When a cartoon series receives a download-only spin-off, with localisation that's crowdfunded, it's only natural to sound a klaxon of caution. Both scenarios apply to The Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths, yet it's a pleasing tale of fulfilled expectations; it may not blow many minds, but we'll say early on that it fulfils its requirements as an entertaining game. It's already had its run on Wii U, and now makes its welcome but belated entrance on 3DS.
The odds are good that if you've played the HD iteration of this you'll have little to no reason to switch up. As would be expected with the development history and crowdfunding of the title, this portable entry is a faithful recreation of what's come before. We can't imagine the transition was too taxing on a technical level, as the core visuals and presentation on the home console were attractive but not necessarily processor hungry. Naturally the transition to 3DS has had its impact; compression is the notable example, with cutscenes and in-game graphics now relatively fuzzy and lacking in detail. In both cases the developer has done a competent job — cinematics are slightly grainy but thoroughly watchable, and the graphics themselves are decent and in-line with the expectations for a 3DS download game.
One disappointing aspect of the presentation, carrying over from our suggestion that it's simply been shrunk down to fit, is that the autostereoscopic 3D of the top screen is not used at all. In fact, gameplay is on the bottom screen — for reasons we'll explain shortly — and even the cinematic sequences on the wider top screen are resolutely 2D. During play the top screen has large, easy-to-read information that would typically be considered part of a HUD, such as time passed and objectives reached, yet there's a lingering sense that the game was made to fit the hardware, with little effort to accommodate its features.
It certainly supports players of all types, however, with control schemes utilising stylus play or physical controls. The stylus option is perhaps best-suited to young gamers, with the option to pan the camera on the D-Pad while movement and interactions are on the touch screen; yet this can feel a little clumsy at times. Using the Circle Pad and face buttons is far more precise, and combined with the well animated characters gives the greater sense of control. There are also 'help' indicators that can be turned on and off, so the development team has done well to support players of various skill levels.
Moving onto the action itself, this is a solid, enjoyable game. Its mechanics are simple, as you control three characters to explore and solve environmental puzzles, switching between them and utilising special abilities. Esteban can activate sun switches, Zia can fit through small gaps and Tao has the ability to decipher 'Mu' messages and steal keys with his parrot buddy Kokapetl.
The goal at the start of any level is to check out the surrounding area and plot your path. There are optional objectives to complete that earn achievements, such as avoiding capture, clearing the level in a certain time, collecting all scrolls and finding a hidden chest; the latter unlocks illustrations. Early on you may complete every goal with ease, but with progress the difficulty gradually increases so that basic completion is always obtainable, but collecting the extras may take multiple playthroughs.
Though basic, the puzzles work rather well. Using your team together and split up you'll be stepping on various pressure panels, pressing switches, and utilising stealth to avoid enemies. The stealth mechanic is undeniably simple, but it needs to be considering the target audience and the limitations of its isometric top-down view. If spotted by an enemy you have a couple of seconds to run around a corner or jump in a nearby barrel / hedge — these enemies won't pursue you or stay vigilant for long. You can pick holes in this, yes, but in the context of the game it works well.
Some of the puzzles become increasingly complicated, and are likely to provide a welcome test for younger gamers in particular. At some points it's necessary to translate and interpret clues, and though lacking the devious nature of the most punishing high-Picarat exploits of Professor Layton, work well. It's like being in a puzzle room from a Zelda title, over and over again and with increasingly tricky solutions.
In fact our only real complaint is that there's an increasing sense of repetition. It's a catch-22 — there's plenty of content with six areas of China and 30 levels to tackle, and with some taking well over ten minutes to clear first time there's plenty of value for money. The design is often to simply place more of the same kind of puzzles in a larger area, with more elaborate combinations and more guards to catch you out. That's to be expected, but some may yearn to escape the shackles and repetitive loop of entering a new scene and seeking out largely familiar solutions.
Overall, however, this title does offer plenty of enjoyment for those that enjoy the gameplay on offer. It's certainly going to suit fans of the TV show, and even though we aren't familiar with the source material we could keep track of the general plot through the cutscenes, though they are crudely edited and cut at some points. Choppy cutscenes aside, however, we could grasp the appeal of the franchise through the presentation, and the music is a particular highlight.
Mysterious Cities of Gold: Secret Paths does nothing special, but it's — for the most part — a well constructed and enjoyable adventure. If you own a Wii U and 3DS we'd recommend the HD version, simply because it won't have undergone the compression necessary for the handheld's weaker capabilities. That aside, however, this portable version does its job well, delivering the fundamentals with minimal compromise to the player. This is a simple, perhaps repetitive adventure, but it has enough colour and charm to make it worth consideration for less experienced or younger gamers, in particular.