In 2015, Supermassive Games released a fun game called Until Dawn. It is a horror game where you control 8 different people and make choices that determine whether all 8 survive the night, or if they all end up dead. When it was released I thought it would be fun to get all my friends together and play it – when it came to important choices we’d all yell and scream and it was like watching and being a part of an interactive horror movie. It ended up being an event where we stayed up literally until dawn and finished the game in one sitting. And all of us had a lot of fun doing it.
Now as it turns out, apparently I wasn’t the only one to have this idea as Supermassive got a lot of feedback from friends about how much fun it was to play the game as an event with a bunch of people watching. So that spawned their latest game – Hidden Agenda – a game similar to Until Dawn where you have two protagonists and have to make choices to see if they survive the entire plot. Except they specifically designed this game to be multiplayer so everyone playing can put in their votes to determine the outcome. And not only that, but it was only $20 – and since my friends and I had such a great time with Until Dawn, I figured I’d get them together again and we’d play through it. Everyone was down for the idea and so this past weekend we all played through Hidden Agenda from start to finish.
Unfortunately, it was not nearly as good an experience as Until Dawn.
First off, Until Dawn was paced as a regular game. It took about 8-10 hours to complete a first runthrough. Hidden Agenda was designed as a multiplayer party game to last 2-3 hours. Obviously concessions had to be made – in Until Dawn there were eight characters, along with a longer introduction letting you get to know (and want to root for the survival of) all eight. They’re also the only characters in the game, really, outside of what’s hunting them and picking them off one by one, and while they fit a lot of horror movie tropes they still become easy to root for or against as you play. In Hidden Agenda, there are only two protagonists/playable characters – but the game throws many more at you to the point where you can easily get confused in the 2-3 hour run-time. Also, because of this the characters are given very little depth – even the protagonists aren’t very developed as they get thrown into the plot pretty quickly.
Secondly, the game uses Sony’s Playlink feature for phones – basically Sony’s version of what Jackbox Games does with its games. The game is played with smartphones instead of controllers; but unlike Jackbox Games which uses a website you log into for the game, Hidden Agenda requires its own app to play the game. (Side note: the app burns battery life pretty fast, too. Be prepared with a charger as my phone nearly died in one playthrough and it started at near full charge.) Now the app is both good and bad. The good: It has a log of characters and events that updates in real-time and allows you to check everything and all the facts as the game progresses. This is helpful as I said before – characters are thrown at you in multitude and it can be hard to keep track of them. Also, because it runs on an app, anybody with a smartphone can participate in the game instead of having to have 6 controllers lying around.
But here’s the bad: First of all, the app sometimes updates TOO fast. During the game, after making an important choice the app would update with information that wouldn’t be given for nearly a minute or two in the game because of how long the cut-scene would take to play out. Some of my friends (and myself as well) would look at the updates in the app and essentially “spoil” the conclusion of the choice before it had played out on-screen – which is bad design for a game that’s essentially a choice-driven story. Next, the app touch-screen is super clunky when needing to make split-second decisions. Sometimes my friends would accidentally choose something they didn’t mean to choose because swiping on their phone would move the dot in a way they didn’t expect. And since there are QTEs (quick time events) in the game that affect the story if you miss them (one in a very BIG way that I’ll get to in a minute) this can affect how you progress. Finally, if you do anything else on your phone besides have the app open and running, it pauses the game and asks if you want to kick that player out. And if you do kick them out, they can’t rejoin. Let’s face it – expecting a group of friends to singularly use one app on their phone for three hours straight? That’s just not feasible!
Beyond that, there are other glaring errors in the game. The facial capture, despite probably being the same technology as Until Dawn, is not as great. Any high emotion scenes are more laughable than anything else – in once scene a protagonist screams “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?” while her face is contorted into this weird grimace that isn’t possible for a human – and then immediately reverts into a standard bored facial expression as soon as the dialogue is over. Some scenes have characters imitate weird bobblehead movements as an “idle animation.” And while Until Dawn’s motion capture was nothing to write home about either – somehow this game feels even worse.
Now for the game’s story itself. The main thrust of the story is there is a serial killer called the Trapper. They think he’s been caught and have a guy lined up for death row, but 48 hours before his sentence you discover that maybe he’s not the Trapper and so it becomes a race against time to figure out if he’s the bad guy or not. Hijinks ensue, people die, etc. etc. The game tries to create a horror atmosphere – probably trying to invoke a feeling similar to the Saw films. Except it never does because you never feel like you’re in danger. In Until Dawn, there were multiple setpieces (once things kicked into gear) where you really felt like your character might die if you screwed up. In this game, there’s no fear except for one or two setpieces at the very end of the game. The game even fails at making a compelling mystery – a lot of different plot threads are thrown at you, but resolving them never really leads to anything and solving the mystery of the “Trapper” is kind of dropped in your lap as a “did you make this one correct choice or not.”
And I’m well aware that the game is designed to be affected by choice – in Until Dawn they called it the “butterfly effect” and in Hidden Agenda it’s the “ripple effect.” But in Until Dawn, I still felt like I had a complete story even if I screwed up or made bad decisions. In Hidden Agenda, you can make all the right decisions and still come out of it going “wait, what?” I understand that it’s hard to make a good branching-path choose-your-own-adventure video game while still making a cohesive story. Hidden Agenda was definitely an attempt at it…but it’s not a great one.
Ah, yes, the hardest choice in the horror genre…
More importantly, you shouldn’t be able to play a game for 3 hours and then fail completely because of one botched QTE – which is what happened to my friends and I when we played this. We made it all the way to the end, discovered the identity of the Trapper, only for both protagonists to be killed because not all of my friends are expert gamers and we failed a single team-based QTE. There was literally a moment of “Wait, is that it?” “Wait, what just happened?” from everyone as the final cut scenes played out – confirming that yes, we just spent three hours on this story only for it to end in the most anticlimactic way ever. Good games shouldn’t end like that.
Now let me gripe about one particular decision Supermassive made when creating the multiplayer component of this game. There are two modes – Story Mode and Competitive Mode. In Story Mode (the version I played with friends) you’re all working together to solve the mystery and complete the game. In Competitive Mode each person has their own hidden agenda (a-ha!) to complete, possibly altering the story outcome in a way that’s different that expected. One is the Until Dawn co-op experience, the other is more of a deception game-within-a-game where you’re trying to finish your own agenda while stopping others from completing theirs. I can’t comment on Competitive Mode because I haven’t played it yet, but in Story Mode there is one very baffling decision Supermassive made and I can’t understand how it made it through play-testing.
In Story Mode, during certain scenes it asks everyone who is playing to vote on who most exemplifies a certain characteristic – for example, it will ask “Who in your group is the Bravest?” Then everyone votes on their phone, the person with the most votes is revealed, and they exclusively get to make a choice that is thematically relevant in the next scene. None of this is bad – except for the fact that through my friends and I’s playthrough, all the choices were positive attributes…except for one. We spent a good 2 hours laughing and having fun and voting on things like Bravest, Most Trusting, Most Loyal, Best Listener…and then we get to a vote and the game springs on us “Who do you think is the Most Cowardly?” All of us sat their like “Wait, what?” “Isn’t that kind of mean to vote on?” “This isn’t very nice.” It kind of dampened the mood a teensy bit.
It was super weird to have one negative choice when the rest were all positives. And, again, I understand Supermassive made a game that changes based on choice, and maybe if we played again with different choices all the votes would be on negative traits and I’d lose all my friends by the end of the game. But the whole point of Supermassive’s plan with this game was to have a bunch of friends get together to play a game. Why, unless you’re a sociopath, would you insert things like “Choose which of your friends is the biggest coward!!!!” into a party game? It makes no sense and is honestly a bad decision on the part of the game designers.
Later this weekend I replayed the game by myself, just to see what different decisions led to. It took me about an hour and a half playing solo, and about 50 minutes of that was me doing other things while scenes I’d already seen from my previous playthrough played out, sometimes with minor alterations. It was not any more fun, and it was also just as flawed a second time. In fact, my solo playthrough ended up leaving me feeling even more disappointed as some decisions I made had absolutely no payoff whatsoever.
Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Hidden Agenda as a game, even for $20. For $20 you could pick up a Jackbox Party Pack that has five games that will probably be more fun for a group get-together and you’d get more replay value than this. Or you could probably even find Until Dawn for $20 somewhere. It might take longer and it’s single-player, but it’s definitely a better experience.
PASS on Hidden Agenda