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Review #243

Cate West: The Vanishing Files
Developer: Gamenauts, Inc.
Publisher: Destineer
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 12/17/2008

Cate West is one of those games I picked up on a lark. I hadn’t seen much, if any coverage on the DS version, and new it was a port of a PC game where you found objects littered around your screen similar to The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes. In fact after re-reading Mark’s review in writing this, I find them to be very similar.

Anyway, I’m a sucker for mysteries and the type of puzzle games where you spot the differences between two pictures or have to find hidden items in a picture, and the MSRP was only $19.99, so I thought, “Hey, why not?” and picked it up.

As we’ve seen in the past, PC to DS ports haven’t worked out so well. Both Syberia and MYST are two of the most famous Adventure games ever made…and both DS versions were horrible. But Cate West is a puzzle game, not an Adventure game…so was it able to make the migration to DS successfully or did I have to sit through two back to back underwhelming handheld games?

Let’s Review

1. Story/Modes

Cate West is a mystery writer who just happens to have psychic powers. She also has unresolved daddy issues. When office Ben Shephard discovers her powers, he and his partner Eliott McCaffrey enlist her help in solving a strange set of crimes nicknamed, “The Vanishing Files.” As the game progresses you learn that the Vanishing Files are all connected through a Criminal Mastermind named M and a recurring theme around the Three Magi, or the Three Wise Men as some may know them. Cate also slowly discovers that these cases are intertwined with the death of her father and as she becomes more obsessed about solving these crimes, she lets her friendships and professional career crumble. I was pleasantly surprised to see how in-depth The Vanishing Files was story wise – for a puzzle game that is. I enjoyed the characters, was sucked into the overarching mystery that connected all fifteen chapters of the game and I was impressed by the religious iconography being a recurring theme throughout the game, yet the game never hammers home about any specific religion or gets preachy. This is a hard thing to do, but Gamenauts did an excellent job with this and I am really looking forward to a sequel.

Each chapter of the game contains five different games that you play, four of which are accessible in Quick Play Mode, but only after you beat the puzzle in story mode.

The five games are:

A) Find Clues. Here you’ll go from one to four locations trying to find a certain amount of items before the time limit runs out. The amount of items you have to find starts off small but by chapter 10-11, you’ll be required to find 39 out of 40 items.

B) Find Evidence. Here you’ll have to find broken pieces of an item scattered around the screen before the time runs out.

C) Confirm the Hideout. This is one of those games where you are given two pictures and you have to find the ten things that are different between the two.

D) Identify the Correct Criminal. Here you’ll be given a series of clues about who the criminal is and from those clues you’ll have to pick which of the suspects is the actual hoodlum. It’s like Carmen Sandiego.

E) Re-Create the Crime Scene. Think Find Clues in reverse combined with Confirm the Hideout. Once again you’ll be given two pictures and you’ll have to find the differences between the two. At the same time you’ll have a set of items that you’ll have to put back into one of the pictures when you find the difference.

Each Chapter takes between twenty minutes and an hour, depending on how good you are. You received points based on time and bonus points based on how little you used the hint button. All of this combines to give you a solid well made game with both a fun story and enough puzzle variation to keep the game fresh throughout.

Story/Modes Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

There are two types of graphics in the game. The first are the character portraits which are reminiscent of the Phoenix Wright series, albeit it a little more cleaned up and realistic looking. I really liked all of the character portraits, with the varying expressions provided. There are generically generated criminal mug shots in each of the cases that come up, and these are of a lesser quality due to the CAW like nature of them, but they’re still acceptable and are in style with the main character stylings.

Then there are the puzzle graphics. Each of these is amazing. Each one looks like an interactive photograph. The level of detail is amazing and it’s a joy to discover all the hidden items contain within, even when they are not items pertaining to what you should be looking for. There is a slight problem trying to find items at times when they blend in perfectly with the background but well, that’s the point. They can’t all be Tyrannosaurus Rexes sitting next to a tractor.

The Vanishing Files is a very pretty game, sure to delight puzzle fans of all tastes. It doesn’t tax the graphical capabilities of the DS, but I can’t imagine anyone being unhappy with this feast for your eyes.

Graphics Rating: 7/10.

3. Sound

Surprise, surprise! There is a tiny bit of voice acting in the game. By this I mean about 10-12 words recorded per character. They are there to help set the mood and tone of voice each character rather than a full fledged acting troupe production. It’s good for what it is, but it left me wishing the entire game had voice acting. Maybe the PC version provides that option.

The background music is both eerie and ominous. It fits the game nicely, and I was surprised that it wasn’t at all distracting when I was scouring pictures for a cheeseburger or monkey wrench. There is only the one track, so audiophiles might get annoyed with this, but after a few sections of a chapter you kind of tune out any noise at all.

Finally, there are the sound effects. These can be divided into two noises: A happy noise when you get something correct, and a grumpy noise when you tap a wrong area. Again, there’s not much here, but there doesn’t really need to be. The audio aspects of The Vanishing Files are both the weakest and the least important aspect of the game. What’s here is certainly acceptable, especially as it is a budget puzzle game, but it both shallow and unimpressive.

Sound Rating: 5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

The controls are quite tight in this game and I was surprised that the game adapted so well from being a point and click into a dual screen format. If I hadn’t known that going in, I’d have assumed this was designed solely for the NDS.

As you have probably guessed, you scroll through the screen in search of objects or things that aren’t right and then you touch those areas with your stylus. I found collision detection to be exceptionally well done save for the rare occasion where it thought I clicked the area twice or when the area for detecting the item was off slightly from where I was touching. These incidents happened less than a dozen times while playing the game, so it’s remarkably solid. You scroll through the pictures with one of three control schemes: using the D-pad, using the stylus, or using the four buttons on the right hand side. I found using the D pad to be the best method, although lefties will appreciate the ability to use the buttons. The stylus method of dragging across the screen works quite well too, but ther eis always the off chance you might tap the screen while dragging.

In fact my only real nitpick with the controls of the game is that you can’t speed up the written dialogue in the story scenes. It’s far too slow and your only options are to let it proceed at a snail’s pace or skip the dialogue entirely. Because the story really helps make the game, I was left wishing for the ability to tap the screen once and have all the dialogue pop up. You know, like in most games.

The Vanishing Files has controls that are simple, intuitive and easy to use. It’s not quite perfect, but for a budget game, I’m blown away by how precise things are, especially the item detection.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 9/10

5. Replayability

There are fifteen chapters in the game and beating each one unlocks more for you to do in Quick Play. Granted, the story campaign is quite long for a puzzle game but there are two reasons to try and play again. The first is to raise your high score. You get points with each game you play and sometimes it’s fun just to see how much better you’ve gotten. As the items you need to search for seem to change each time you enter a location, you’re guaranteed a new experience every time. The second reason is that there are three endings in the game, each of which is determined by your overall score. I’ll admit I’ve only achieved one of the endings, but I’m quite eager to find out where the point thresholds are and how each ending differs.

Of course, there’s also quick play so you can play any of a number of puzzles if you don’t want to crack open your main game.

The Vanishing Files may be a once through for people who just want to complete story mode, but for those that really enjoy this type of puzzle, Quick Play mode and the alternate endings provides enough of an impetus to give the game another playthrough or two.

Replayability Rating: 6/10

6. Balance

The Vanishing Files is a tough but fair game. The difficulty is raised so subtly and slowly that you generally don’t notice it until a few cases later when you go, “They want me to find HOW many items now?” You also may run into problems seeing an item or with how the game describes them. For example, I had to find both a nutcracker and a toy soldier in one puzzle (Amongst other items) and when I thought I had found the nutcracker…it had turned out I had clicked on the toy soldier. Maybe I sat through the ballet too many times as a child, but when I think Nutcracker, I think the solider version. The actually nutcracker they wanted you to find was a normal metal one. Ah well. There are also times when items are very hard to see or only a tiny portion of them are visible. This makes identifying them even harder, especially when you don’t know what you are looking for. There’s also the problem of you, the player, just not knowing what an object is. Case in point: One one the puzzles had me looking for a “Lucky Cat.” I saw a Nekomeko on the screen and due to my knowledge of Japanese culture, I knew that this is what they meant, but how would the average person know that. Same with an item called a “spanner.” I had no idea what that was and I eventually resorted to using the hint button.

Let’s talk about that option since we have a perfect segue way. The Hint button can be used at any time and when pressed, an area on the screen will be surrounded by sparkles. One of the items you are looking for will be in that circle. You can’t choose which item – it is totally random. Using the hint button removes bonus points from your score and to ensure you don’t abuse it, you have to allow the button to recharge itself before you hit it again, which is approximately thirty seconds. With this option, even the dimmest of gamers can complete a puzzle, but your score and thus your eventual ending will pay the price for your inability to find objects on your own.

So yes, there are a few flaws with the balance. Nothing’s more annoying that having to find a white ball of yarn on a white background or you click on an item convinced that’s what you are looking for only to be told, “Nope, that’s not it.” Because item sizes are not relative to each other, you might be having to find a hand that’s normal size in comparison to the rest of the picture and a second that is a fraction of that. Things like that do cause the game to be more difficult than it would be otherwise, but it wouldn’t be a brain teaser otherwise.

Balance Rating: 6/10

7. Originality

As I said in the intro for this review, this game seems to be all to similar to The Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes in terms of gameplay and puzzle solving. Nintendo’s Millionaire Heir is in the same vein as well. The Vanishing Files is merely the latest in a series of games like these or the Capcom published Mortimer Beckett and the Secrets of Spooky Manor. Yes, the whole “Eagle Eye” genre of puzzle games are older than the hills, this doesn’t keep The Vanishing Files from being a lot of fun as well as capsulated by an intriguing story.

Originality Rating: 3/10

8. Addictiveness

As I mentioned in the previous section, the “find the hidden item” type games have been around for a long time. That being said, I’ve never enjoyed one as much as I have this one. I’ve done these type of puzzles on my computer and on paper before, but they never sucked me in as much as The Vanishing Files. The story was fun, the (Puzzle) graphics were lifelike, and I found myself not only absorbed with the game, but that I had whipped through 11 chapters of the game in about 24 hours. I don’t think I’ve ever been glued to the DS like that before –even for a Pokemon title. Even when my eyes started to blur from all that acute staring and I started to recognize puzzle backgrounds by name, I kept going.

I’m really hoping that Gamenauts has a sequel planned for the DS, as I know I’ll be one of the first in line to purchase it. The characters, story, and puzzles all make an excellent package that will entertain you for well over a dozen hours.

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10

9. Appeal Factor

I’m not sure how popular this genre is outside of PC games. The Wii and DS are starting to get titles like this one, with even the big N getting in on the act, and that’s going to bring in hardcore and casual gamers alike. I’m not really much of a puzzle gamer myself, but The Vanishing Files had all the right pieces in place to make this a hit with me. With a nice budget price of only $19.99, most gamers will be able to get their money’s worth out of this one. Gamers who need constant action or who prefer to button mash rather than spend time flexing their mental muscles will probably want to sit this one out. Alas, outside the PC, gamers who want a thinking man (Or woman)’s puzzle are outside the norm.

Appeal Factor: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

There’s a lot of talk about shovelware on the Wii and DS. The would-be hardcore gamer is skeptical and thus eschews any title that isn’t by a “Name” publisher or has a budget price. God forbid one tries something new or that something cheap is also something good. Well The Vanishing Files is just such a game. It’s well made, a lot of fun, and you can’t beat the price. Alas, because Destineer’s not a Konami or Sega, other sites and their reviewers have turned their nose up at this game because it “won’t bring the hits.” Well, guess what? In doing so, they’re doing a disservice not only to the game itself, but to you the reader who deserves to know there’s an enjoyable puzzle game at a low cost you or your friends. Sure TVF isn’t a game that’s going to win awards, but there’s a reason this title has sold incredibly well on the PC, and Cate West is a character I hope to see more from in the future.

The Vanishing Files tested my wits, intellect and patience and I was well rewarded for my time with it. You will be too.

Miscellaneous Rating: 7/10

The Scores
Story: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 5/10
Control and Gameplay: 9/10
Replayability: 6/10
Balance: 6/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 7/10
Total Score: 63
FINAL SCORE: 6.5 (ENJOYABLE GAME)

Short Attention Span Summary

Cate West: The Vanishing Files is one of the best “eagle eye” type of puzzle games I’ve ever played. It’s rekindled my passion for this style of puzzle and because of it, I’ll end up trying Millionaire Heir and Mortimer Beckett. For only $19.99, you’re getting a solid puzzle game that offers more than a dozen hours of play time in story mode, some excellent graphics and a nicely told story that keeps drawing you back for more. Gamenauts has a great potential franchise here – as long as gamers get out there and experience this title for themselves.

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