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Casual games have a tendency to focus on mundane real-word activities, like running a business, shopping, or harvesting vegetables. That’s why I my interests were piqued by a horror title from a game company whose roster includes “Farm Frenzy”, “Hotel Mogul” and “Tropical Farm”. The horror game Twisted Lands: Shadow Town by Alawar Games is a point-an-click adventure game which avoids the stereotypes of casual games by using a heavy dose of Lovecraftian terror.
Twisted Lands: Shadow Town is about a man whose small boat is shipwrecked, leaving him trapped on a deserted island, and separated from his wife, who is quickly revealed to have been dragged away by hideous fish-men, the island’s only inhabitants. You must explore the island, looking for clues as to your wife’s whereabouts, as well as a way to escape. Along the way you come across another wrecked ship, with its own set of mysteries, as well as a small, abandoned fishing town.
There are a lot of references here to the works of HP Lovecraft in Twisted Lands: Shadow Town/ It has a creepy old town, a race of fish-men, and their bizarre cult which worships evil gods Man was not meant to know. This is a very unusual choice for such a genre of gaming, and I must admit that the final plot twist is a work of pure Lovecraftian terror which is worth sticking with the game.
When I say “Stick with the game”, I mean that hardcore gamers will quickly find that the gameplay is a bit boring. It lacks the sophistication of most adventure games, with almost no dialogue, and very little interaction, or choice. There aren’t any NPCs with whom you speak, and the story comes from reading journal entries, and e-mails. There are a couple of cutscenes, but these are essentially still images with limited animation, and text for the dialogue.
The gameplay mostly consists of pointing and clicking your way through the small number of areas, finding useful items in “Hidden Object Puzzles”, then choosing the right object in your inventory to suit the task at hand. It’s very linear, with little challenge. You do come across the occasional puzzle, but they are rarely challenging.
The Hidden Object Puzzles mentioned above; those are sequences where you’re presented with a screen depicting a room full of clutter, and then given a list of things to find and click on. It's a very common feature in casual games, but you aren’t penalized for making a wrong choice, and you have to backtrack to these clutter piles numerous times during the game, which makes them more of a tedious activity, then actual gameplay.
The music and sound are limited, with no voicework, and just a handful of songs. What songs it has are perfect for the setting; very creepy. The art is of standard caliber for this sort of game; they aren’t shooting for realism in most of the art. However, they do use a nifty trick when the player comes across a ghost; they have photos of actors in period garb with a ghostly effect. It’s a little odd to see real people imposed on the cartoonish background, but it is also a very distinctive style.
It’s also a little on the short side, I got through the main story in about 5 hours, and I don’t see much re-playability. The Collectors Edition does have a bonus chapter that will give you an extra half-hour or so.
This review might sound harsh, but remember that this is a casual game, and the designers aren’t aiming for Call of Duty fans. What they’ve made is an accessible game with clearly-defined objectives and controls. The first level is an excellent tutorial for players who aren’t familiar with this sort of game. Your character’s motivations are explained clearly (Find wife. Escape Island) as are your gameplay goals. For example, early on you stumble across a doorway that requires fifteen keys, so you know exactly what your long-term goal is with all the item collecting. There’s a help feature that you can use, but it has a recharge time of a minute or so, so you can’t just keep hammering the “Hint” button. The Collector’s Edition on the other hand comes with an integrated walkthrough guide which can be pulled up anytime you get stumped. Generally speaking, any time I was stumped, the solution was to head to the nearest clutter-pile and find the necessary item in a Hidden Object Puzzle.
Even though it’s a horror game, it isn’t very scary; at least to the hardcore crowd. When you’ve dismembered your thousandth space mutant, or got the Zombie Genocide achievement, you aren’t likely to get frightened by a mysterious shadow lurking in the mist. However, it is a lot more serious and creepy than just about any other casual game out there.
Although I can’t recommend Twisted Lands: Shadow Town for serious horror fans, I will definitely say this can be used to ease your casual gaming friends into trying Resident Evil or Silent Hill. I will also say that true fans of HP Lovecraft will absolutely get a kick out of way the story unfolds, it’s a well thought out homage to our favorite horror writer, and I hope to see more casual gaming companies tackle this sort of experience.