Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Lexis Numérique
Release Date: October 17, 2006
There are adventure games. There are alternate reality games (ARG). Then there are alternate reality adventure games. Evidence: The Last Ritual firmly fits into this intriguing combination of two separate but related genres, sending you in and out of the actual game program trying to resolve a series of puzzles in hopes of stopping a serial killer. The Internet itself is your greatest ally – or is that worst enemy? – as you try to figure out everything and stop a killer before he strikes again. The results are intriguing, if you can handle the results.
Evidence is immediate in its design; when you register the game after installation, you are doing so with a fictional international committee dedicated to hunting down the serial killer known as the Phoenix. Log in, and the puzzles begin. Are you ready to play with the serial killer? Because after the first video, he's ready to play with you, and what he's ready to show you may offend certain viewers. Let's just say, this game revels in its M rating at times, though it is not quite the caliber of a zombie-movie bloodbath.
The game's horror is often accentuated by creepy flashing images, accompanied by truly freakish sound effects and video clips. Then there's the fact that the imagery is often very subtle, carefully planted, and designed to freak you out and make you think – and make you question if you're looking at the right thing. You will often ask yourself, "What subtlety is in place to help me solve the puzzle so that I can continue?" Further, as the Phoenix himself asks, "Do you really wish to continue?" (Unfortunately, this question isn't entirely dramatic, as I'll explain below.)
At this point, you're either intrigued by the concept, or getting creeped out and leaving, and whichever one it is, I cannot say that I blame you. Evidence is creepy, but not over-the-top, scream-inducing scary. Subtlety is its work, and the line where the game's reality ends and true reality begins is intentionally and carefully blurred. As mentioned above, the puzzles can not be solved without leaving the game program to check your e-mail, the Internet (including a special social-networking site to allow you to team up with others to solve the mystery, if you're so inclined), or the hint book which is oh-so-conveniently offered on the game box for $10. Evidence even uses translations as part of the gameplay to make things feel more realistic; you may be working in as many as eight languages, including Latin. Luckily, the game provides a pretty good translation tool well before you'll need it, as part of said social-networking site.
The puzzles consist entirely of relatively small combinations of different components forming one challenge at a time. Most commonly, this will be a QuickTime video or two, followed by a Flash mini-game puzzle, where the solution will consist of a password entered on the bottom of the screen. The e-mails will offer extra support and/or taunting from the Phoenix, and the Internet may offer you clues if you're willing to look. Make sure you're looking at the right sites, since the developers created quite a few sites to (mis)inform you and make things more confusing.
The first few web sites get you started, after which you gain access to the main puzzles. A toolbar helps you get more information via the game, including a convenient "open your Internet browser or e-mail software" buttons for alt-tabbing fun. Working with fellow investigators really emphasizes this title is an ARG, and doing so may be your best chance at getting through the puzzles.
To call these puzzles vicious is an understatement. Anyone who's ever tried to figure out the story behind the Haunted Apiary ARG (ilovebees.com) knows that the creators know how to make a large puzzle out of positively nasty component puzzles. Evidence really takes this line to the extreme; for every brainteaser that is obvious to you, there will be two or more that absolutely stump you because they're not in your normal line of thinking. Cryptography, historical obscurity, psychology – it's all here, and you'll need it to solve the game.
Let it be said that the Phoenix is a brilliant man, and in the game, you are delving into his mind as he wants you to see it. The external and Internet sites will help you to keep grounded as you delve into a complex, deeply insane criminal mind and really begin to blur the line between fiction and reality. Wikipedia helped me out on a real tough challenge, though your mileage may vary; who's to say that the developers didn't modify the articles themselves to skew things a bit and throw you off the trail?
For all the brilliance of design, I can't give Evidence too exceptional a rating; to be frank, the puzzles are too esoteric at times. They are not intuitive, and with so much potential information involved, trying to figure out exactly what you need will frustrate all but the greatest adventure hunters or teams of adventure hunters. You will get frustrated, and you will most likely find yourself not wanting to bother continuing, but then again, with reality starting to blur, perhaps you need to carry on, for your own safety as much as everyone else's. The game's good at creeping you out like that when you're close to giving up – a convenient e-mail from the Phoenix pushed me to finish a couple of more puzzles after I had initially thrown in the towel.
Alongside the incredible graphics working and truly freakish imagery, Evidence benefits from its excellent use of the Internet in an era where the 'net often weakens these types of puzzles rather than strengthening them. Unfortunately, this can only extend the frustration at times, since you can't be sure that the site you're viewing is imparting real information. Perhaps some will seek to play for the story instead, but for these folks, well … honestly there isn't too much. What I discovered about the Phoenix didn't leave me too interested in continuing the investigation, and once you start delving in, the basic premise isn't as intriguing as one might have initially thought.
The title is further hampered by being made for a lower-screen resolution, with no upsampling support whatsoever, which is the opposite of the now-infamous issue with Dead Rising for the Xbox 360. The Phoenix, in developing the four discs you are using, apparently used an 800x600 screen, and if you have much more than that, learn to squint, or heaven help you in your investigation. Ironically, the Internet is made with much larger screens in mind (including Phoenix's own site, xineph.org), so if you want to play perfectly, you'll either need two computers – one for the 'net and one for the game – or constantly switch the screen resolution. Not fun.
If you happened to be among the first to solve some of the component puzzles for Haunted Apiary or another such ARG, or you simply have the patience, love the feeling of being a hardcore puzzle solver, and on top of that have a pretty strong stomach for disturbing, offensive, and humiliatingly subtle imagery, then the International Committee For The Phoenix Arrest could use your help. Snag a copy from your local game store, keep the bag it comes in (it may be a clue, after all, you never know!), and try your hand at trumping the Phoenix.
P.S. To any Phoenix Investigators reading this: Yes, I registered on the site. No, I'm not going to be of any help. Sorry.
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