Our Worst Fears starts out promisingly but gets bogged down by too many flaws

Our Worst Fears: Stained Skin is long, complex, highly polished and seems to have everything a game needs to become an successful hidden object adventure. Starring not one but two heroes, it boasts a supernatural theme, exotic locations, insidious plots, murder, suicide—what else do you need? Unfortunately, the game fails miserably due to a regrettable lack of organization and a storyline so filled with plot holes you could strain spaghetti through it.

Unusual for a hidden object adventure, in Our Worst Fears: Stained Skin you start by playing a male hero, a detective known only as Victor. Victor wakes on what appears to be a deserted island with a strange tattoo on his arm and no knowledge of how either of them got there. (A familiar scenario to anyone who’s spent a weekend in Vegas.) We learn that Victor’s been seeing a psychiatrist to treat a career-crippling phobia of shooting suspects and that his case is connected to a number of other phobic patients being treated by the same doctor. When the tattoo suddenly causes him terrible pain, he determines to remove it and discover who’s behind the sinister conspiracy that put it there in the first place.

 Stained Skin

In the first five minutes of the game, everything appears attractive and intriguing. The characters seem be photographic paint-overs and the environment art matches their highly-detailed realism. The game’s premise poses a score of interesting questions that if you’re an adventure fan, will immediately excite you. There’s a unique take on hidden object gameplay that allows you to play hidden object scenes in an “alternative” puzzle mode that riffs on the genre’s usual shape-recognition mechanics. By pressing a button at the top of the screen you “put on” a pair of goggles that drain all the color out of the scene and present you with two irregular shapes outlined in green. These represent small chunks of the scene that if matched to the larger picture, aid you in discovering individual items. There’s no explanation for these goggles—where they come from or why you have them—but depending on the complexity of the scene, they can really be a life-saver.

Other good things about the game are its occasionally creative puzzles and its evocative orchestral music which brings to mind the musical scores from the Indiana Jones films.

While Our Worst Fears: Stained Skin can certainly claim a few positives, its negatives are far more prevalent. Most significantly, it fails to find a happy medium between casual and expert gameplay. The casual setting treats you like an idiot, not only explicitly stating your objectives and showing you labeled outlines of the objects you’re looking for, it festoons every interactive hotspot with more sparklies than a showgirl’s tiara. There’s zero thinking involved and things in that mode get boring pretty quickly. In expert mode on the other hand, the sparkles vanish and you’re left to swim unassisted against the punishing tide of the game’s frustrating disregard for logic.

 Stained Skin

Throughout the game, ghosts come barreling out of the screen and there seems to be no real reason for this other than the cheap scares they engender. Further, you often find yourself doing things that appear to have little relation to the investigation in areas that in general are about 5% interactive. This makes for a lot of irritating pixel-hunting and backtracking as you check and re-check the same areas hoping to discover what to do next.

Even worse, the game’s puzzles, though sometimes creative, feel very contrived. As an example, one puzzle tells you to find a pencil so you proceed through multiple rooms with pencils in them, none of which you’re allowed to use. You’re forced in the end, to search scene after scene until you encounter the one pencil that the game deems solution-worthy. This kind of irritating situation occurs not once, but repeatedly, and brings the pace of things to a grinding halt.

In addition to tedious pacing-killers, the game suffers from some seriously amateurish writing. Although events are happening in the present, the story is told in a sluggish past tense and the dialog between Victor and his lady love Mary is oddly formal. The poor verbiage extends to the player journal which in most hidden object games, is where players go to receive helpful hints and to reference the main story points.

The journal in Our Worst Fears: Stained Skin does contain a dry, third-person retelling of what you’ve already done but offers no useful hint info at all. All of these issues make for a game that’s stylistically dull but they’re small potatoes compared to the confusion caused by the baffling, disconnected plot which includes: a pointless flashback, ghosts, phobias, tribal tattoos, a villain, a sudden second villain, pointless trips to foreign lands, a feigned death and a last-minute occult ritual. It’s as if a disagreement from a lunch hour brainstorming session was resolved by shoe-horning every single idea into the game.

Because of these things, Our Worst Fears: Stained Skin is a mess of a game and that’s really a shame since it’s obvious a lot of work went into it. The artwork is extremely polished and there are an impressive number of individual locations to explore. A full playthrough takes easily thirty per cent longer than your average hidden object adventure (although that could also be due to the high degree of level backtracking) and offers a few unique ideas in terms of puzzle design and hidden object gameplay. The problem is, the game’s illogical progression, poor dialog and confusing plotline outweigh all that, making what could have been an absorbing supernatural mystery into a tedious, pixel-hunting disappointment.