REVIEW / Hidden Agenda (PS4)

 

When two friends visited our house the other evening with a shiny copy of Hidden Agenda, I was definitely excited. Ever since I’d seen the E3 announcement earlier this year, I’d been incredibly keen to play it, despite not actually knowing a lot about the gameplay. I knew that it was a crime mystery that could be played cooperatively or competitively, but I had no idea that it was played via an app on each player’s phone, rather than with controllers (similar to Jackbox games). Regardless, after absolutely loving every one of my three playthroughs of Until Dawn, I was keen to sink my teeth into the next decision and quicktime event-based game by Supermassive. Unfortunately, Hidden Agenda may actually be one of the single worst games I’ve played this year, if not in my entire recent history of gaming.
 

So sweaty

 

Hidden Agenda is one of Sony’s new PlayLink titles, which are all played as party games via companion apps on the players’ phones. I don’t really care about the gimmick one way or the other; Jackbox games are played the same way and are incredibly enjoyable, though it does feel odd to use such an advanced machine with specifically-designed controllers for games like this. Once you’ve downloaded the 129MB Hidden Agenda app and waited a good half an hour for the various updates to install on your PS4, you and your team must connect to the same wifi as the console and choose to join a game.

You select a color and choose names on your phone, which will flash up on the main Hidden Agenda menu screen when you join the game.  Once you’re all connected, the irritating gameshow host voice will take you through some of the basic controls for the game. The tutorials are interspersed throughout the first few cutscenes, allowing you to try out your abilities almost immediately.

 

FYI: We played the game cooperatively, rather than competitively.

 

On the TV screen, there will be times when you will need to make decisions or quickly react to events in the game. For example, two options will come up, one on either side of the screen, with a small box underneath. Using your phone as a trackpad, you move your colored dot to the box under the choice you want to make. You must always have a majority vote to be able to continue on, which means that you have to argue it out among yourselves in person or use a Takeover. Each player is given one Takeover card at the start of the game for free, and more can be obtained by being the first to find clues or respond to quick time events in later scenes. A Takeover allows the person who used the card to gain control of the situation and choose whichever choice they think is best.

Whether in cooperative or competitive mode, I think this method of play is really good for getting everyone involved and prompting proper discussion and engagement with the game. During certain scenes, you must have all players agreeing to a specific decision, rather than just a majority. This can result in a bit of arguing, or more often someone will step in with a Takeover when they get bored of the arguing. If I’m honest, we were all pretty quick to just change our views to line up with the other side if need be, so most of us had 3-9 Takeover cards stocked up that weren’t used.

 

 

Hidden Agenda begins with a scene where a detective, Becky Marney, is investigating a suspected instance of the Trapper serial killer in an old house. They catch the Trapper in the act and arrest him. Five years later, just 48 hours before the Trapper is due to receive a lethal injection, he begins to claim that he wasn’t the killer. He claims that someone named Adam Jones is the real mastermind.

Now playing as district attorney Felicity Graves, you have to determine whether the currently imprisoned Trapper is telling the truth, all while navigating a series of gruesome events that occur during the investigation.  This means investigating during timed segments for clues, choosing where to investigate, and how to react during the many conversations where you decide how to respond. On the surface, this makes Hidden Agenda sound really interesting, and maybe it would have been if it hadn’t stumbled at every turn past the basic premise.

 

 

Beginning with the graphics, anyone who has played Until Dawn knows that the human models in Supermassive’s games are really detailed, realistic and quite impressive, but also come with a few occasional weird faces just as a small quirk. Hidden Agenda has the same hyper-detailed, realistic faces, but it’s like they had no budget left to implement them properly. About 90% of the time the characters’ eyes don’t focus, they stare through other characters when they’re talking to them, and even sometimes seem to have their eyes roll backwards into the sockets. This happened so frequently that we were really distracted by it, to the point that we missed vital pieces of conversation because “Oh no, Becky’s gone wall-eyed again while talking to Felicity”.

There’s also multiple instances of the characters standing entirely too close to each other. This would be excusable if there was any romantic subtext to be gleaned from these scenes, but apart from maybe one scene, this absolutely wasn’t the case. Becky was in a heated, reluctant conversation with her (police) partner and they were so achingly close to one another that it looked like they were about to kiss or hug. It looked exceptionally awkward and was completely baffling. This is more of a nitpicky comment, but there were also times where certain graphical effects continued to be present on the character models well after it was necessary. For example, in one scene Becky emerges from under an umbrella, when it’s raining outside, to take the Trapper into a building so they can investigate. Some 10-15 minutes later she’s still so unbelievably wet on her face that it looks like she’s just stepped off a treadmill. Meanwhile the Trapper, who wasn’t ever under an umbrella, has maybe a couple of droplets on his face at most.

 

 

As for the voice acting, while a lot of it was unmemorable but inoffensive, there were a lot of lines where the character sounded out of breath, or like they maybe should have had another take. However, one incredibly important character has some of the most wooden acting I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve both been to forests and watched Birdemic. This character is so intensely vital to the main climax, if you could call it that, of the game, and they speak in a legitimate monotone.

This may have to be the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game, and while some of Until Dawn’s script was a bit clunky and cringey to listen to, I never thought the voice acting was bad. It was insanely clear that they were either really rushed for time or simply didn’t care about how it sounded, because if they had bothered to check, they wouldn’t have been able to ignore just how awful it was, in addition to being insanely mood-breaking. Speaking of mood breaking, every time an event came up where a decision was required without it being a standard conversation choice, the Jackbox-style “host” would break through and tell us that X or Y was required, or that we’d reached the end of the chapter. It was aggressively mood-breaking and honestly just plain annoying and out of place, voice-wise.

 

 

I actually had fairly high hopes for Hidden Agenda‘s story. Some parts were always going to be a little cliché, being a cop-based murder mystery, but despite those basic elements, a story can still absolutely manage to be compelling and interesting. After all, there’s a reason shows like Law and Order and CSI are so popular. However, it’s clear that the story progression and decision results are incredibly bare-bones. While it held together in the first part of the game, Hidden Agenda‘s storyline really fell apart in the second and third parts.

It’s abundantly clear that the game expects you to make certain decisions over others, as often we would start new scenes and characters would be investigating or talking about something that had never been brought up in the game previously. Completely unknown side-characters would show up for a single scene and disappear again with no context, and the worst of all – our main character interacted with one of these random characters, and then in the very next scene she was shouting into her phone that she knew who the killer was – with zero connecting points leading to this decision. At this point we were interchangeably howling with laughter and seething with anger. Hidden Agenda felt so broken that we had actually started to feel offended that it had been released as a full, complete, and tested game.

 

 

I really wanted to like Hidden Agenda, but it is absolutely disgusting how disorganized, atrociously animated, and poorly acted it is. It’s abundantly clear that its one QA Tester was insufficient for weeding out all of the flaws in this one two hour game. I’m severely disappointed that this was released as a full and complete game and even more disappointed that Supermassive now have to have this failure forever attached to their good name. Hidden Agenda reeks of pressure from Sony to get a “grown-up” game for their Play Link series where they knew they could bank on Supermassive’s Until Dawn fame for sales. Do yourself a favor and never touch Hidden Agenda, because you will be sorely disappointed.

 

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