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Blue Toad Murder Files: Season One

File and forget?

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.

Each episode ends, as so many of the best things in life do, with a secret ballot, as you decide on which of the villagers is the culprit this time around.

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.

Relentless clearly learnt on the job, and the plots themselves can be a little uneven at times.

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

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