Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: April 14, 2005
A good adventure game is like a successful first date: it maintains the delicate balance between intriguing you enough to want to proceed, and overpowering you with too much useless information. It sounds like a simple enough premise, but as titles – and dates – repeatedly demonstrate, it isn't as easy as it seems. As a follow-up to 2003's Post Mortem, Microïds' Still Life succeeds where many of its brethren have not, presenting us with a witty, stunning game that boasts an excellent script and fleshed-out characters. As a mix between Syberia and Post Mortem, it looks good from the get-go, combining the charm and graphics of the former with an intriguing murder mystery.
The superb writing not only progresses the investigation, but also manages to create a great backstory which adds depth to the main characters, something that Post Mortem lacked. Despite the brevity of our early build, we learn quite a bit about the protagonist, Victoria: she loves her family, has a sense of humor, and is a really good FBI agent who is accustomed to solving cases quickly. Still Life's excellent storytelling finally adds some dimension to Gus McPherson; all we knew about him from Post Mortem was that he's a slightly-psychic gumshoe who cavorts around Europe, and we now learn that he has a heart of gold, is non-judgmental, and loses someone important to him in Prague.
Still Life has you playing as Victoria in present-day Chicago, or as her grandfather Gus in 1920s Prague, and the game will switch between the two playable characters as appropriate. We start off in Chicago, where Victoria visits her dad for Christmas after a long day at work, and they start reminiscing about Grandpa Gus, prompting Victoria to dig around in the attic. While up there, she stumbles across his old case files from Prague, and the details of the case are extremely similar to her current case about a serial murderer, right down to the gruesome details. After a couple of hours with the game, you will become very familiar with the word "eviscerated." Learn it, study it, repeat it.
Once again, we revisit the land of the mouse-driven adventure, where a left-click indicates desired direction of movement, and a double left-click means "on the double." During regular gameplay, the right-click brings up a menu, which allows you to examine or use objects in your inventory, or read your game journal. Select an item in your inventory, and then choose the desired action – use (hand), examine (eye), or combine (icon with two boxes and an arrow). It's a little clunky, and I kept doing the process backwards, because I think of it as "use book," not "book use," but I'm kind of special that way. The cursor changes to inform you about various interactive items or areas in the environment: a compass to bring you to the map, a magnifying glass to further examine an object, a text balloon (or upper-case q) to speak with someone, a wrench to activate something, or a circle with an arrow if you can travel in that direction.
Now, what would an adventure game be without the puzzles? Most are intuitive and pretty straightforward, with the exception of one, which frustrated me for quite a bit. I'm facing an electrical panel which will allow me to operate heavy machinery, there is a diagram behind me of how the handles should be positioned, and the cursor is a wrench, which tells me that I can interact with the panel in front of which I am standing. So ... I do the logical thing and click on the panel, expecting to be presented with a zoomed-in screen where I can maneuver handles into their correct positions. Nope! I'm notified that, "The crane seems to be locked." So after a few minutes of wondering if I've uncovered a bug, I wander around and find that the control box is on the opposite wall, on the outside of the control room. For any puzzles that might seem more obscure, there are clues scattered around the environment to help you with the solutions, and none of them seemed in any way arbitrary or illogical (with the exception of putting a control box in a location where it must brave the elements).
The biggest change since Post Mortem is the dialogue. When talking to NPCs, you are no longer presented with a long list of questions, which is an improvement because now you can't interview yourself right out of the investigation. You are prompted with an image of a mouse with the left or right button (or both) highlighted, to indicate that you need to further the conversation. When both buttons are highlighted, you have a choice – the left button yields a professional response, while the right gives a more personal response. Otherwise, the dialog is canned and predetermined. Apparently, there will be interviewees who will only respond positively to a certain type of response, but I didn't encounter this while playing the build.
Graphically, the game is a looker. With more muted tones, Still Life demonstrates that a good-looking adventure game doesn't need to utilize the entire color palette. Love and care can be seen in the crafting of scenes and backgrounds that don't contain any clues, unless Victoria cracks the case while whipping up a batch of Grandma's biscuits. From the outset, the game's cut scenes are just amazing and are perfectly coordinated with orchestral music, as if you're watching a finely-edited movie, where the soundtrack is crafted to elicit the correct emotions.
I've gone on and on about the script, but no matter how clever it is, it wouldn't amount to much without the accompaniment of solid voice acting. Luckily, both are present and accounted for, eliciting a few chuckles from me along the way. When she shows up at the crime scene, Victoria sneaks up behind the FBI coroner, Claire, and says in her best Hannibal Lecter voice, "Hello, Clarice!" A minute prior to this, Victoria encounters two maimed plastic dolls hanging from the ceiling of a dilapidated house and remarks, "Whoa, nice Christmas decorations!" The humor certainly injects some levity into the eerie situation and makes the characters more endearing. Ambient sounds are a bit spartan here, but all in all, the rumbling of overcast skies, howling winds, and cawing of menacing crows blend together well and successfully enhance the game's spooky atmosphere (the rolling fog helps, too).
With wonderful writing, gorgeous graphics, great voice acting, and realistic sounds, Still Life is shaping up to be creepier and more captivating than Syberia, proving that more macabre adventure games are finally coming into their own. Still Life has successfully established some middle ground between the sickly sweet and pseudo-horror titles. It's sure to be a treat for adventure gamers after the long drought, and from what I've seen, April can't come soon enough.
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