Return to the island town of Pilgrim's Hook to save your estranged twin brother from an ancient evil.
It's said that at the core of every cliché is a kernel of truth; when storytellers tap into that, they bring us unforgettable experiences. Gunnar Games uses themes, characters and settings that are very familiar to us in its new hidden object game, Small Town Terrors: Pilgrim's Hook but it does so expertly. The result is a darkly lush, unsettling adventure of Lovecraftian proportions.
The game starts with the female half of a pair of fraternal twins being summoned back to her island home—the town of Pilgrim's Hook. Her estranged brother Arthur, apparently in serious trouble, begs her to come so despite having done her best to escape the isolated fishing village, she answers the call. When she gets there, she's immediately reminded of the town's unsettling effect on her and immediately aware of the pall of fear hanging thickly over it. The few villagers she encounters behave unnaturally and she keeps seeing what look like giant, grasping tentacles. The more she explores, the more sinister things get.
If you have more than a handful of hidden object games under your belt, much of this will sound pretty familiar. Lots of games are set on islands in abandoned villages and many of them feature heroes being called in to investigate mysterious doings. The town of Pilgrim's Hook has more than a little in common with other quaint villages: a town hall, a tavern, a library, a church. It's denizens are also people we've met before. Still, the way Gunnar Games handles things makes them believable and interesting. From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, it does this by creating a sense of visual depth you don't often see. Care is taken to have every exterior location present a striking vista that suggests Pilgrim's Hook isn't a mere puppet theater but an actual place.
From a gameplay angle, Gunnar Games does this by imparting a sense of realism to the collection and use of inventory items. Where most games create unbelievably convenient scenarios wherein you need a glass cutter and—voila—one appears, Pilgrim's Hook makes you think in a more resourceful, realistic fashion. (For example, if you need to cut something but all that's handy is a broken bottle, you use it rather than waiting for a gift-wrapped pocket knife to present itself.) The game's puzzles are equally as interesting and present some new ideas that allow your brain to stretch in different ways. Hidden object scenes aren't quite as innovative and consist mainly of the usual semi-interactive random item hunts and the occasional “find ten fish” variety. Still, all of them are beautifully composed.
In addition to exploration and solving puzzles to overcome obstacles, Pilgrim's Hook also tasks you with finding 25 morphing sea creatures within the game. These are fairly challenging to spot and frankly, the main storyline's so absorbing, you're likely to forget to look for them. (It's no big deal if you don't find them all however, since all you get for doing so is a static gallery of sea creatures in the extras menu.)
As mentioned before, the game's graphics are one of its biggest strengths. Characters have impressive detail (they're also voiced really well which helps) and at least one is decidedly unexpected. The game as a whole features a moody stormcloud-green/gray color palette that seems to perpetually foretell a terrible impending squall. The game's music takes an interesting tack in that it's only noticeable in a subliminal way; it works on your emotions without hitting you over the head with strident musical themes.
In addition to strong graphics and inventive item design, Pilgrim's Hook has one of the most interesting stories we've seen in a while. Sure, the “brother in trouble” thing isn't exactly original, but again, it's the way the story unravels and the way it ends that make it worthwhile. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that Pilgrim's Hook's narrative threads contain a core of evil that would be right at home within the dark dreams of legendary horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft.
The game has few negatives but one of them for sure is the blasé manner of the story's heroine. There's some seriously disturbing stuff going on here, but her verbal responses to it make her sound like she's waiting in line at the bank. Beyond this odd artistic decision, the game is mechanically less than perfect. Its fast-travel map while useful, tends to be misleading toward the end. It might, for instance, indicate that only one area has an active objective when in fact, there are several. This leads either to lots of dull re-checking of the various areas or a regrettable over-use of the Hint button.
Still, these flaws are minor, especially considering the game's cool extras. Finally, someone has come up with a different kind of extra! Pilgrim's Hook features a cool little mini-game that has you revisiting every location running an errand for the town's most unusual inhabitant. It's a clever way to stretch gameplay without having to build a ton of new locations. Further, an excellent bonus chapter details events as they happened before the arrival of the main game's heroine and features some really cool underwater environments. Of course, in addition to these, you also get all the usual Collector's Edition stuff: a strategy guide, wallpapers, concept art, achievements etc.
Small Town Terrors: Pilgrim's Hook is one of the best hidden object adventures made this year. Despite one or two small issues, the game is as beautiful, complex and well-crafted as an Amish quilt, albeit creepier and lots more fun. It's a great way to spend a dark and stormy night and just the thing if you prefer your adventure tempered by unspeakable horror and tinged with ancient evil.
- Rich maritime environments. Resourceful item usage. Great Lovecraftian story.
- Misleading fast travel map. Heroine's tendency to under-react.