Cursed Memories hits all the marks but isn’t quite fully baked

A mine explodes! Somebody drags you out to safety – but then shackles you to the floor! The police arrive to save you – or maybe to kill you! Where are you? Who are you? And what’s going on in this weird, empty little town of Agony Creek? It’s an interesting set-up and through the early stages of Cursed Memories: The Secret of Agony Creek, I was anxious to get to the bottom of the mystery. But my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat as I played and discovered a game that just isn’t quite up to snuff.

The first thing that struck me as “off” a bit were the game’s graphics. Secret of Agony Creek is visually dull and also noticeably muddy in spots, as though low-resolution textures had been stretched out to accommodate big, hi-res monitors. The effect diminishes somewhat in windowed mode but never entirely goes away, and while the game doesn’t look bad by any stretch, neither does it live up to the standard set by most contemporary hidden object adventures.

 Secret of Agony Creek

Characters in the game suffer from a different kind of graphical hitch, as their arms, heads and torsos appear to be redrawn over and over again in rapid succession, giving them a weird sort of shakiness during conversations. It might be intended to create a more fluid, lifelike appearance but it ends up looking broken at best and downright creepy at worst. Voice acting, on the other hand, is very committed, as the actors deliver their lines with gusto and flair, and it’s generally pretty good as a result. The piano-driven music is also quite nice and oddly soothing, too.

Puzzles tend not to be overly original or challenging, although there are one or two that will try your patience, in particular the end-game puzzle, which I think deserves a special mention for its sheer deviousness. But the real focus in Secret of Agony Creek is on hidden object searches, which are far more plentiful than the puzzles and quite challenging as well. Items are small, faint, very well-hidden or sometimes all of the above, but on the downside, none of the scenes are especially exciting or display the visual splendor that other, better games bring to the table. Instead, beyond their most generic appeal to HOG fans, they tend to be drab and uninteresting.

To its credit, Secret of Agony Creek does a great job of keeping things moving. It’s a sprawling game and there’s no map, which is definitely a knock against it, but not a huge knock because each area of the game is more or less self-contained. You will inevitably find just about every inventory item you need before you need it and on the rare occasions that you don’t, you won’t have to backtrack far to get it. Once an area is clear you’re pretty much done with it for good, which is a real boon for people who hate scouring a game from top to bottom in search of some tiny inventory item that’s suddenly been made accessible.

But while the action is fast and furious, the story is a clunker. The overall idea is good – the usual business of betrayal and revenge – but the actual plot is so slapdash as to be almost entirely incomprehensible. And I like incomprehensible when it leads to something interesting, but in Secret of Agony Creek it feels like simple laziness, as though a couple of disparate plot elements were slapped together on the elevator ride to the third floor and somebody decided that was good enough. It won’t be an issue if you’re just there to clear hidden object scenes and story be damned, but I found it all a bit distracting and even disappointing.

 Secret of Agony Creek

And then there’s the bonus chapter, because this is a Collector’s Edition, which adds another half-hour on top of the roughly three hours of gameplay and spins things off in a completely different, and by all appearances entirely random, direction. Regardless of its flaws, Secret of Agony Creek wraps up with finality, bringing everything to a nice, neat conclusion with absolutely no reasonable option for a follow-on sequel. The bonus level changes all that with a tangentially-connected tale that doesn’t just open the door to a sequel but rips it off its hinges and hits you over the head with it. But on its own merits, and brevity notwithstanding, it’s at least as much fun as anything found in the main game.

There’s also a pile of concept art, a few multi-resolution wallpapers, the soundtrack and unlimited puzzles – if, that is, you manage to collect enough of the sacks of gold that have been stashed throughout the game to unlock it all. Find ten and you can browse the art gallery; find 20 to listen to the soundtrack or save it to your PC; find all 30 and you’ll be granted access to all the game’s puzzles and HOG scenes. It’s a nice selection of extras and while there’s a risk of frustrating gamers who miss one or two bags along the way, none of them are particularly hard to find and the game wisely gives players a chance to go back and pick up any they missed before the final curtain falls.

Unfortunately, those bonuses can’t make up for the fact that Cursed Memories: The Secret of Agony Creek isn’t quite fully baked. It hits all the marks for a standard hidden object adventure – abandoned town with a sinister history, inscrutable supporting characters jerking you around, malevolent spirit in a cape determined to make your life difficult and the usual blend of puzzles and hidden object scenes – but it does it all in such a perfunctory manner that the whole thing feels not quite ready for prime-time. It’s rough around the edges, wildly incoherent and ultimately just not the sort of game you need to rush out to play.