Something to hide?
Game: Hidden Agenda
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
Until Dawn was an inventive and original take on the teen slasher horror genre, that married cinema-quality presentation with engaging cause and effect gameplay. With Hidden Agenda, Supermassive Games have attempted to compress that idea down into a bite-size film designed to be best when played socially in a group – part of the fledgling PlayStation PlayLink range of mobile phone-controlled titles. Making use of your smartphone, players will select dialogue and complete simple quicktime events and more, using just a few taps and flicks on the screen.
The presentation is once again top-notch, with high quality digital actors providing an authentic movie experience, so that when you are just watching, you can lose yourself in the action. The voice acting and music are generally great too, adding to the overall atmosphere. In single-player, you simply play through or watch events unfold as the ripple effect system that was created for Until Dawn dictates how the tale twists and turns. Different dialogue choices and interactions will cause the story to branch into different directions. The main events will happen on every play-through, but just how much evidence you collect, or truth you will uncover depends on the decisions you make. Because of the fact that none of the really major actions really change (aside from towards the very end), a lot of the in-game choices feel a little inconsequential.
A whole scene of the rather short two-hour runtime is dedicated to rescuing a hostage from an explosive situation, only for said character to be killed off quietly off-screen later even if you do manage to succeed. A simple decision made in the very first scene of the game influences who becomes your partner when you make Detective later in the game, but no matter who your partner ends up being, their lines remain identical, word for word. Even though the whole idea of a branching storyline should be to encourage choice and replay-ability, there just isn’t enough variety or meaning attached to any of these turning points. A second play-through only feels tedious and repetitive. By having to account for the different actions of those playing, you would assume that there would be lots of vastly different paths to choose between, but it all feels pretty linear, no matter what you do.
The multiplayer is where the whole Hidden Agenda part of the title comes into play. Different objectives are secretly handed out to several of the 2-6 participating players, forcing them to work against one another as the story goes on. Points are gained by successfully completing agendas, or by correctly guessing who was trying to manipulate everyone else. This should be an interesting new mechanic, but sadly a string of issues plague this mode. Takeover cards can also be gained and used to force your own will on decisions, but if several players hold Takeover cards this can just devolve into a game of tag, where everyone keeps overriding one another until they run out of cards. A simple rule where only one card could be used per decision would have solved this issue, but sadly that was not implemented.
Probably the biggest issue with the “hidden” agendas are that they are anything but. It is loudly splashed across the screen when hidden objectives have been handed out to players, and then later again proclaims “this choice will decide whether the hidden agenda is successful or not”, directly before the decisive moment. This not only eliminates a lot of the suspense and surprise that could have been possible with this format, but it also signposts the fact that rather than a build-up of deception and cunning influencing the story progression, it is all down to one final choice, each and every time.
On top of all of that, sometimes the very fact that you want to score points and stop another player succeeding, often means that your actions will take the story in a direction that you wouldn’t want to in terms of character development, and this can lead directly to you finding yourself with a disappointing final outcome for the whole game. This is especially true in the final chapter, where everyone has their own unique agenda, which makes it far more likely that your actions will lead to a fail-state in terms of the story – there are very low odds on a truly happy or “best” ending being achieved in competitive play. A game that rewards players who sabotage a successful play-through seems somewhat counter-intuitive, albeit certainly a new concept.
What should have been an exciting new idea is marred by too many issues in its implementation. When playing with four or five friends, this can be forgotten to an extent, because it is easy to enjoy yourself when trying to one up each other in a social group. But too many nonsensical plot-holes, a lack of real consequences for your actions and a somewhat broken multiplayer mode really hinder the success of Hidden Agenda. I wanted to like the game, and probably did enjoy it a lot more in the simple story mode without all of the agenda mechanics. But even then, it never quite seems like the choices you make lead to the outcomes one would expect. The more you re-play and delve deeper into the story, the more issues surface. For a quick choose-your-own adventure – which you will probably never play again – Hidden Agenda is engaging enough. But its social and competitive aspects fall flat, despite an admirable attempt to try something new.