Snapple fact: Houdini’s son is kind of a jerk!
While The Great Unknown: Houdini’s Castle isn’t the first hidden object game to focus on the magic of Harry Houdini, most past games deal with the man himself, his life, and his death. In The Great Unknown, however, we’re given a story with ample creative liberty as you play a cat and mouse game with Harry’s adopted son Whitehead, who has taken your husband hostage.
There’s much more to the story than this, though, as you’ll learn more about Whitehead and what has caused him to go mad. He’s spent decades trying to contact the spirit of Houdini, who refused to reveal the secrets of the Chinese Water Torture Cell, and without that contact, Whitehead will never be able to reclaim his lost lover, who disappeared in an attempt to perform the trick. Unfortunately, your own playable character has very little impact on the overall story, as you’re simply fulfilling a necessary role to interact with Whitehead and his traps. It would have been nice to see more care given to your character and husband, as it’s hard to worry about these characters’ safety when we know so little about them.
The Great Unknown: Houdini’s Castle starts rather slowly, with a basic introduction of standard hidden object mechanics. You’ll search for items on text lists, with some interactivity within each scene (open a purse to find money, for instance), and the graphics within these scenes are nicely detailed, if a bit dark. While you’ll complete most scenes two individual times, the second playthrough of a single scene introduces an item association game, rather than simply adding new items to the list.
In these scenes, you’ll be given images of items that correspond to hidden objects in some fashion, but many of these associations are hard to actually identify. That is, you might need to pair items that naturally go together in the real world, like a violin bow and a violin, but other pairings deal more with conceptual associations, rather than simple functions. As an example, one pairing sees you matching a Graduation Cap with a scientific equation because, in theory, someone would need to have graduated from college before performing such intricate math or experiments. Thankfully, the collector’s edition comes with a detailed strategy guide that can solve these pairings for you if you’re truly stuck.
While the world within Houdini’s Castle contains a slew of detailed, varied environments, there’s no map or fast-travel mechanic to ease navigation. This forces you to backtrack sometimes to the very beginning stage of the game to complete puzzles or pick up key items, which isn’t very user-friendly. Thankfully, you’ll interact with puzzles along the way to break up the backtracking. These are mostly the standard and expected varieties of tile sliding/rotation and jigsaw puzzles, but the item association scenes can almost be considered puzzles in and of themselves, which obviously helps.
It’s unfortunate that The Great Unknown: Houdini’s Castle is so short, clocking in at around three hours on the easiest difficulty setting, as the game’s cutscenes offer an interesting (albeit fictional) take on the death of Houdini and the rise of his apprentice to fame. There aren’t enough details as to how your own character fits into the equation, but Whitehead is a great villain and the game’s many nods to magic tricks are clever and fun. While it ultimately suffers from too little puzzle variety and too little length, the game is enjoyable while it lasts.