Oh, that Bernie the Bookworm. Don’t be fooled by his meek appearance — he has the goods to become a savvy sleuth. After reading an ad in a magazine, Bernie orders a detective kit and with the help of his friend Flo (of Diner Dash fame), he sets out to solve more than two dozen mysteries plaguing Diner Town.

Such is the premise behind PlayFirst’s DinerTown Detective Agency, a new hidden object game (HOG) with fun deduction elements and many mini-games. If my weekend with this game (and my three kids) is any indication, this downloadable puzzler is worthy if your time — and mouse-clicking finger.

The game is separated into two modes: Story and Freeplay. With the former, you can choose to play the game with a time element — therefore you must solve the puzzles before the clock runs out — or in a relaxed mode with no time pressure whatsoever.

Game-play in DinerTown Detective Agency is divided into four key components:

  • Bernie arrives on the scene to solve a mystery, which begins in an indoor or outdoor location. You know the drill with "HOG" games: you must scour a busy scene to find a number of items on a list. These items are listed along the left-hand side of the screen and usually are cleverly related to the environment (which isn’t usually the case in HOGs) so in a classroom you might be asked to find a hole puncher, marker, rulers and a broken door to a hamster cage (tied to the mystery). Click on the items and it’s crossed off your list. If you click incorrectly too many times it’ll cut time off your clock, and if you need a hint you can click to get one (but the button takes a couple of minutes to replenish). Players can also find a detective badge per level, which adds 5 minutes to the clock (or gives you bonus points in the relaxed mode). Most scenes you’ll play through have two different rooms, so you can click between the two to find all the items listed. Sometimes you’ll be given a picture to search for (such as three parts to a pair of scissors rather than the word "scissors") and you must also use the item in the scene when you’re done, like an adventure game.
  • The second game-play element is also tied to the HOG scene. Bernie also has access to special tools to help him find evidence, whether it’s a magnifying glass, fingerprint brush, eyedropper, and so forth. These tools must be used to find certain items on the screen. This is a clever addition to the game, sure, but I found there was no hint as to where to use them, therefore I found myself clicking all over the screen (you won’t be penalized for doing so) until I hear the "chime" that confirms I found a clue. Again, a good idea, but the execution is disappointing — and logic doesn’t seem to play a role either as I clicked on a locker, weights and other items you think would have fingerprints in a gym but they weren’t there (but a CD was on the ground of an aquarium and cake frosting near an animal cage?)
  • The third component is a collection of mini-games you can play to help solve these mysteries. They might be in the form of jigsaw puzzles, matching two similar pictures and other puzzles. One I enjoyed early in the game was a chalkboard brainteaser in the classroom, where you must drag and drop picture cards on the correct column and row based on their color and picture (e.g. all blue on one row and all animals go in the same column).
  • The final part of the game is when you try to narrow down the suspect list with what you know so far about who was at the crime, coupled with info provided by informants. For example, you will get three facts — such as the culprit likes pink, cares for animals and hates smoking — and then you can click "yes" or "no" for three suspects given what the informants tell you (e.g. "Karma has a part-time job at a vet clinic," so you know she cares for animals, etc.). Once you think you have enough info you can peg the guilty one and see if you’re correct.

DinerTown Detective Agency delivers a number of laughs as Bernie solves these wacky crimes throughout the city. Plus, fans of PlayFirst games will see many familiar faces including stars of other PlayFirst time management games or customers seen in Flo’s diner (Diner Dash), at weddings (Wedding Dash) or driving into parking lots about town (Parking Dash).

While not perfect — we already touched on the faulty "tool" mechanic, there are some signs the game was rushed such as spelling or grammar areas (e.g. "Coco has an surprising knack for…") and the deduction part of the game — where you must click off "yes" or "no" for the three remaining suspects — doesn’t get any more challenging as you progress, therefore becomes a tad repetitive.

Overall, however, we found the game enjoyable with its multiple game-play elements, cute stories and characters, and few game modes. At the very least, fans of HOGs or adventure games should download and play the free 60-minute trial.