If you enjoy fast-paced and visually stunning mystery games filled with graphic anatomical detail and scientific-sounding dialogue, then don’t expect Cate West: The Vanishing Files to satisfy you. Cate West’s gameplay is relaxed – arguably most of the game’s charm – and visually calm, with some attractive art thrown in to keep you awake: this is Phoenix Wright designed for the Professor Layton fan. Protagonist Cate West even visually resembles the former’s Lana Skye, all the way down to the brown hair and long red scarf.
There are no CSI-style forensics investigations here. All pieces of evidence are physical objects, from the obvious (cameras and shoes) to the slightly more curious (cats and tarantulas). There’s a fairly standard formula to each of the cases: search the crime scene for clues; track down the evidence to which your clues have led you; confirm the criminal’s hideout by playing a game of spot the difference; identify the correct criminal by playing a glorified game of Guess Who?; and then conclude by matching up the crime scene with your memory of the crime scene.
Each case is presented as a chapter with five sub-sections pertaining to the aforementioned gameplay segments; each of these can easily be revisited in Quick Play mode, where players can immediately jump to any part of the game they’ve already experienced for a brief bout. The inclusion of this is in itself a bit questionable: originally, each segment has a 20 minute time limit, a long time for a “quick” play; secondly, the solutions stay the same and so anybody with a decent memory won’t find any new enjoyment. There is, of course, the incentive of beating your previous score; for example, finding multiple clues in quick succession will earn you more points. Unfortunately however, there are no separate scoreboards for each chapter and segment, only an overall scoreboard for all the gameplay segments.
There are no difficulty levels from which you can choose; instead, you can rely on the Hint button, which helps you at the cost of some points, or play the game in two-player co-operative mode with a friend. Two minds are better than one, and while the concept of two minds and one character may sound like a schizophrenic disaster, it works well given Cate West’s gameplay structure.
Gameplay aside, it’s narrative where Cate West truly leaves room for improvement. While we do get some cutscenes breaking up the gameplay, they’re basically narrated slideshows, and when dialogue does occur, its relayed by cringe-worthy, melodramatic voice acting. The plot itself is fairly sturdy; Cate West is a mystery novelist plagued with visions of her father’s murder who joins the Arcadia city police to use her sixth sense to help solve crimes – fifteen crimes, to be precise. She’s a very attractive and likeable character with no apparent personality issues, more than can be said for some of the other characters, from police agents who say “Sweet!” to entirely unhelpful bystanders.
It’s never really explained how the Arcadia city police came to discover Cate’s powers. Her novelist career hasn’t really been kicking off, if her empty book signing at the beginning of the game is anything to go by, and she hasn’t exactly been parading around the city advertising her mysterious powers. It’s one of the minor plot holes that make the game feel a little less polished.
The Wii Remote-based control scheme causes some problems that the PC and hand-held counterparts do not experience; locating evidence and clues uses the pointer, meaning a steady hand is necessary to make good progress. While you are pointing and clicking objects in the environment to try and find clues, this isn’t the traditional “pixel hunting” seen in similar PC games. In Cate West, you know what it is for which you are searching, and clicking in the wrong places a few times consecutively will result in a time penalty.
If your eyesight isn’t the greatest, or your television is small, you can zoom in with the magnifying glass tool, which fortunately also lets you enlarge the clue list and other interface elements. The small size of the text makes the Wii’s lack of high definition output an even more glaring problem. Unfortunately the magnifying glass is also prone to over-sensitivity and begs the question of why you can’t simply zoom into the environment by clicking and then zooming out again; the game appears to be sacrificing usability for aesthetic appeal, which doesn’t help the tediousness.
The music in the game is suitably suspenseful and atmospheric, but the short soundtrack leads to short tracks repeating often; it can be so frustrating as to ruin your concentration on the actual puzzles. The sound effects are equally unoriginal, with your typical clicks and sparkles cropping up in every conceivable place. The entire audio track seems as if it was designed as an additional challenge: the game is leaps and bounds easier with the game muted.
Overall, Cate West is a fun time-sink that’s unfortunately hindered by some superficial flaws. From a shaky narrative to dull, formulaic gameplay, it seems the developers had a great idea that took a stumble in execution. I wouldn’t dismiss the game entirely – there are some fun moments when you aren’t faced with ridiculously difficult spot-the-difference puzzles, and its very much enhanced when you have friends or family with which to share the experience – but if you’re looking for a solid single-player mystery, you won’t find it in Cate West.