9 Clues 2: The Ward is Artifex Mundi jumping the proverbial shark.
Though their library isn’t quite the flawless lineup their “premium” branding would have you believe, by and large Artifex Mundi’s hidden-object adventure games (referred to henceforth as HOGs) hit far more than they miss, especially given the fact that they seem to release half a dozen of them in any given month. They consistently manage to strike that perfect balance between above average production values, simple but enjoyable puzzle designs, and storylines just earnest enough to be entertaining, having by now ascended to be the bar at which all other HOGs are judged. The first 9 Clues game, Secret of Serpent Creek (credited to Tap It Games, but so indistinguishable from Artifex Mundi’s own games that the distinction between them as developer or publisher seems a moot point), continues to rank as my favorite HOG to date, taking all the tenants of Artifex Mundi’s trademark design and wrapping them up into a lighthearted but endearing mystery thriller.
Though it shares the same series, The Ward is not only a dramatic departure from the previous 9 Clues but from Artifex Mundi’s HOGs in general. The Ward can best be summed up as Artifex Mundi going through a phase of overwhelming teen angst. Cue the inexplicable violence. Cue the barely intelligible plotlines designed for MAXIMUM DRAMA. Cue the misunderstood sociopath who was only murdering people because another sociopath told them to (it’s OK though, they’re actually good, I swear, so let’s just forget all that murder business).
If Secret of Serpent Creek was trying to be Scooby-doo, The Ward wants to be Shutter Island. It’s aggressively grim and (for a HOG) shockingly grotesque in both its story beats and how little it hesitates to delve headfirst into the most disturbing of subject matter. And this is where The Ward lost me. Even before its narrative turned into a convoluted mush of character reversals, deus ex machinas, and astoundingly convenient circumstances (again, even for HOG standards), The Ward alienated me with how little it cared. Where past Artifex Mundi games verged upon the repugnantly earnest, The Ward is a melting pot of “mature” themes and purposeless cruelty handled with even less care than you’d expect from this style of game. I’m not sure if The Ward came from a place unsatisfied with the casual branding of HOGs or if Artifex Mundi just ran out of ideas and started scrubbing through horror films for inspiration, but the second 9 Clues has managed to eject every ounce of the first game’s charm and replaced it with a nauseatingly poor attempt at tackling “adult” themes.
It’s all downhill from there, as the narrative flounders around attempting to find itself, puzzles become more obscure and tedious, and a veritable cornucopia of bad accents meander through lines as if the voice actors are simultaneously bored and learning to read for the first time. I even ran into some graphical bugs, which apart from being the most amusing part of the game cement how thrown together The Ward feels. I suppose it was bound to happen eventually that Artifex Mundi would release a colossal dud given the speed of their production process, but with how much I loved the first 9 Clues I’m sad that The Ward had to be the one to break the formula. The Ward exists then as a reminder of why we can’t have nice things. Only exploitative representations of mental illness and thoughtless depictions of suicide. Try not to cut yourself on all this edge.
"Quick Thoughts" is a place for micro criticism, abstract musings, and shameless showcasing for games which either don't fit into a full review or I am not yet ready to talk about to that extent, essentially acting as a concise running commentary on whatever I'm currently playing and my thoughts thereof.