You won't have to look long to find quite a few hidden-object games on the 3DS eShop, but the Mystery Murders series stands out by attempting to inject a little soul into the I-Spy formual. Equal parts PC-style adventure game and Where's Waldo whodunit, they frame the item-finding with simple puzzles and spooky stories. The Sleeping Palace is the latest entry in the series, and while it's not terribly innovative and it won't be for everyone, it still offers a worthwhile experience for fans of the genre searching for something a little different.
The Sleeping Palace casts players as Sophia Fay, a young girl who's just woken up in Laroche Palace with no recollection of who she is or how she got there. Worse, everyone else in the mansion seems to be suspended in a supernatural slumber, and something sinister is most definitely afoot. The story unfolds through clues, journal entries, and voiced dialogue scenes, and while the writing isn't exactly top-notch, it's enough to hold your interest. The atmosphere is opulent, ornate, and only ever creepy because of a distinct lack of other conscious humans - it's pleasantly unsettling Victorian mystery, with nothing grisly or gory about it.
In terms of gameplay, The Sleeping Palace combines classic point-and-click adventure mechanics with hidden-object searches. You'll move through Laroche manor by tapping, dragging, and sliding from room to room, picking up objects and using them to solve simple environmental puzzles and unlock more of the mansion. Occasionally there are Layton-esque mini-games (like unscrambling wire-paths or solving a sliding-block puzzle) that need to be completed before you can progress, and a handy palace map lets you warp instantly to any room you've visited.
The un-timed hidden-object sequences are deviously arranged, with items disappearing into their surroundings remarkably well. The top screen holds a list of what you're looking for, and you can zoom and pan the scene to go over every detail in your hunt for the everyday treasures hidden within. Although there are at least a few gimmes in each search, most of the objects will elude you for longer than you'd think. Uncovering hidden items isn't a new concept, and The Sleeping Palace doesn't do anything particularly novel with it, but the elaborate designs of the items and backdrop make the scenes surprisingly fun to rummage through, and the tricky placement will trip up even seasoned seekers from time to time.
Aide from zooming and panning scenes with the shoulder buttons and the Circle Pad, nearly all of your interactions in the palace rely on stylus controls. The game encourages you to drag and release, rather than tap, which works fine but is slightly unintuitive - it feels like a system designed for a computer mouse, rather than the 3DS. Much worse is the fact that any repeated tapping is chastised with a show-stopping, self-perpetuating warning screen - "Random tapping will not help your progress". There are also some detection issues at the base of the touchscreen, where your inventory butts up against both the "back" arrow and potential hidden objects, making it relatively easy to accidentally back out of a room or object-search scene. Since there aren't any time-limits and your progress is always saved, however, it's more of a slight annoyance than a serious issue.
At the beginning of the game, you'll have the option to pick between Casual and Challenging modes, which differ only slightly: on the Casual setting you'll get a helpful tool-tip tutorial and somewhat subtle sparkles to direct your attention toward important areas of the screen, as well as being able to skip puzzles sooner and ask for hints more frequently. Puzzle skipping and hints are still available on the Challenging mode - you'll just have to wait a little longer - so the sparkles end up being the main distinction.
Stylistically, The Sleeping Palace feels a bit like Versailles decorated by Lisa Frank. Its 2D backgrounds are deliciously gaudy and gilded at every angle, filled with sunbeams, gemstones, flowers, oriental rugs, velvet curtains, stained glass, and stacks of old books. Unfortunately, the busy backdrops can get too much for the 3DS' small screens at times, and the fact that each scene looks noticeably sharper once you've zoomed in is a bit disappointing. Aside from that, however, the graphics are serviceable and even appealing in their simplicity, though it's nothing that couldn't be done on the DS. The game's sole showcase for its hardware is a nice 3D effect on the stereoscopic screen, but since nearly all the action takes place on the touchscreen, you won't find much time to appreciate it.
On the audio side, music-box melodies drift in and out as you play, lending an appropriately eerie air of mystery. The aural atmosphere could definitely benefit from more sound effects, however - there are flourishes at key moments, but for the most part the palace is oddly silent, and considering the amount of things you poke, pick up, and put in place on a screen-by-screen basis, it's a conspicuous absence. Finally, while the voice acting is a welcome inclusion, the quality definitely leaves something to be desired.
The Sleeping Palace might not break any moulds, but it does combine two tried-and-true gameplay styles into one thoroughly decent diversion. The presentation is a little lacking, and the point-and-click adventure aspect is definitely on the light side, but it still makes a fun frame for the item searches and gives the game a much better sense of progression than most I-Spy-alikes. If you can spot the appeal in hidden-object spotting and like a bit of mystery in your looking glass, The Sleeping Palace is worth keeping an eye on.