Version tested: PlayStation 3
Poke around Relentless Software's website and you can make a strong argument that the developer has spent the last few years playing it safe. But it has played it so well in the process. The Buzz! series is always at its strongest when it's in the gentle, assured hands of its real parents, and it's as much for that reason as any that Blue Toad Murder Files arrives propelled by waves of critical interest apparently disproportionate to its status as a family mystery series.
That series begins with a pair of downloadable episodes released on PS3 today, which cost £6.29 individually or £9.99 for the pair. You and up to three friends select a suitable member of the Blue Toad Detective Agency to represent yourselves and then arrive by train in the quaint English country town of Little Riddle, where almost immediately you find yourself on the trail of a naughty murderer.
You certainly know it's a quaint country town, too, because the station master has mutton chops and immediately complains about a disagreement over the tea room, and because every sound effect is a duck quacking or the butcher's preferred refrain ("scum!"), and because the narrator's ponderous delivery is continually enlivened by a "puffing conveyance", "vittles" or a "muuuurdeeeer".
At times it's very much caribou nibbling the hoops (and believe me when I tell you there is no greater praise), but as you set about interrogating the town's charmingly stereotypical inhabitants you realise this is more than a convenient hook. The station master has mutton chops because there should always be something silly to look at, the ducks quack between screens because there should be no dead air, and the narrator's glacial loquacity is designed to let you enjoy these things and keep up with the unfolding mystery at the same time.
Because make no mistake, you're on the clock. 12 puzzles lie ahead of your group in each episode, along with the occasional brief catch-up quiz to make sure you're paying attention, and at the end you're expected to identify the perpetrator and confront him or her with your evidence.
Each puzzle begins with an interrogation cut-scene where the narrator voices your concerns for you, and while the subject of your inquiries responds you get to admire the peculiar objects lying in the background, or the way his chin flaps as he speaks. Or sometimes, as with the vicar and his delightful intonation in episode two, you just stare open-mouthed as he sends up the Church of England (because, you know, it worked so well for Resistance: Fall of Man).
Then you get a puzzle. These range from logic teasers about moving sacks around or organising bees around flowers, to maths and word puzzles where you crack basic codes and work out how many guests are in a hotel, along with a few based on visual observation under difficult (often rotating) circumstances.
Technically you are competing with your fellow players, earning medals based on how quickly you answer and how many attempts it takes, but the nature of the puzzles means that people usually muck in. Even when the pad isn't in your hand you can't help solving them as you look on, and when it is then the gentle pressure of wanting to get a gold medal and get it right without mistakes is amplified by the presence of an audience. Have they already worked out which of the windmill sails is different? Have they deciphered the constable's message? Have I got that sum right?
I expect some of the puzzles will outfox kids below a certain age (and above a certain age, in my case), but none is a dud and each is touched by Blue Toad's sense of humour, at turns impish and avuncular, just as with the dialogue and cut-scenes. There are a few low notes in the latter's case - the Basil Fawlty-inspired hotel proprietor improves over the two episodes, but is still slightly cringeworthy - but in general the silly accents and mannerisms all hit home, and you find yourself imitating them as you wander off to the kitchen to fetch more crackers. Scum!
All this joviality is deceptive, too, because even with all the puzzles finished there's still the big question of whodunnit. The game is clever to remind you a few times that you will need to answer this at the end, but it never rams it down your throat, and this leads to mild embarrassment in some cases as you stare down the police line-up at the end of the episode and realise you haven't been paying complete attention.
In the first episode, you really will need to be alert to pick up on the clues and contradictions sprinkled across your encounters, and while the second episode is a bit easier, even in the group of four sensible grown-ups who made up my test sample - 75 per cent of whom had actual qualifications and respectable jobs you could admit to doing when asked at a party - two of us got it wrong.
Each episode lasts around an hour, and 12 puzzles means everyone gets an equal share of the limelight however many people are playing. Everything is surprisingly playable on your own, too, although the measured delivery of the dialogue is much better suited to groups, and while there is no online play this really is one of those games that doesn't need it: there is nothing to be gained by splitting the work between strangers, nor friends whose reactions you can't enjoy face to face, and indeed a lot would have to be forgone.
Even so, replay value is a big issue. Once you finish each episode you can go back and redo puzzles you didn't solve fast enough, but generally you easily remember the solutions so this only takes seconds, and there is no change to the puzzles on subsequent playthroughs. Presumably the lack of variety is a cost-saving measure, but it also hurts the game's long-term prospects, and with an overarching story set to link the six instalments the perp is always the same when you replay an episode.
Blue Toad's 17th December launch is no mistake though. At £10 for around two hours of content with questionable replay value it's quite expensive, but it accomplishes a lot in those two hours, and it's the nature of that accomplishment that should not be underestimated - especially at a time of year when everyone's delighted to see each other but also secretly worried about how to keep the group together after lunch but before the Doctor Who special.
In this sense, it may not have Jason Donovan in it, and you may not control it using a lump of plastic with a whopping buzzer on it, but Blue Toad Murder Files is still unmistakeably a Relentless Software game, because it makes the difficult job of entertaining a diverse group appear effortless. The strength of hold it exerts cannot be overstated, and it sets it apart from less inclusive games aspiring to the same end.
7 / 10