Good horror payoff but a few stumbles along the way

Zombies, snakes and murder, oh my! All of this and more awaits in Twisted Lands: Shadow Town, a new hidden object thriller in which the name of the game isn’t to solve the mystery and save the world, but just to find your woman and get the heck out of Dodge. A strong start had my hopes high but in the end, a few too many missteps keep this adventure from being a truly memorable experience.

The last game to come from Alawar Stargaze, Snark Busters: Welcome to the Club, absolutely rocked my socks off, so I was eagerly looking forward to the studio’s next effort. Twisted Lands: Shadow Town certainly hits most of the right notes. It’s easy on the eyes, with sharp, well-defined graphics and a good variety of scenes that range from a cruise ship run aground to a spooky mansion and a mysteriously abandoned town. The hidden object searches are reasonably challenging without being obnoxiously difficult, as are the puzzle segments, although one or two can be a bit tricky unless you have the foresight to do some old-fashioned note-taking – which, for the record, is an idea I’m quite fond of. The story steps awkwardly at times but serves up a sufficiently creepy mystery that follows the descent of an entire island into a spiral of madness and murder that ultimately traps all who wander near.

 Shadow Town

It sounds like a sure-fire formula for a gripping hidden object game. So what went wrong?

The biggest problem with Shadow Town is that it’s a two-hour game in a three-hour package. Way too much time is spent moving back and forth between locations for trivial purposes. And it’s not just a matter of running between adjacent rooms to collect a pile of items or wrap up a two-part puzzle; you’ll quite literally be making repeated trips across almost the entire map to retrieve individual objects needed to move the game forward. It may sound like nit-picking but it becomes excessive to the point of frustration, because it’s obvious the developer is just trying to pad out the play time by making you run around in circles.

Heightening that annoyance is the presence of two maze sections, one of which separates two of the game’s primary areas. These “fog-enshrouded paths” are small and fairly simple to navigate, especially with the aid of the hand-drawn maps left lying on the ground at the start of each, but they simply should not be there. Mazes do not contribute to the quality of a game, only to its length; this is highlighted by the fact that these sections can be easily traversed even by the most directionally-challenged players with the use of the hint function, which will keep you pointed in the right direction and lead you through step-by-step. Why even bother with a maze if the string that guides you through has already been laid?

The story has a few gaping holes but still manages to tie everything together nicely with a satisfying twist to wrap things up. The “hero” begins the game as a rather distasteful character, a deep-sea treasure hunter who clearly has no qualms about the legality or morality of his trade as long as he can make a buck from it. But his determination to save his beloved Angel from harm, no matter what the risk to himself, is admirable, revealing him to be more Han Solo than Jabba the Hutt. At the same time, peering too closely at the details is bound to result in a few tricky questions, particularly with regards to the way everything in the game apparently happened in either the early or late 20th century. Unless I missed some devious plot device that explains this apparent time-warp (and that’s entirely possible), the best way to approach the Shadow Town tale is with a quick, light touch.

 Shadow Town

These may sound like minor things to complain about and in some ways they are. There’s no question that Twisted Lands: Shadow Town brings a lot of goodness to the table. It looks great and it mixes in a decent number of animated cut scenes that bring the story to life. The hidden object searches are conventional but attractive and entertaining. The Collector’s Edition of the game includes a built-in walkthrough and a bonus chapter set on the same desolate island that also reveals something called Twisted Lands: Insomnia – a glimpse into the future, perhaps? Most hidden object fans will probably find something here to like.

There are other rough spots. The soundtrack has a tendency to become overbearing at times and also has an unfortunate habit of starting and stopping haphazardly, leaving pauses of a minute or more between tracks. Compared to some other Collector’s Edition releases, this one doesn’t offer much in the way of extras. But ultimately, effective horror is all about pacing and that’s where this game really stumbles. The individual components are all quite solid and the big finish, when it finally arrives, is good fun and worth waiting for. But it’s all spread too thin, with way too much time-wasting filler. Twisted Lands: Shadow Town is a good game, but not great. Alawar’s “new level of horror in casual games” will have to wait a little while longer.