If you ask any man to name a book series that shaped his young life, he's very likely to respond with the Hardy Boys. The teenage super-sleuths have been around for over 80 years now, and they've turned on entire generations to reading and mystery novels. Therefore, a certain nostalgia factor kicks in when one hears that the Hardys are making their way to video games in the form of an interactive mystery. All I can say is that it's a good thing there are all those great Hardy Boy novels out there to burnish the brothers' reputations because The Hardy Boys: The Hidden Theft does everything it can to ruin your fond memories with its ugly visuals, convoluted puzzles and absolutely horrendous gameplay.
The Hidden Theft finds Frank and Joe investigating the disappearance of $200 million worth of bearer bonds from a local mansion. There's no sign of forced entry into the house, and the safe holding the bonds was opened via the combination rather than explosives, so the estate's crotchety old owner blames the crime on his younger brother, the only other man who knew the combination to the safe. Obviously, this wouldn't be a Hardy Boys tale if things were that straightforward, so the brothers set off to explore the town, gather evidence and interview individuals who might lead them to the real criminal.
The main thread of narrative sticks closely with what one would find in the novels, complete with a few decent twists and turns along the way. Unfortunately, the extra dialogue and non-plot-centric conversations are incredibly forced, and some of the situations in which the Hardys find themselves are so contrived and stupid that they border on insulting. Furthermore, the game basically tips you off to the real culprit right from the get-go, so the rest of the experience is just an exercise in going through the motions to discover why the criminal did it and bring the individual to justice. Even for a younger audience, the story holds very little intrigue.
The Hidden Theft is a traditional point-and-click adventure title with all the trappings of what made the genre popular two decades ago. You have to click to interact with people, pick up items or even walk across the room, and due to some extremely poor camera angles, it can be difficult to determine where exactly you're trying to go. Basic navigation is a chore, and if the game didn't provide the option to fast-travel between locations, then this title would be almost unplayable. As it stands, though, the game never manages to rise above the level of unpleasant.
The trickiest thing about any adventure game is providing players with enough clues to nudge them down the right path without giving away the puzzle solutions outright. Games have always struggled to walk the fine line between too simple and too obtuse, with The Hidden Theft managing to fail on both counts. Some of the brain-teasers are ridiculously simple, which would be fine if they were restricted to early parts of the game. However, even toward the end, the softballs get tossed your way far too easily, and you'll likely wonder, if the puzzle were so easy, was it even necessary at all? On the other end of the spectrum, some challenges are so complex and confusing that they're nearly impossible to complete without a walkthrough. Many quests require players to combine items in order to advance, but more often than not, these items don't make any sense. Why on earth would I combine a parrot with a cell phone or a hubcap with an antifreeze leak? The only thing worse than twisted logic in games like these is the complete lack of logic, and sadly, there are quite a few puzzles that fall into the "what the hell were they thinking?" category.
Making the frustrating puzzles worse is the fact that the game does almost nothing to provide direction on what to do next. The last couple of chapters feature a Quest Log that acts like a very rudimentary checklist of tasks, but for the first few chapters, the time when you really need some hand-holding, the game does almost nothing to help you find your way. At one point, I found myself totally stuck only to look online and find I was supposed to leave the mansion I was investigating and randomly head over to the local high school. Had the game ever hinted that I should go to the school? Did any of the characters mention it as a possible destination? Absolutely not. The entire experience in The Hidden Theft basically boils down to randomly walking around, talking to people and clicking on any item not nailed down in the hopes of stumbling upon a solution, and the entire experience stops being fun practically the moment after you turn on the game.
If all that weren't enough, then the game's visuals should do you in, as the title exhibits a blind man's eye for detail. The characters and locales are unremarkable in every way, and every person's movements are stiff and rigid. The only high point in the entire experience is the tolerable voice acting, but that's a positive in the same way as not throwing up after a night of binge drinking.
I've always believed the Hardy Boys were immortal, but if junk like this keeps coming along, it won't be long before the twins are dead and buried. It's heartbreaking to see such iconic characters so utterly destroyed by a terrible game, but that's where we are. If you want to hold on to your childhood love of the Hardys, then don't ever even think of playing this game. Even gamers who like playing bad games for a laugh should stay away, as this title doesn't even warrant that sort of attention. The Hardy Boys: The Hidden Theft is a boring, poorly executed and mostly thoughtless game, and our whole industry is worse off for being made to suffer through it.
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