Hidden Weirdness in Christmas Stories: Nutcracker

[flipping of calendar]

[ ... ]

[soft sigh]


-Christmaaas, heh heh!


Yeah I know! It's Christmas!

December, time for Christmas Lazy Game Reviews and all that.

-Huh-heh-hunh! Christmas!

[container opening, disk inserting] [can hissing, drink sipping, LGR ahh-ing]

[typing, holiday intro music plays]

Who’s ready to get their nuts cracked?

I sure am, which is why I picked up Christmas Stories: Nutcracker, released by Big Fish

Games in 2013.

Actually the real reason I picked this up is because I’m always looking for more Christmas

games to cover each year, and this one stood out for its uncharacteristically intense box art.

You’ve got this evil king rat dude with a magic staff on the front of the box, a trio

of cats around back, one of which is holding a crossbow.

And uh [laughs] what the heck is that?

“Glergngh!” [laughing] That face!

Ah that is one doofy-looking candle.

At least I assume that’s what it is, but whatever it has a posse of cats, I’m sold.

It also seems this is the Collector’s Edition of Christmas Stories: Nutcracker, with a bonus

game, an additional hour of content, some desktop goodies, and a digital strategy guide.

And yes, this is indeed a hidden object adventure, which I believe is a type of game I have never

once covered on LGR up to this point.

Not that I have anything against them, it’s just that uh... well, they can literally be

a dime a dozen, and companies like Big Fish Games.

Like holy crap, I had no idea they were as big as they are.

The company was bought out in January of 2018 for 990 million dollars and has produced hundreds,

maybe thousands, of free to play and low-budget games.

Like holy nuts, just look at their website and prepare to be utterly overwhelmed.

The hidden object game section alone has one of the biggest games lists I have ever seen

from a single publisher, and again, this is ONLY the hidden object category.

Like, my god what have I been missing out on?

And it seems this particular Nutcracker game has been ported, re-released, and re-distributed

who knows how many ways over the years, including my retail Collector’s Edition here from 2013.

But well, that doesn’t mean much in terms of packaging, since underneath the outer sleeve

is a flimsy DVD keep case with no artwork at all.

And inside is the game on DVD-ROM, and a single sheet of paper telling you barely anything

except that you should probably turn off every other program on your computer

before playing the game. Including the Windows taskbar clock.


If your computer’s clock is slowing things down, I really think it’s time for a new computer.

Let’s get crackin’ with Christmas Stories: Nutcracker, starting with the intro video

that looks pretty much like every other mobile game ad from the past decade.

You know, that soft, swooshy, concept art flythrough kinda thing?

The kind you’d expect to end with like, “Clash of War Theft Mania Saga Deluxe Edition Slots"

"now available on iOS and Android.”

And there’s a screaming face for the icon.

Anyway, this isn’t that but it projects a similar aesthetic, which brings us to the

main menu and some of them good ol’ dancing sugar plum fairies.

[Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy plays]

Clicking the play button begins a new game and provides

a trio of difficulty selections to choose from: casual, advanced, and hardcore.

And lemme be real, when it comes to hidden object games I’m as casual as it gets, so

I want all the hints and skips.

Although this collector’s edition does come with a strategy guide built into the game

as well, which is seriously just a completely step-by-step walkthrough of the entire game.

But now our story begins with a snowy Christmas eve scene, with our unnamed voiceless protagonist

having been invited to the Royal Christmas Ball.

It offers you a quick tutorial, of which I happily accepted, and walks you through the

basics of gameplay.

Which as you’d expect for a point and click hidden object adventure game, it involves

bountiful objects of a hidden variety, each of what are pointed to and clicked on so as

to advance your adventure.

Naturally, these hidden object sections are the real backbone of these games, which I

consider an evolution of all those “hidden picture” or “picture riddles” books

from back in the day.

But while there are plenty of these carefully-constructed clumps of clutter

throughout Christmas Stories: Nutcracker?

It’s not really the entire focus of the game, there’s a lot more going on here that

I was genuinely not expecting.

My first inkling that there was maybe something more to this game

was when I interacted with the doorman here...

[eerie ambience plays]

Uhh. All right this is a tad unsettling all of a sudden, what’s with the eerie ambience?

Heh, I mean I dig it, but uh.

Eh, maybe it’s just a weird scene.

Moving on inside the mansion and here we’re introduced

to the nutcracker himself, named Albert.

-”Hey! You have to help me! The Rat King -- he kidnapped Princess Mary!”

Ah man, the holidays, always one thing after another am I right?

For our titular cracker of nuts, the biggest stress in his life is that his friend Mary

has been kidnapped by The Rat King’s soldiers.

So yeah it’s a twist on the classic story by T.A. Hoffman, with a rat king in lieu of

a mouse king among a bunch of other changes, but we’ll get to that.

For now the nutcracker is coming along with you

and there are more hidden objects to unhide objectively.

You also get some puzzles to solve

such as this knight with a missing gemstone and a broken shield.

The gemstone you find straight away under the tree, but the shield pieces are scattered

around the vicinity and have to be reassembled

with the final piece resting on the kitchen door and uhh what.

-"I guess they didn't think it was important to decorate the door. Hmpf!"

-”Come any closer and you’ll be my next snack!”

Mmkay. So the game just grows increasingly surreal and it’s kind of awesome.

Like, this hallway has a creepy carnivorous door and a blue cat chained to the wall as prisoner.

Obviously we’ve gotta free the cat, which means solving more puzzles.

And yeah, in addition to the hidden object sections there are a ton of standalone puzzles on offer.

Many of them are logic-based or rely on trial and error problem solving, but on the easier

difficulties it lets you skip them entirely if that’s not your thing.

But for the most part I enjoyed these, especially the physics-based ones like this where you’re

trying to bombard a toy castle by balancing a catapult.

[castle crashing, triumphant music]

-”I’m alive! I’m alive! Oh, thanks for rekindling my fire.”

So the freaky candlestick from the box art somehow sounds exactly like how I imagined

he’d sound, props to the voice casting there.

But yeah, you’ve saved him from the rats and he’s now your second companion.

One of the handier ones too, because I mean, fire.

Fires are always a handy puzzle-solver in adventure games, and the candle lets you start them.

He can also melt snow and ice, so yeah, as goofy-looking as he appears he’s pretty

awesome to have.

Albert the nutcracker is useful too for that matter, coming into play whenever there’s

a rat soldier to dispense with or a small crevice that needs exploring.

And eventually, once we’ve collected a hand file we’re able to free the cat, our third

and final companion, named Fred.

-”Hello. Thanks for helping me. My name is Fred. My father was a rather famous rat hunter.”

“He defeated whole armies of rats in his day! I’ll live up to him someday”

“but for now I’m still, er, learning.”

Man, again props to the voice acting.

It’s all pretty much spot-on and for a game that retailed at $9.99

this is much more than I bargained for.

Anyway, Fred can be used for puzzles that involve climbing, jumping, and otherwise interacting

with things that would to you be out of reach.

Which lends a few more welcome layers to the puzzle-solving, and that’s great because

the majority of the gameplay consists of solving inventory puzzles while exploring the world.

Again, exceeding my expectations, Christmas Stories: Nutcracker is more like a traditional

point and click adventure game first and a hidden object game second.

So you end up doing a whole lot of first-person exploration, stashing of objects in your pants,

sending out your companions to manipulate the environment, and making use of your collected

inventory to unlock new paths and solve a copious number of conundrums.

Thankfully there’s a handy map with fast travel options, which also acts as a subtle

hint system on casual difficulty, letting you know which areas currently have interactions

available within them.

Which I like because the dedicated hint button is a bit heavy handed with its so-called hints.

Providing less of a hint and more just a direct command.

It’s also never too overwhelming in terms of the number of current puzzles, objectives,

and inventory items you’re presented with at any given moment.

They’ve cleverly paced the story progression in order to provide a steady stream of challenges

and currently-possessed objects so you’re never drowning in puzzles.

However, what increases exponentially throughout the game is a flair for the dramatic and an

uneasy sense of dread.

Like, again that eerie ambient soundscape is all over the place, making it feel more

like a horror game than a colorful Christmas adventure.

[more eerie ambience plays, droning on eerily]

Yeah a majority of scenes in the game have this

dark ambient droning going on that lends the whole experience a rather unsettling atmosphere.

I half expect to see a stringy haired ghost girl pop up every other room.

Again though, I think this is awesome, I love when Christmas things get a bit creepy and twisted.

And it turns out it’s not just the ambience that lends it a slight horror vibe.

I guess you could consider this next bit spoiler-y but eh, I wanna talk about it.

Yeah it’s not long before you’re discovering the truth of this place and its inhabitants,

uncovering secret passageways filled with skulls, finding underground hidden temples

to forgotten deities, dealing with supernatural rooms of floating debris, inciting the creation

of murderous demonic snowmen, and canvassing weird electrical torture dungeons.

It’s at this point that I kinda started loving this, it’s just filled with so much

strangeness at every other turn that I had no idea where it was going.

Eventually the weirdness gets so commonplace the protagonist is just like,

“gee I sure do wish I could reverse gravity in order to"

"lift this magic hammer and fight that evil cursed rock golem.”

Oh and it turns out that all this started with a mad scientist named Argus, who was

once a royal appointee but in his carelessness he made a genocidal mistake that wiped out

half the kingdom or something, whoops.

He was then banished from the kingdom, performed some real 'Secret of NIMH' crap experimenting

on rats and making them into superspies, then discovering the key to alchemy only to turn

himself into gold on accident, while his main secret agent rat grew so lonely that he became

the rat king and swore vengeance on the entire kingdom.

Merry Christmas...

Yeah so eventually you reach the end, which consists of you upgrading the nutcracker with

a suit of armor, sending him into the rat king’s throne room, dodging a fire-breathing

skeleton, and mirroring the king’s magic spell with a shield, vaporizing him in the process.

And yeah, both the nutcracker and the princess turn back into real people

now freed from the rat king’s curse.

And that means it’s time to party.

-”The guests are still here and the party’s in full swing.”

“Christmas comes only once a year and who knows what will happen next time...”

Well you can immediately find out what happens with the collector’s edition story, which

involves objectively more cats.

-”This was a great quest, I am so glad we helped Albert!”

“Meeow! Help me!”

Eh it’s just more of the same for the most part

except this time it’s Fred the cat that’s been captured.

Cat-tured? Eh, anyway.

Even though the rat king’s dead, his massive army is still around and is taking matters

into their own claws.

So it’s up to you to find Fred with the help of even more cats! Nice.

I like cats. And I like this game!

Christmas Stories: Nutcracker is a lot more involved than anticipated in the best of ways,

with unsettling vibes and twisted story bits that kept me intrigued the whole way through

its three or so hours of gameplay.

For ten bucks it’s not bad and it seems there’s a version on Steam now too so that’s convenient.

Though keep in mind I had issues running it on Windows 10, especially in full screen,

so your mileage may vary.

Either way, I was impressed with this one, and I recommend it for an eerie holiday experience.

And if you enjoyed this episode then stick around, I’ve got more Christmas stuff coming

this month and all sorts of other computing goodness the rest of the year.

And as always, thank you very much for watching!