‘Third Eye Crime’: Novel touches in art thief’s exploits

May 05, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.

The hand-held video game “Third Eye Crime” has all the trappings of a classic noir mystery. For starters, there’s a tough-talking, no-good gumshoe for hire with “Dick Tracy’s” eye for fashion. Then, of course, there’s a double-crossing femme fatale modeled after Jessica Rabbit. Mix in a jazz soundtrack marked by bourbon-stained brass notes and a plot full of unsavory characters, and it’s clear that the tales of the underworld here are rooted in vintage novels and black-and-white films.

Yet “Third Eye Crime” also has a few thoroughly modern touches that James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler probably never foresaw. Take, for instance, a slick touch interface, one that brings a dash of “Angry Birds”-like movement to the hard-boiled genre. “Third Eye Crime,” released in late April for Apple’s mobile platforms, collects bits and pieces of familiar genres — the pick-up-and-play puzzle game, a pulpy comic style — and fuses them together for an interactive experience that has a new angle on tradition.

Thanks to an escalating narrative and a focus on exaggerated personality quirks, “Third Eye Crime” brings an underlying tension and a sense of reality to its puzzles, in which the mission is always to evade capture. It makes for an experience in which a $2.99 game that emphasizes pocket-sized approachability feels much larger, even more complex, than it really is.

Screen frame from the video game "Third Eye Crime." (Moonshot Games)

Screen frame from the video game “Third Eye Crime.” (Moonshot Games)

The game is simple in design. As Rothko, a thief masquerading as private investigator, players are set loose on various maps — the corridors of an art museum, the basements of a hotel and the catacombs of a castle, among others. Rothko is an experienced art thief with a knack for anticipating the movements of others — as well as occasionally coming into possession of some Bond-like toys that will have his foes seeing double or literally freezing — and he is hired by a redheaded “dame” (her name, essentially) to retrieve a piece of priceless art to settle a debt.

As goals are completed, the temptress is revealed to be much more than a woman scorned by her gambler husband. Her tales of settling a gambling score are tall ones, and Rothko soon finds himself to be a pawn in his own cat-and-mouse game. Just who he’s working for becomes obscured, and when the woman takes his buddy for collateral, “Third Eye Crime” becomes blessed with an urgent forward momentum still not commonly seen in iPhone/iPad games.

In that way, it works as a gateway game, a steppingstone for those accustomed to swiping away on their devices at bus stops, waiting rooms and grocery-store lanes but also looking to dabble in a more novel-esque experience. Between puzzles, players scroll through what is essentially an interactive graphic novel, swiping through panels that have the fragility and depth of animation panels.

When it comes time to play, “Third Eye Crime” switches to a bird’s-eye view of the action. Rothko must be guided to safety on each mini-map of a level, presented essentially as a floor plan. Hallways provide hiding spaces, shadows offer cover, and Rothko can make a racket or trick laser alarms to send his would-be captors in opposite attractions.

As with addictive time-eaters such as “Angry Birds” and “Cut the Rope,” each escape route can probably be completed in a few minutes or less. But probably not fully completed.

Screen frame from the video game "Third Eye Crime." (Moonshot Games)

Screen frame from the video game “Third Eye Crime.” (Moonshot Games)

As Rothko sneaks around goons and security guards, there are jewels and pieces of art to snare, some of which will take multiple go-rounds to steal. Players trace paths for Rothko around the dimly lighted, scarlet-hued comic-styled locals, essentially making “Third Eye Crime” a 2014 update of, say, the line-drawing snake games of yore.

Refreshingly, indie studio Moonshot Games places the same emphasis on character traits that it does on puzzles. In a game designed for under $100,000 by a team of about 10 led by Damian Isla, who worked on numerous “Halo” titles for Blockbuster-focused studio Bungie before going indie, each character is given an identifying detail — Rothko’s white suit and red rose, for instance — and very specific movement patterns.

It helps “Third Eye Crime” flip the script on lighthearted mobile puzzle games. The core mechanic driving the game is still drawing a blue-ish path for Rothko, in much the same way the heart of “Angry Birds” is firing a sling, but “Third Eye Crime” steals tricks from larger console and PC games. That is, the computer-controlled characters respond with the illusion of artificial intelligence to Rothko’s every move.

The game answers a question Isla asked at the outset: “Why isn’t there a game where character behavior is the basis of the core mechanic of the game?”

Probably because it’s more difficult than relying on fixed actions, but the trade-off is that “Third Eye Crime” feels remarkably fluid for a game in which the sole goal is to not be captured. Movements are dependent upon when or how Rothko is spotted, and whether he mistakenly wanders into someone’s sight or purposely sets off his own alarm can set off a different guessing game as to where someone will wander next.

Though such stealth tactics will be familiar to longtime Xbox or PlayStation gamers, “Third Eye Crime” is the rare puzzle game in which the solution is ever-evolving.

How to get Rothko to safety is one question, but the greater mystery lies in learning to understand the movements of others.

— Todd Martens| @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex


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