Review: Paranormal State: Poison Spring

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In the days before Batman and Spider-Man were popping up on GOTY lists, licensed video games tended to be a wasteland of low-effort junk. There have always been exceptions, don’t get me wrong, but for every TIE Fighter or Riddick you had great swathes of Barbie time wasters and inexplicable daytime TV tie-ins. One of the latter surfaced on Steam back in 2013, a hidden object game based on some A&E show about a college kid who can only make one face taking his buddies on uneventful ghost hunts. That should tell you everything you need to know about this one, but it leaves out how this is somehow one of the most polished, feature rich, and charming hidden object games from that period.

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Paranormal State was based around the adventures of the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society. Led by Ryan Buell (don’t google him, it’s kinda sad), the 5-person team would investigate spooky locales and make as big a deal as possible about not finding any ghosts. In the game, however, they trek out to Poison Spring State Park at the urgent behest of one of the park employees. Once the site of a Civil War battle, the park is now beset by very real, very agitated apparitions. You, as the sixth member of team, must help gather clues, evade danger, and solve the centuries-old conflict at the root of this paranormal eruption.

If you’ve never played a hidden object game before, understand that they’re ostensibly aimed at the bored housewife demographic. Whatever horror you read in that premise is reduced to mild stingers and actors photoshopped to be transparent. It gets a little spookier than most HOGs though, with one particularly good segment in a haunted trailer and some decent writing to help punch up the stakes. The charm of the game is still in its cheese though, and some of the voice acting from these over-dramatized college kids is bound to have you cracking up. It’s a good ghost story with a touch of atmosphere and plenty of kitsch, which should fall squarely into the casual puzzling experience most people are going to be looking for here.

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As for the gameplay side, this is a common-enough hidden object game with an uncommon amount of content. Most of your time will be spent navigating the different areas, clicking around for items, and enjoying the reality TV dialog. Hidden object scenes are more complicated than just clicking objects, as some items are used within the scene to access other objects. I will mention that this is one of those HOGs that will happily ask you to find silhouettes and words scratched into wood alongside actual physical objects, so be ready to think a bit outside the box for some searches. You’ll also have some simple puzzles to complete like putting plates of animals in thematic order and replacing fuses, the usual light brain diversions for any location whose locks and gates were seemingly supplied by the Umbrella Corporation.

The thing that really gets me about Paranormal State, the reason I keep bringing it up in discussions of HOGs, is that it’s just really polished and robust for the genre. A full playthrough of the main game should take you at least four hours, and then there’s another hour to be found in the bonus chapter. The map is expansive and diverse, there are tons of items and scenes to check, and the story stays strong (for what it is) through the entire game. A lot of love was put into the graphics, and aside from the waxen, over-shopped look of the characters everything looks really clear and evocative. Even the sound design is up to the task with some ominous ambiance and gratifying clicks and snaps for item interactions.

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If you’re looking for a decent place to break into the hidden object genre, Paranormal State isn’t a bad place to start. There are certainly better HOGs out there, but this one has a particular kitsch factor from its reality TV roots. The foundations are strong, the graphics are pretty good, and there’s even a decent, cheesy story to follow. As long as you can deal with that dumb face Ryan makes through the entire game, this should be a pleasant surprise for fans of rooting wrenches, crossbows, and Roman numerals out of junk piles.

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