So far, Sony’s new PlayLink initiative hasn’t amounted to anything more than a decent selection of casual party games. Both Knowledge Is Power and That’s You follow the Jackbox Party Pack formula of wrapping up trivia questions within a fun and humorous setting, while SingStar: Celebration allows editor Sammy Barker to fulfil his wildest Taylor Swift fantasies.
But Hidden Agenda, from developer Supermassive Games, is different. Positive party vibes are ditched for a serious investigation into a police case most thought had been closed. A crime thriller played entirely on your phone is certainly an intriguing prospect, but does it manage to hit the mark?
Five years ago, Jonathon Finn pleaded guilty to a series of murders known as the Trapper killings. With the name coming from a trademark mouse trap left at each crime scene and every piece of evidence pointing to Finn being the killer, the case seemed an easy close. However, days before his execution, Finn requests a meeting with District Attorney Felicity Graves. Here, he tells her that he didn’t commit any of the murders - he’s just taking the fall. This sparks a race against time to prove whether the seemingly obvious perpetrator really is the killer or not.
As Hidden Agenda’s centre piece, it’s a good job that the plot manages to stay genuinely interesting and thought provoking throughout. Playing out the initial investigation of a Trapper killing is exhilarating as flashbacks take you back to those fateful nights, while present day revelations keep you on your toes. This is all well and good for the majority of the game, but it’s towards the back-end where things start to fall apart. One discovery leads you down a certain path of thinking, and thanks to the intricate web of leads that have come before it, you believe that things are far more complicated than they actually are. Because of this, the final reveal is very underwhelming as the most basic thought process probably could have worked it out. You almost feel duped, as you hoped things would be far more elaborate than they really are.
Hidden Agenda is played entirely on your smartphone, with not even a sliver of DualShock 4 functionality. Instead of directly controlling the two main characters of Felicity Graves and police officer Becky Marney, you’ll use the touchscreen to select choices for Ripple Events and delve into crime scenes with a cursor.
Ripple Events are story-shaping decisions that impact both your character’s immediate actions and the conclusions they’ll form based on what they experience. With over 20 events spread throughout the game, there are a lot of different ways through the two and a half hour plot. It's so expansive that we probably haven’t even witnessed every scene.
The other mode of interaction comes in the form of searching through crime scenes, where you’re given three clues to uncover within a time limit, and unfortunately it’s here where the PlayLink app starts to show its limits. Gliding your finger across the touchscreen causes the cursor on the TV screen to move, but with a slight amount of input delay, what you’re seeing on your television isn’t one-to-one. This raises issues when you’ve only got seconds left to find the last piece of evidence and you’re hurriedly scanning the screen for any indication of where it might be. This imprecise nature makes these scenes unnecessarily frustrating as you may miss important information through a fault that isn’t your own.
This flaw also rears its ugly head in the quick-time events, where you must drag the cursor into a certain area before time ticks down. We were sure we had gotten the indicator into the designated zone a number of times, and yet we were failing these QTEs on a regular basis. The app is completely capable of handling its Ripple Events, but when the going gets even slightly tough, it crumbles to pieces.
The other side to Hidden Agenda is the competitive mode, which is where its title comes from. Up to six players can play through the story together, but this time around they’ll be competing against each other for points. For many stretches of the plot, one certain player will be given a secret objective that they must fulfil by shaping the story through the choices they make. Succeed and they’ll gain points, but if the other participants figure out who has the hidden agenda, then the points go to them.
This puts a very fun twist on the base story because at times a certain member can be actively working against finding the truth behind the killings, and it’s your job to foil them. When a couple of friends are over, this is definitely the best way to experience the journey from beginning to end.
We will warn you, though: the game isn’t exactly a looker. While some character models look incredibly detailed up close, many members of the supporting cast wouldn’t look out of place in a PS4 launch title. This mixed concoction also carries over into the scenes themselves, where the immediate room you’re in looks just fine, but taking a glance out the window and into the background reveals a surrounding pulled from the previous generation. Constant texture pop-in and jerky character animations don’t help to alleviate things either.
With a huge web of choices to make and an enjoyable competitive mode to boot, there’s a lot to like in this crime analysis. Hidden Agenda proves that the PlayLink initiative can be taken advantage of in more than just casual party games, but this particular outing doesn’t quite realise its full potential. This investigation is absolutely one worth experiencing, but one too many caveats with the app itself holds things back from greatness.