Hidden Agenda review: Police procedural party time
At first blush, Hidden Agenda smacks of Sony chasing yet another branded, mainstream accessible gimmick. It’s the “serious” game in the company’s trio of PlayLink-branded titles—games that are hosted on the PlayStation 4 but controlled by multiple players through their smartphones. If you’ve played any of Jackbox Games’ (mostly) wonderful Party Packs, you know the score.
The biggest difference between PlayLink and, say, the PlayStation Move—which tried to co-opt the early appeal of motion control that Nintendo popularized—is that players already have smartphones and likely won’t have to buy or store any extra plastic accoutrements to join in. Those people are probably familiar enough with those smartphones to use simple touchscreen menus, too.
In the PlayLink app, players are assigned cursor colors and use their touchscreens to control what’s on the TV. In Hidden Agenda, that basically amounts to voting for what characters do and how they react, tapping the screen to respond to quick-time events. There are also a bare handful of timed pixel hunting sections. But even more than the You Don’t Know Jack games PlayLink is obviously cribbing from, it’s a heavy distillation of developer Supermassive Games’ own Until Dawn. Instead of direct control of playable characters, you just make (usually binary) choices in service of the story.
Said story centers on “The Trapper,” a serial killer who uses his victims to lure first responders to their deaths as well. Players fluctuate between one of the cops who arrested the Trapper and a District Attorney who thinks there’s more to the case. It is a story told mostly through cramped close-ups of strangely inexpressive but otherwise very impressively rendered faces.
The DA is right about there being more to the case, of course, and you discover the specifics over a couple of hours of play. Yeah, Hidden Agenda isn’t very long: the trophy for beating its story mode is actually called “Movie Night.” It’s a reference that is doubly appropriate, given the game is really meant to be played with friends.
All decisions in Hidden Agenda are made by majority vote. The game literally won’t progress (except in the case of QTEs and other time-limited activities) until most of the players move their cursor over one option. (In the case of a two-player game, this means both players have to agree or the game simply won’t move on.)
That means you have to talk it out—argue, cajole, and otherwise debate your case for why a certain character would do or say a certain thing. And those discussions are by far the most fun I had with Hidden Agenda, thanks to the game codifying the way I already play other decision-driven games (like Until Dawn and The Yawhg) when friends are in the room.
What’s great about it here, as in those other games, is that it forces me to think critically about a character in the moment, rather than just after the fact. “Oh, Detective Marney wouldn’t want to upset this person right now,” I’d say, or “We don’t really have any reason not to trust that witness yet.”
Stop, collaborate, and listen
This democratic element adds a lot to what is actually a very basic and predictable plot—I correctly guessed Hidden Agenda’s endgame plot twist about 10 minutes in. But my own interpretations and biases toward the character added layers to the moment-to-moment dialogue that the game doesn’t bring itself.
Hidden Agenda also adds a wrinkle to those player debates with “takeover cards.” These limited resources let any single player take over any one decision—ostensibly making themselves the only vote that counts. Of course, takeover cards can also be overridden by another player’s takeover card, and so on, until all players have run out. So there’s a bit of strategy to hoarding them until you really want an in-game decision to go a certain way.
That strategy is especially important in the competitive mode that Hidden Agenda gets its name from. In this mode, secret instructions are beamed to players’ phones—hidden agendas, if you will—that task them with nudging the story in certain directions. Short- and long-term goals like these are worth points, which determine a winner at the end.
Competition breeds points
The idea is to move your agenda forward and foil other players, but Hidden Agenda’s self-serious plot isn’t a great match for those kinds of party game objectives. Nor does the game’s overarching mystery really encourage repeat playthroughs. You could make the case that a single, competitive group playthrough is worth the measly $20 price tag, but that’s just $5 cheaper than a much longer lived and more diverse Jackbox bundle.
Compared to other phone-to-console party games like those, Hidden Agenda feels like a proof-of-concept. The story might be predictable and stitched together in spots, but the technology works just about seamlessly. Not to mention the core concept—making decisions together as a group—that adds layers to the interactive narrative. Where Hidden Agenda fails is in adding compelling mechanical reasons to make those group decisions, rather than just doing it because it’s already fun in games like Until Dawn.
I’d love to see Supermassive take a more ambitious crack at this formula using the PlayLink tech. But if not, and PlayLink goes the way of motion controls or even the EyeToy, at least I won’t have a bunch of leftover plastic to keep in storage.
- Very detailed character models.
- It’s fun to hash out potential choices with a group of friends.
- Connecting PS4s and smartphones through PlayLink is seamless.
- Very inexpressive character models.
- The voting system doesn’t add anything to decision-making that you couldn’t add yourself.
- Bland and predictable police drama—I knew the “twist” almost instantly.
- Kind of serious and grim for a game to be played in a lighthearted party.
- The story is over pretty quickly and doesn’t encourage replays.
- In one scene, two characters order beer and then leave 30 seconds later without ever drinking it.
Verdict: $20 isn’t much to spend for a night’s entertainment, but there are much better games of this type for about the same price. Skip it.
Author Ars Staff