iPad Game Review: Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull HD
Reviewed by Tom Slayton
Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull is a surprisingly long adventure game that utilizes a combination of location-oriented puzzles and hidden objects to tell its story. It sets itself apart by its use of live-action video for character interaction.
13th Skull is another quality casual adventure title from Big Fish Games. The story begins with a mandatory video of a father reading a bedtime story to his daughter when some supernatural force snatches him away in a flash of bad acting and green light. You, the investigator, are tasked with solving the mystery and finding the missing Dad. To accomplish this, you will search the house, and ultimately the grounds, looking for objects, solving puzzles, and watching yet more videos of actors doing their best to read their lines convincingly. I know I'm probably not doing a very good job of making this sound like fun, but it actually is quite fun. The plot is solid, the puzzles enjoyable, and even the hidden object portions and I Spy item collection did a great job of holding my interest. I... just... don't... like... seeing live actors inserted into a video game. More on that later.
As you collect items, they will appear in your inventory. You can also toggle between your inventory and your objectives so you can keep track, not only of what you've found, but of what you haven't. A generous hint system tops off the whole package and does a great job of keeping you from getting stuck. Lastly, there is a casebook that automatically updates itself as you collect information, and a sort of pirate's map of the general area, although it does not show your current location. While there have been App Store reviews warning of crash bugs in the latest release, I have yet to encounter any, but read these reviews carefully before you spring for the full game.
The settings in 13th Skull are nicely rendered and wonderfully spooky without being scary. The actors, though... I suppose it isn't entirely fair of me to call any of this acting bad. It's really not bad at all. These are most likely dinner theatre and playhouse actors pouring their hearts into what they do. It's just that the juxtaposition of computer rendered scenery and live actors puts me off just as forcefully as it did in the early 90's when CD-ROMs were first introduced and the store shelves were filled with this sort of thing. Your tastes are very likely different than mine, however, so don't let this feature keep you away if you don't share my opinion. It's important to also note that these videos are woven into the game with Big Fish's usual polish so if I've given you the impression that their production standards aren't up to snuff, rest easy. Unfortunately, this wasn't my only complaint regarding the graphics. Most of the locations are quite dark and the game stubbornly refuses to let you zoom in on the scenery so if you're over 30, be sure to pick up a pair of reading glasses, especially for the hidden object portions of the game.
The game is chock full of creepy ambient sounds, which play continually as you prowl the manor and grounds. The music kicks in every now and then, but instead of a spooky soundtrack, the developers have opted for a southern-fried sort of guitar thing to match the game's locale. All of this is very well-done, and I found the game to be even more enjoyable with headphones - always a worthy litmus test.
In-App Purchases (IAPs)
13th Skull is free to download, but the full game unlock will cost you $6.99. However, this will buy you the complete game as there are no consumable IAPs such as hints, or cheats. While there is nothing functionally different about a full game purchased via IAP and a full game purchased outright, I always recommend that gamers buy full versions rather than in-game unlocks as you would still be able to install the full game from iTunes even if the publisher stops supporting the game.
There's a lot of game here for your $6.99 so if you're a fan of casual adventure/hidden object games, what are you waiting for? If, however, like me, you're not a fan of live action sequences inserted into games, you may want to satisfy your gaming itch elsewhere as this one is crammed full of 'em (almost 900 mb worth).
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 2.5 - Nicely rendered environments, marred by live action video and an inability to zoom. Sound: - 5 - Fantastically spooky ambient sounds and an original southern-fried soundtrack. Controls: - 5 - An intuitive and responsive interface. Just what you'd expect from Big Fish Games. Gameplay: - 5 - If casual adventure games in spooky settings are your thing, you're going to enjoy the 12-15 hours of well-scripted gameplay.
Playing Hints and Tips:
There doesn't seem to be any penalty for random tapping if you can't find what you're looking for. However, the generous hint system is probably an easier way to go.