Of the initial line up of games for Sony’s mobile controlled PlayLink system, Hidden Agenda showed the most promise. Coming from Supermassive Games, the studio behind Until Dawn, this looked to create the same magic with a police crime mystery to solve. Sadly, this is one case that could easily go unsolved.
The game picks up with Becky Marney and her partner, two wet behind the ears beat cops, who happen upon the latest victim of The Trapper, a serial killer with a penchant for leaving mouse traps and cop killing bombs behind. Catching him in the act, it’s a slam dunk case, but skipping forward five years with The Trapper on death row and just days from the death penalty, he throws doubt on his conviction with word of an accomplice, a mastermind that’s still on the run.
Even in these first few scenes there’s an impressive breadth to how dramatically your actions can affect the immediate story. Supporting characters can die, the entire point of courtroom speeches can shift, and this spins out through to the rest of the game’s rough 90-120 minute play time.
This is very much a hands off, decisions only take on the graphic adventures that Telltale’s games helped to popularise, only ever giving you a choice between two approaches to a line of dialogue – cautious or confident, for example – asking you to interact with certain points of the screen in time during action scenes, or sweep the environment with a flashlight to uncover a number of clues.
All of this is interacted with via your smartphone screen and the Hidden Agenda specific PlayLink app available for iOS and Android – if you have trouble connecting, there is a fallback of making the PS4 a hotspot. It’s a relatively basic affair with a simple touch area for you to use your thumb to move a cursor around on the TV, and it’s here that the game starts to feel clumsy and awkward. The input isn’t fine or precise enough to feel smooth, and even with a health dose of snapping to target it’s very easy to overshoot a box. That’s just dumb for the binary decisions that make up the bulk of the game, which could far more easily have been represented by, you know, buttons on your phone.
The smartphone does potentially open the game up to more casual players who aren’t familiar with a DualShock 4 – you will need a controller to launch the game though – and it also contains a growing trove of information as the case evolves, you meet new characters and reach the Ripple events that most dramatically alter the story.
You can actually play the game with up to six players, which is another good reason for using phones as the PS4 can only handle four controllers at once. In the story mode, players have to agree on a course of action, using Takeover cards to overrule other people if they feel passionate enough, but then being able to earn more of these cards by having the quickest reactions during action sequences. You’re also called upon to vote on who was the most reliable under pressure, most trusting, and so on, which lead to specific players having sole control over key events.
It’s an interesting and more communal effort, albeit one which we were only able to try out with two players. At that point it’s far easier just to shift your decision to try and keep the game flowing, instead of resorting to Takeover cards.
Playing with two also undercuts Hidden Agenda’s competitive mode to a certain extent, which will be best played with three or more, and even better if none of the players go in with any idea of the game’s story. Here, the key events are set up so that a player may have their own agenda to try and push the story in a particular direction. The other players will have to try and guess who it is with the Agenda to score points and perhaps even prevent it from occurring. The final scene then sees all players with an agenda to try and manipulate events toward.
It’s a clever idea, but crumbled through circumstance and a natural inclination to explore the story as opposed to compete. Also, I’m apparently bad at lying when I have the Agenda. It’s also far too signposted by the game’s tutorial narrator, interjecting and breaking up the game.
I also have to say I was rather disappointed by the writing and the technological underpinnings of the game. They used Unreal Engine 4 instead of Guerrilla’s Decima engine as in Until Dawn, and while it can look truly impressive with plenty of realistic close up camera shots and load times are kept to a minimum, there’s also tons of detail pop in, too many awkward and robotic walking animations and the focal range sometime leaves key characters out of focus. You can also see the seams of where they’ve stitched together lines of dialogue and animation… as well as hear it.
The script really leaves a lot to be desired from what’s a fairly straightforward and intriguing set up. Within five minutes, there’s already bizarre leaps of logic within US law, a DA on a warpath for a convicted criminal that she may well have called the death penalty for, plot holes galore for some endings, and then there’s the times when a character could go from screaming and whimpering down the phone to calmly stating facts. Perhaps a worse crime is that if you fail to navigate the ripples of change and Becky is arrested as The Trapper, the game often reveals their identity after the credits anyway.
Suddenly the reason to go back and play again is dispelled and the mystery is gone if you return to uncover scenes and correct your mistakes like you’re Sam Beckett. Even when you do succeed, the game just fizzles out and ends with a radio newscaster summing up events, before documentary style interviews praise or lambast or sound generally confused behind the credits. There’s no satisfying conclusion to be had of the four different endings I’ve found.
There’s some good ideas in how PlayLink can be used to let a group of players (and non-gamers in particular) join together and shape a filmic story, but the actual interface feels clumsy, and the story and scripting leaves plenty to be desired. It’s safe to say that Hidden Agenda is an obvious disappointment.