Have you got a PS3 Slim sitting under the Christmas tree? Is it teasing you... taunting you? "I'm here", it whispers. "I'm right here. All you have to do is unwrap me, plug me in and then... well... then the magic can begin." If only. Your parents/partner/significant other would kill you. All you can do is sit there and imagine what you'll do with your brand spanking new PS3 Slim on Christmas day.
Brighton-based Buzz! developer Relentless Software hopes one of the first things you'll do is log in to the PlayStation Store and download its self-published episodic murder mystery Blue Toad Murder Files. You could do far worse: while the first two episodes, out now as a £9.99 bundle or separately for £6.29 each, won't keep you entertained for long, they're both good fun for all the family.
Set in the quintessential English village of Little Riddle, Blue Toad is part four-player co-operative murder mystery and part competitive puzzler. Each player assumes the role of one of the four members of the Blue Toad Detective Agency: Hannah Dakota is Nancy Drew in all but name; Vanderbosh wears a quite wonderful moustache, Maple is the inquisitive granny, and Dick Dickens is the fresh-faced boy-sleuth. It doesn't matter which detective you pick, the story plays out in the same way. Little Riddle's mayor is shot and killed, and it's up to you to interview the village's eccentric locals, identify suspects and point the finger.
The game's tongue is firmly in cheek, and packed with memorable British class and regional stereotypes, all superbly voice acted. The snotty Basil Fawlty hotelier steals the show, but he's run close by the posh, tea-drinking lady who finds her stately home burgled. Each character is a caricature, and designed in the colourful, over the top Buzz! style. The village itself, viewed from a slightly off top down perspective, looks lovely, and is perfectly in keeping with the quintessential feel.
Blue Toad has been designed, like Buzz!, to be as accessible and inoffensive as possible. No matter how many people are playing, only one pad is required, and then, only the d-pad and two face buttons are used. Players take turns to interview a local, be it at the hotel, the train station or one of the many residences to name but a few of the village's possible areas of inquiry. But before they divulge their precious info, a puzzle must be solved. Blue Toad's puzzles vary in quality. Some are ridiculously easy; some are impossibly hard. But they all at least make sense. Many are logic based, a lot are maths beard-scratchers, and some challenge your observation skills. When you reckon you've got the puzzle sussed, a press of the triangle button submits your answer. If you're right, you're awarded a medal: gold, silver or bronze, based on the time it took you to complete the puzzle and the number of incorrect answers you submitted. Then, it's a case of listening to your interviewee dish the dirt. And make sure you pay attention: impromptu memory tests pop up regularly.
Once all the interviews have been conducted, and all the puzzles have at least been attempted, the episode ends and it's time for each player to take it in turns to decide "whodunnit". Right or wrong, the episode ends with a cliff-hanger, and each player is awarded an overall medal based on their performance throughout.
Blue Toad is smartly structured so that everyone feels involved most of the time. It usually only takes around ten minutes for a player to complete their go (depending on their smarts, of course), but everyone has to pay attention at all times for fear of coming a cropper during the memory tests. The game's designed to be competitive, but more often than not friends and family help out those who struggle, if, for nothing else, to keep the game moving (that's our experience anyway). If you're playing with "ultra competitives", aka gits who refuse to mutter a word of advice, the game's less fun. But even less enjoyable than that is playing the game on your lonesome. Blue Toad isn't a great single-player experience.
But it is a great option for Christmas gaming. You know what we mean by Christmas gaming, don't you? You're stuck with your family, dodging the mother in law's fiery breath and sweating under the pressure to impress the father-in-law - every second feels like a week. What to do? Well, there's no way Dragon Breath's going to sit there and watch you play Uncharted 2, is there? No, of course not. In this situation, Blue Toad Murder Files is a godsend.
Unfortunately, hanging over the Blue Toad's head like a relentless rain cloud is the issue of value. Once you've worked your way through an episode, which, depending on how many players are taking part, shouldn't take longer than an hour-and-a-half, there's no reason to play it again. The puzzles will be the same, and you know who the murderer is. At £6.29 a pop, Blue Toad is an expensive one-off experience, particularly in comparison with other similarly priced PSN games that last much longer. The £9.99 bundle is better value, but not good value. Speculating, all six episodes, if bought separately, will together cost at least 36 quid (unless Relentless offers them all at a discounted price - a price that may annoy those who buy the episodes individually as they're released).
If you're filthy rich, however, it won't matter. All you'll care about this Christmas is keeping the family occupied and your mind from going away with the fairies. In this respect, Blue Toad's a complete success. If value's important to you, however, you might want to look elsewhere: SingStar and even Buzz! offer more for your hard-earned cash.