I thought I knew what to expect from 3 Days: Zoo Mystery. Same old cartoon panel storytelling, same inoffensive “cheap greeting card” art style, and the same overhead map with multiple locations to visit. Everything about Zoo Mystery’s presentation screams "just another HOG." Everything, that is, except the actual gameplay.

The zoo of the game’s title is actually your family’s; the mystery in question is why and how several of the zoo’s residents have gone missing. Your uncle begs you to get to the bottom of things before Friday, when the zoo inspectors will be showing up. If the animals haven’t been returned by then, the inspectors will undoubtedly shut the place down. Three days isn’t much time for a full-fledged investigation, but it’s all you’ve got, so get moving!

To solve the mystery, you’ll have to visit many different locations in and around the zoo, interrogate suspects, and even do a bit of breaking and entering. You’ll have many goals to complete at each location, such as finding all the components to reassemble a cuckoo clock or locating the LPs in a rare record collection. Most of the time, that means searching the area for hidden items, but Zoo Mystery does a fantastic job of constantly shaking up the formula so that you never feel like you’re playing just yet another HOG. You won’t always be handed a simple list of items to find, either. You might be given a list of habitats, for example, then have to figure out the animals that live in them.

Zoo Mystery ups the difficulty in finding objects by making the environments a wee bit interactive. Some items in each scene are movable, such as drawers that can open or lamps that can be pushed aside. In one area, you must move lights to illuminate dark corners, while in another, you must manipulate an umbrella so that you can see through the driving rain. Once you’re about halfway through the game you’ll receive a device that lets you lift heavier objects like sofas out of the way. It’s a simple mechanic, but it makes you feel more like you’re actually doing a bit of detective work, rooting around a room to find some clues.  

You’ll have to do more than just find random bit and pieces, though. The hidden object segments share equal time with a host of mini-games, like rerouting wiring to get an alarm system to work, fishing keys out of a piranha tank, or dropping food, Plinko-style, into cooking pots. They do repeat over the course of the game, but are infrequent enough that they stay fun throughout.

If you ever find them too frustrating to complete – I never could stand those sliding-tile puzzles where you put numbers in order – you can opt to simply complete a "classic" hidden object sequence instead. Playing through those levels reminds you of just how inventive and fresh Zoo Mystery‘s approach to hidden objects really is; the "classic" levels feel hopelessly dull and stale by comparison.

The hidden object segments are fresh and the mini-games fun, but what really makes Zoo Mystery a joy to play is its bizarre sense of humor. The police’s prime suspect for the theft? A clown. When he explains that he couldn’t have committed the crime because he was bowling with the bartender (in complete makeup, of course), you can’t help but chuckle.

The tongue-in-cheek approach does more than just elicit grins, though, it also helps provide (relatively) plausible reasons for you to be doing the things you’re doing. The former zoo director is so distressed by the news of the animal disappearances, you have to help him assemble a jigsaw puzzle to calm him down. It’s all very, very silly, and lots of fun.

3 Days: Zoo Mystery is a bit rough around the edges, but so good natured and amusing that you can’t help but enjoy it. There’s loads to do – each of the 27 levels has at least five goals you must complete before you can move on – but the action is mixed up enough so that it always feels fresh. Besides, you can’t let an elephant-napper get away with it, can you?

For similar games, try Laura Jones and the Secret Legacy of Nikola Tesla, CSI: NY The Game, and Agatha Christie: Peril at End House.