Version tested: PlayStation 3
Even better than Relentless' idea of what a family game should be is its idea of what a family itself should be. Mum, dad, perhaps a granny or a weird uncle: all gathered in the living room on a Sunday afternoon, wanting nothing more than to play on the PS3 together. They're not intimidated by PSN, they're not fazed by online stores and virtual wallet purchases, and when they reach for the DualShock, ready to pass it back and forth for an hour or so, they're after a game that will give them puzzles, a rambling cast of eccentrics, sprightly cliff-hangers, and a gentle, twisting narrative - all handled with a modest gift for ghoulishness.
And so the house of Buzz! built the Blue Toad Murder Files, a series of episodic whodunits as sugary and consequential as a few slices of cake. It's a nice idea, to see the fusty world of Marple and Morse delivered, with button prompts, on a semi-regular schedule. It's a nice world that's been created, too: a comical sprawl of Englishness, where vital clues may lurk in broken pieces of shortbread, and unsuspecting villagers are mown down in a flurry of champagne-cork gunshots. Each new instalment promises an hour of self-contained family fun, and there's a central narrative, albeit one that forms a tangle rather than a smooth-soaring arc, to keep you coming back for more.
Granted, the execution has perhaps been a little bumpy. Both developer and audience have struggled to work out exactly how much you should charge for an hour of fun - and, given the basic tenets of the murder mystery, there isn't a great deal of replayability on offer either, unless you're the kind of person who drives to work in your pyjamas and has trouble remembering what you named your children. Neither problem has proved terminal, however: on the first issue, Relentless has been very willing to experiment with pricing, even offering the odd episode for free. As for the second point, well, a few slices of cake are hardly replayable either, and nobody seems to mind too much about that.
Coasting leisurely through the finished series (all six episodes are now available for the eminently reasonable price of £20) is a chance, at last, to get a sense of Blue Toad's overall shape. It's hard not to like what you find, too. The six hour-long episodes mean Relentless' mild-mannered distraction is now comfortably lengthier than Modern Warfare 2's single-player campaign (and significantly lighter on incidents of the phrase "Oscar Mike") while, perhaps more importantly, its general tone makes for a welcome break from the norm.
While so many other games may be built from rigid-body physics and the brain-splattered heft of the Unreal Engine, Blue Toad appears to have been constructed entirely out of Lady Grey tea and the Home Service. Coming off as a cross between a stage play, a quiz show, and a handful of different board games, Relentless wants you to turn genteel detective, and quietly ferret out murderers most foul in a fairly peaceful manner.
As you wander around the village of Little Riddle, investigating vicious crimes while solving the maths, spatial, and lateral-thinking puzzles that regularly cross your path, Professor Layton may be the most obvious touchstone. And yet, somewhat bizarrely, it's not really the most relevant. Played with three friends wedged onto the sofa and the living room loud with griefing and wild speculation, it becomes obvious that Relentless has actually made something unique.
Not only is there no privacy whatsoever as you fail to complete a puzzle everyone else has solved instantly, while the clock ticks on and the in-game announcer mocks you with an elaborate turn of phrase, but the game also balances its audience's desire for co-operative or competitive gaming effortlessly by letting you make all the important decisions yourselves. Individual challenges can be handled solo or collaboratively with no repercussions for the wider game, while the greater puzzle lurking in each episode's tortuous plot is perfect for secret deductions or noisy deconstruction.
The story is wayward but lovable, finding time to cram in murder, theft, arson, hit-and-runs, unwelcome interment in a crypt, and a dozen other little unpleasantnesses. Characters, meanwhile, are introduced and then threaded together until the entire village is a complex superstructure of secrets and rivalries. Some of the subject matter is surprisingly grown-up - there's violent death, of course, but there's also a couple of deft lunges at sex and organised religion too - but the prickly moments are fairly child-friendly.
The puzzles themselves may not be, though. Blue Toad does a much better job of integrating its brainteasers into the flow of the narrative than Layton ever did, but it also pitches the challenges a little higher. While none of them will try to trick you with sneaky wording, plenty are just flat-out arduous, and some of the nastier offerings look uncomfortably similar to the kind of things I probably would have found in my A Level Maths paper if I hadn't been safely tucked up in a nearby adventure playground sniffing hairspray out of a paper bag. Any puzzle can be skipped if you get stuck, however - a necessity in a four-player game where it would otherwise only take one idiot to bring the whole thing to a halt - and while there are only twelve challenges per episode, they tend to be fairly meaty affairs.
They're varied, too. Even though invention eventually runs thin, there's still a decent range of puzzle types, meaning that all kinds of players are catered for, whether you like placing storm clouds on a grid, memorising strings of sound effects, or attempting to decode a doctor's handwriting. (In the event that the FBI psych profiling team is reading this, they might like to note down that, personally, I preferred the anagrams and spatial reasoning to the straight-up maths stuff. They should also be aware that I became ludicrously cheery whenever one of the game's ducks appeared on screen.)
If Relentless occasionally struggles with the puzzles, it's on far safer ground when it comes to the general presentation. From the flock wallpaper menus to the monochrome title cards and portentous dipping of strings, Blue Toad is a detailed pleasure, filled with humour. Little Riddle is a charming, chunky sort of place to explore, bursting with wonky cottages and creaky manors, and the animation, though sparse, is brilliant. Character designs are cheeky and grotesque, parodying John Cleese one minute, Rowan Williams the next, and the cast is a grim motley built from wobbling jowls, mutton-chops and fat lips.
Although the smug and omnipresent announcer has been a sticking point in some reviews, I suspect even the harshest of critics will warm to him over the course of all six instalments. Actor Tom Dussek has done a freakishly good turn, voicing everyone in the game, from the secretly sexy librarian right through to the Bronx wise-guy cooking sausages in the depths of the village's only hotel, and he manages to bring a real spark to them all.
There's still a certain amount of room for improvement when Blue Toad heads into its second series, of course. The map never really moves beyond being a simple, if charming, menu, and plots can occasionally be a little slow to announce themselves, but none of these shortcomings prove too damaging. Besides, the important elements, like the character, charm and challenge necessary to make episodic games worth sticking with, are all in place.
Relentless' latest may not be the best-seller that Buzz! is, then, but it has its same lightness of touch and confident execution. Murder has rarely been so pleasant as it is amidst the tidy hedges, twitching curtains and flocking geese of Little Riddle, while videogames have almost never left their comfort zones behind with such breezy assurance.
8 / 10