I’m beginning to find that hidden object games scratch a very peculiar itch of mine. They’re not the type of thing I want to play all the time, & I’m hard-pressed to buy one if it’s not on sale, but when I’m in the mood for a quick little bite of gaming, they fit the bill. But the question becomes: What makes a good hidden object game? I think I may have found a good example in Princess Isabella: A Witch’s Curse.
As the title suggests, you play as Princess Isabella. After returning home from some undisclosed location, you discover that a witch cursed your castle, turning everything dark & gloomy, & imprisoning your servants & family into mirrors. Worse still, she’s holding your fiance hostage. But there may be more to it than that, as a dark family secret comes to life.
Princess Isabella is a puzzle game at its very core. Every room has several different puzzles to solve. The most obvious are the hidden object games, where you must find a list of random items from a mess. However, you must also locate broken mirror shards to free the servants & unlock new areas of the castle, banish evil icons, make potions, learn musical scores… All these puzzles serve to lift the curse from your rooms, until finally unlocking the witch’s hiding place. But you won’t go alone, as the game gives you your own version of Navi — a little fairy friend who offers guidance & gains spells to help you clear away obstacles.
Narrative: Though fully self-contained, I found the story rather threadbare. You uncover the story at a reasonable pace, learning more of the hidden backstory from diary scraps & the servants, but the final conclusion left me thinking, “What?”. Without spoiling much, the ending is basically: No, this person isn’t really evil! Big happy family reunion. Oh, no, wait! Now you’re evil. Or maybe not… I honestly wasn’t sure who it was at the end conversing with the witch. It just felt flat & the trouble resolves so quickly that if you blink you’ll miss it. Almost no one has any character or personality. Why am I saving what sounds like a forced marriage? Why does the princess (the heroine) have no personality — or indeed, lines at all? The only person with any semblance of personality is the fairy. Blessedly, she’s nowhere near as annoying as the real Navi. So overall, the story is enough to give context, but falls flat otherwise. It’s just there to drive your actions, which I suppose it does well enough. Score: 2
Mechanics: From a gameplay perspective, Princess Isabella is the most competent hidden objects game I’ve played thus far. For one, there’s actually a purpose in finding those random objects, as most of them relate to a puzzle of some sort. Not everything you’re asked to find is useful, but most are, which I think is a nice touch, rather than making my character seem like they’ve got OCD. There’s also a nice variety to the puzzles you have to solve to clear all the rooms. Usually you’ll have to find a certain number of objects to solve the puzzle (for example, four marbles or five bear claws), but I think that helps with the feeling of progression. There was never a point where I couldn’t think of what to do next. The puzzles are a bit simplistic, however. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I hate getting stuck on puzzles, but it does make the game pretty easy. I might’ve had to restart a puzzle or two once, but solely because the first time around I didn’t see how to do it. The fairy can also provide you with hints after a certain amount of time if you’re stuck, which is always nice. Speaking of fairies, there are some puzzles where you’ll have to use her to cast certain magic spells to clear obstacles or find objects. Like using fire to light candles or water to make flowers open (don’t question why there are items inside flowers). Though she has one spell to break things called “Rock”, which always made me think she was just throwing rocks at things. Still, it’s nice to have a sidekick that’s useful. I also really liked how the map system was set up. From the map, you can teleport to any room you’ve previously been to, making backtracking easy. And the map shows the status of each room (if it’s still cursed, if there’s an unsolved puzzle or if it’s clear) which is extremely helpful to prevent you from getting stuck. The only part of gameplay I didn’t like was the boss fight at the end. To finish the game, you have to find hidden objects to create a potion while the witch tries to do the same. It was such a jarring change, because no other puzzle had a timed element. Plus, by using the entire room to search, it’s hard to find the items you need. They’re too small. I beat it on the first try, so I suppose I can’t complain too much, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. Overall, very competent gameplay with nice variety, if a tad too easy aside from the obnoxious boss fight. Score: 4
Aesthetics: Being a hidden object game, most of the scenes are still images. However, they’re very pretty stills. I appreciated that each room had a unique look while still feeling coherent to the overall castle. They also made an effort to make the hidden object scenes coherent, meaning the objects look like they naturally belong in the scene. For example, in one puzzle you have to search for specific symbols hidden among sculptures, & the objects look like they should be part of the sculptures. Again, it adds to the cohesion of the setting. In comparison, however, I felt the animated scenes were too washed out. The style on its own isn’t bad, reminding me of watercolors, but they don’t mesh well with the otherwise detailed visuals. It’s especially noticeable in the boss fight where the watercolor animation plays over the standard background, making the animation look poorly done. It just highlights the differences. Music and voiceacting are also okay. Nothing really stood out as being really good or bad. Though I did get a kick out of the fairy always saying, “You lifted the curse! Yay!”. Score: 3
Replay Value: Low. I don’t see any particular reason to play more than once. The game doesn’t offer any additional content. There’s not even a difficulty setting. Score: 2
Overall Score: 3
Final Word: Despite the lackluster story, Princess Isabella: The Witch’s Curse is the best example of hidden object mechanics I’ve played yet. If you can get it cheap, I’d recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of the genre or just curious as to what it’s about.
-GamerDameTitle: Princess Isabella: A Witch’s Curse
Console: PC, Wii
Developer: Gogii Games
Publishers: Strategy First
Release Date: 2009