"To find the whole truth behind The Hidden Theft, the Hardy Boys must scour the town for clues, interview all the witnesses, and continuously think outside the box. But before the journey can begin, the pair has to get past Mom. She grounded them."
Was Laura Hardy always such a pill? As The Hidden Theft opens, her attitude towards her sons, Frank and Joe, is completely toxic. Sure, a beat cop just marched into her house to deliver the shocking news that the teenagers had been speeding around town on their motorcycles, disregarding every traffic law in the book. She can't know that the officer is actually an undercover A.T.A.C agent (American Teens Against Crime), there to assign the Hardy Boys their next big case: the theft of 200 million dollars worth of bearer bonds. (Yes, 200 million dollars!)
The victim of the crime is one Samuel Spencer, who must be the richest, and meanest, old man around Bayport. Samuel immediately points the finger at his kind, impoverished brother Thomas, whom he keeps around the grounds as a sort of indentured servant. The young detectives don't believe the poor man is guilty, but the immediate alternatives aren't much better. The only other people living on the grounds are Thomas' wife, Mary, an invalid with a wheelchair, and his step-daughter Lily, a pretty girl with a crush on Frank. To find the whole truth behind The Hidden Theft, the Hardy Boys must scour the town for clues, interview all the witnesses, and continuously think outside the box. The adventure takes them far from home, to New York City to hunt down shady fugitives, and far into the past, to the root of a fifty year old tragedy. But before the extensive journey can begin, the pair has to get past Mom. She grounded them.
Escaping their mother's wrath displays the kind of ingenuity required to make it through this case. The boys are confined to their room, and even setting a foot downstairs leads to a tongue thrashing from Laura. To smooth her out, they need help from Dad, but their cellphones are locked in their bikes. In order to retrieve their confiscated keys, Joe has to shimmy down a tree and find a way to distract their agitated Mom. That will give Frank a few precious seconds to scurry into the kitchen and abscond with the keys. Even then, they have to find a way to pass items back and forth through the second story window, and only their pet parrot fits the bill. Not exactly an obvious, straightforward solution.
Unfortunately, subsequent puzzles abandon the use of teamwork, and you'll move Frank around with Joe attached at the hip. Some problems begin to feel more like manufactured obstacles, though even these require a bit of abstract thinking. For example, Frank and Joe find themselves trapped at a dead-end, and only some arcane machine hints at a hidden exit. But the room looks like an observatory, there's a book on constellations sitting on a shelf, riddles are printed on the wall, and some paper and crayon are strewn in the vicinity. Tinkering with these items step-by-step, you'll eventually produce the code that machine requires. All the problems follow a similar process, forcing you to evaluate your inventory, even combine items within it, and improvise a solution. The game won't leave you hanging completely; there's a journal with general goals and special icons show the items on which you can operate. But the methodical inventiveness required here really brings The Hidden Theft to life.
The primitive 3-D graphics, though, suck the life out of you. The flat textures pasted on women's hair is especially repulsive. There are some nice set pieces; the antique Crown Victoria sitting in front of the Spencer mansion and the Hardy Boys' motorcycles make me want to joyride. Unfortunately, our heroes only walk, lurching around like robots. Celebrities Jesse McCartney and Cody Linley turn in equally stiff performances as Frank and Joe, respectively. Jesse's a pop star as well as an actor, but he wouldn't have any teenybopper fans if he sang with the energy he displays here. At this point, Cody's best known for appearing on Hannah Montana and Dancing with the Stars. Forget those, though; he's one hundred times more enthusiastic hawking chicken sandwiches in commercials than for this nondescript performance. Even at the most critical revelations, they don't bring any emotion to the table. Compared to the capable actors that round out the rest of the cast, they're entirely ordinary.
The brief flashes of life from Jesse and Cody occur when they deliver sarcastic insults. Taking Laura's cue from the very start, the game carries a surprisingly negative tone. When the brothers run into their friend Iola, who helps out by performing forensics in the school chemistry lab, she jokes that the boys never even crack a book. Every stranger they meet seems to comment on how unintelligent the pair appears. There's even some backbiting between the two. I remember the Hardy Boys as well-rounded overachievers and best friends, not as smartass semi-slackers uninterested in obtaining knowledge practical to their sleuthing profession. It's up to you to provide enough brains for the both of them.
Maybe that's just seen as a natural part of updating Frank and Joe into the present day. This game, as the first in what is undoubtedly meant to be a long line of sequels, is also a new take on the boys' first book, The Tower Treasure. With that solid storytelling base and some clever problem solving, The Hidden Theft gets this modernized set of Hardy Boys off to a decent start. Next time, hope for a more positive outlook and a greater share of puzzles that require two-man cooperation.
Freelance review by Benjamin Woodhouse (November 25, 2008)
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