At around the mid-way point of this intriguing hidden object point-and-click detective puzzler, it suddenly struck us: we felt like we were playing Call of Duty. Let’s be clear: Engimatis, from Polish studio Artifex Mundi, is nothing like Activision’s first-person shooter. And although the story aspires to be a nightmarish noir, it’s more like a cheap airport paperwork in the Stephen King mould; a thrilling throwaway.
Yet, because the gameplay in Enigmatis is so deceptively simple, it’s as addictive as Call of Duty in that achingly familiar ‘Just one more…’ way.
So what’s it all about?
You play as an unnamed female detective who wakes up with partial amnesia, in Maple Creek, Vermont – one of those shady towns that populate American literature, inhabited by religious and downright creepy locals who appear almost zombified. Living in Vermont can do that to a fella. As the personality-free PI, you’re on the hunt for a missing girl. But while in Maple Creek you discover that the town has a long and tragic history of young girls disappearing.
Without giving anything away – although any gamer will see the ending coming after about 15 minutes of play – the plot is a pure Garth Marghengi, a supernatural detective mystery populated with bland Mary Sue characters you’ll struggle to remember minutes after finishing. Having said that, the sound effects and gentle piano and strings that accompany every beautiful scene work well alongside the near-motionless visuals to create an eerie and atmospheric setting.
But there’s something severely lacking in Enigmatis: style.
It’s not dark and brooding enough for a noir, and besides a few jump scares that work surprisingly well, it’s too cartoonish to evoke true fear. As a narrative piece, it doesn’t know what it wants to be, so ends up being nothing in particular. The cut-scenes are a case in point. Rather than use their limited technology to its advantage, what little animation there is, is frankly horrific. Trying too hard to replicate a big-screen thriller, lip movements aren’t in sync, and characters fade from one position only to reappear in a slightly altered position. This is lazy 0.5 frame-per-second animation. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
The game was originally built for the iPhone in 2011, and so features limited CGI and still-image overlays that loosely create a sense of motion. This, coupled with the unemotional soap-opera-style voice work does the game’s narrative a disservice. If Artifex Mundi hadn’t originally aimed this game at the casual mobile market, and invested more time into the story, they well have helped reinvigorate the point-and-click genre on consoles. Instead, besides those lusciously detailed backgrounds and a short prequel bonus chapter that features slightly more complex puzzles, everything else about Enigmatis just feels cheap.
The story isn’t unsalvageable, but players may end up wondering why the developers even bothered with these elements, rather than concentrating on what they do best: the gameplay.
In its gameplay, Enigmatis takes many of its cues from the old-school point-and-click adventures. Players are presented with a single beautifully hand-painted screen, and must focus the cursor on relevant items in order to solve a puzzle located in another area. It’s the classic Resident Evil set-up: discover locked door, solve puzzle, obtain key, open door.
Point-and-click games have seen a resurgence in recent years, since they can be played easily on touch-screen phones and tablets. They’re the thinking-commuter’s Candy Crush. Artifex Mundi have been quick to cash in on that trend – in addition to a sequel to Engimatis, titled The Mists of Ravenwood, they also have 41 other similar titles listed on their site including Clockwork Tales: Of Glass and Ink, which is also available on Xbox One.
When you’re not rolling your cursor around the screen, players are confronted with the standard mini-games involving fitting shattered objects together like a jigsaw, arranging items around the screen, or spelling out anagram passwords. You know, just like a real detective.
The more common, repetitive mini-game is the classic hidden objects section, as you’re tasked with finding nine specific objects. Unlike the other mini-games, this never develops beyond that premise. While Artifex Mundi could’ve used this section to develop a character or build upon the universe – what does your junk say about you? – they chose to simply clutter the screen with the virtual renderings of cool things you’ll never use. Fire extinguishers, megaphones, violins, boxing gloves, skateboards…
Why is there a model of the Eiffel Tower in the boot of your car? Why do you need to select the Omega symbol and seven other random objects just to obtain a screwdriver? All this and more will never be explained.
The hidden object parts can also be infuriating, when objects don’t look as they should, or they have oblique names (Spoiler: ‘energy source’ is actually just a 9v battery). It’ll also be handy to have a working knowledge of ancient and mythological history – if you don’t know who Ra is, or what an Ankh looks like, you’re going to be spamming the screen until you accidentally select it.
And yet despite even that, it’s impossible to overstate just how simple, but also just how satisfying these mini-games are; they may not be up to Portal‘s standards of fiendishly tricky puzzles, but the kick of adrenaline as you complete any of these games makes you feel like the smartest guy in the room.
This is Enigmatis’ real power. Every aspect of the gameplay is a perfectly balanced blend – neither too difficult, nor too easy; just tricky enough to keep you playing. Every clue you pick up logically follows the next steps in your investigation, to the point where just as you’re considering quitting, you’ll find another clue that allows you to solve that one puzzle that’s been bugging you since the beginning.
In this sense, Artifex Mundi have created the same psychological rush that Call of Duty players get when they’re so close to levelling up. All it takes is just one more game and you’re a step closer to solving the Maple Creek mystery…
Engimatis is a deeply conflicted game – for every pro there’s a con. It’s at once captivating and creaky. The gameplay is, by and large, pitch-perfect, managing to keep you hooked by testing you just enough, in order to compliment your brain-power. If you dig these sort of games, you’ll likely not care about the weak story-telling and crack on with the mind-bogglers. But for those looking for a deeper gaming experience, you’ll have to hunt down a different game
In short, you can tell everything you need to know about the game by the title. Enigmatis. Meaningless, but still pretty cool.
Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek releases on Xbox One on 8 April 2016. You’ll be able to download it from the Xbox Store for just £7.99.
An eerily addictive point-and-click that fails to set the scene.
Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek could’ve been brilliant. Instead, it’s just good. Sort of. The puzzles are addictive enough to keep you playing long after midnight. But it’s let down by weak story-telling that feels out of place and out of time.
If you grew up wanting to be a P.I. and you’re searching for a game that isn’t just a mindless shooter, congratulations, detective, this is the case to solve. And for a very reasonable £7.99, too.