In a quaint, cat-filled village, a stranger must save a young boy wrongly accused of murder
For a while now, hidden object games have been tapping literary classics for inspiration—witness the Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe-inspired titles. With the trend well-established, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted to turn writer H.P. Lovecraft’s creepy yarns into hidden object adventures, and Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar valiantly makes that attempt. Unfortunately due to its often monotonous gameplay, the game doesn’t quite pull it off.
Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar starts as you – an errant traveler – arrive in the small village of Ulthar where a trial is taking place. In the town square, a young gypsy boy named Menes is accused by the populace of murdering an elderly couple using an unusual weapon: cats. The accusation, as read by the town mayor, states that the boy used magic to enchant the cats and urge them to attack and kill a wealthy old couple called the Joneses. Although that mode of death certainly sounds grisly, the only evidence of the couple’s death is some shredded clothing left at the scene. There’s something’s fishy about that setup, and when Menes’ older sister begs you to prove her brother’s innocence, you resolve to do just that.
Your investigation leads you into the victims’ stately home, as well as into a nearby gypsy camp and in and out of all the village shops. Early on, you discover a statue of a cat erected in the center of town to commemorate a story wherein a magical horn was used to command the region’s cats. The stone statue is missing its “kittens” and your main goal throughout the game becomes to find and return the stone babies to their rightful place. Thus starts a long thread of repetitive and often monotonous gameplay.
Everywhere you go there’s a door that needs opening, a gate that needs unchaining or a box that needs unlocking, and that means you’ll be repeatedly marching to a different scene, picking up whatever item is necessary, and then marching right back to do the opening/unchaining/unlocking. I know, I know. All hidden object games are at heart, made like this. The difference is in the way they handle this mechanic. The best ones make the process seem more organic, like you’re really discovering things and that things are developing spontaneously. The less successful ones force you to lurch back and forth, robot-like, from scene to scene.
Also affecting a hidden object game’s fun-factor is the quality and inventiveness of its puzzles. Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar relies largely on variations of a single puzzle, which appear whenever you return one of the stone kittens to its momma. Before the cat statue will cough up yet another key (or key-like item), you must restore or piece together an image that illustrates another part of the story. That means reassembling a fractured image by completing a traditional jigsaw puzzle, swapping image tiles or spinning fixed image squares. It’s the same thing approached slightly differently, and after the first three times, (and you have to do it a total of twelve!) it starts to get repetitive. Worse yet, the game’s hidden object scenes are monotonous since, in many cases, you’re asked to revisit them more than twice and the objects in them are always the same. (To clarify, it’s not that you’re asked to find the same things; it’s that the items in the scene don’t change.)
While these things definitely don’t do the game any favors, it’s not as if Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar is a bad game. The upside of the way it’s constructed is that you’ll rarely (if ever) need the Hint button. Even on the highest difficulty level, the game makes both your goals and item usage very clear, basically eliminating the possibility of getting stuck. For instance, if you find a wagon with a wheel on it, a message appears saying, “If I want to get this off, I’ll have to saw it off.” Hint, hint. Get it? Some players might not like this level of hand-holding, but it beats the heck out of scratching your head for half an hour or being forced to run to the Internet for help.
Other good things? Well, the gameplay logic is solid, the music and graphics are nice (although the pastel-rendered cutscenes don’t really jibe with the in-game art’s more realistic approach) and rather than frustrate players with obscure objectives, the game errs on the side of offering players a little too much information. Further, the game offers roughly three hours of moderately entertaining gameplay and once the main story is done, and in the collector’s edition, an additional bonus chapter. Being a collector’s edition you also get the wallpapers, concept art, screen savers and music tracks you’ve come to expect.
Ghost Towns: The Cats of Ulthar is a decent hidden object game. By combining unimaginative goals with repetitive puzzles, it fails to live up to Lovecraft’s brilliant short story and, in fact, loses something in the translation. Ultimately though, if you’re in the mood for a basic hidden object adventure, you’re likely to enjoy the game. If you’re looking for a creative, memorable interactive experience based on a literary classic, you could be disappointed.