Games like Cate West – The Vanishing Files continue to raise the bar higher for hidden object games. The latest from Gamenauts and RealArcade offers several variations of seek-and-find gameplay threaded together by an engrossing mystery story and polished presentation.

Cate West is an author with a special kind of extra-sensory intuition that lets her see places, people and things that are associated with certain objects just by touching them. She starts using her unique talents to help the police track down the culprits of a series of unusual crimes that are gradually revealed to be tied to a larger mystery involving Cate’s own family history.

Hidden object games tend to be shorter than the average 100+ level puzzle game or match-three but this isn’t true of Cate West – The Vanishing Files, where you’ll sink your teeth into 15 well-developed cases with five phases each for a total of 75 scenarios to play through.

The first part of each case is where you’ll find the classic hidden object gameplay. Cate and the police travel to different scenes around the city to gather clues to help in the investigation, a goal that is achieved by searching through the cluttered environments and clicking on a specific list of objects. To continue, you’ll need to find most – though not all – of the clues on the list before time runs out.

When all the clues have been collected, Cate uses her powers of perception to pinpoint the items that have particularly strong associations to the criminal and will serve as evidence in the trial. You must then search new scenes for bits of the evidence objects to piece them back together (such as the lens, body, flash and hand-grips of a camera).

In the next phase, Cate must find the criminal’s hideout by matching a photograph with the vision of the location in her mind – in mini-game terms, this involves comparing two side-by-side images and identifying the subtle differences between them, such as a different-colored doorknob, a ladder with missing rungs or a panel missing from a wall.

After narrowing the criminal’s location down to a particular street, suspects who live on that street are brought to the station players must switch gears and call upon their powers of deductive reasoning. For each of the eight suspects you’ll see a photo and a file containing vital information like age, weight, occupation and personal details (such as divorced father of 4; enjoys hang-gliding and chess; volunteers at the local animal shelter). You must compare the information of each suspect to the clues Cate is able to glean from examining the evidence, and by process of elimination decide who to arrest.

For example, if Cate senses that the suspect wears glasses and is healthy, you could eliminate all of the suspects that didn’t wear glasses as well as the overweight suspect and the one whose file said she just had an accident. As we noted in our preview, this kind of gameplay is similar to Puzzle Detective but is much more challenging. Many of the clues are deliberately ambiguous and could apply to more than one person. For example, does "brunette" and "flowers" refer to the self-help guru who loves flowers, or the gardiner who won the bowling tournament?

After you’ve arrested the correct suspect, the case still isn’t quite over. The detective must give his testimony in court, which involves a unique variation on the "find the difference" puzzle to make sure that the crime scene and the detective’s recollection of it match up. Instead of simply identifying which parts of the side-by-side pictures don’t match, you’re actually given a list of objects that you must drag-and-drop into the appropriate locations so that the pictures look identical.

The interesting plot of Cate West – The Vanishing Files unfolds as a series of dialogues between characters along with the occasional text bubble that describes an action you don’t see, similar to the adventure game Fatal Hearts. Occasional snippets of voice-acting and subtle animations help bring these cutscenes to life, and an atmospheric and slightly ominous musical soundtrack compliments the scenes perfectly.

The game’s locations also impress. There are 29 of them in all, and although you’ll visit most of them several times over the course of the game, scenes like a rusted out tractor on the outskirts of town, a metallic gray subway car, a Chinatown market and an urban alleyway covered in posters and graffiti are visually compelling enough that you won’t mind seeing them a second or even a third or fourth time.

The game uses a unique scoring system that awards points for how well you play, such as completing a scene quickly, arresting the correct suspect on the first try, or finishing a scene without using any hints. (Hints themselves are unlimited after a short recharge period, but use too many and you’ll sacrifice a lot of points.) Your score tally at the end of the game affects how good of an ending you get out of the game’s multiple endings.

While Cate West – The Vanishing Files had us hooked to the end, we did start to chafe against the rigidly formulaic structure of the five-phase case format by about chapter 11 or 12 and wouldn’t have minded a little shake-up every so often. A minor nitpick is that when you click on an item you have to wait a few seconds before you can click on the next one, which is something that might interrupt a veteran hidden object gamer’s flow but is hardly reason to complain too loudly.

Cate West – The Vanishing Files is a prime example of a hidden object game done right – with thought, care and a few innovations to keep pushing the genre forward. It’s not too short but has the good sense to end before overstaying its welcome. Enjoy this one while you can and stay tuned for the hinted-at sequel.