Have your fingers and charger ready.
I was about an hour into Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn when I realized it was a game I should be playing with my wife. As a story and atmosphere heavy game driven by player choices, it was exactly the sort of thing we enjoy together, and it ranks as one of our shared favorites. As such we were both really excited when Hidden Agenda was announced, because it promised to be everything we enjoyed about Until Dawn made more accessible as a PlayLink game. The idea is a solid one, but the execution has some disappointing bumps.
Hidden Agenda is one of Sony’s first PlayLink games, where each player uses the game’s app on their phone or tablet as their controller. Like the Jackbox games, it’s a good setup that uses devices everyone has to make the game more accessible to non-gamers or just larger groups of people. The biggest downside to PlayLink is one that’s just inherent to those devices – having my screen on for the roughly two hours it took to play a game was enough to eat most of my battery. Having a power source nearby is definitely recommended.
The game is basically a detective thriller movie in a choose your own adventure style format. There are two main player actions – voting for one of two options when a choice is presented, and short sequences looking for clues or engaging in a sort of quick time action. The choices are straightforward – majority rules, with players able to earn takeovers they can use to seize sole control of a choice. Going with the majority makes obvious sense, but it makes a two player game almost pointless, since both players will need to choose the same option to proceed. In general I wouldn’t recommend anything less than three players, and an odd number is ideal for avoiding this scenario. Voting can also grind to a halt on main plot decision points, where the game insists on a unanimous decision before proceeding, which is an odd choice for a game whose main mechanic is players voting on choices.
More players also has a big benefit in the action sequences. At a few points in the game players need to move their pointer around the screen looking for clues that match the not very clear pictures at the top of the screen. The more clues found the farther the game can progress, and these sections don’t allow any additional time for smaller groups of players, so more people searching means a better chance to move the plot forward. The same is true of the action sequences, where players need to hit areas on the screen with their pointer to dodge an obstacle during a chase sequence, etc. Again, failing at these usually results in a piece of information missed, and that can be the difference between solving the case and hitting a dead end.
The game is at its best with a group, but we ran into a major issue when our group of four played half the game and then tried to resume the next day, where the game informed us that we didn’t have the right players and couldn’t proceed. Even after insuring that we were all using the same names as before, and even the same devices, we were stonewalled and had to start over. As a more casual, party game type of experience the decision to insist on all the same players resuming a session is questionably strict, but not being able to resume even under the proper circumstances is unforgivable.
The game’s namesake is the Hidden Agenda mode. It’s the same as the standard game, with the twist that players are occasionally given secret objectives to achieve. It’s an interesting wrinkle that’s unfortunately shallow – the goal is never anything more than achieving a specific outcome of one particular choice, and the game itself greatly undercuts the intrigue by announcing LOUDLY before that choice that this is the one that determines if the secret hidden agenda is achieved. It doesn’t help that assigned hidden agendas can run counter to actually advancing the plot, so achieving my goal could negatively affect our chances of getting to the end of the game.
All of these issues are really unfortunate, because there’s a good idea here, and a lot of it is well done. The sound design is good, as are most of the facial animations. For a game that has so many branching paths, other than one notable instance the dialog flowed smoothly, which is impressive considering how many items characters could have to talk about depending on the individual playthrough. The ripple effect from decisions are impactful – in our three playthroughs we had three different endings, and all of those experiences felt unique. In one instance a missed clue led to a connecting thread of evidence never being discovered, and in another an early choice led to the main character having an entirely different partner for the whole game. The change itself didn’t have a gameplay effect, but the work put into this is impressive, and I was left with the feeling that there were plenty more branches waiting to be discovered.
Hidden Agenda is a hard recommendation, because the game feels like a natural fit to share with non-gamers, but we had one playthrough that ended so abruptly and unsatisfyingly I thought we had somehow skipped a section, and had I brought this game out at a party I would have felt like we totally wasted two hours. With the right group (like people who understand that if you don’t do well at a game you lose) it’s enjoyable, provided you have the time available to finish it in one sitting. Ultimately the game rests more on a few short action sequences than it does on the decisions made, which undercuts the experience and contributes to Hidden Agenda falling short of its potential.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.