16/10/2018

GHOUL PATROL (SNES)

And now, the videogame equivalent of returning to a place where you spent many happy childhood holidays only to find it a little run-down, with some of the fondly-remembered attractions shuttered and replaced by chain restaurants, the bitter-sweet tang of nostalgia tightening in your throat. It’s LucasArts’ 1994 SNES game Ghoul Patrol!


I’m not sure what they were going for with that title. Is it supposed to rhyme? Surely not, then it’d be Ghoul Patrool. Is it a monstrous spin on School Patrol and we’re going to be playing as an undead lollipop lady? No, it’s not that either. But it does contain the world “ghoul” and there are flaming skulls on the title screen so at least we know it’s suitable for the Halloween Spooktacular.


The first thing to do after hitting start is to select your character. You’ve got a choice of monster-slaying teens: the crossbow-wielding and sensibly-dressed Julie, or Zeke, a hunchback carrying a piece of scaffolding. These plucky young heroes might look familiar to you, and that’s because Zeke and Julie were also the stars of the wonderful 16-bit run-n-gun classic and supremely Halloween-y game Zombies Ate My Neighbors. That’s right, Ghoul Patrol is a sequel to Zombies Ate My Neighbors, just without the Zombies Ate My Neighbors name. I bloody love ZAMN, so hopefully Ghoul Patrol will scratch the same itch.


One thing that Ghoul Patrol has that Zombies Ate My Neighbors didn’t is a story. Okay, so ZAMN obviously did have a story, but it was conveyed simply and effectively by the game being called “Zombies Ate My Neighbors.” What I mean is that Ghoul Patrol has something resembling a plot, beginning with Zeke and Julie checking out an exhibition about ghosts and demons at their local library. My local library just has books, and DVDs for rent that are too scratched to watch nine times out of ten. I’m kinda jealous.


The exhibit contains a floating magical grimoire inscribed with an incantation for summoning demons. In a real Ash-from-The-Evil-Dead moment, Zeke reads the incantation out loud and hey, that’s how you end up on a ghoul patrol. Having already suffered through one neighbour-eating adventure, Zeke and Julie know that ghosts, vampires, werewolves and maniacal, murderous children’s dolls are all real things that exist, so you’d think they’d be a bit more careful around the evil monster-summoning tomes. That said, they did repel the previous monster invasion by using water pistols and throwing cutlery, so perhaps they figure they’ve got it covered.


The demon king lays out his plan to conquer all of the “time dimensions,” so it looks like Ghoul Patrol is going to see our heroes travelling to the past. It was nice of the demon king to tell us this, wasn’t it? Mind you, he’s been locked in that chest for hundreds of years so he’s probably just desperate for any kind of conversation.


There are no time shenanigans at the very beginning of the game, and the first stage takes place in the very library in which the kids meddled with dark cosmic forces. Right from the off it’s clear that Ghoul Patrol is very much the same kind of game as its predecessor – a top-down shooter where your goal is to escape each stage by rescuing all the survivors. There’s a survivor over on the right, the old man in the rocking chair. You start with ten survivors, and once you’ve saved them all the exit door opens up and you can move on. The twist is that that the survivors can also be killed by the monsters that roam each level, and if all the survivors are killed it’s game over. Oh, and the number of dead survivors carries over between stages so if, for instance, you saved seven out of the ten survivors but three of them died, you’d start the next stage with only seven available survivors. This isn’t much of a problem early on, when the monsters are still warming up and aren’t quite ready to begin feasting upon the flesh of the living, so we can take a moment to get used to controlling our chosen monster fighter.


One area where Ghoul Patrol does differ from Zombies Ate My Neighbors is the range of movement options at your disposal. In ZAMN all you could really do was walk and swim, and the swimming was basically walking but underwater. In Ghoul Patrol, however, you can walk and even run by holding down the attack button a la Super Mario, you can jump and you’ve got a slide move that comes in handy for avoiding attacks. The fact that you can jump is a bit worrying, because ZAMN was perfectly fine without it and my fear is that Ghoul Patrol will start introducing jumping puzzles later in the game, but for now it’s mostly used to hopping onto desks to collect items.


As promised by the ghosts and demons exhibit, here’s a ghost and a demon. The ghost is surely of the same genealogical line as Slimer from Ghostbusters, while the demon is a traditional pitchfork-poking imp with the ability to launch a trail of hellfire along the ground. The other enemies in this stage include flying books and possessed photocopiers, so it’s not exactly the most coherent theme. I’m okay with that, though, and so far the monsters have looked pretty neat. I’m especially fond of the formation-flying hordes of oversized eyeballs that form into spinning circles. I admire both their precision flying skills and the courage they must possess to attack someone armed with a crossbow. It’s difficult to think of a more terrifying weapon for an eyeball to face. Boudoir photography of Nigel Farage, possibly.


Save everybody in the library and it’s on to the city streets for the next stage, where there are indeed zombies and the people they’re trying to eat are presumably someone’s neighbours. That “save me!” text bubble isn’t emanating from the zombie, by the way. No, their decomposing bodies don’t still contain a fragment of their pre-death personalities, a sliver of humanity that is fully aware of the monster they’ve become. That’s pro-zombie propaganda. The text is coming from a nearby survivor that needs rescuing, and the speech bubbles appear from the direction they’re located in so you can track them down. ZAMN had a little radar instead. It was much more useful.


Other foes on this stage include green, bin-dwelling monsters that clearly deserve the epithet “The Grouch” more than certain other Muppets. Oh, and cars. You can get hit by a car. They’re not evil cars or anything. No Christines here, I’m afraid.
You can’t shoot the cars, but obviously the other monsters need to be slain and so we come to Ghoul Patrol’s selection of weapons. In short, they’re rubbish. Just super disappointing. You’ve always got a crossbow that has infinite ammo and fires a weak, fairly short range projectile. You can also find a  gun that fires slightly more powerful pellets in a straight line, a laser that shoots moderately powerful projectiles in a straight line, a homing blaster with projectiles that never seem to head towards the thing you want to kill and a mortar that fires projectiles in an upwards arc and is therefore completely useless against monsters that are close to you.


This selection represents such a downgrade from Zombies Ate My Neighbors’ arsenal that I had a genuine “wait, really?” reaction. ZAMN had a wide range of weapons that were both comical and charming and had plenty of utility, from crucifixes that surrounded you with a monster-slaying aura or bazookas that could knock down walls to stacks of plates and weed-whackers. They helped sell the game as two kids fighting off monsters in their neighbourhood with whatever they could find, a feeling that is completely absent from Ghoul Patrol’s characterless, generic weapons. The sequel also removes the concept of certain monsters being weak to specific weapons; for example, ZAMN’s silver cutlery killed werewolves in one hit, and just like in the movies the blobs were vulnerable to the cold of the popsicles. There’s none of that in Ghoul Patrol as far as I could tell, and as a result there’s little reason to pick one weapon over another – don’t use the crossbow unless you have to, and otherwise just use whatever weapon you have the most ammo for.


Ghoul Patrol also excises some of ZAMN’s special items, like the screen-clearing Pandora’s Box and the inflatable decoy clowns. I know, we’re all disappointed that we won’t be seeing a chainsaw maniac attack a blow-up clown, but on the plus side the potion that temporarily transforms your character into an invincible monster did make the transition. In ZAMN you became a hulking purple creature but in Ghoul Patrol the potions transform you into Death itself. That is quite an upgrade, and it’s nice to finally see something in Ghoul Patrol that I can confidently say improves upon ZAMN. As the Grim Reaper you can fly around, taking out monsters with your scythe and generally enjoying feeling powerful for a change, although conceptually it makes little sense – surely Death would hold no dominion over undead creatures like ghosts and zombies? Can’t argue with Death taking out a flying eyeball, mind.


The next two stages play out very similarly, and they take place in a hotel and an apartment building respectively so they look quite similar too. The main purpose of these stages, especially the hotel, seems to be to cause you to waste as many keys as possible because half the rooms have multiple, redundant, locked doors. It took me a while to realise that to make progress you have to climb out of an exterior window and make your way around the ledge on the outside of the building, which ended up being more nerve-wracking than any number of monsters because you can’t defeat gravity with a crossbow.


Then there’s a boss. Considering this is a horror-themed game I’m surprised that said boss is a big police robot. I was expecting a large ghost or a huge demon or, if the developers were feeling especially cheeky, a skyscraper-scaling off-brand marshmallow monster. But no, we get a robot cop. It’s got a badge and a siren on its head, and it likes to stomp around a lot. This is where your slide move comes in handy, because it’s good for getting out of the way when the robot tries to jump on you. The boss fights are also the best place to use up all your mortar ammunition, because they’re so big that you don’t have to worry about your shots arcing over them. However, my top tip is to use a Grim Reaper potion and lay into the boss with your scythe. Standing inside the boss’s sprite and pressing the attack button until it explodes might sound boring, but honestly it’s no less interesting that sliding back and forth and getting a few shots in where you can and it’s a hell of a lot faster.


With Officer Tincan taken care of – and we can safely assume he was one day away from retirement anyway – the “time dimension” part of the game kicks in and our heroes are transported to a time and place that the game’s manual calls Ancient China. It’s packed with lots of famously Chinese things, like samurai warriors, geisha and trees with pink blossoms. Hmm. The stages in Ancient China are a little more open than the urban levels and consequently play better, giving you more room to avoid the skeleton samurai and the floating monks. You really want to avoid the skeleton samurai in particular, because if they get close enough to attack then they’ll “stick” to you until you destroy them. This is a common tactic of the game’s more powerful enemies, and it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by a swarm of monsters. It’d be nice if your attacks pushed enemies back a bit, but c’est la vie.


The Chinese levels are quite good fun on the whole, and I’ve done a lot of complaining about Ghoul Patrol so far but it is a decent little game for the most part. Roaming around the levels and fighting hideous creatures? It’s fine. Maybe slightly better than fine, especially because you can transform into a Grim Reaper. However, one thing that absolutely will not stand is that the game includes these big gongs and you can’t interact with them. Why would you do that? If I become the physical embodiment of the inescapable end and I hit a gong with my scythe I expect a “bong” sound at the very least.


Some nice graphics, though. I especially like these little scenes painted on the walls of the buildings, and there’s a lot of detail in all of the game’s backgrounds, so there’s plenty of opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing.


The boss here is a sword-wielding demon warrior with an interesting look, and that look is “action figure from a poorly-received toy line that a kid threw away because its legs fell off.” Naturally you don’t want to be standing in front of this thing for too long, because that’s a big sword and frankly I had trouble figuring out exactly where its hitbox was. Oh, and it can throw shurikens around, too. Fortunately I’ve been saving up Grim Reaper potions. The other option would be to fight it properly, which I wouldn’t recommend because this (and every other) boss in the game has far, far too much health, turning the fight into a gruelling slog even if you do figure out an optimal non-potion strategy. Even if the bosses had their health pools reduced by seventy-five percent that’d still be too much goddamn health.


Yo ho ho, it’s a pirate-themed world next. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not totally on-board with pirates as part of the Halloween season, but there are also zombies clawing out of their graves in search of tender human flesh, so it all balances out. Watch out for those graves, by the way.  Whoever dug them must have had a very large shovel and a five-gallon drum of Red Bull, because they’re actually bottomless pits that’ll kill you if you fall down them.


Naturally there are some thematically appropriate new enemies here on Undead Pirate Island, most notably these, erm, undead pirates. They’re this game’s equivalent of ZAMN’s chainsaw maniacs, I suppose, in that they take a bunch of hits to knock down and then they might get back up again anyway – except you don’t have anything as interesting as the bazooka or the fire extinguisher to deal with them. Maybe I won’t deal with them. I ain’t Jim Hawkins over here, I don’t need this hassle. I’ll just hop into the water and swim to my destination!


Ah. This could have gone better. Now, Halloween sharks? That I can get behind. I know sharks are unfairly vilified and their mass slaughter is a real ecological issue, but slap a witch’s hat on them or fill their mouths with a sack of plastic vampire fangs and we could be looking at the breakout star of this year’s Halloween season.


In the final stage of this world you board a pirate ship, which is less interesting than it sounds although admittedly it’s rare to see a pirate ship with rugs on the floors. I hope they’ve put something under those rugs to stop them slipping, getting around on a pirate ship must be hard enough when the seas are rough and you’ve got a stick for a leg.
You can see the stage exit in the screenshot above, and it’s time for Ghoul Patrol to once again be compared negatively to its predecessor. In ZAMN, once you rescue all the survivors the exit appears right next to you. In Ghoul Patrol, the exit door appears… somewhere. You have to track it down in the same way you do with the survivors, and if your last rescue was at the opposite side of the map to where the exit appears then you’ve got a pointless, health and ammo-draining trek across the stage to find it. Let’s just add this fact to the increasingly long list of baffling changes from the original game, shall we?


Yet more undead pirates with the boss, a large undead pirate. Does he shoot at you with his gun and slash at you with his hook? Yes. Should you use the same strategy as the previous boss battles? Also yes. Does he look suspiciously like LeChuck from the cover art of Monkey Island 2? Wow, three yeses in a row.


A medieval world of castles and magical knights is next. Finally, my crossbow makes sense! Nice of the game to place a knight that needs rescuing up on that parapet, a place that I can’t possibly reach before that demon knight kills him. That’s helpful. I suppose the saving grace is that every dead survivor makes the following stage quicker to complete.


I want these stages to be quicker to complete. The more I play of Ghoul Patrol, the more its idiosyncrasies frustrate and annoy me. Take the doorways in this castle, for example. They’re not bloody big enough! Sure, you can fit through them, but you have to line yourself up far more precisely than you’d expect or you won’t pass though, slowing down the gameplay and leaving you vulnerable to being nibbled to death by hovering skulls because Zeke is acting like a dog with a big stick in its mouth trying to get through a hole in a fence. If the doorways were slightly larger it wouldn’t be an issue, and it’s not like the challenge of the game should hinge upon it being hard to get through doors.


Even simple movement is grating on my nerves at this point, with your character feeling sluggish and slow to respond. I think they’re supposed to have momentum, but it doesn’t quite feel right. I suspect those potions contain the essence of the Grim Reaper and half a litre of vodka. That’d go some way to explaining it. I did wonder whether it was an unconscious bias and maybe ZAMN handled in the same way but nope, I went and checked and ZAMN’s controls are pin-sharp. What is going on with you, Ghoul Patrol? I had such high hopes for you, but you’re turning out to be a real disappointment. Oh Christ, now I know how my parents feel.


Another day, another boss without legs. I assume they’re all legless so you can see your character when they’re hovering above you, but it does lend them all the appearance of pieces from an extremely ugly chess set. This undead knight has brought a shield with him so, like, don’t shoot him in the shield. That’s what he wants.
If I’m starting to get a bit weary of Ghoul Patrol’s regular gameplay, then I am one hundred percent done with the boss battles. They’re all boring, over-long iterations on the same theme, testing not the player’s skill but their ability to collect magic potions. Get back to scaring people away from an old amusement park, you Scooby-Doo reject.


The final world – and by world I mean one stage and the final boss – is set in Hell. The manual calls  it by the rather inelegant name “Ghosts and Demon World” but yeah, it’s Hell. Tortured prisoners, spike pits, jumping sections where the punishingly ugly background makes it difficult to see where you’re jumping to; yep, looks like Hell to me.


There’s an H. R. Giger-inspired look to the backgrounds, because of course there is. Giger is surely up there with Henry Ford when it comes to influencing what people think Hell would look like. This isn’t a complaint, because this stage is more interesting to look at than the pirate ship or the castle, and I’d have liked to see more of it even if it does represent a departure from the colourful, kitschy style that helped make ZAMN so much fun. That’s Ghoul Patrol’s problem, really – it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to break away from its predecessor or not. I think it would have been a more interesting game had it done its own thing – at the very least, it would have minimised unflattering comparisons to ZAMN.


Holy crap, a boss with legs! All the better to stomp you with, and the Demon Lord does like to stomp. Like all self-respecting demons, the big bad can breath fire and has a face that could proudly grace any eighties heavy metal album cover, although it must have a hard time buying hats. Can you tell I’m struggling for anything interesting to say about this? Nice, uh, loincloth, I guess. Thank you for sparing us the sight of the lil’ demon. Don’t you have a Warhammer 40,000 battle to get back to? I’m just going to turn into the Grim Reaper and perform a scythe-based hamstringectomy, then we can all get back to our regular lives. Sound good? Good.


The Demon Lord is once again sealed away in the chest / grimoire – the game isn’t really clear on which – and Ghoul Patrol has come to an end. Zeke is hungry, or so says the caption. Read that text again and tell me you’re not imagining Zeke saying it in the voice of someone awkwardly reading off a teleprompter. And, erm, that’s it. If you too want to be transported to a world of excitement and adventure, visit your local library! For books, I mean, not demon portals.


Okay, so Ghoul Patrol is a slightly-above-average SNES run-n-gunner. I am opposed to the very concept of numerical review scores and I don’t really consider VGJunk articles to be reviews anyway, but Ghoul Patrol is a six out of ten. The controls are a bit awkward, the weapons are dull and the stages are often annoyingly laid out, but when you get into the groove on one of the better stages it’s a perfectly acceptable monster-splattering adventure. The problem with Ghoul Patrol is that there’s no need to play it, because it is inferior to Zombies Ate My Neighbors in every way. I suppose you could argue that the graphics are more technically accomplished and finely detailed and therefore “better,” but personally I prefer the cleaner look and more characterful sprites of ZAMN. The gameplay is definitely worse, though. Slower, less interesting, more heavily focussed on key collecting, terrible boss battles: it just doesn’t reach the same heights as ZAMN. The soundtrack isn’t nearly as good either, but that one’s more understandable because personally I think ZAMN has one of the best and most overlooked soundtracks on the SNES. The biggest issue for me, however, is that Ghoul Patrol just doesn’t have that same sense of fun that pervades ZAMN, that wacky B-movie atmosphere is watered down for a series of fairly generic city / medieval / pirate worlds, like a 16-bit version of The Crystal Maze. Maybe I’m being too harsh on it, though. It does let you play as Death, after all. Now we just need a spin-off game where you can become Dracula’s close friend and confidante.


When I covered Zombies Ate My Neighbors it scored a full ten out of ten on the Halloween-O-Meter, because it’s a game where you fight pretty much every famous Halloween monster except witches. The same cannot be said for Ghoul Patrol, but it does have zombies, ghosts and floating skulls, so scoring it anything less than an eight would probably be unfair. It could so easily have been a ten, though. A pumpkin here and there, maybe a boss that was a Frankenstein with no legs. Ah, what could have been.

12/10/2018

CRUEL GAMES: RED RIDING HOOD (PC)

I was going to say that playing spooky hidden object games has become a Halloween tradition of mine, but that’d be a lie. I play spooky hidden object games all year round. They are my videogame equivalent of a nice warm bath: soothing, relaxing and not very deep. They do fit nicely into the Halloween Spooktacular, though, so here’s a tale of serial killers, graveyards and garden gnomes - it’s Skywind Games and Alawar’s 2012 PC click-em-up Cruel Games: Red Riding Hood!

(click for larger images)

This all looks pretty spooky, right? Cobwebs, porcelain dolls, bloody handprints, it’s hardly the friendliest work station in the office. The surveillance equipment and long lens photographs offer some clues as to the game’s theme, as we shall see. But why did I decide to cover Cruel Games: Red Riding Hood rather than any of the hundreds of other spooky hidden object games out there, or even the dozens of spooky hidden object games that I actually own? There’s no reason, honestly. It’s the luck of the draw. I reached into the metaphorical bucket of hidden object games and pulled out one about a young woman investigating a terrible mystery by rummaging through piles of miscellaneous objects and solving very simple inventory puzzles. I mean, of course that’s what I ended up with. That description covers about ninety-five percent of this genre.


Oh that Maniac the Storyteller, always on the prowl, staging elaborate murders with a fairytale theme. The top-right picture shows someone killed by a (presumably) poisoned apple, so that’ll be Snow White, and at the bottom-left you’ve got poor old Cinderella, beaten to death with a glass slipper. Or a Pyrex slipper, at least. You’d think you’d need the extra durability. This convenient exposition newspaper is sitting on the table of our protagonist, a young lady who goes unnamed, as far as I’m aware. She’s just returned home from a date with her boyfriend Kevin, when suddenly an ominous voice begins to speak to her…


Wow, I bet The Storyteller couldn’t believe his luck when he was out looking for potential fairytale murder victims and he spotted someone dressed as Red Riding Hood. That’s, like, half the prep done already! The other half is wrestling a live wolf into a grandmother’s clothes.
Kevin has been kidnapped as bait, in order to lure Red Riding Hood to the cemetery on the edge of town. She must really like this Kevin fella, because she doesn’t stop to call the police or anything; she just hops straight into her car and gets going.


Just as she arrives, a dog jumps out into the road, causing Red to swerve to a halt. The dog then steals her car keys. No, bad dog, down. The Storyteller must have sprung for obedience lessons, too. This seems like a lead we should tell the cops about, get them to check all the nearby dog training schools for suspicious characters, but there’s no time for that now. Red is all alone at the cemetery with no wheels and a well-trained guard dog watching her from behind the graveyard gate, and that’s when the game begins.


I called Red Riding Hood a hidden object game, but that’s not really accurate. There are hidden object scenes, but they only make up about thirty percent of the gameplay, with the rest involving travelling around the various screens of the game, solving puzzles that are either actual, you know, puzzles, or are inventory-based roadblocks that are solved by using the correct item in the correct place. For example, here we need to get the car keys back from the dog because if the dog then takes the car out joyriding and crashes it there’s no way the insurance company is going to accept “a dog stole my keys” on the claim form. You might notice that there’s a big, juicy bone right in front of the dog, so you pick that up and then give it to the dog. The dog then drops the keys but they’re out of reach behind the gate, so you have to rummage in the bushes until you find a long stick that can reach the keys. Congratulations, you’ve solved the first of Red Riding Hood’s many, many extremely simple inventory puzzles.


Waiting in the boot of your car is the first of the game’s hidden object scenes, and I’m sure you know how this works. Check the list of items at the bottom of the screen, find said items in the jumbled mess of Red’s absolutely filthy car and click on them. Once you’ve found them all the scene is completed and you’re rewarded with a useful item – in this case, some bolt cutters you can use to get through the cemetery gate. I know the list says “wire cutters,” but it means the bolt cutters. Red refused to take either the crowbar or the knife, apparently feeling very confident in her hand-to-hand combat abilities in the event of a serial killer attack. Let’s also hope no-one ever rear-ends her car, because between the can of petrol and the gas canister there’d be little left but a burning crater.


The Storyteller peeks out of the abandoned church’s doorway, perhaps suddenly concerned that Red wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get through the locked gate. “What if the dog runs away with the keys? All my elaborate planning will be wasted, countless hours spent watching all the Saw movies all for naught! Oh no, wait, there she is.”
I’m not going to show you every little thing that happens in Cruel Games: Red Riding Hood, because this article would take forever to finish if I did. Instead we’ll be looking at some highlights, one of which is the background art. It’s definitely got the Halloween mood now that we’re into the cemetery, even if the game doesn’t have an outright Halloween theme. You can’t go wrong with crumbling tombstones and dilapidated churches, really.


For whatever reason, part of The Storyteller’s sinister plan involves Red collecting a bunch of extremely ugly garden gnomes. This one looks like a wizard that fell face-first onto a belt sander. The purpose of these gnomes will become apparent later in the game, but until then let’s hope there’s a puzzle where I need to frighten a small child because I’ve got that covered.


Like the protagonist of almost every spooky hidden object game I’ve ever played, Red responds to being placed in a nightmarish life-or-death struggle by becoming extremely fussy about cleanliness. Here, for example, she refuses to wipe away some cobwebs with her bare hands. This means I have to spend fifteen minutes searching for a rag because Red doesn’t think to use the sleeve of her coat or a handful of leaves or something. It could at least have had venomous spiders all over it or something, and a solution that involve fashioning a crude flamethrower.


Here’s an example of one of Red Riding Hood’s non-inventory-based puzzles, where you have to play Beethoven’s Fur Elise on a church organ. Well, seven notes of Fur Elise, anyway. I’m no classical music expert, but I don’t think that’s the entire composition. It’s not a terrible puzzle, and it comes down to trial-and-error as you test each key and try to remember what order they go in – and if you’re not enjoying it, you can wait a minute or so and then skip the puzzle entirely. My problem with it is that it’s yet another example of the piano / keyboard / organ being the only kind of instrument that gets to be a puzzle in videogames. I know keyboards are basically rows of buttons so it makes sense, but surely we can mix it up a little? Brass instruments also have keys. I want a puzzle where you open a secret passageway by playing Flight of the Bumblebee on a tuba.


Having made it into the crypt, Red uncovers a terrifying sight: Kevin has been transformed into a wooden mannequin! Or it’s a mannequin dressed in Kevin’s clothes. That seems more likely, actually. There are also directions to a motel room. Red still refuses to involve law enforcement. Maybe it’s because I’m a coward, but I think I’d declare Kevin a lost cause at this point.


Red’s got more gumption than me, however, and she drives to the motel. Her bad luck with cars strikes once again as she immediately gets a flat tyre when she arrives, so for the time being we’re stuck in this dreary, run-down motel in the middle of nowhere – a situation that might be even more upsetting than the whole game-playing serial murderer thing.


The motel area is more expansive than I was expecting, with plenty of different screens to scour for useful items and garden gnomes. Thankfully you can travel between the different areas by selecting them from the map rather than having to walk between them. It’s a welcome time-saver, as is the exclamation point that shows you which screens have an active objective available.


My favourite puzzle in this area is the self-appointed guardian of the biker bar, who won’t let you in unless you’re wearing something made of black leather. George RR Martin here is pretty relaxed about the whole thing, and he doesn’t specify so presumably any black leather item will do. Should have taken your driving gloves out of the car, Red. Also, I know it’s supposed to be a filthy biker dive but you’d think the Hell’s Angels would have something to say about someone coming in and writing threatening messages in blood on the walls. Having said that, The Storyyteller did appear to be wearing a leather jacket so I guess he can do as he pleases.


The item you need is this leather jacket, which you’ll find in this hidden object scene. Not that it’s exactly “hidden,” is it? The hidden object scenes in Red Riding Hood aren’t bad, overall. They skew towards the easier end of the spectrum, but they don’t use the bullshit tricks of the less competent examples of the genre like changing items to be unnatural colours or making them semi-transparent. A something of a connoisseur of these things, he says as he accepts his fate as a sad, lonely person, I’d say Red Riding Hood’s hidden object scenes are bang in the middle in terms of challenge and not being frustrating nonsense.



What else is going on around the motel? Well, the key to the room snapped off in the lock, and the motel owner refuses to fix it unless you pay him. It’s a shame this guy isn’t voice acted, because there’s no way he wouldn’t have the thick New Jersey accent of a rarely-seen soldier in Tony Soprano’s crew. It turns out that you have to pay this guy by winning the jackpot of the fruit machine in the biker bar, and walking into this guy’s office and saying “oh, you want paying? Here’s your goddamn money!” before pouring a sack full of twenty pence coins all over his desk feels like a fitting revenge for his pettiness.


Red really hates touching cobwebs. The worst thing about this scene is that I own an identical-looking feather duster, and seeing it here made me look around and realise that shit, I should really do some dusting. I went to get my feather duster, and it had cobwebs on it. Is that irony? I think that’s irony. Or slovenliness.


One thing I’ll give Cruel Games: Red Riding Hood genuine praise for is Red’s journal. You can bring it up whenever you like, and not only does it keep track of your various objectives and the clues you’ve uncovered, it’s also full of these charming little doodles. This is obviously the best page of the lot, because that’s definitely supposed to be a picture of Mulder and Scully, right? Well, Mulder, anyway. The other agent’s face is so lightly sketched that it could be anyone. I also appreciate that Red took the time to celebrate gaining membership to the yacht blue by drawing a gift-wrapped yacht. Oh, hey, I’ve been calling her Red but it says right there that her name is Alice Burnheart. I think I’ll stick with Red, I feel like we’ve established enough of a rapport for a nickname to be appropriate.


Wow, Jason Voorhees really isn’t trying any more, is he? I know horror remakes are rarely better than the originals, but this is ridiculous.
By this point in the game, Red’s goal is to get a yacht working so she can travel across some water to an abandoned casino that The Storyteller is using as a hideout. To this end you have to explore a spooky lighthouse, brave an unnerving jetty and look through, erm, an evil telescope? No, wait, it’s just a normal telescope. It doesn’t even have boot polish smeared around the eyepiece, what a wasted opportunity. Don’t forget to grab the baseball bat that the bootleg Jason is holding. You’ll need it to smash through the yacht’s window so you can get inside. Red was carrying a hammer earlier, but she discarded it after fixing a broken ladder. Oh well, hindsight is twenty-twenty and all that.


The mission to steal a yacht is, I’m sad to say, by far the least spooky segment of the game. What do yachts make you think of? That’s right: sunny beaches, wealthy jackasses in polo shirts, Duran Duran videos. None of those things are especially frightening, and in general I’d say it’s quite difficult for a yacht to be spooky. Could have chucked a few pumpkins in there or something, though.


Here we are at the abandoned casino / French ch√Ęteau. I don’t know whether that carriage is supposed to be part of The Storyteller’s whole fairytale theme or if the Casino was themed around the French aristocracy, but the same kind of gameplay awaits us here as in the rest of the game.


“Here at Storyteller’s Discount Mannequin Emporium, we’re Mad, Mad, Mad about Mannequins! Come on down this Saturday for our Maniacal Mannequin Madness event: fifty percent off all mannequins, free ice cream for the kids and the chance to meet our mascot, a mannequin with a crudely-carved human skull for a face! You’d be a real dummy to miss it! Disclaimer: we do not sell dummies, only mannequins.”


I know in almost any game with inventory puzzles you’re going to get some that test the boundaries of logic and that to keep pointing out those inconsistencies leaves one open to accusations of fun-sucking pedantry, but Red Riding Hood is now definitively taking the piss. You need the item behind this glass case. There’s a hammer on the goddamn cabinet. The solution is to find a screwdriver and carefully remove the screws. Okay, sure, whatever.


“Daft inventory puzzles” is simply the nature of the genre, and me complaining about them isn’t going to change a genre that is absolutely set in stone. The vast majority of hidden object games play out in the same way, with puzzles that rarely get more complicated than “oh, I’ve found a key, maybe I should use it on that lock I just saw.” Sometime the key is an earthworm and the lock is an aggressive bird guarding a jewel or what-have-you, but you get the idea. Red Riding Hood doesn’t do too bad a job of this aspect of the gameplay I suppose. The biggest issue is that so many usable items are thrown at you that it’s easy to forget what you’ve collected, an issue that is completely negated by the map telling you where any solvable puzzles are located.
I’m in it solely for the hidden object scenes, if I’m honest. I just enjoy them, is all. I’ve yet to come across a hidden object game that matches the purity of both concept and theme found in Halloween Trick or Treat, but for messing about for an hour or two at the price of about seventy-nine pence Cruel Games: Red Riding Hood is perfectly fine. I just wish it had more hidden object scenes. I am aware that I am an outlier on this point.


A quick check online tells me that a life-sized artist’s mannequin costs in the region of one thousand dollars. Wedding dresses ain’t cheap, either. This tells me that The Storyteller is wealthy enough to be described as “eccentric” rather than “insane” during the reporting on his court case.


Here’s yet another example of a hidden object game where the main character must have recently treated themselves to an expensive manicure – this pot of standard dirt is an impassable obstacle until you find a trowel to dig with. This exact same scenario popped up in the conspiracy-themed hidden object game Echoes of JFK and I’m sure I’ve seen it in at least one other HOG I’ve played recently, too. Let’s hope The Storyteller hasn’t already buried Kevin in a shallow grave or he’ll be in real trouble.


Then Red (literally) stumbles over a tranquillizer gun that someone has shoved under a rug. I’ll take it - it’s about time I had a bit of luck.


Do you think the Red Riding Hood doll has an inferiority complex about being placed alongside these Disney superstars? Frankly I’m surprised that the developers were willing to pay for the license to use actual Disney characters, wow, that must have been expensive!


Ah, I see, the creepy garden gnomes represent the seven dwarves, although they all appear to be Grumpy. And the one on the middle-right is clearly Gary Busey. The gnomes are the keys that unlock the final door to The Storyteller’s lair, and after solving all the puzzles and clicking on all the hidden objects, it’s time to confront the maniac himself.


I have given Red some stick for her strange priorities and the fussiness that saw her apply only very specific items to each problem she faced, but her character is entirely redeemed in the final scene: with no hesitation or attempt at establishing a dialogue, she whips out the tranquillizer gun and shoots The Storyteller right in the back. That proactive, that is.


It’s Kevin, unconscious and resting in an elaborate coffin. All that’s left is to wave some ammonia under his nose and we’ll be free of this fairytale nightmare. I’m sure Red’s already thinking about heading back to that biker bar for a celebratory drink, maybe going out for another spin in that yacht she nicked. She's a rebel, a renegade.


But wait – it turns out that Kevin was the killer all along! Who could have seen this plot twist coming, in a game with only two named characters? I was certainly caught by surprise. No, I’m being sarcastic. So who did Red just shoot? If you said “a mannequin,” then congratulations, you’ve been playing attention.


Luckily, Red still has the tranquillizer gun. Probably should have checked that before you started menacing her, Kev. Red shoots her erstwhile boyfriend again, he slumps to the ground, presumably ruing his decision to sweep the gun under a rug rather than tidying up properly, and Cruel Games: Red Riding Hood draws to a close.
I think I’ve already covered how I feel about this one during the course of the article, but here’s a summary: it’s okay. The hidden object scenes aren’t bad, although they could do with being more numerous and maybe a little more taxing. The minigames and inventory puzzles are, again, okay. Personally I found Red’s reluctance to keep hold of items or touch cobwebs endearingly dumb rather than annoying or “unimmersive,” and it was a glitch-free, coherent experience. That’s not always a given with these hidden object games, let me tell you.


Oh, and there’s one final twist when a nurse brings Red a big teddy bear while she’s recuperating in hospital. It seems that The Storyteller is still out there, biding his time, waiting for a chance to once again terrify the helpless by infringing on Disney copyrights. If Cruel Games: Red Riding Hood does get a sequel, I will probably play it. I’m not sure whether that’s an endorsement of this game or just a reflection on me personally.


A tricky one for the Halloween-O-Meter to rate, because it’s spookosity levels vary so wildly from area to area. It gets a seven as sort of an average, because while the graveyard and the casino definitely have that Halloween flavour there’s nothing scary about a marina besides the fees they charge to park your yacht.

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