Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Take the game Spot the Difference, what could be simpler? Two almost identical pictures, all you have to do is spot the handful of differences between them. It’s a game that has kept my son and me occupied whilst working through many a children’s activity book. It also happens to be a very mindful and peaceful activity, the perfect antidote to a busy afternoon of entertaining a four-year-old. It’s a bit like colouring in that respect. Initially seen as purely a kid’s activity, the adult colouring book craze shows no signs of abating – at least in our household anyway – offering an opportunity for a spot of relaxing mindfulness to all those who partake. This got me thinking, how come spot the difference for grown-ups isn’t a thing? Looks like Hyper Three Studio were contemplating the exact same thing. Their game, Tiny Lands, is spot the difference for big people.
The tiny lands in question are teeny isometric environments. Two almost identical teeny isometric environments to be precise. The player inspects the landscapes in order to find five differences. Discover them all and you can move on to the next level. It’s almost that simple. What adds to the difficulty is the fact that these 3D dioramas must be spun in order to identify all the irregularities. The player can adjust both the zoom and angle of the camera to reveal all the hidden secrets. Which sounds easy, other than the fact that some of the levels are utterly beguiling in their complexity.
Take a land that depicts a Native American scene, circa the late 19th century. There are several tepees crammed into a forest, along with brightly coloured totems layered with intricate patterns, trees in autumnal hues with piles of leaves scattered across the grass. There are potentially thousands of opportunities here for the developer to hide the differences. That particular level took me half an hour to clear, thirty minutes staring blankly, unmoving, at my screen. If that sounds like a criticism then it’s not, I was utterly engaged whilst exploring every facet of this charming and whimsical landscape.
There’s huge variety to the worlds you’ll spend your time analysing. From camping scenes to arctic wastelands, tropical islands and spooky graveyards. In fact, one of Tiny Lands great strengths is the visual variety to its levels. Every single one is distinctive with its own story to tell. There’s Kraken attacks, penguins leaping from icebergs and bears sneaking up on unsuspecting holidaymakers. If you’re going to ask the player to do the same thing again and again – look at a diorama and spot the difference – then you’d best make sure you have interesting and diverse dioramas to look at. Hyper Three Studios absolutely delivers on that front.
Progress is controlled through gathering stars over the course of a level to unlock new worlds – it provides a sense of pace and a pleasant feeling of completion. Which all sounds very positive, though there are issues. Say you’ve found three differences in a level and then exit the game to have a break and a cuppa. Upon your return, inexplicably, you’ll have to begin again and identify all five differences – despite already having been awarded the stars. It’s an odd oversight that the game doesn’t quick save and remember your progress. Hopefully, this issue will be remedied in future patches.
A more serious problem is that some of the differences to find are more successful than others. Changes in colour, position and the removal of items all work well. What doesn’t work is when the scale of objects are slightly changed. A wooden barrel that is marginally different in size feels like a cheap way to heighten the difficulty and lengthen the duration of the game. But when the spot the difference mechanic works, when you position the screen just right to reveal a previously obscured irregularity, it is enormously satisfying. Sadly, there are too many examples of slightly different sized leaves and baskets.
Also, I’m not too keen on the dynamic aspects to the scenery. Flurries of snow, dancing fireflies and the embers from flickering flames fluttering across a tiny land all look very pretty but they are not identically mirrored across both displays. Which can lead to your eye thinking its found a difference, when all you saw was a flake of snow floating past.