An inspector investigates the music-related disappearance of a young girl in Maestro: Music of Death

Along with Big Fish Game Studios, ERS Games has become one of the most highly-regarded purveyors of hidden object adventures. Known for its spooky storylines and exemplary graphics, ERS has gained a reputation for making hauntingly beautiful games; unfortunately, as the new solid-but-not-overly-innovative hidden object adventure, Maestro: Notes of Life demonstrates, the developer is in serious danger of becoming the proverbial one trick pony.

Maestro: Notes of Life continues where its predecessor, Maestro: Music of Death, left off. Where the previous game had you investigating mysterious deaths in Paris, thought to be the work of magical music, this one has you looking into the disappearance of a young girl thought to be kidnapped by magical music. In this case, the music in question comes from a creepy old broad named Eva Kruger whose goal is to use the talents of a disturbing young music prodigy to achieve eternal life. While she and her bushy-haired sidekick are a somewhat uniquely villainous duo, their twisted expressions, grandiose plans, and compulsive need to fling taunts and then vanish make them more similar to, than different from, other adventure game villains we’ve seen a hundred times.

 Notes of Life

The game exhibits other, even more obvious similarities to previously-seen game titles through its color palette, graphics, and art direction. Maestro: Notes of Life is characterized visually by moody, candle-lit scenes filled with crumbling structures, overgrown gardens and strange machinery—just like every other ERS game. And although the game’s art style is indeed impeccable, there’s nothing to differentiate it from any other game released by the studio. Fans of the ERS style will no doubt appreciate this consistency, but others may see it as an indication that when it comes to innovation, ERS isn’t interested and when it comes to presentation, ERS is phoning things in. This same feeling extends to the game’s puzzles, hidden object scenes and sound design which again, are solid but ultimately forgettable.

Here and there, the developer slips in an interesting visual take on a well-worn puzzle but for the most part, puzzles are not only too familiar, but solving them requires little to no thought. Further, hidden object scenes fall victim to two of my biggest peeves—item repetition and randomness. No matter where you go or what kind of environment you’re in, you’ll be sifting through the same jumble of corn cobs, corkscrews, doll heads and axes. The specificity of the locale isn’t fully exploited and the re-use of art assets is fairly obvious. In fact, the only note-worthy thing about the game’s hidden object scenes is the way they seem to intentionally baffle you with nonsensical item match-ups. Some items require you to move something or put two items together but these pairings often fall into”what the heck?” territory. For example, who would think to give an apple to a squirrel in order to find a ribbon? There’s some interesting logic at work there.

 Notes of Life

In addition to some so-so puzzles and lackluster hidden object scenes, the best that can be said about the game’s sound design is that it’s “fine.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. You’d think a music-themed game would make more creative use of sounds but aside from the obviously competent implementation of sound effects and the occasional nod to orchestral themes, Maestro: Notes of Life really doesn’t. And in terms of the actual musical score, I get the feeling I’ve heard it before. Is it possible ERS is reusing musical tracks? If not, then their composer is stuck in a serious rut.

Some of you might think I’m being extremely hard on the game and on ERS and in some ways I guess I am. It’s only because having played some of ERS’s first (and best) hidden object adventures, I’ve come to the point where I expect more from them. Yes, they tell good spooky stories. Yes, they make great art. And yes, they have the hidden object adventure/item search/puzzle formula down pat. It just seems that having all that experience and skill under their collective belts, at this stage of the game the studio might be interested in showing us something we haven’t seen before.

In conclusion, I admit my disappointment in Maestro: Notes of Life, but I also admit that my disappointment is informed by having played most of ERS’s other titles. Players new to the ERS adventures are likely to enjoy this game, which is undoubtedly a professional effort. I’ll give you that. My question for you though is, does ERS have the ability—or more importantly, the will—to stop resting on its laurels and bring us the next evolutionary step in casual adventure games?