If you think the mini-games are the best part of many casual games, you’re going to really like Ancient Secrets: Quest for the Golden Key from Gamehouse, an otherwise ordinary puzzle/adventure game. It offers creative twists on some old standards like concentration and otello as well as some of the best slider puzzles we’ve seen. The game also mixes in a few hidden object scenes, but these are less successful.
One of the most popular genres right now is puzzle/adventure which mixes a point and click adventure story with other puzzle types, usually hidden object. Azada was one of the first big hits, but there have been many in the last year, including Samantha Swift and the Hidden Roses of Athena, Veronica Rivers: Portals to the Unknown, Steve the Sheriff, Alabama Smith Escape from Pompeii, and most recently Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst. Even the Nancy Drew games are testing this option with their puzzle title Lights, Camera, Curses.
In Ancient Secrets you are Kate, the daughter of a famous archaeologist. He has given you a piece of an ancient amulet, and it’s up to you to find the rest of it. The story after that is really thin, but it doesn’t much matter. All you need to do is keep talking to characters to get clues about where to go next, and when you arrive, do some puzzles to collect more pieces of the amulet. It’s entirely G-rated with no horror or violent elements. There is no timer.
It looks to us like Ancient Secrets started out as a straightforward point and click adventure in a casual games style. There are frequent inventory puzzles involving items you find in the scene, and many locked chests or doors that have to be opened, often with a very well done slider puzzle.
There are some hidden object scenes, too, but these feel tacked on. Most occur when Kate is walking along a path. Suddenly for no reason having anything to do with the story, you are presented with a Find Items list. The objects all match the scene thematically, but they don’t have anything to do with the current task. Many items are small, dark, or hard to see. Most look like they were photoshopped into the scene after the original adventure drawings were done. There’s no HINT button—instead, if you go long enough without clicking, a few sparkles will appear over an item. This can be the only way to find some of the darker items. They seem more like an interruption of the game than anything else.
The inventory puzzles, on the other hand, are quite clever. There may be six objects you can pick up on the ground, but it’s up to you to figure out which ones to use where, and in which order. These can leave you scratching your head until you suddenly realize the answer, and then you get a real feeling of satisfaction as these puzzles are logical and thematic.
Several of the mini-game puzzles were both fun and challenging. A kind of ancient minigolf and a scratch off maze were among our favourites.
We’re also impressed with this translation of the traditional point and click adventure to a casual mode. You do have some free choice about which rooms to enter and which characters to talk to, but you can’t get lost for long because characters keep making suggestions about where to go next.
There’s also a task list that will remind you of your current goals. You do pick up a few inventory items, but in most cases they have to be used in the same scene or the very next one. Players who complain they never know what to do next in an adventure game won’t have that problem here.
While we enjoyed the adventure aspect of the game, there is no hint system for it at all, and we are concerned that some gamers may get stuck at several places in the adventure. Also, while clearly aimed at the casual market, there is no option for skipping minigames, several of which are quite difficult logic puzzles.
The game is also very short, unless you do get stuck on the logic puzzles. A puzzle expert can probably complete the whole thing in under 3 hours. Even an average gamer is not likely to take more than 5 or 6.
We think this is a game that will appeal differently to different players. If you loved Azada-type puzzles, particularly slider puzzles, and are willing to work hard at some logic sequences, this may well be one of your favourite games of the year. On the other hand, if you prefer a more engrossing story, better hidden object scenes, or just a full scale adventure, you’ll probably rank this as average at best.