At first, PuppetShow: Mystery of Joyville‘s seems like many other hidden object games. Its story, about a detective being called in to find a missing child, isn’t all that unusual, and its setting of a town in decline provides the locations and background that you might expect. What it does with those elements, however, is startling, disturbing, and absolutely wonderful. 

Although you wouldn’t know it now, Joyville was once a bustling tourist attraction. A brilliant toymaker called The Master created a series of intricate and sophisticated puppets that performed in the town’s theater, and people came from all over to watch the shows. A fire in the theater killed The Master and the town’s hope of survival as fewer and fewer people came to visit. Now, what few residents remain stay indoors at night because people have started to go missing. Some people say it’s the spirit of the Master that’s whisking them away; now you’ve been called to use your detective skills to find Simon, the latest child to disappear. 

PuppetShow combines hidden object sequences with adventure game item collection and puzzle solving. As you follow a creepy spiderlike puppet as it sneaks its way through town, you’ll visit locations like the local hotel, the ruined theater, and The Master’s home. Zooming in on sparkling areas will reveal hidden object sequences, most of which yield an item that you’ll use to solve a later puzzle.

The hidden object areas, like everything else in the game, are stunning, beautifully detailed and utterly appropriate to their surroundings. The game cheats a wee bit by padding the object list with multiples – find 4 shoes, 3 butterflies, and 5 bottles – but the items are so well drawn and different from each other that you probably won’t mind too much. Hints are endless, but take a minute to recharge.  

The items you find will help you solve the game’s many creative and unusual puzzles. A rag will clean a display case that reveals the time to which a clock must be set in order to unlock a door, a blowtorch will reveal two columns of numbers that you must rearrange to have equal sums. The puzzles vary from simple assembly (put in a lever and pull) to quite challenging, but if you’re still struggling after a few minutes, you can choose to skip them and get on with the game. 

In addition to the actual game bits, PuppetShow throws in a few interactive areas just for fun. Clicking on bats will send them flying, and young Simon has left drawings scattered around town. You can inspect items and objects that have nothing to do with the game, like the ocean behind the theater or the lampposts on the street, but help set the scene for your investigation. These small touches help make Joyville feel like a living, breathing environment, instead of just a backdrop for item searches and puzzle solving. 

PuppetShow‘s story is told in bits and pieces; the owners of the hotel who hire you to find the young boy Simon begin the tale for you, then you discover the rest by reading newspaper articles and notes you find during your investigation. What begins as a fairly straightforward mystery soon takes a very dark and disturbing turn. If you’re not a fan of unsettling or horrifying storytelling, you may want to rethink playing PuppetShow. Not that PuppetShow is gory – it’s barely even animated, and there isn’t any voice acting – but the implications of its final chapter are sure to put a chill down your spine.  

PuppetShow: Mystery of Joyville is as masterfully constructed as one of its mechanical puppets, creating an atmosphere of dread and foreboding with just a few journal entries and cleverly staged scenes. Its dark tale is perfect for Halloween, and leaves the door wide open for a sequel that will hopefully be coming sooner rather than later. It’s a bit on the short side, unfortunately, but if you enjoy all things spooky and creepy, you’re sure to love every minute you spend in Joyville.