Friday 16 April 2021

Switch Review - Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders

While it may look like a spin off of a famous UbiSoft Franchise, ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ is a hidden object game from the masters of the genre. But should it be one you seek?

Developed by Artiflex Mundi / Sodigital
Published by Forever Entertainment
Released in 2018

As a child I loved the ‘Where’s Wally’ books. Created by English illustrator Martin Handford, these books consist of a series of detailed illustrations showing a crowd of people doing a variety of amusing things at a random location. There was little to no plot, but instead the reader is challenged to find Wally hidden in the group. In theory he is easy to spot, in his red-and-white-striped shirt, bobble hat, and glasses. However, the illustrations contain red herrings involving deceptive use of red-and-white striped objects.  These books celebrated the simple delight of discovery. There’s an undeniable joy in finding something that has eluded you, an immediate hit of satisfaction and relief. It’s a reaction that explains the enduring popularity of hidden object games, where, like the ‘Where’s Wally’ books, all you really seem to be doing is treasure hunting. Given my childhood love of this practice it seems strange that for too long I have dismissed these games as being too casual. Having played video games for more than thirty years I mistakenly believed that something so light on gameplay wouldn’t hold my attention. But as the old saying goes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Books are a good thing to acknowledge when talking about an Artifex Mundi game. Each one is essentially a novella, telling a brisk story that is intended to be played in one sitting.  With a few exceptions, most of their eighty games tread very familiar ground. Many people have even accused the company of trading off the success of others, mimicking the art and names of many successful franchises. 'Agent Walker: Secret Journey' could be confused with 'Agent Carter', 'Ghost Files: The Face of Guilt' echoes 'X Files' , 'Set Sail: Caribbean' is clearly influenced by 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and 'Uncharted Tides' could very easily be confused with Sony's hugely popular 'Uncharted' games. At a casual glance they can so easily be considered, at best, pastiches but most would call them shameless cash-ins. To do so would be unfair. Yes the games are undeniably influenced by other properties, but to say they don’t have any merit or artistic integrity would be wrong. While the Artifex Mundi games may borrow themes and character types, the games this studio offer are polished and engaging in their own right. An audience may be lured in by the mirroring of familiar brands, but (as long as they like hidden object games) they will probably be satisfied with their investment none the less. After developing and publishing nearly a hundred games over the last ten years, Artifex Mundi clearly have perfected their craft of making Hidden Object Games.


“Initially we had a lot of different mainly extremely low budget projects as we had no previous game development experience” says the Company CEO Tomasz Grudziński.  “These were work-for-hire deals where we were given initial or even exact design and just have to follow it. However, we felt that this is not what we like best. We wanted to create our own games, taking responsibility for their success or failure and so we discovered the hidden-object-puzzle-adventure genre”.  "Our games are based predominantly on logical thinking and observation, We’re trying to keep our games “light” and entertaining, without unnecessary negativity” adds Szymon Bryła, PR and Marketing Director.  With few exceptions, game play in an Artifex Mundi game involves scouring locations to find objects. These are then combined in an inventory to make new items which can be used to solve location puzzles. The games are divided up into distinct self-contained sections, so the objects you need to advance the game will always be creatable using things found within the few places you can currently access. Some locations are just static backgrounds where you have to find a number of objects of a specific type or shape, but others have a larger degree of interactivity where you must manipulate the environments to find what you seek. Breaking up the object finding shenanigans are mini-games.

These tend to be things like sliding puzzles, memory and tile matching games. It is unlikely you’ll ever get stuck but if you do there’s the option to play the game on an easier mode. Hints are also available by a simple press of a button. Help typically suggests which accessible location has an item needed to progress, or if you’re on a searching quest you’ll be shown exactly where to look. As Bryła points out, "there is a fine line between “challenging” and “frustrating,” and we’re doing what we can to avoid the latter. That’s why there’s always a “hint” button that the player can use if she or he gets stuck." Be warned though, you should use such hints judiciously as games like ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ are short, lasting just a few hours. If the gameplay fun comes from that moment of discovery, being told exactly where to look somewhat robs you of that joy.

Classic point-and-click games are said to be the predecessors of contemporary HOPA games.  “They are based on elements taken from classical 90’s adventure games, enriched and modified to cater to present-day needs and expectations of gamers” says Bryła. For me an Artifex Mundi game feels more like a digital escape room though. You progress through the game until you reach an impasse. Then like a kleptomaniac conundrum addict, you gather everything you can, solve the puzzles to get more things and then combine them. You do this until eventually you have the one thing needed to unlock the proverbial gate that’s keeping you from the next section. Repeat. You can have conversations with characters, but that has no real benefit beyond story exposition. 

Despite turning out on average eight games a year, Creative Director Jakub Grudziński is keen to stress how the Hidden Object genre has evolved. “We want each of our games to bring something new; we keep doing our best to avoid becoming a factory producing numerous same-old-same-old-yet-another-game-I've-already-seen-before HOPAs.  In the gaming industry you either learn and evolve hard and fast or you’re left behind those who do. Our older HOPA games (i.e. ‘Joan Jade’ and ‘Time Mysteries: Inheritance’) are no match to the newer ones.” It’s a belief that’s reinforced by the whole core team. “While we are known for Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure games we’re now pushing to diversify” says Piotr Sulek a game designer at Artifex Mundi. “We have a lot of talented and creative people here who want to try new things so it’s in our best interest to try [to] branch out and not keep doing the same thing if we want to keep that creativity and drive.” 

In ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ for example, you’ll be mixing potions and combining ingredients. 

There are also several boss fights, where dexterity and speed is challenged. But the core game will be very familiar to anyone who has played a game from this studio before. It’s a working popular formula clearly, but your decision as to which Artiflex Mundi game to play should probably be driven by which theme, setting and story you find most interesting. “HOPA games are uniform in terms of the mechanics” Grudziński says with refreshing honesty. "The narrative is obviously crucial for a good adventure game – without it – the puzzles, minigames and Hidden Object scenes, would really be a set of pointless challenges randomly put together” Bryła says. “A good story motivates the player and encourages her or him to explore, so they can see what happens next."

Like so many of their games, ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ is influenced by existing properties. In Persia, the demonic Grand Vizier Zaved has seized control. The kingdom is held under his iron grip and the population is on the edge of ruin. To make matters worse, a shadowy disease has appeared out of nowhere, spreading across the land. Clearly it’s a story influenced by the ‘Arabian Nights’ stories, but its likely video gamers will more likely find similarities with the ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’ and ‘Aladdin’. It’s hard to escape such comparisons when you meet Darius, “a mysterious acrobat and swordsman”.

However, the game’s protagonist is actually a young and talented apothecary called Tara. Evidently she seeks to find the cause of the plague and prevent it from spreading further. Playing as a woman is typical in an Artiflex Mundi game. "The protagonists in our games are women, because women still constitute more than half of our players in terms of demographics “ says Bryła . “Hence there is always a female at the centre of the plot, on a quest to save the world or her loved ones”. The cynical will point out that as the game is played from a first-person perspective, you never actually see the protagonist. Indeed, often you only get a glimpse at the game’s heroine on promotional material and the game’s icon. Sexy imagery is known to make a game more appealing to the male gamers and more than 60% of the Artiflex Mundi game boxes on digital shop fronts prominently feature an attractive female. However, according to Bryla it isn’t a case of “sex sells”. “We’re empowering women by showing different stories from a woman’s perspective, but we do that in a subtle way and without being too vocal about it. There is enough space for both sexes in video games." 

All the main characters in ‘Persian Nights’ propel an interesting albeit light and predictable story. Before you even start you know that within a few hours of game play, good will triumph over evil and the heroes will inevitably fall in love. There’s a comic side kick in the form of a scatty genie, but they’re hardly in the game at all. According to Jakub Grudziński, “The story is the most important aspect of HOPA games and possibly in many other genres too. It is the central element which engrosses the player in the game world and pushes her further, craving to learn what happens next. “I found the plot to be a nice palette cleanser between the object hunting, but I’d be shocked if anyone will finish the game feeling like they have been told a gripping story. For a game of presumably modest budget, it’s impressive that the large amount of dialogue is voiced, especially since the acting is so good.  Amber Lee Connors and Brad Ziffer make the most of a somewhat amateurish script, although there is the occasional mispronounced word. Clearly neither of these actors are Iranian though. Given the controversy that surrounded white American Jake Gyllenhaal playing the lead in the cinematic adaptation of ‘Prince of Persia’ it is strange that this game, released seven years later, would flirt with similar “white washing”. 

The setting does lend itself to some beautiful scenery though and Hidden Object games do seem to be well known for their detailed art. “With the 2D, hand-painted graphics, HOPA games leave enormous field clear for the artists to show off their talents” says Grudziński. “While playing a high-quality HOPA game you can look at it as a series of top-notch paintings, which is a value in itself”. “So far, our games have presented quite a repetitive style – realistic, hand-painted graphics with a lot of small details” adds Sulek. With rich colour palettes and a wonderful fusion of realism and fantasy, the 41 locations you visit throughout ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ are all beautiful. It would be best to describe this game as a visual graphic novel. While you see characters, they are flat paintings that cross-dissolve between poses. Their mouths flap open-and-close when they talk, but there is no attempt to lip sync with what’s being said. With a walking animation cycle that consists of three frames, Darius glides around the screen and objects seem to fly into positions they are meant to be lifted into. It’s forgivable given the production budget and the price paid for ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ must really be remembered when gauging its quality.

Should you buy an Artiflex Mundi game at full price? Absolutely not. With an eShop that gets busier each week, there are so many games more deserving of your £13.49. Reviews on Steam seem to universally lambast the game’s duration, crude animation and repetition, many say it’s not worth the full asking price. But these games are far more likely to cross your path when you look at an eShop sale and organise the reduced games according to price. It is pretty common to see these HOPA games at 90% off, meaning you can usually pick them up for less than the price of a Sandwich. They’re appropriately positioned as budget games; (largely) inoffensive modest time fillers that are made with care. You can see why they have a niche audience who seem to buy everyone: You know exactly what you’re getting each time and as so many seem to imitate well known franchises you’ll also probably be able to guess what type of story a new game will tell. 

In the ‘Where’s Wally’ books, while looking for the hapless hero, you would often discover books he had dropped or discover comical secondary characters. That’s kind of what ‘Persian Nights: Sands of Wonders’ feels like. I doubt anyone who isn’t a prior fan of HOPA games would deliberately seek it out. But if you discover it by accident and set expectations in line with the price paid, you’ll likely find a fun couple of hours. 

If you enjoyed this maybe consider a book I co wrote all about point-and-click games. "The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games" can be bought here:

A copy of this game was provide for free to review. The publisher and developer have not seen or had any influence on the content of this article prior to it being posted.

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