Nightmares from the Deep: The Cursed Heart comes to Xbox One during an extremely odd phase in digital game publishing on the platform. Developers looking to make a quick buck can now seemingly easily publish their quickly-ported games on the Xbox Store and see them get front page coverage upon release. This doesn't always work all that well, especially when the title was originally a mobile release. Nightmares from the Deep releases with the similar baggage of having previously released on mobile, however it delivers a much better experience than that would necessarily imply.
Coming into the game - perhaps on the back of looking at screenshots or watching trailers - some people may find themselves making the assumption that this is a point-and-click affair. However, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. The hidden object genre has become increasingly popular on touch-centric devices, since removing the need to control a character and simply clicking on objects to solve "puzzles" is a very natural solution to negate the lack of a physical controller. Nightmares from the Deep adds some depth to this that helps to elevate the game above its roots.
Many hidden object games will linearly play out with some plot exposition before dumping you into a hidden object scene. Nightmares from the Deep tries to mix this up, delivering a more cinematic and variety-laden experience. The hidden object puzzles are actually relatively self-contained, though most of the game has you navigating from museums to pirate ships and to a mysterious island, interacting with characters and completing fetch quests as you go.
Where the game really excels is with its wealth of systems aimed at aiding your progression. Along with the blue sparkles that highlight where you should be going on a particular screen is also a two-tiered hint system. Up on the d-pad will outright solve puzzles for you without any questions asked; the only prohibitive part of this is that the timer that prevents you from doing this over and over takes a while to replenish. There's also an option to get step-by-step hints. When completing the item search, the next item will be highlighted with a blue swirl. A similar graphical flourish is present when hitting the button to try and work out where you should go next. Further to this, there's also a gold sparkling effect that will highlight where a mandatory hidden object section is present.
The game isn't all hidden objects, though and there's plenty in here to mix things up. There's a great selection of things you will find yourself doing, from creating potions to cooking up a special brew. There are also some sliding puzzles, puzzles involving matching pots to tell a story, aligning mirrors, creating a voodoo doll (yes, really) and manning a cannon to blow open a castle gate. There's also a side quest coin-collecting mission that helps flesh out some of the story, providing context to the villain's motives, as well as providing a crucial twist towards the end of the game. One slightly strange feature is that carrying out certain actions on screen - for example, smashing open a fire panel to access a fireman's axe - will happen instantly. Rather than have you carry out the action in any way, you'll simply click on an area and the action will be completed. However, this is not entirely consistent; the game will sometimes require you to complete some kind of movement - cutting open a box with a Stanley knife or breaking a flooring tile to find an item - for example. It can be slightly jarring when you don't know what to expect each time and this feels like a hangover from the transition from touch screen to controller. Perhaps it was felt that some motions transferred over easier than others, but in some cases it comes across as a missed opportunity that could have added further variety into the mix.
In a somewhat novel approach to the genre, you can complete the game without actually solving a single hidden object game. If at any time whilst searching for items you've had enough but don't want to resort to using hints, you can instead choose to play a spot of Mahjong instead to get through things. The Chinese tile-based game has seen many videogame adaptations and this is a very serviceable version. The game presents a suitable challenge with achievements unlocked for excelling at matching the tiles. There's also a degree of accounting for those who are perhaps beginners to Mahjong, by resetting the tiles into a new pattern if you find yourself unable to make a move. Whilst this may infuriate Mahjong perfectionists, it keeps things going and serves its function as a secondary means of aiding progression through the game. Whichever method you use to solve a puzzle will result in you being given an item critical to progressing in the story. There's a real sense that the developers want gamers of all abilities to finish the game, from novices just looking to spend a few hours, to pros looking to get the 1000 Gamerscore points.
Despite all this great work, it's not all plain sailing for Nightmares from the Deep and there are some issues. Anyone expecting a meaningful story with performances to match will be sorely disappointed. Wooden voice acting is more prevalent than not and this coupled with lack of lip sync and a hooky story (that does have a couple of admittedly nice twists) doesn't help either. The main character delivers constantly flat lines and also seems to be confused with regards to who she's talking to, sometimes addressing herself, others talking to herself and sometimes talking to the player. The handful of good performances are saved for the undead pirates who litter the pirate ship and surrounding area. Some of their delivery is genuinely brilliant and will make you laugh out loud. The animation in the cut scenes also has a certain amount of jerkiness to it, almost akin to 90s FMV and whilst this might not appeal to all, there is some craft there that is to admired.
The game - for the most part - controls absolutely fine for 99% of the time. The A button progresses through conversations, the B button will take you back through each room from where you came, with the cursor used to select doorways and the like. It must be said that there are couple of strange moments where it wants you use the d-pad for one of those functions - seemingly for no reason. It's not a huge issue, but comes across as odd nonetheless.
The puzzles, whilst good, do sometimes fall apart somewhat if you are planning on playing things from a purist's point of view and sticking purely to the hidden object finding. Touching the screen is replaced with the left stick controlling a large circle to move around. How much you feel you should have to search for the items is probably down to personal preference, but while some items are plain to see, others are hidden so well that it's bordering on maddening. Knives and other tools were often the items hidden extremely well, with some almost given a wooden hue to make it even harder to pick them out.
Where the wind is really blown out of your sails is that when you find an item, there are plenty of occasions where you're convinced that your circle is centered over the item perfectly, yet it won't cross the item off as found. Granted, there are times when this is down to user error, but these are outnumbered by times when this is not the case and the game actually wants a pixel selection to be made. This can be extremely frustrating and there's is a genuine feeling that the circle cursor isn't the right tool for the job. These frustrations can detract from the main experience, especially if you are trying to get a perfect run through but again, the multi-layered hint system will help most players if they run into trouble.
Coming into this game knowing exactly what to expect will help inform whether or not this is for you. The combination of puzzle types that can be solved in multiple ways, along with the option to play a bit of Mahjong offers up some variation if hidden object searching fatigue sets in. A few moments of wonkiness stop it from hitting perfection, but there's still an extremely enjoyable game hidden within Nightmares from the Deep's haunted decks.