’Twas the night before Christmas and curly orange-haired twelve-year-old Cisco is stirring. Santa has been kidnapped and it falls on the young boy, with help from his Christmas-spirit-imbued teddy bear Kosmos, to save the (holi)day. Watch Over Christmas, by Dionous Games, is a traditional hand-drawn point-and-click adventure clearly inspired by the golden age games of the 1990s, and there’s much to unwrap in this beautifully depicted and perfectly puzzling yuletide quest.
Over the years there has been a general evolution among adventures to emphasize characters and story over puzzles. To its credit, Watch Over Christmas does not bow to this trend, maintaining a steady stream of engaging gameplay of just the right difficulty throughout its pleasingly substantial ten-hour play time.
That is not to say that the other elements fall completely by the wayside, however. Just enough is told about Cisco to familiarize you with his quirks and eccentricities. He’s hugely into science and loves going to space camp. At the same time, he is absolutely convinced of Santa’s magical abilities. His scientific description to his sister of how Santa must be magical to bend the laws of physics to deliver presents around the world is especially entertaining. Similarly, while the narrative isn’t front and center, at the start of each of the game’s six chapters, beautifully illustrated cinematics cut away to where Santa is imprisoned to show his increasing plight and keep the ultimate goal in the minds of players. While not immensely deep, it’s more than enough to maintain interest, and in conjunction with the welcome lack of cynicism about the commercial crassness of the season, the story makes for a lighthearted experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Where Watch Over Christmas really puts its focus is on its puzzles, however. It starts out relatively confined, but as you progress the world opens up more and more and there are usually multiple obstacles to tackle at once. At the beginning of the tale, Cisco is alone in his room before venturing out into the rest of the house, and as he continues along and some Christmas magic kicks in, he is teleported to far-off places and eventually even the spirit world where Santa Claus lives. The core of the conundrums in each place is item collection and application, with an inventory bar available in the lower part of the screen. In a nice nod to player customizability, it can either be permanently pinned in place (my preference) or set to only appear when the cursor is moved to the bottom.
To describe the specifics of any of the game’s many puzzles would be to spoil them, but some of your objectives include finding an unorthodox entry into Cisco’s attic, breaking into an old-fashioned carnival fortune teller machine, and preparing a fizzy beverage to distract an elf friend you make. They’re typical sorts of challenges, but one of the nice touches comes in interacting with their different pieces. While clicking each hotspot prompts a default action when left-clicked, a great many of them present additional context-sensitive options when right-clicked. For example, at one point Cisco finds himself locked in a dungeon cell with a bed chained to a wall. Right-clicking the bed allows for a generic use or for Cisco to push or pull it to move it to different positions.
You’ll acquire a good number of inventory items in your travels, but it’s never an overwhelming amount and everything is used in logical and understandable ways. And yet solutions aren’t so obvious as to require no thought, either. What makes the puzzles so fun to solve is that they’re just the right level of difficulty: hard enough to require some actual noodling but not so obtuse as to become impenetrable barriers to success. There is one area where the developers got a little too sneaky, though. In several instances, it’s necessary to specifically look at what you collect to reveal new possibilities that are otherwise hidden. It’s certainly not unfair, but it’s not necessarily intuitive.
Watch Over Christmas would already rank well ahead of most other modern adventures on the puzzle front based solely on the balanced difficulty and sheer fun of solving them. Another plus, however, is that the ongoing inventory fare is frequently broken up with assorted close-up mechanical puzzles, such as when Cisco has to find a way to refill what are essentially colour print cartridges whose ink is used for candy. You’ll also face logic challenges like arranging differently coloured and shaped keys on a board to fit a certain pattern, and adjusting the gears in a giant clock tower to make it functional again. You’ll even delve into several mazes, each of which requires figuring out a certain trick rather than mapping them out or simply using the left- or right-hand rule to navigate them. These specialized one-off sequences further spice up the already great collection of standard obstacles.
As an added bonus, scattered throughout the entirety of the game are semi-hidden Christmas presents that can be clicked on to collect. There’s no requirement to find all or any of them, but tracking them down adds a nice diversion while waiting for inspiration to strike on how to solve some of the game’s more challenging tasks. To make locating the presents a little tougher, they do not register as hotspots, whereas most other interactive areas display a label when moused over.
Enhancing your delightful journey are the well-rendered backdrops you get to wander through. From the protagonist’s family home, lovingly decorated for Christmas, to a cozy winter festival, to arctic realms and beyond, Cisco’s path will take you to a staggering variety of locations. Each setting is depicted in a fun hand-painted cartoon style with plenty of detail. Most areas also include some manner of background animation, whether it’s skaters gliding on a frozen pond, an elf trying to feed a letter into a possessed mailbox that keeps spitting it back, or even just the flickering of torches in the dungeon where Santa is imprisoned. The only drawback to these detailed scenes is that it can sometimes be hard to determine what is and isn’t interactive from appearances alone. Fortunately, at the press of a button, spinning Christmas mints appear on-screen to show where all the hotspots are.
Just as lavish as the backgrounds are the characters themselves. Everyone Cisco meets – and there are a lot, human and otherwise – is lovingly detailed and blends really well with their surroundings. At a time when many 2D point-and-click games either go for the lo-res retro look or else use a paper doll system of animation, this game does it the right way. All characters are hand-animated frame by frame, which gives them welcome depth so they feel like they’re really a part of their world, rather than some sprite pasted into it. Besides his own family, throughout his journey Cisco will encounter the likes of elves, fairground goers, Jack Frost, witches (the nice kind), Santa, and of course the mysterious antagonist who captured jolly ol’ St. Nick.
All the while you’ll be accompanied by Cisco’s teddy bear, Kosmos. Initially he is just a stuffed toy, but upon completing an early challenge he becomes infused with the power and personality of the Christmas spirit, which allows him to talk and levitate. At that point, he also becomes a separate part of the inventory bar, where he spends most of his time and allows Cisco to talk with him. Kosmos could have been better utilized by either having him provide more commentary or serve as a built-in hint system. He does occasionally chime in on some of the larger plot moments and kinda-sorta provides hints, although only the most generic “click on everything, talk to everyone” variety. In general, I tended to forget about him, which is a shame as his shared enthusiasm for the adventure he and Cisco are on is endearing in the few instances where it’s allowed to shine through.
The high production quality carries into the audio realm as well. While there aren’t any Christmas songs featured in the soundtrack, there are a collection of nicely adventurous synth loops. They bounce along with a pleasing energy and I never found them wearing out their welcome. A wide array of well-placed sound effects helps add to the ambience and appropriately match the actions being depicted on-screen.
Then there’s the voices, which were not available when the game first launched but were later added in a major free update. For the most part they achieve a high standard, which is important because nearly every character in the game that Cisco can physically approach can be talked to. These conversations are conducted in typical dialog tree fashion. A few puzzles even involve selecting the right response, though that’s seldom a difficult task. Each role is imbued with a lot of character through its voice-over alone. The villain in particular is a standout with his deliciously ominous evil mastermind laughs, “Mwhuhahahaaa!” The only voice I didn’t care for was that of Cisco himself, who utters every line in an overly exuberant, sing-song fashion that gets tiresome to listen to during longer play sessions.
In every aspect of its presentation, Watch Over Christmas shows a high degree of polish. The typical game options are here for volume control and subtitles. It can be played using either the mouse or a controller. An “Objectives” list can be displayed to serve as a reminder of the high-level goals to work towards in any given area. To top all that off, the game has both a manual save system and a progressive autosave that kicks in whenever Cisco enters a room – the best of both worlds and something that far too few games implement.
The one thing I found rather anticlimactic was the final showdown with the bad guy. Cisco’s adversary is hinted throughout to be a force to be reckoned with. Other characters are scared of him, and his appearance is indeed quite terrifying. It’s unfortunate then that battling him, so to speak, is reduced to essentially a game of rock-paper-scissors conducted over several rounds. Losing to him doesn’t end the game, but it does cause the challenge to reset itself so that you have to play against him again and again until random chance lines up to grant a win.
When I started playing Watch Over Christmas, I was expecting a short and sweet holiday game. While there are obviously plenty of Christmas references in here, I was happy to find the experience went much further than just that. An abundance of puzzles with just the right level of difficulty kept me engaged from beginning to end. The beautiful locations and animations are a joy to behold, and with the recent voice-over additions, there are no signs of scrimping or cost cutting here. Playing this game reminded me of getting one of those great golden age classics for a Christmas present, with a few modern conveniences to boot. If you’re looking for a highly entertaining traditional point-and-click adventure, a heartwarming Christmas tale, or a game that’s suitable for the whole family to enjoy, this game is all of those things in one, and is one gift you’ll definitely want to find under your tree this year.
With the stakes nothing short of Christmas itself, a child hero sets out through a beautifully detailed yuletide world to save Santa and solve a plethora of perfectly perplexing puzzles in Watch Over Christmas.
- Filled with puzzles that are just the right difficulty
- Beautifully drawn and animated game world
- Excellent audio in all key aspects
- Plenty of quality-of-life polish
- Protagonist’s voice can be a little wearing
- Companion is underutilized
- Final showdown is a random chance game
Richard played Watch Over Christmas on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.