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Vampire Moon: The Mystery of the Hidden Sun (DS) artwork

Vampire Moon: The Mystery of the Hidden Sun (DS) review

" Vampire Moon: The Mystery of the Hidden Sun takes a good idea and does absolutely nothing with it."

Something’s wrong in Transylvania. It’s been covered in the darkness of a seemingly endless solar eclipse and no one knows why. There are rumors of strange things happening near Dracula’s castle; researchers and civilians have gone missing, and those remaining are too scared to do anything. The stories have gained the attention of Emily Davis, an American reporter in search of the next big headline. She’s traveled all the way to Romania on the flimsy lead of Cosmin Stoica, a local villager who supposedly has some information about what’s going on… but who went missing shortly after contacting her. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Emily has to uncover the truth of not only Cosmin’s disappearance, but of the sinister evil plaguing the land.

An intrepid reporter braving the shadowy depths of the Transylvanian countryside, armed with only curiosity and a notebook, is a promising setup. The problem is that plot has no depth. Aside from sheer gullibility, Emily has no personality whatsoever; she travels halfway around the world based on the cryptic lead of a random stranger. She never questions the validity of Cosmin’s findings, let alone the absurdity of an endless eclipse. She doesn’t bring along any assistants to look after chores and her personal safety, even though she knows that several people have been abducted. The other characters are even less compelling; aside from blatantly withholding information and manipulating Emily, Cosmin does absolutely nothing. The villain, despite having some ties to the legends of Dracula, is utterly boring and one-dimensional. After the first dozen scenes, you’ll start wondering when things are going to pick up…but they never do. Just when it looks like something interesting is going to happen, the game abruptly ends. The storytelling is not only tepid and predictable, but truncated and underdeveloped throughout.

Despite being a reporter, Emily doesn’t do much investigating. Instead, she spends most of the game wandering around the castle and the surrounding countryside, collecting whatever items she comes across. To progress in the game, you’ll have to look over a large, detailed image depicting the current surroundings and a list of objects. Using the stylus, you must find and tap everything listed. It could be anything; you’ll have to nab knives, matchsticks, kettles, bats, scorpions, stars, yin-yang symbols, pizza (seriously, what’s that doing in an ancient castle?), and several other items. They’re never hidden in places you’d expect, either; you’ll find a see-through bucket floating in midair, or an axe embedded into the curves of a stairway banister. You’re given ten minutes to complete a search, but it’ll never be an issue. It shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes at most to find everything. If you make a mistake, you’ll build up a meter at the top of screen. Screw up enough and you’ll be shown an object’s location. This system is horribly broken, though; you can randomly tap the screen and quickly rack up hints, thus eliminating any challenge whatsoever. It’ll result in a reduced amount of bonus points afterward, but the difference is too small to matter.

Considering that you have to repeat this process for nearly every scene, Emily’s little bouts of kleptomania get old quickly. The game doesn’t use the concept to the fullest extent, either; you might have to use a wheel to repair an onscreen wagon or tap on some bolt cutters to get past a locked door, but there’s no functioning inventory and there are no opportunities to use your items. You’ll frequently come across weapons that could have been handy in a boss fight. Random trinkets could have been used for trade sequences or used as puzzle solutions. Rather than forcing you into a horribly linear progression, the game could have let you explore Transylvania freely, acquiring the necessary objects and backtracking accordingly. Instead, you’re forced to complete these item searches over and over again. It makes poor use of the DS’s capabilities; as Professor Layton, Brain Age, and other games have demonstrated, it’s possible to have a wide variety of challenges and mini-games on the touch screen. You’ll occasionally get something different (like the poorly-designed picture puzzle at the beginning or another instance where you must drag a dot through a maze), but those moments are both brief and underwhelming. You’ll constantly wish for the game to give you a new challenge, but it rarely does.

Your only incentive to keep going is a small assortment of unlockable achievements and notes. Obtaining them requires little effort; you’ll be rewarded for finding items quickly, not using hints, getting past certain points in the story, etc. It’s entirely possible to acquire everything without making a serious effort. The documents you find the way provide brief insights into the various themes of the story. They lightly touch on the history of eclipses, folklore, vampires, and Dracula himself. Little of it is interesting or in-depth; you’d get more information from a Wikipedia article. It would have been better had there been character bios, bonus artwork, extra chapters, additional mini-games, or anything else remotely entertaining. The game tries to make up for the limited selection by letting you replay any area you’ve already completed, but you’ll probably be too sick of searching for items to care.

That’s unfortunate, given the beauty of the artwork. Since the game focuses on carefully scanning images and finding items, the artists have provided suitably detailed pictures. The castle interiors are crammed with decaying decorations and dusty artifacts. The courtyard is made with cracked and mossy stones, and the lush forest floors gradually give way to murky darkness and dead trees. Huge stone gargoyles dominate the rooftops, glaring down at you with frozen snarls. The village is a foggy, deserted ruin lit only by a few meager lanterns. Even the little bits of character art are surprisingly good; Emily and Cosmin’s faces might not have much in terms of animation, but they look much better than most text-based protagonists. The same can’t be said for the individual items, though; you’ll see the same objects constantly being reused. Once you get an idea of their overall shape and coloring, finding them becomes much easier. Even if there are many things to collect, it’ll still come off as bland and repetitive.

That goes for the game as a whole. Vampire Moon: The Mystery of the Hidden Sun takes a good idea and does absolutely nothing with it. The story is boring and predictable, and the characters are mind-numbingly shallow. Given the sudden ending and brevity of the investigation - you’ll solve the mystery in a couple of hours at most - it’s easy to disregard the plot entirely. Rather than performing an actual investigation by collecting items and freely exploring, you’re forced to complete a series of find-the-item challenges that have no bearing on the plot whatsoever. While the gameplay covers the basics of the seek-and-find genre, its flawed design hinders its challenge and entertainment value. Thanks to the horribly broken hint system, it won’t take you more than a few minutes to get past a screen. The game doesn’t make good use of the touch screen; had there been a more variety in terms of puzzles and mini-games, things wouldn’t seem nearly as tedious. Aside from a few achievements and supplementary information, there’s no incentive to keep playing. You’ll probably spend some time looking over the awesome stage artwork, but that won’t be enough to keep you coming back. It’s too bad. Dracula deserves better than this.


disco's avatar
Freelance review by Justin Boot (May 09, 2011)

Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.

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SamildanachEmrys posted May 09, 2011:

Good stuff. Good explanation of the game and breakdown of its various faults, and just how exactly these are problems. You also do something that is surprisingly often missing from reviews: you provide balance. Amidst all the things this game does wrong, you pick up on the few things it does right. A lot of reviewers - even professional ones - don't bother, but I think it's important.

All in all an enjoyable and informative review, I thought.
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disco posted May 09, 2011:

Thanks for the comments. Yeah, I always try to judge a game based on not only what it offers, but how well it works. It's not the fastest approach, but I like it.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted May 15, 2011:

What I really love about this review is that it gives the details on the flaws without bashing it. Nice one.

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