Hidden Agenda (PS4)

Hidden Agenda, Supermassive Games’ follow up to the excellent Until Dawn, is an interactive police procedural that can be played solo or with friends as part of Sony’s PlayLink experiment. Sony is trying to introduce games to a wider audience; it’s a noble goal. For non-gamers, touching the screen of their phone/tablet is far more intuitive than locating the X button or pushing R3. However, Hidden Agenda won’t be converting anyone to video games. It’s boring, awkward, and incomplete. There are laughs to be had, but none of them are intentional.

**Includes minor spoilers**

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You play as Detective Becky Marney (Katie Cassiday from Arrow) and District Attorney Felicity Graves (Christi Choi). Both likenesses are decent, although we’re no closer to solving the Uncanny Valley problem. There are also some awkward animations, such as when characters move their heads in a way that looks like an alien getting used to a new human body.

Marney and Graves are investigating the infamous serial killer known as the Trapper. The police thought they had their man when they arrested Finn five years ago. Finn even confessed and was days away from execution when he decided it was a good time to plead his innocence and offer to help catch the real killer.

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Most police procedurals take liberties with real-life criminal procedure. It’s absolutely necessary because lawyering and police work is generally fairly boring. No one would want to watch that. The trick is in making the audience suspend its disbelief by presenting actions in a way that feels right, regardless of actual accuracy. Hidden Agenda takes such obvious liberties with reality that you can’t take it seriously. You know it’s going to be bad when Graves gets Finn—the death row inmate and convicted serial killer—released from prison with only minimal security after just a quick word with the judge. Why is the district attorney so convinced of Finn’s innocence? He said so.

I’ve previously confessed to being a lawyer in a former life, so I appreciate that you may think these observations are nitpicky and won’t apply to you. I can assure you, my complaints are not the result of any work experience. I was never a trial lawyer. I’ve spent less time in courtrooms than a rich white guy. Hidden Agenda‘s errors are painfully obvious and distracting. Supermassive Games creates the problem in the first place by having Finn confess and then change his mind years later. Why have him confess in the first place? It would have been more interesting if he’d been wrongly convicted. Hidden Agenda feels like a sequel to an old series that finished with a conclusive ending but the studio demanded a follow up ten years later. The writers eventually get themselves out of the mess, but why write themselves into it to begin with?

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Hidden Agenda is played entirely on your smart device once you’ve downloaded the app. You can’t use a controller, no matter how much you might want to. Most of the gameplay consists of making 50:50 choices to direct conversations in the desired direction, although you’ll also do a few quicktime events and search for clues under a strict time limit. The phone/tablet interface struggles with this last one. There’s just enough lag to make the hunt for clues annoying and the time limit is completely unnecessary. Why does a detective only have twenty seconds to search a crime scene?

Playing with friends unlocks a second game mode where one of the players has a “hidden agenda” and has to convince the team to make a certain decision during the chapter. It’s not a terrible idea, but it’s nowhere near enough to carry the entire experience. You need your friends to be invested in the story and I couldn’t convince anyone to play it all the way through.

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Your actions have consequences although the ways in which these consequences manifest is often disappointing. For example, in the opening scene, you can mess up an arrest and get your partner killed. Sounds like a big deal; it’s not. Your partner is replaced with another character who plays the same role and delivers many of the same lines. The supposedly big decision is rendered moot. Conversely, a minor error, such as missing one of the three clues when searching a room, can change the entire course of the story. You won’t know how or why until you do a second playthrough and compare the outcomes.

Despite hiring quality actors and producing a nice looking game, everything about Hidden Agenda feels rushed and cheaply put together. When you choose between conversation options, you can often see moments where the game skips a piece of content that doesn’t relate to your playthrough. Sometimes it’s as obvious as seeing a few frames of the next scene before quickly cutting away to what you should be viewing. Other times it’s more subtle, such as weird cuts from a close-up shot of, say, Marney to another close up of Marney except the camera has moved slightly from one frame to another. It’s incredibly jarring. Nothing takes you out of a cinematic experience like terrible cinematography.

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The ending is also a huge letdown and that’s assuming you see the ending at all. My first playthrough came to a dramatic and unexpected conclusion as I was booted to the credits without reaching any kind of resolution. There’s no chapter select, so if you want to take another stab at the game then you’ll be playing the whole thing all over again without any idea of how to get the true ending. Imagine putting three friends through ninety minutes of crap and then not even getting an ending (there’s a bad sex joke in here somewhere). “It’s okay guys, let’s play for another two hours. We might get to find out who did it next time. Guys? Where are you going?”

You might think playing as a detective would let you do some detecting. Not really. From early on, there are two or three prime suspects, however you don’t get to question them or push for solutions. This keeps a tiny degree of surprise for the resolution, however it’s only a surprise because you’re so deprived of information to begin with. The “true” ending, where you catch the culprit is ridiculously abrupt. You arrest him/her and it just ends. There’s some dialogue over the credits to give the illusion of closure, but it adds little to the experience.

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Despite all this, you can have fun with Hidden Agenda. If you play it with friends over a few drinks, you’ll probably have a laugh in the same way you do when watching bad horror films. I played on stream and people did seem to have fun watching. That’s the best I can say for Hidden Agenda. It’s a narrative game with a dull and poorly written narrative. It’s a choose your own adventure game with boring and uninformed choices. It’s a “play with friends experience” that is likely to leave you with fewer friends at the end of it.

Hidden Agenda is regularly on sale for $5. You might get value for money if you go in with the right frame of mind. Don’t pay more than that and don’t expect it to even reach the heights of an average cop procedural drama. Hidden Agenda gets a two out of five because, despite itself, I did laugh out loud a few times.

2/5

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