Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Lexis Numérique
Release Date: October 17, 2006
Imagine playing a grisly horror-adventure game so involving, so immersive, and so permeative of your day-to-day existence that, at times, the line between reality and fiction becomes blurred to the point where you're not quite sure you're not actually being stalked by a serial killer. French developer Lexis Numérique undoubtedly aimed to create such an experience with Evidence: The Last Ritual, a sequel to 2004's Missing: Since January, scheduled for release in mid-October. We had the opportunity to check out an early build of the game.
Evidence casts the player in the role of criminal investigator on the trail of a serial killer known as The Phoenix. Much like the serial killers in creepy movies like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, The Phoenix seems to enjoy releasing cryptic hints to the police about his whereabouts, intent, and modus operandi.
To increase the dread factor, Evidence incorporates several clever features designed to take realism and immersion to the next level. Among them are puzzles that require you to leave the game and perform Internet research to solve, a series of cleverly disguised fictional web sites containing additional hints, an online community with a dedicated web site, and numerous real e-mail messages you'll receive from the game's fictional characters. The Adventure Company describes it as a "terrifying alternate reality adventure complete with full motion videos featuring genuine actors!"
The game concept intrigues me, and I applaud the developers for breaking with convention and seeking innovative ways to scare the bejeezus out of its customers. I could hardly wait to begin when I read, shortly after starting up, that "the following sequences may offend certain viewers."
Some people may take issue with the core gameplay revolving around a series of Flash- or Shockwave-based puzzles that feel more like casual Internet games than the sinister offerings of a criminal mind. There is no introduction, and there are no adjustable settings. You complete a puzzle, you get rewarded with a video clip containing clues. That's how it works.
My favorite puzzle is the first one you'll see: A distraught woman, apparently held captive, looks at you with tormented eyes and blinks awkwardly until you realize she's blinking a code. That was genuinely creepy.
Subsequent tasks don't always maintain this sinister atmosphere. In another task assigned to you by your antagonist, you are called upon to "circle the groups of identical letters." Later on, the killer directs you to read lengthy articles about early Italian influence in the Andalusia region of Spain. That's all very interesting, and I think I might vacation in Granada some day, but what about murder and mayhem? (Based on his tendencies here, I'm starting to think that The Phoenix is a misunderstood history teacher with a Flash-programming hobby).
Most of Evidence's challenges require substantial Internet sleuthing. If you're not already a die-hard Google user, you will be after completing this game. When you get stuck, a good bet is to enter whatever information you have into Google Web, then Google Images, then Google Maps. More often than not, that is how you will find your answer. The designers have an uncanny knack for knowing what web sites you will uncover in your research. In fact, several web sites you'll uncover will be fake sites that are actually part of the game. I was impressed at how often I was unsure whether the site I was visiting was legitimate or illusory.
Part of the reason for this is that most of the sites Google directed me to were in French. Clearly, the developers expect you to do a lot of translating, because the game provides an integrated translation tool. On the other hand, I suspect that English versions of Evidence's disguised web sites will go up once the game is released officially later this month.
One way the title strives to infuse a sense of realism is to send you e-mails from fictional characters who are supposedly working with you on the case. This is yet another feature that, for some reason, sounds good on paper but doesn't quite achieve the desired effect in the real world. The day after I installed the game, my e-mail inbox received no fewer than seven messages related to the game, six from "a history student at the Sorbonne in Paris," and one from The Phoenix himself. As you might expect, my e-mail program automatically redirected them to its junk folder, and I had to retrieve them one by one.
My e-mail program can be forgiven for mistaking these messages for junk mail. It's just not natural for the same person to send you dozens of e-mails when you never send a single response. Several of them are also written with the same feigned familiarity so common in spam these days ("hello friend!"). Still, the e-mails are usually welcome, if only for the regular hints they provide. (Hardcore adventure gamers who don't want any hints should disregard the game-generated e-mails).
If your monitor is set to a higher resolution, Evidence's puzzles and video sequences will take up only a tiny portion of your screen real estate. Playing at 1920x1200, I was forced to squint much of the time to make out the details. After completing the series of tiny, Flash-based puzzles in the first level, I was hoping to advance to a new style of gameplay in the second level, perhaps something that would involve graphics that would fill up my screen. Alas, subsequent levels brought more of the same.
Haunting, disturbing sound effects provide good atmosphere during the puzzles, but there isn't much variety to it. Subsequent repetitions of the same tracks over the course of the game take away from the ambiance.
The voiceovers lack authenticity in certain areas, such as a central character, who was supposedly raised in Philadelphia, voicing, "We agreed to meet at the café," which is not the proper regional jargon. Perhaps the result of poor translation, The Phoenix often gives you messages that come across as silly rather than macabre, like "Poor little Fabio doesn't look so neat!"
Playing Evidence, I never had the feeling I was really analyzing evidence or tracking the movements of a serial killer. On the other hand, the gameplay is unique, the puzzles are creative, and the mood is eerie. Puzzle enthusiasts, Google buffs, and fans of 14th-century Italian literature may find a lot to like here.
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