Of carnies and creepy clowns.
In Artifex Mundi’s Dark Arcana, a supernatural adventure game for Droid, players begin by investigating a missing woman at a creepy carnival. As the empty carnival gives way to supernatural creatures, players first uncover clues about an unhinged knife thrower, whose dead wife bears an uncanny resemblance to the missing woman, and then discover the sinister reason he’s kidnapped her.
Play progresses through exploring scenes, solving puzzles, occasional hidden object sequences and collecting essential items to access new areas. Hidden object sequences can be skipped by succeeding at games of Monaco, an, uh, match-two minigame. It is the opposite of difficult, which allows players to spend time enjoying the falling-down carnival scenes and collecting circus junk to build essential contraptions. (Note to self: Ask that missing lady, Susan, why she was taking her little girl to such a creepy place anyway!) The game scenes include creepy clowns, hungry plants, ugly dolls, an abandoned Ferris Wheel and carousel, and everything else you might imagine at a cursed carnival.
Players have endless hints, which eliminates walking back and forth wondering if you’ve missed something. Any minigame puzzle can be skipped with no penalty, but the puzzles successfully blend the unfolding story with logic puzzles. Achievements pop up for small successes like defeating minigames in under 15 seconds or for playing Monaco without shuffling.
After charming a poor trapped monkey with a banana, and setting him free, you gain a cute monkey friend. This sweet little companion hangs out with you, helpfully reaching difficult items for you and just hanging out adorably in the bottom right of your screen.
In a typical HO game, players need a pretty strong suspension of disbelief. Sure, clicking the number five on the wall or collecting eight clothespins will advance the plot. Whatever, just roll with it. Since adventure game Dark Arcana has a stronger narrative than the standard HO game, some of the typical HO silliness is more pronounced. Why did I throw the saw away after one use, forcing me to find an axe, shears, scissors, and a collection of other one-time-use cutters? Why does knife thrower Jim keep locking doors and chests but not so cleverly hiding the key in the next room? Sure, there are probably detective rules about not pocketing the suspects’ valuables, but did I really just use that giant diamond to cut glass, and then toss it away?
The quality of the voice acting is uneven but shutting it off won’t affect gameplay. But don’t mute all the sounds immediately! The sinister carnival tunes are a perfect accompaniment to searching this creepy fair. The main locations of Dark Arcana are full of staring skulls, creepy clowns, and abandoned circus costumes. As more of knife thrower Jim’s tragic back story is revealed, the game backgrounds reflect the change in mood, and begin to include flickering candles, portraits of his lost love, and dying roses.
My only real complaint is that activating Inventory, going backward one location, and closing the app on my Kindle all required tapping the middle of the bottom edge of the screen, so I spent an embarrassing amount of time accidentally activating the wrong things.
There is a surprise paywall about a third of the way through Dark Arcana. While the game is well worth the $2.99, this seemed a bit disingenuous. The game is a free download, and while the Google Play page does include a message about potential in-app purchases, I just assumed it meant the option to pay pennies for hints and help.
The quality of the game after the paywall is definitely lower than the beginning. The opening narrative reveals an unhinged knife thrower hiding personal artifacts, and outlines the mechanics of the mirror world. But after the paywall, the dark carnival involves a lot of backtracking between essential objects in locked boxes in random rooms, with very little narrative hook. This is pretty common in HO games, and I felt I was being run back and forth in order to lengthen thin content. At least I never needed to collect the oil, wick and lamp to get into a dark room.
The conclusion of the game contains strong narrative again. Without revealing the final plot twist, the story builds to a dramatic conclusion. Players use information they’ve gathered throughout the game and solve one last puzzle to unlock the finale of knife thrower Jim, kidnapped Susan and the underlying evil manipulating the entire story.
Dark Arcana is a casual adventure game with good narrative and familiar HO mechanics, making it an accessible, solid gateway game for casual players of hidden object titles. Unless they hate clowns…