Over the years, the evolution of the “party game” has been something to behold. From the more traditional competitive local games of gaming’s earlier years, a whole range of multiplayer delicacies have spawned to help liven up the atmosphere when you have a few friends gathered. From Mario Party, Sonic Shuffle, Wii Sports, Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Buzz!, SingStar, and the more recent Jackbox Party Pack compilations, there’s been something for every situation. Unless you wanted something that attempts to tickle the old brain cells a little more than with standard general knowledge, that is. Supermassive is trying to fill that gap in the market with Hidden Agenda, which, despite being part of Sony’s PlayLink initiative, is far from the usual party fare.
Hidden Agenda is a crime thriller, where the players interact with the story at crucial points to drive the branching narrative and alter the eventual outcome. Finn (Yan Feldman) – a convict on death row – initially confessed to being a serial killer by the name of “The Trapper”, but now, with just hours to go before his sentence is due to be carried out, he’s changed his story. As homicide detective Becky Marney (Katie Cassidy), you and/or your group (you can play alone if you wish) must find the truth, alongside your partner Tom Nelson (Leonard Roberts) and DA Felicity Graves (Christy Choi).
Hopefully, you’ll work it out before a possibly innocent man is sent to die.
As with the other PlayLink titles, the game is played using phones and tablets, as opposed to a stack of controllers. Sadly, there’s a requirement to download a 100+mb app onto each device you want to use before you can start, but that should only put a minor hitch in proceedings if you’ve got a decent 4G connection or are hooked up to wi-fi. Once the app is installed, you just enter your names and then choose to play in “Story” or “Competitive” mode – neither of which is described particularly well. A better idea of what you’re in for would have been nice, given that there’s an hour or two of gameplay ahead of you.
The story plays out across a movie-length series of moody scenes which – despite some strange facial animation at times – look pretty sharp for the greater part. When a decision needs to be made, players are asked to vote by touch-dragging a cursor to a box representing their choice. Some decisions require a simple majority, while other, more essential decisions need everyone to be in agreement. That brings about some lively debate among the players as everyone tries to convince everyone else that their choice is correct. That debate could be short-lived though if someone decides to play a “takeover” card. Put simply, everyone starts with a single takeover card, which can be used to wrestle control of a decision out of everyone else’s hands. During play, more can be earned by finding clues in simple hidden object scenes, or by being the fastest to the target during the handful of quick-time events that crop up. In my first round – with two other players – everyone finished with at least three takeover cards in hand, while I had six. What that means is that I could have played along diplomatically for the first two-thirds of the game, and then just played card after card to make things go exactly as I wanted them to. Others can play a card to take over your takeover, so to speak, but it’s still a system that is relatively needless when everybody is supposed to be working together.
If you’ve chosen to play in competitive mode, the takeover cards make more sense. Here, periodically, random players will be assigned a hidden goal to accomplish, such as convincing everyone to select a specific choice during a voting round. If they do this without alerting the group – the game asks everyone who they think had the hidden agenda – they’ll be awarded points for their deception. If things aren’t going your way and you’re the one trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, you could play a takeover card. But the game clearly indicates this choice on screen, so the group will instantly know that you have an agenda in mind if you don’t do something in the real world to convince them otherwise.
Far from the average party game experience, Hidden Agenda is pretty well fleshed out. Your app continually updates with biographies and plot points, so if you miss anything, you can always have a quick look through and get the information you need before making a choice. It makes for an interesting evening of gaming that’s accessible to all, with the movie-length story having plenty of time to breathe and provide enough information that concentration is required to keep track.
One major downer is the stability of the game. During my time with it, across four playthroughs, Hidden Agenda randomly crashed out entirely at least once each time. The worst run saw it hard crash at the same point over and over, with only a full reboot of the console and everybody disconnecting their devices from the network being enough to get us out of the woods. When a crash occurs, there’s a chance that you’ll reload and be taken back to your last save point, though you may be propelled all the way through the scene you were watching and end up at the start of the next. You can fill in the blanks with the data displayed in the app, but that’s cold comfort when you’re well into things and have been pulled out of the experience so abruptly.
That and the lack of real replayability are what hinder Hidden Agenda the most. Your decisions do have an effect on the plot, so there are story branches to explore, but you’ll likely find that if you want to do just that, you’ll have to do it alone. After playing for an hour or so, a group happening upon a sudden lousy decision that ends the game is hardly going to want to plunge back in and sit through the same scenes again so that they can have another go. Those bad endings are soul-destroying, too. With a main plotline that’s genuinely intriguing, Hidden Agenda does as well at getting a room of players to pay attention almost as much as any movie would.
A group of players who really get into the story will be desperate to find out if Finn was the killer all along or if another one of the prime players is behind the slayings. Exactly how desperate they become is what will determine if Hidden Agenda is a one-shot deal for you, or if you play through it a handful of times. In the worst case scenario, for about the same price as a movie on Blu-ray, you’ll get at least a movie’s length of entertainment from it. There’s a lot to like here, and the game is a good indication of what can be done in the space with a little thought and invention. It isn’t without fault, however, requires everyone to download an app to their device in order to get involved, and has a distinct lack of options regarding how you play. Also, while the plot moves along well enough most of the time, there are sections that do drag awfully, to the point of threatening your interest. These issues, along with the stability problems, make Hidden Agenda ultimately feel like something of a checkpoint along the route to finding out what this sort of experience could eventually become, as opposed to the finishing line itself.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Sony.
Hidden Agenda is a gritty and intriguing experience that should entertain up to six players for about the length of the average movie. It isn't without its flaws though, and most likely won't be something you'll play more than once.