Shaking up the social HOG

Awakening is one of Big Fish Games’ most popular series, and this month the publisher brings us what it hopes will be the next evolutionary step in the hidden object genre: namely a free-to-play hidden object/building sim hybrid called Awakening Kingdoms. While it skillfully combines many of the most prevalent casual game types—hidden object hunts, jigsaw puzzles, building simulations and collectibles—it also fails to overcome the repetitiousness seemingly inherent to the social game milieu.

Kingdoms starts well by casting you as the steward of Queen Sophia’s ill-fated Skyward Kingdom. Having clashed with and vanquished the evil mage Dreadmyre, the queen asks you to help her people recover and rebuild her war-torn lands. After choosing a name and an avatar, you get to work by becoming acquainted with the kingdom’s various human and non-human inhabitants, and then Harry Potter-like, take on an owl assistant named Linea. Gamers familiar with the Awakening universe will feel immediately at home with the game’s fantasy characters and landscapes, and social gamers will take its energy-based hidden object searches as a matter of course. Fortunately, in addition to these familiar things, there are a few new elements on offer to pique the interest of less-casual, casual gamers.

Awakening Kingdoms

Then again, Kingdoms‘features aren’t really new; it’s the way they’re presented that freshens them up. Since your job is to rebuild the kingdom, a good amount of your time is spent constructing and upgrading the queen’s castle and environs. This is more satisfying than in most “ville”-type games because you’re given a closer view of things as they improve. It’s also better because you have to do something more engaging than clicking and waiting to gain money and resources. Both of these come from exploring various hidden object scenes; alas, this hidden-object-dependency is unfortunate because the process is so repetitive.

As in many social hidden object adventures, you’re asked to hunt through the same scenes over and over: both to find a series of items and to earn five different trophies. This is made somewhat more interesting by developer Boom Zap’s idea of assigning a dollar amount to each item. This value diminishes the longer it takes you to find an item. While it doesn’t eliminate the annoyance of having to play through the same scene ten times, at least it gives you some reward for doing so.

In addition to money and resources, Kingdoms has another currency in the form of blue crystals. These are awarded to you whenever you level up and can also be bought with good ol’ U.S. dollars. Crystals can be used to unlock new areas or to speed up upgrades. When not upgrading stuff, you’ve got plenty of quests to perform for the ever-demanding villagers and various mini-games to play within the different buildings (these start out stupid-easy and get increasingly complex). If those things don’t float your boat, you can focus instead on acquiring collectibles. Kingdoms gives you groups of items to look for, and when these groups are complete, they can be exchanged for additional gold.

Awakening Kingdoms

Kingdoms‘ main strength—aside from its fun artwork—is its sheer variety of gameplay. Quests keep you working on different sorts of tasks which prevents you from feeling bogged down too long in one thing, and its assortment of mini-games and collection of quirky characters keep things from getting stale. The narrative progresses as bits of backstory are doled out, and new areas unlock at higher levels. At the moment, there are some “coming soon” areas of the map which is bothersome, but for the most part, Kingdoms is more finished than most social games and gives you more reason to look forward to what’s to come.

Clearly, with Awakening Kingdoms Big Fish Games is looking for a way to extend the life of the waning hidden-object genre upon which it built its billion dollar business. In this it’s at least partially successful. While Kingdoms doesn’thave many eureka moments, it does manage to arrive at an interesting new combination of some overused elements. It also manages to avoid making its social aspects (friend prompts, microtransactions, etc.) too strident. Even with these positives, however, more design time could have been spent minimizing the game’s more repetitive areas and arriving at a truly revolutionary free-to-play formula.