read it as Scully the first time I saw it, too. I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed I won’t be playing as Dana Scully or relieved that Gillian Anderson won’t be appearing in the form of a plasticy bootleg CG model.

Here’s Sully now, ready to bust the case wide open. She will be once she’s got these photos of Olsen printed out, anyway. With those in hand, she’ll no doubt be heading to the crime scene and bringing the full power of her keen analytical mind to bear on the problem.

Except that’ll have to wait, because the printer’s knackered. That’s right, your first task in this game of intrigue and dark secrets is some light office maintenance. Well, you don’t want to cram all the thrills into the first few moments, do you? Then there’d be nowhere to go to but downwards, but if you start with changing printer cartidges then even filling in paperwork would seem captivating by comparison. Speaking of paperwork, I hope she remembers to fill in an expenses report, you wouldn’t want the cost of ink cartridges coming out of your own pocket.

Luckily there’s a spare cartridge in the laboratory next door, and here’s where we get our first taste of Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK’s gameplay. It’s a hidden object game! You know the sort of thing: there’s a big screen packed with a cluttered mass of random objects, and you’re tasked with finding the specific items listed at the bottom of the screen. Cross off all the items on your list and the scene is completed, usually giving you an item that you need in order to progress in the game. Ever since I played Halloween Trick or Treat last Halloween I’ve become slightly obsessed with the hidden object genre, especially the spookily-themed ones, of which there are a significant number. They range in complexity from the likes of Halloween Trick or Treat, with nothing but hidden object scenes and the odd mini-puzzle, to games that are almost full-on graphic adventures with more fleshed-out puzzles and inventories of collectible items. Hidden Files falls somewhere in the middle: it’s mostly hidden object stuff but you do have an inventory, although the “puzzles” involved are all extremely simple “use key on door” things. Or “use ink on printer,” in this case. Also slightly different than the norm is the interactivity of some of the scenes, such as his lab where you can open and close the drawers to reveal more objects. To finish each scene you have to clear the list and then – and only then – can  you pick up the item you actually need, which was a little annoying in this case when I immediately spotted the ink cartridge but had to spend five minutes engaging in Sully’s obsessive cleaning routines.

Now that the printer’s working, I can start assembling the “My First Big Case” scrapbook, complete with photos of the President and Jack Olsen. Olsen’s got something of a young Jeff Goldblum about him, don’t you think? Well, he did before the sudden introduction of that tree into his day.

Before Sully can start piecing the evidence together, she has to access her encrypted computer but it’s locked behind a minigame, and it’s a good example of the level of challenge and complexity you’ll be getting from the minigames in this one. Simply swap around the segments of the lines until you’ve got three continuous lines. It’s not exactly rocket science. It’s not any kind of science, honestly. What’s the easiest kind of science? GCSE geography? Even that’s more challenging than this minigame, and from my dim recollection GCSE geography was ninety percent colouring in maps and ten percent comparing rainfall charts.

The trail leads Sully to a garage near the crime scene, where she hopes to find the black pick-up truck that rammed Olsen’s car off the road. The garage also appears to be part junkyard, so at least there’s some reason for a huge pile of random crap to be laying around, unlike the squalor of the FBI offices. Nice reference to the famous “rebrum” scene from The Shining up there, too. Hang on, was it "rebrum" in the movie? Yeah, that sounds right. I know ambulances are supposed to have backwards writing on them, but this is ridiculous, ba-dum tssh.

I roused the owner of the garage – a man who looks like Ross Kemp fell asleep on a radiator – from his slumber. Unfortunately, I captured this screen shot during the blur between the two frames of his facial animation and so his mouth has taken on the disturbing appearance of a fleshy optical illusion. Go on, take a look at it and try to figure out where his top lip is. Anyway, Donny here goes back to sleep, allowing Sully to ferret around his premises. You can click on his office door and it tells you it’s very well soundproofed, which I believe is what criminal investigators call “a lucky break.”

I dunno, expensive mechanics’ tools?
I said that all the inventory-based “puzzles” are utterly brain-dead, and they are, but this one at least confused me for a moment and that’s the closest that this game gets to challenging the ol’ grey matter so I guess I’ll have to take it. The thing is, this cabinet is locked, with what appears to be a combination lock. Naive fool that I am, I assumed that I’d have to find the combination to said lock, but it turns out I had to crush a car and scoop the acid from the car’s battery into a plastic bottle and then use the acid to dissolve the lock. That’s battery acid that couldn’t melt through a Coke bottle, let me remind you. Oh well, there’s not much of a game world to wander around in – the garage consists of two screens – so I soon figured it out and managed to open the cabinet. I wonder what could be inside.

A submarine gun, huh? I always though submarines used torpedoes, but maybe that’s why I’m neither an FBI agent nor a naval officer. The presence of the underwater weaponry clues Sully into the fact that this mechanic is, in fact, completely dodgy. I know, what a shocker. She also finds some white paint, and there’s a freshly-painted white pick-up truck in the room, but that’s not quite enough evidence for Sully. She has to find some paint stripper as well, just to make sure. If it were me and I was alone in a decrepit garage with a mountain of a man who owns illegal machine guns, I’d call for back up, and possibly an exorcist just in case his weird multi-mouth wasn’t a simple animation smear. I guess Sully is just a lot braver than me.

Again, this does look like a scene that you might find in a criminal garage. Your local Kwik-Fit would surely be more organised, but here? It makes sense. I did have a lot of trouble finding the garden fork, mind you, but that’s because I was looking for a garden fork. Like a spade, but with prongs instead of a blade, that kind of thing. The only tool I’ve ever seen or heard of as being described as a garden fork, in fact. Turns out the game actually wanted me to click on the small rake hidden just under the desktop. Not to worry, there’s a button you can click that shows you where one of the items is hidden, and it recharges over time so you can keep using it which is helpful if you don’t know this difference between various garden tools. This is a problem you’ll often come across if you play a few hidden object games – the tendency for words to mean more than one thing in English. For example, I played one where I spent a long time looking for an aeroplane, only for it to turn out that “plane” meant the thing you shave wood with. Fortunately, that’s not much of a problem in Hidden Files.

Sully’s next stop is Olsen’s apartment, which has either been ransacked by intruders searching for his secret JFK files or it’s the maid’s day off.

Huh, maybe it is the maid’s day off. He’s quite the complex fellow, this Olsen. Crusader for truth, loser of no-claim bonuses, spoiler of cats. There is, naturally, a section where you have to find the CDs to play for Byzance the cat so he’ll eat his tuna flakes. If you don’t, Byzance won’t stand still long enough for you to grab the key hanging from his collar. Sadly you never get to hear what kind of music Byzance deems mandatory for mealtimes, although I’m going to assume it’s Slayer. I’ve got no evidence to back that up, but I’ve got no evidence against it, either.

There are the CDs now, carelessly left on the floor outside of their cases. Everyone’s got their own pet peeves, and one of mine is people not putting optical media back in their box. I think that’s a reasonable thing to get annoyed about, right? I know some of my CD collection probably deserves a brisk scrub with a belt sander, but that’s not the point.
More hidden object action then, and as this is 90% of Hidden Files’ gameplay I should probably talk about it. It’s... not great, to be kind. On a personal level the realistic style of the graphics is nowhere near as appealing to me as the “truck full of Halloween tat crashes into a tacky family restaurant” aesthetic of Trick or Treat or the general spookiness of any other horror-themed hidden object game.  That’s about my tastes, though, and they can safely be disregarded. However, the layout of the scenes isn’t much fun either, with a lot of items that aren’t organically hidden in the scene but are instead lightened, made semi-transparent or have their colour changed entirely. Like, sometimes you’re asked to find cherries so you’re looking around for a bit of red, but all the cherries in this game are green. You can see some on the left, list above the item list. I know green cherries are a thing, but it still doesn’t seem right to me – and then the game does the exact same thing with green strawberries. I had to use the hint button far more often than I usually have to in these kinds of game and it was very rare that I did so and then thought “oh, duh, I should have seen that.” All the scenes are reused at least twice and sometimes even three times, although the second time is usually much easier because you’ll remember where you saw half the objects the first time though.

As it happens, Olsen hid his top-secret Kennedy findings beneath a Fisher-Price puzzle of coloured lights, a sort of combination lock for the illiterate. The solution for this puzzle is on a huge painting in the middle of the same room. I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but I’m beginning to doubt Olsen’s credentials as a functioning adult, never mind someone capable of bringing the darkest secrets of the US government to light. There was no need to have him murdered, his killers could have offered him a shiny penny to stop digging and I suspect he’d have been happy.
Sully gains access to Olsen’s files despite his high-tech security measures, but there’s not much to go on: only a single fingerprint from a possible suspect. Sully seems to have reached a dead end when the fingerprint analysis (in the form of a spot-the-difference minigame) reveals it belongs to an unidentified John Doe. Well, it looks like this case is over, back to investigating the mysterious deaths of young women in rural towns populated by strange characters, or whatever it is the FBI does.

But wait! With exceptionally convenient timing, Sully receives a phone call from Erik Square, one of Olsen’s colleagues. He tells her that the man she’s looking for is named Walter Wood, but the condition for this information being shared is that Sully will protect Erik from the people who want to see the truth buried. Yeah, sure, I’m sure I can manage to protect you. Federal Bureau of Protection, that’s what FBI stands for!

Ah. I may have overestimated my protective capabilities. In my defence, if you’re in the run from hitmen then maybe you shouldn’t sit somewhere with your back to a door. Any old Tom, Dick or Humphrey Bogart impersonator could spring up and shoot you. I suppose I’d better chase after the killer, then.

Oh ho, we’ve got a bit of an action scene, have we? Action in the loosest possible sense of the word,  but an unexpected diversion none the less. The hitman pops up in random places around the screen, and you must click on him to shoot him. Shoot him ten times to clear the stage. There’s really nothing more to it: you don’t have to reload, and the hitman never fires back, perhaps being so confident in his abilities as a marksman that he only brought one bullet. It’s true to the hidden object genre, at least. You look for something and click on it. The only differences are that there's only one thing to click on and that thing appears to have time-travelled here from the 1940s.

You shot him ten times, you absolute psychopath! Did you think you were going to bring him in for questioning afterwards, maybe with a cheery joke abut how he’s one up on 50 Cent? But no, Sully uses her medical expertise to ascertain that the hitman was killed by a gunshot to the back and not, you know, those ten other bullets.

It’s not technically a smoking gun, but it’s still warm and that’s close enough. The shadowy conspirators have now started an unstoppable chain where each hitman is himself assassinated in turn, so hopefully by the time I reach the end of the game the villains will have thinned their own numbers so thoroughly that I’ll have no opposition.

Sully’s next task is to break into the CIA archives and find information about Walter Wood. She accomplishes this by sneaking through the air vents, despite there being a security camera pointed directly at the area. This is less surprising when you realise that the top-security CIA facility employs one lone guard, and he’s on break. It’s nice that they put a few plants around, though. Really brightens the place up. Keep that bamboo in mind, it’ll come in handy in a minute.

Getting though the air vents requires navigating a maze, a task made more difficult by the fact you can only see a small portion of it at a time. It’s still not hard, though, and the only notable thing about it is that the CIA air system covers roughly the same square footage as Birmingham city centre.

Here’s the reason you need bamboo: the switch for the security system is protected by a laser grid, so Sully comes up with the incredible plan to use the bamboo as a blow-pipe and spit a small pebble at the switch to deactivate it. Maybe you’re like me and you’re wondering why Sully didn’t just cut a slightly longer piece of bamboo and poke the button. My conclusion is that Sully’s kind of an idiot, but maybe you have a kinder interpretation.

Here’s the CIA lab, which is somehow even messier than the FBI’s lab and with the added danger of guns laying around all over the place. One of the items to find here is the letter C, and I was convinced it was supposed to be the C in the word “scan,” but it wasn’t. That C is merely a red herring, but that doesn’t stop it being irritating when you find an item that the game’s asked you for only for it to turn around and say “no, not that one.”

The raid on the CIA furnished me with Walter Wood’s home address, so Sully dashed straight over there to confront him, pausing only to smash his window in with a brick. Maybe you should have shot the lock ten times instead, Sully.
It was around this point that I realised you can actually use the mouse wheel to zoom in during the hidden object scenes. This made things significantly easier. I’m not bitter about struggling through the first four-fifths of the game without the zoom, certainly. A few choice expletives and I’d totally forgotten about it.

I finally caught up with Walter Wood, and he doesn’t seem to bear a grudge over me putting his window through and breaking into his house. A man who seems to be rather enjoying the life-and-death struggles over the secrets he possesses, a man who looks like the old bloke from Up if he sold his soul to Satan in exchange for success in the business world, Walter Wood simply sits in his chair while you rummage through every square inch of his house looking for the keys that unlock his safe.

Here’s where the logic behind Sully’s investigation starts to get a bit strange. Sully’s looking for the keys, and she decides that Walter would have only hidden them around the things in life he loves the most: in this case, making pottery and bonsai trees. She’s got no reason to believe this is the case, but that’s not going to stop her going on a Zelda-style rampage and smashing every pot she sees – after finding all the matching pairs, of course. Amazingly, this line of inquiries seems to be correct and Walter did indeed hide one of the keys in his pot, presumably dropping it in there while trying to recreate that scene from Ghost.

Then there’s the key hidden under this bonsai tree, which brings me to something that infuriates me about a great many of these hidden object games. On a surprisingly regular basis, there’ll be a puzzle where something’s hidden in the dirt and it needs digging up… but your character will point-blank refuse to dig without the use of a tool. You have a tool, you plum. Two of them, even! What, are you worried you’re going to ruin your manicure? It’s loose soil, not drunken scorpions with anger-management issues, get your bloody hands in there.

The hidden object scenes also reach their nadir in this area, when you’re asked to find sticks of chalk that have been placed on white backgrounds. It’s a good thing this is right at the end of the game, if this had been one of the first scene I doubt I would have continued. I would accept some argument that this, in fact, is not actually a good thing and I could have used my short time on this Earth more constructively.

After all that, I got the tape. It reveals that some unknown person was involved with maybe having JFK killed, not even giving away the identity of this John Doe. It’s not something that would hold up in court, and so the game ends on a rather underwhelming note. The President burns the recording in his waste-paper bin, revealing the White House's rather lax spproach to installing smoke alarms. Sully, for her part, simply leaves. She doesn’t have an opinion on the situation, or if she does she doesn’t say anything about it.

The game ends with the President deciding to keep everything covered up, reasoning that the American people aren’t ready for the truth. Not that there’s much truth to go at, really, and everything flops into an unsatisfying conclusion that left me feeling like I’d missed something, like there should be an extra chapter or something. I don’t think there is, though, and so I’m going to say that’s the end of Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK.

Now that I’ve become something of a hidden object game connoisseur – a title I never asked for but will bear with solemn dignity – I’m going to proclaim that Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK is not a particularly good example of the genre. It’s not that appealing visually, the hidden object scenes are sometimes constructed in a way that’s irritating and the minigames are utterly pointless in their simplicity (although a couple of them do at least have the feel of actual law enforcement work to them.) It’s not terrible, though, and I don’t regret playing it. It’s dumb enough to be entertaining, and I do genuinely find hidden object scenes very relaxing to play. One interesting thing is that there are facts about JFK scattered around on each screen and as far as I can tell they’re all pretty accurate, so you can learn something about a great historical figure while you play. Ironically, that makes this game more educational than the Sesame Street game I wrote about.

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