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Why Am I Shooting this Guy?
People often lament the state of story in video games. It’s really only a fair statement coming from people who don’t watch television or movies: I’ll put game designers up against Hollywood any day. Games only look bad when held to literary standards.
Even there, many games come with a great story. The problem is, they come with a story the way a piece of chicken comes with a salad. You enjoy meaty gameplay for a while, then put down your controller and have a bit of crispy, fresh, storyline. Rarely do the game and story come together like tasty chicken salad wrap, where each bite is a delicious combination of game and story.
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Three Cards to Midnight: Story
According to their Manifesto: “For us [Big Finish Games], story has always been the core of our games and this is especially so for Three Cards to Midnight.” So we will start there. We meet Jess, who is trying to piece together mysterious events regarding her parent's whereabouts on and around her thirtieth birthday. There is not much more I can say without spoilers.
The game does a great job of dropping plot points on the fly. You’ll start finding out progressively creepier things about Jess’s past and family until you reach a satisfying and dramatic climax. Finding out who Jess can trust is the kind of “what happens next?” feeling you get from a good, suspenseful, book.
It’s the first “casual” game I’ve played where the genre mystery/suspense delivered on the suspense elements that keep me turning pages in books of that type. To be fair, target audience plays a big part of it here. Though it is rated Teen, not Mature, this has more to do with Hitchcock. It leaves things to the imagination and doesn't lace things with pointless profanity, which helps solidify the tone of the game. This isn’t Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys mystery fare: fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe and their literary successors will be right at home.
While the story is excellent on its own merits, it stands out because of how it gets thematically tied into the gameplay.
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Three Cards to Midnight: Gameplay
At its simplest, TCM is a hidden object game with some puzzles. There are plenty of good games in this genre, but they don’t make things as interesting. The scenes where you seek and find are all tied to Tarot cards, which are drawn in a reading you are having with some guy who is part soothing, part creepy, and in a hurry of some kind. You’re floating in a strange void and everything has a blue halo and a weird echo during these readings. Finding out who the guy giving the reading is brings all kinds of satisfaction.
So instead of wandering around looking for clues, each card triggers a memory, opening a scene to search for objects. When the memory is triggered, Jess and the card reader’s dialogue will dig up a few important words that Jess remembers in relation to the place. Instead of finding a list of objects, these words are keys that Jess has to find objects associated to in order to unlock related memories.
For instance, if Jess remembers the word Box, objects like a toy, bread, sheet music, shoes, a car, wood (toy box, bread box, music box, shoe box, box car, box wood) help Jess unlock memories.
It’s a more interesting challenge than just finding stuff on screen, but it also ties the gameplay and story together. At a conscious level, you are finding things that Jess might need to trigger an important memory. Your mind starts scrounging, looking for associations, just like Jess trying to connect snippets of memory. It’s a very sophisticated and effective way to get you into the protagonist’s skin.
The only problem is that maybe once every few scenes you’ll think of something you weren’t supposed to, or think of it differently. Once, looking for words associated to “night” I was disappointed that clicking on a watch cost me a miss. Another example involved clicking on paper to associate with “back” falling through: said sheet of paper being needed to associate with the word “time” instead. Paperback and time sheet both strike me as valid, so that is kind of arbitrary, but it didn’t come up often.
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Somewhat Problematic Puzzles
Like many hidden object games, Three Cards to Midnight throws in some puzzles to change the pace. These are generally good, and like the main gameplay, do a good job of tying into and advancing the story. There are a lot of cipher type puzzles where your guesses about who is up to what can help you figure out the message, and as you fill in one word or the next you get these little hints as to what will come next before you get the full message and cinematic.
Unfortunately, I found several of the puzzles somewhat finicky. At one point, for example, you have to reassemble the pieces of a crumpled film negative, and when you get it right, the puzzle is solved. The only problem was how right you had to get it. I had to spread out the pieces from my first attempt and put them back together to get the game to agree I had figured it out. It wasn’t a deal breaker, and you have the option of skipping any puzzle if you are stuck and just want to get back into the story.
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Graphics, Sound, and Atmosphere in Three Cards to Midnight
Three Cards to Midnight looks good, but sounds great. Both graphics and sound match the occult supernatural vibe of an almost kitch film noire, and the result is excellent. In terms of atmosphere the sound, music, and voice work are superb, keeping you looking over your shoulder while playing. The scenes you find objects in have a properly disturbing appearance (complete with shadowy figures peering in through windows) and along with the ambient sound, make you quite certain that something very bad happened, or is about to happen, at this location.
The only things holding back the graphics are actually pretty common problems. In many seek and find games it is just too hard to make out the tiny objects you are supposed to click on, and that happens occasionally in Three Cards to Midnight. The other issue is that Jess, the main character’s face, just doesn’t look right sometimes. I think this might be an “uncanny valley” problem, where if something looks close to human, but not quite human, it creates discomfort.
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Three Cards to Midnight: Overall
The review turned up a few things we weren’t thrilled by, but nothing major. With a great story that is closely interwoven with the gameplay and a downright spooky meets PI mystery atmosphere, there isn’t much, or anything, like this in terms of casual games, and very little in games overall. Three Cards to Midnight is the wake up call that the casual hidden object game can have an audience beyond female teens. It’s a grown up mystery/suspense/thriller that will be loved by people of both sexes that like having the hair on the back of their neck stand up, word association, and puzzles.
It also whets our appetite for the sequel currently underway (Three Cards to Dead Time), along with anything else Chris Jones and Aaron Conners (yes, the pair of Tex Murphy fame) are doing over at Big Finish Games.