With the choice-drive narrative adventure game genre steadily continuing the momentum it gained with the advent of Telltale’s breakthrough The Walking Dead series, it’s become increasingly clear that these games are almost as entertaining for spectators as they are those in control. Firing up the latest episode of Life is Strange with friends or a partner on hand as emotional support and moral guidance is a strangely compelling concept, and it seems that developers are just now cottoning onto this fact. Supermassive Games, creators of cult hit Until Dawn have obviously been observing the way people play their games and used that knowledge along with Sony’s new foray into ‘party’ gaming, PlayLink, as inspiration for their newest title — Hidden Agenda.
Hidden Agenda can be crudely described as a long, interactive episode of Law and Order. A compelling crime drama replete with hot-headed detectives, geeky forensic experts and despicable-yet-empathetic serial killers. A new lead in a previously-closed case concerning a series of grisly and targeted murders prompts homicide detective Becky Marney and district attorney Felicity Graves to take matters into their own hands. When a suspected copycat killer initiates a new string of murders, the case begins to unravel and suspicions fly amongst those involved. To say that Hidden Agenda’s core narrative brings anything new to the table would be a gross overstatement, but the key difference is naturally in the way that the story changes and adapts to player input and choice, resulting in vastly different outcomes in return. The whole game runs at around a couple of hours, and lends itself well to the kind of ‘party play’ that inspires it, but does suffer from some frustrating plot issues and an ending that’s poorly implemented and wholly unsatisfying for any but the most successful ending.
Okay look at this dude, if HE didn’t do it then I have no idea
While other similar games are single-player affairs that use a combination of direct player control combined with dialogue and action choices at critical story junctures, Hidden Agenda is a much more passive experience with a key difference —multiplayer support for up to six people. Each armed with a smartphone or tablet and the Hidden Agenda app, players follow along with the unfolding events and use the app to vote on dialogue choices along the way, with the occasional quick time event or hidden-object style hunt for clues using touch input. Choices usually come in twos, and for one particular option to be successful it must have a majority vote from those playing. Alternatively, anyone can override a choice at any time by spending cards earned during the aforementioned interactive sequences. Having friends and family as active participants in shaping the outcome in the game as opposed to ‘backseat players’ really drives home the appeal of playing these games in groups, and debates over tough decisions can be heated and hilarious at the same time. While the game can be played solo or with as few as two or three people, the more opinions you can add to the mix the better and more entertaining it all is.
That’s cooperative play, but Hidden Agenda also happens to feature a competitive mode — and this is where the game’s title comes into play. In competitive mode the story plays out just as normal and still features the same branching plot and choices to vote on, only this time the game will dole out secret ‘agendas’ to select players at predetermined intervals. These agendas task the player with pushing the storyline in a particular direction by ensuring, by whatever means, that certain choices are made by everyone playing. Successfully fulfilling an agenda will earn that person points, while everyone else involved can also earn points by trying to guess who amongst them had the agenda to begin with. At the end of the game, points are tallied and a winner is chosen. It’s an interesting way to experience Hidden Agenda, and playing increasingly ridiculous mind games with friends is never not fun, but the unfortunate drawback to the competitive mode is that the story suffers when the primary goal is to earn points, rather than make any sort of attempt at a positive outcome for the story. There’s also limited scope for repeated competition considering there’s just the one story, and it becomes quite protracted in length when adding in the agendas.
“Look I’m sorry but I can’t help that we only have one office umbrella”
The thing that most surprised me is how polished and visually impressive Hidden Agenda is, given its status as a ‘casual’ title and super low price tag of $25. Likely due to the complete lack of direct player or camera control, each scene is rendered gorgeously, dripping with atmosphere and runs butter smooth. Fans of Until Dawn will also be familiar with the same awkward-but-engaging facial models and animations for the main characters, looking even nicer (but still a little off-putting) here. Voice acting all ‘round is competent, sometimes surprisingly great, and goes a long way to making an average script more compelling. On the mobile app side of things, the running encyclopedia of character biographies and story synopsis is much appreciated.
Hidden Agenda is a decent experiment in social, narrative gaming and does a great job of selling the appeal of PlayLink. The competitive mode is less of a success than the standard cooperative option but is a nice addition, and there’s ample opportunity for making or breaking relationships either way. If this is an indication of the future of social gaming, I’m on board.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4