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The game begins with a chat from this guy, who introduces Sinister City as being “a behind-the-scenes look at my latest blockbuster: Count Dracula’s Treasures!” Right out of the gate, Sinister City sets up an unusual meta-narrative situation where the events of the game are part of a movie… or rather, they’re about the making of a movie, and also about the star-crossed love that exists between John, our protagonist, and Nina. To claim John and Nina’s passion rivals that of the most classic romantic characters is patently not true, but it’s a statement that makes sense when you consider that we’re talking about someone who’s trying to promote an upcoming movie.
We’ll be controlling John for the duration of the game, helping him on his quest to locate Nina, who has gone missing. The trail has lead him to Sinister City – which, as far as I can tell, is the actual name of the city – and a dingy hotel on the outskirts of town.
Sinister City has eschewed the genre’s usual “protagonist’s point-of-view” approach to the graphics, instead opting for pre-rendered backgrounds with polygonal characters on top. Literally on top, in some cases, and you can see John hovering in front of the hotel in a way that does little to ground him in the game world.
Here’s John up close, looking relatively normal at first glance. However, closer inspection reveals that he seems to be missing his front teeth, and what’s going on with that casual shirt and tie combination? John has the air of an unsuccessful but tolerated host on a hospital radio station, someone who makes a bit of extra cash on the side by DJing wedding receptions and thinking he’s being all cool and ironic by playing “Agadoo.”
John’s trying to book a hotel room but he’s hampered by the receptionist – who looks, like every other character in this game, like he’s been cobbled together from Half-Life 2 mods – who tries to warn him about the evil that lurks in Sinister City. Eventually he agrees to help John out, but only if we find the receipts that are scattered around the hotel lobby.
And that’s where the hidden object gameplay comes in. It’s of a fairly standard type for the genre – a cluttered scene is presented to you, along with a list of items at the bottom. You locate the items on the list somewhere in the scene and then click on them. For example, “dog” refers to the statuette of a dog on the left windowsill. Sometimes items are hidden behind moveable elements of the scene, such as the plates at the top of the wardrobe that can be shuffled aside. These moveable objects aren’t always obvious, but if you can’t find them they’ll eventually begin to sparkle if you wait for a little while. Most of the “puzzles” (as opposed to what I’d call minigames) in Sinister City require you to find X number of a certain object such as hotel receipts, and usually you’re given one for clearing a hidden object scene.
Sinister City does make some unusual design decisions that differentiate it from others in the genre, though. The main one is that not every hidden object scene has a list of small, unrelated items to find. The back of the reception desk seen here is a good example, and all you need to collect in this scene are the receipts themselves. Sinister City also makes the strange decision to not tell you where each hidden object scene is located. A lot of the time you can guess where they are because a screen contains a conspicuous-looking area, like an open wardrobe or cluttered desk, but that’s not always the case. In fact, the way I realised there was a scene behind the reception desk was that I pressed the “hint” button and it showed me the scene behind the desk. I probably would have taken quite a while to figure that out on my own, because my task was to find the lost hotel receipts and I naively assumed that if they were behind the reception desk then they wouldn’t be lost. But the hint button helped me out, and while I really don’t think it was intentional the idea that you can find the correct area by “seeing” it from inside and then having to figure out where it is on the screen works out surprisingly well, especially because the hint button recharges very quickly.
After finding all the receipts and then going though the scenes a second time to locate all the hotel’s lost room keys – yes, the proprietor is really in the wrong line of business – the hotel owner decides to help John out. Not after he’s dropped a sick burn on our hero’s appearance, mind you. It seems that when Nina went missing, John found bat droppings at the scene and naturally assumed that meant she’s been abducted by the foul forces that dwell in Sinister City. I’m going to drop some spoilers here: there are vampires involved in this plot. Shocking, I know. What’s more shocking is that if a vampire did kidnap Nina, this means it transformed into a bat, took a dump on the floor, returned to human form and then carried Nina off because she’s a fully-grown human woman and there’s no way a bat would be able to drag her away.
The hotel owner offers to help by using his hypnosis machine to astrally project John to the dream-world. To me, that sounds like the plan of someone who’s feeling buyer’s remorse over purchasing a hypnosis machine and is desperately trying to get some use out of it. In practical terms, it means John has to locate the spinning disks and energy crystals that power the machine. More hidden object finding transpires, and around this point I realised that there’s precisely zero punishment for mis-clicking when item hunting, so randomly clicking around the screen as fast as you can is a perfectly valid way to make progress in Sinister City.
With some exceptions (like my beloved Halloween Trick or Treat series), most modern hidden object games have a few other elements sprinkled in amongst the item-spotting sections. Usually those elements are inventory puzzles that almost always boil down to “use item on very obvious location” and minigames that provide the kind of rigorous mental workout usually found on the back of cereal boxes. Please don’t take that as a complaint: the reason I enjoy hidden object games is that I find them relaxing, and that wouldn’t be the case if algebra problems or 10,000-piece jigsaws intruded on the game.
Sinister City includes both of these types of interlude, and they’re mostly quite jolly and not at all taxing, like the string-untangling minigame pictured above. However, because these games all draw from the usual shallow pool of tropes I’ll be playing the rest of Sinister City with the constant dread that a sliding tile puzzle is going to lurch out at me at any moment.
The astral plane is a vaguely Dali-inspired, Alice in Wonderland-flavoured area where the goal is to find the parts of a clock so you can speed up time and somehow, I dunno, get a clue about Nina’s whereabouts? The point of the astral plane isn’t explained particularly well, but that doesn’t matter because you spend a surprisingly short amount of time here. I’ve played a bunch of hidden object games that do take place in a twisted dream-world, and I assumed that the rest of Sinister City would take place here, but no – it amounts to little more than an extremely convoluted Skype call.
A phantasmic projection of Nina appears and tells John to stop searching for her. She claims it’s because John would be placed in terrible danger, but she can’t fool me. I’ve seen John, she’s clearly just trying to let him down gently.
Then a vampire appears and threatens to bite John’s foot off. This is Count Orlok, Nina’s captor and seemingly the very model of the traditional vampire lord. Foot-biting aside, he’s aristocratic, urbane and he wears cravat, and by this point I was thinking “okay, this all makes sense. Young man’s fiancée is kidnapped by not-Dracula and he fights to get her back. He fights via hidden object challenges, but still, it’s your standard vampire story in the Dracula mould.” That’s what I thought was happening. The actual plot is… quite different, as we’ll see. For now, let’s go back to the hotel and see if any of the guests can help us defeat Count Orlok.
The guy from the intro is here, and as it happens he’s a movie director (and descendent of Louis Lumiere) who wrote a screenplay very similar to the events that are unfolding around John. So, you find the pieces of Lumiere’s missing script and peruse it for any pertinent advice, you collect the garlic, stakes and holy water that form any self-respecting vampire hunter’s arsenal – no magic whips or boomerang crosses, I’m afraid – and get ready to save Nina. Then Lumiere lets you in on a little secret: Sinister City is not the gore-drenched necromantic hellhole that you’ve been led to believe it is. Sure, it’s where all the vampires un-live, but Lumiere tells you the vampires don’t even drink blood any more and that rather than going full Simon Belmont, John might have better luck if he simply talks to Count Orlok. Naturally John is shocked by this revelation that Sinister City isn’t a 24-hour recreation of the rave scene from Blade. He can’t believe that Sinister City is more Hot Topic than Transylvania, until Lumiere tells him to “look at his so-called equipment.”
I gotta admit, this got a big laugh from me. I think it was the way John slowly, deliberately, turned to stake to reveal the gag. And so it is also revealed, although there were clues earlier, that Sinister City is not as serious as it first appeared. This is just a glimpse of how weird the game becomes, so let’s move on to the next location.
Travelling is facilitated by the map John has pieced together, thus fulfilling the “jigsaw puzzle” minigame that these games so often contain. Sinister City is proud of its vampiric heritage, with streets named after Bram Stoker and Bela Lugosi. Our target is the big castle at the top right, but please note the burger shops – it’s a little difficult to make out, but I think they’re called “Big Kahoona Burger,” presumably named in homage to the Big Kahuna Burger chain that appears in Quentin Tarantino’s movies.
The outside of Orlok’s castle is as grim and foreboding as you’d expect, although the appearance of a large crane truck keeps it grounded in the mundane realm of man. You need the crane to cross the moat, but of course the crane is broken and the hidden object scenes here revolve around finding parts to get it running again. Oh, and also collecting shiny stones so a bird will trade said stones for the missing gear it’s holding in its beak.
Having played enough examples of the genre to feel that I’ve got an idea about where Sinister City’s gameplay falls on the quality gradient, and I’d say it’s… somewhere in the middle. The scenes can be a little bland, with many of the objects being quite large and easy to spot, and it lacks the extreme kitschiness of my favourite hidden object games. On the plus side, it doesn’t get cynical with hiding its items, never changing their colours or making them semi-transparent, and the minigames are mostly straightforward and easy to figure out. The irony is that, as I mentioned, I like hidden object games because of their relaxing gameplay, but Sinister City’s appeal lies entirely in its bonkers plot and characters and I’d probably be just as happy with it if it was a movie.
Nina is trapped in the castle because, in a shocking plot twist, she’s actually Orlok’s daughter! Orlok doesn’t want his precious daughter marrying a miserable pile of secrets like John, and has instead arranged her marriage to a noble Transylvanian vampire named Ipkis. Until the wedding, she’s locked behind an enchanted gate that only Orlok can open and obviously he’s not going to just let her out, but Nina does have a suggestion: brew a truth potion and get Orlok to drink it, hopefully forcing him to reveal some information that will help them out. Looks like John won’t be needing his cheap, mass-produced Chinese stakes after all. I know Nina says she loves John but those feelings are unlike to hold up if he stabs her dad through the heart.
As you’d expect, making the potion involves going through a few hidden object scenes to find the appropriate ingredients. Once you’ve gathered the necessary items, brewing the potion gets more interesting for two reasons. One is that John was apparently incapable of finding a single pot, bowl or saucepan in the entire castle – and what kind of self-respecting vampire lord doesn’t own a cauldron? - so he has to boil the ingredients inside an upturned Viking helmet. The other is that John decides to make the potion using the fireplace in Orlok’s study, about six feet away from Orlok himself. At no point does Orlok question why a man he recently threatened to kill is standing in front of him, making soup in a helmet.
I suppose these events do help to prepare the player for the next bizarre moment, when Orlok drinks the potion without hesitation or question. Slurps it right out of the helmet, even. Man, this game is great.
Anyway, the potion causes Orlok to reveal that he thinks John is an okay sort really but he wants Nina to marry Ipkis because Ipkis works in showbusiness and he think the marriage will help Nina become a movie star. All right, fine, I guess I’ll go and talk to Ipkis myself. To the TV studio!
While using the map screen to travel across the city, John stops off at the Big Kahoona Burger to grab a snack. Have I mentioned that this game is great?
Here’s the TV studio. That’s Ipkis in the middle, preparing for the 600th broadcast of Vamp Kids, the TV show loved by millions of (presumably literal) ankle-biters around the world. This raises questions about whether vampire children are the offspring of two vampires or children that were turned into vampires, but don’t have time to ponder such matter: John must find the parts required to fix the studio’s generators, as well as locating Ipkis’ many props that he’s left scattered around the place. By now it’s clear that the developers weren’t putting much effort into creating interesting new gameplay scenarios. The “proper” hidden object scenes are fine, but gathering the items needed to progress to the next scene gets a bit tedious when the items are as easy to spot as large, bright red vampire bats but they’re spread across multiple different locations.
I mean come on, this is really stretching the “hidden” part of the hidden object genre.
This is Ipkis. I’ve already helped him out a bunch, but he’s still not ready to talk to me about Nina unless I help him some more, this time by standing in for his camera man. “Any fool can operate a camera” is a turn of phrase that will come back to (oh ho ho) bite me in a moment, but first – do you want to see Ipkis’ television show for vampires? Yes, yes you do.
It’s evil Teletubbies. Evil Teletubbies. Except those full-body mascot suits are expensive, so Ipkis is only wearing the head. At least he went to the effort of changing the shape of Tinky-Winky’s antenna from a triangle to a spread-winged bat, a move that will surely keep he BBC’s lawyers at bay. Now we know why Tubby Custard is pink, it’s got blood in it. Half Ambrosia, half type O. What an incredible scene to see as Ipkis tells his audience a meandering story about a vampire kid whose fangs wouldn’t drop until he started acting like a proper vampire. You know, by drinking potions out of ancient helmets or dressing as a goddamn Teletubby.
During this segment, you’re supposed to keep Ipkis in the centre of the screen by moving the camera left or right, but there was a small problem in that it… didn’t work. None of my inputs would register, so I kept failing the minigame as the camera drifted off to the side and the only thing that fixed it was restarting the game. This is Sinister City’s main flaw – it’s buggy as hell. Several of the minigames didn’t work properly, the trigger for leaving the astral plane couldn’t be interacted with and more than once there was a blank gap in the hidden object scenes where an important item was supposed to be. I managed to get past all these problems by either restarting the game or using the “Skip” button, but they’re there and they’re kind of a pain in the arse, so it’s a good job there are evil Teletubbies to soften the blow.
Ipkis isn’t such a bad guy, as it happens. After helping him out, he admits his relationship with Nina is flawed because a) he doesn’t want to marry her and b) he’s already married, which is going to make the engagement party pretty awkward. His advice for John is that he should go and meet with Orlok’s therapist, who might be able to offer some insight into the workings of the Count’s mind. So, off we go to meet Dr. Seward at the Vampire State Building (a gag you may remember from Futurama.) Unfortunately Dr. Seward refuses to see John, so he comes up with a plan to learn about psychology and then the doctor will, erm, respect his clinical acumen? I seem to have lost the thread of logic tying this section together, especially because John gets his psychiatric learnin’ by collecting and presumably reading multiple copies of the same book. Psychology for Dudes, it’s called, and this neighbourhood news-stand has multiple copies. I tried to pick them up, but John says he’s “many things, but a thief isn’t one of them.” This moral rectitude is rather undercut when John pays for the books using coins he finds on the street without handing them in to the nearest police station.
Somehow this all worked and Dr. Seward let me into her office. She’s a stereotypical neurotic psychiatrist, the Niles Crane of the ever-living undead, and so most of this area consists of you finding the soothing chamomile teabags and migraine-relieving painkillers scattered around her unprofessionally messy office. I had trouble finding one of the tea bags in the scene above, because it’s hidden behind that metal box on the bottom shelf. My problem was that I couldn’t not see that box as the puzzle cube from the Hellraiser films.
On a similar note, this being a psychiatrist’s office means that there is, of course, a Rorschach test and I learned that when viewing ink blots I tend to see them as bones. Pelvises and skulls, mostly. If any armchair analysts want to weigh in and explain what this reveals about my psyche, feel free, although I suspect the true answer is simply that I’m such a dork for all this spooky Halloween crap that what else am I going to see?
Dr. Seward leaves us with a stinging criticism of estate agents and the advice that we should track down Orlok’s wife, as she’s the only person he’ll listen to. Okay, fine, let’s go and do that. I’m sure someone in Sinister City must be able to sell me the mystical bolt cutters that would free Nina from her prison and then we could elope to somewhere less vampire-heavy, but I’m deep into this now so we’ll just see where it leads.
Orlok’s wife is also a vampire. So Nina has two vampire parents but she isn’t a vampire? Did both her parents get bitten after they’d had a child? Although Ipkis’ little television play implies that there are vampire children and the process of gaining your fangs and magical powers works like puberty. I’m getting dangerously close to “corkboard covered in newspaper clippings and red string” territory here, so let’s focus on Orlok’s wife herself. She’s got the kind of short haircut that screams “long hair is difficult to animate,” she doesn’t have a name and is only referred to as “Orlok’s wife” or “mom” and she wants John to collect floppy disks so she can install an accounting program on her computer.
Trying to gain parental approval to marry the woman I love by rummaging through a vampire estate agent’s garbage. This game is amazing. Go back and look at Sinister City’s title screen again, and ponder whether you could have had the slightest clue that this is the direction the game was going to take. Also, I now have to assume that the vampire woman on the title screen is supposed to be Nina, and that maybe she is a vampire after all.
Once we’ve finished “helping” Mrs. Orlok, she reveals the Count’s greatest weakness: he always wanted to be an actor but he’s too shy to attend any auditions. If only we knew a famous movie director and someone with access to a television studio.
With Mrs. Orlok’s help, John frees Nina and everyone gathers at the TV studio for one of the strangest takes on the “detective unmasks the true killer” scene I’ve ever experienced. At least Ipkis has the decency to remove his Teletubby costume.
The last batch of gameplay involves getting everything ready for Orlok’s impromptu audition, mundane tasks like collecting a big stack of clapperboards and removing all non-vampiric props from the studio. Yes, even the Plan 9 From Outer Space-referencing newsroom has to be spotless before we embark on our cunning ruse and okay, I admit it, I’ve completely lost interest in the gameplay at this point. I’m just clicking around the screen as fast as possible in order to get to the next bit of dialogue, and at last it’s time for the thrilling denoument.
Orlok projects a ghostlyillusion of his giant head into the room and starts ranting about how Nina can never marry John because he’s a feeble mortal, so I guess Nina is a vampire, case closed. Now the plan kicks into gear, and Lumiere commends Orlok on the intensity and gravity of his “performance.” Why, he’d be the perfect actor to portray Dracula in Lumiere’s new movie, Count Dracula’s Treasures! In this case, I think Count Dracula’s treasures might actually be the friendships we made along the way.
John goes in for one final bit of oleaginous praise – for a feeble mortal, Orlok sure seems keen to get John’s opinion – and that’s enough to tip the Count over the edge. He realises that John is perfectly suitable to marry his daughter, gives the couple his blessing and goes off to star in the movie. Everyone’s a winner! Especially Ipkis’ poor unseen wife, who escapes blissfully un-divorced.
As the credits roll and the characters make a few gags, I’m left in the pleasant position of being able to easily sum up the game I just played. Sinister City’s gameplay is decidedly average within the genre it inhabits, the bugs and glitches make it more of a pain to play than it should be, but it is absolutely redeemed by the story and dialogue. It’s occasionally genuinely funny, but even when it’s cracking some pretty lame jokes it has a charmingly groanworthy air of fun and just enough to weirdness to give it a pleasingly surreal edge. This might be partly because Jetdogs Studios are a Finnish company, and being translated gives the game an extra layer of strangeness. I really enjoyed playing Sinister City – although maybe “experiencing” is a more apt word than “playing” - and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it.
And then John was a zombie. Erm, vampire.