There's nothing I enjoy more than a game that takes me completely by surprise, slaps me in the face, and forces me to love it. I knew next to nothing about Blue Toad Murder Files: The Mystery of Little Riddle and decided to play it because it had a) an awesome name, and b) an intriguing premise: a co-operative mystery investigation. I figured it would be at best mildly interesting, and at worst, semi-broken, unoriginal, and painful in spots. It is none of those things. It is hilarious. Charming. Clever. Brilliant. I hesitate to call it "genius" only because I think it might blush and start to feel uncomfortable around me.
You arrive in the idyllic English town of Little Riddle after Mother, the head of the Blue Toad Agency, decides you've been working too hard and need a holiday. Mere moments after you arrive, the Mayor is murdered before your very eyes, and rather than leave the investigation up to the nearly competent local constabulary, you naturally decide to take on the investigation yourself. The slain town official is but the tip of the nefarious iceberg, however, as Little Riddle appears to be resting atop a seething morass of criminal doings.
Blue Toad Murder Files is an episodic game whose six chapters are downloadable from the PSN store, and, while you can play each one independently of the others, the characters, story, and many, many running gags are all far more fun if you play through the chapters in order. At first glance, the game's murder-mystery setup and cartoony graphics might put you in mind of adventure games like Monkey Island or Sam & Max, but it's actually got far more in common with the Professor Layton games. Talking to the villagers will provide clues on which you follow up by visiting various locations around town. After you decide which area you want to visit, you'll chat with one of the locals and solve a puzzle. Once a puzzle has been mastered - or skipped, should it prove too thorny - it's on to the next location and tidbit of information.
The puzzles themselves vary from blindingly simple to nosebleed-inducing, though which is which depends largely on the workings of your particular mass of gray matter. That's why, even though it's quite possible to play through Murder Files solo, you'll enjoy the experience more if you invite some friends to join in. Up to four players can team up to crack a case, and while the gameplay doesn't change all that much with the addition of more participants, the overall vibe certainly does. If more than one detective is on the case, you take turns tackling the puzzles, which leaves plenty of room for everyone else to kibitz. Helping each other solve the puzzles - or chiming in with the wrong answer, if you're feeling particularly cutthroat - is a huge part of Blue Toad's fun. Your final performance will be judged not only on how quickly you solve a puzzle, but also how many tries it took you to arrive at the right answer. The desire to earn a gold ribbon for your efforts can lead to much jovial shouting and pointing at the screen, while netting a lowly bronze because you took a few seconds too many will result in a chorus of groans.
Having extra people in the room will also greatly increase your appreciation of Murder Files' brilliantly witty writing. Whether it's the vicar surreptitiously slipping Lovecraft quotes into his homilies or the narrator cheerfully berating your overwhelming mediocrity after you submit an incorrect answer to a puzzle, Murder Files is a constant source of snorts, guffaws, and smart laughs. Listen closely to everything you hear in the game - not only will it help you ace the game's pop quizzes, but because you don't want to miss any of Murder Files' best and most subtle jokes.
Your interaction with Little Riddle and its inhabitants is limited to choosing the locations you'd like to visit and listening while the villagers talk at you. There are no dialog choices to make or items to collect; at times you feel like more of a passenger along for the ride than a person controlling the game. That might be off-putting for some players, but it's perfect for parties or other settings where non-gamers might want to get involved. The mysteries themselves are all incredibly easy to solve - so long as you don't nod off during the game, you should have no trouble identifying whodunit. Again, perfect for a party environment.
Puzzle games and mysteries share a common weakness, a weakness that is Murder Files' one glaring shortcoming: knowing the answer almost completely kills the appeal. Once you've identified the culprits and solved all the brain-teasers, there's not much reason for you to revisit Little Riddle, as endearing as its residents might be. Completing a chapter lets you replay all of the puzzles and review the scenes without actually having to play through all over again, but you don't really have a reason to, unless you'd like to try and improve your solve time.
Bottom Line: Blue Toad Murder Files: The Mystery of Little Riddle might not have much replay value, but it does have genuinely funny writing, challenging puzzles, and refreshingly different co-op gameplay. And ducks.
Recommendation: If you enjoy puzzles, mysteries, or laughing, download this immediately.
Susan Arendt is always curious to know what the ducks will reveal.