As a 34-year-old gamer with a similarly aged wife and no kids, I can sometimes have a blind spot when it comes to kid- and family-oriented games. While I’m always up for all-ages titles like “Rock Band 2” or “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” I sure as heck am unlikely to like a new “Dora the Explorer” or “The Price is Right” game. As a result, I often feel uncomfortable weighing in on a game when I’m unable to play it as its creators intended, with one or more kids.

Still, there’s one way I can usually tell whether I’m going to like a family game. If I find myself scheming to corral friends and coworkers, or wonder about the logistics for importing my nephews for an afternoon, it’s probably going to end up being a keeper. Wideload Games’ “Guilty Party” looks to be one of those games.

Guilty_Party

I got a chance to play through a bit of “Guilty Party” with Jonathan Krusell, Wideload’s director of production. Before firing up the game, Krusell explained that the folks at Wideload set out to make a modern, Wii game that was as good as classic, mystery-oriented family board games such as Clue and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Once the ideas were all in place, Wideload pitched it to publisher Disney Interactive Studios, who “liked it so much, they bought up Wideload,” Krusell said.

The game revolves around the sleuthing exploits of the Dickens Detective Agency, a family of gumshoes. (“It’s a family mystery game, so we’ve got a family of detectives,” Krusell explained.) Each of up to four players will control a different member of the Dickens family, with each character having different one-liners and other dialogue.

The mystery game’s real genius, though, is that not only does an element of randomness make the mysteries turn out differently each game, the mysteries themselves can scale in size and complexity. If you’ve only got time for a quick game before heading out of the house, you can create a scenario with only a handful of potential subjects, clues to discover and witnesses to interview. Obviously, this is a great way to bring in younger kids and inexperienced gamers. Once everyone’s gotten the hang of “Guilty Party,” you can ratchet up the difficulty level to “diabolical,” which Krusell explained feature 12 suspects and 20 clues, some of which have multiple parts.

For my hands-on session with the game, I played competitively against Krusell. I wasn’t checking the clock, but if I had to guess, our simple mystery with four suspects to interview took somewhere between 15 minutes and a half an hour, with some of that taken up by my taking notes and asking questions.

Krusell and I were tasked with cracking a theft on the boat. To figure out what happened, we took turns interviewing suspects, who would tell you things like, “I saw a tall figure leaving the area where the crime occurred.” Once you get your clue, the game lets you bust out your lie detector to verify the claim’s veracity. And in cooperative mode, that’s where the head games start.

Obviously, if the detective you’re competing against can watch all your suspect interviews, any information you gather is equally vaiuable to your rival. The game gets around this issue by including a “bluff” option with the lie detector. If you want to try to throw your opponent off, you can hold down a button on the Wii remote while verifying the claims. The game will then give you the opposite result of what the lie detector actually detects. This opens up a whole metagame of trying to figure out whether your opponent is bluffing, a feature that  should play well with the intended family audience.

Once each turn is complete, players are allowed to set up obstacles to try to thwart their opponents’ progress. (You have to be careful, though. Since you’re all working the same crime scene, it’s possible to impede your own investigation, as well.) In my time with the game, these were fairly easily thwarted by cards we drew at the start of each turn, but I could see the potential for drama with more complex cases and more players.

Interspersed throughout the interview sessions were a variety of minigames. For example, when interviewing one suspect, I had to tickle her with a feather to get her to talk, something I’m pretty sure would get most private detectives arrested. Additionally, at one point during the scenario, the villainous Mr. Valentine (a nefarious evil-doer at the heart of the game’s story mode) let loose a bunch of snakes on the train. Krusell and I had to work together to find, stun and capture the snakes before we could proceed. (Samuel L. Jackson was not involved.)

The minigames were relatively low stakes. For one thing, their difficulty is adjustable for each player, meaning older relatives or folks who just can’t handle a Wii remote can set the game to “easy” while the power gamers in the house can opt for more of a challenge. But even if you’re still struggling, the game gives you multiple chances to get it right before eventually simply taking pity on you.

Based on what I saw at GDC, I can see how a game like “Guilty Party,” with the right marketing, could be a breakout hit on the Wii when it releases later this year. (No release date has been set, but it sounds like late summer/early fall might be a good bet.) The different outcomes every time you play the game combined with the ability to scale the complexity of the mystery you’re solving should add a ton of replay value and give Clue nuts another game to play.