Those who believe in the absolute purity of adventure games have probably been dismayed (however misled that may be) by our first three days of E3 hype. Dreamfall and Fahrenheit and their "action elements," Booby Trap and its "puzzle mode"...what's a pure adventure gamer to do? Well, our fourth E3 preview brings the answer in the form of Still Life
2002's Syberia established Microïds as one of the foremost creators of adventure games. Microïds has no intention of letting that reputation waver, as evidenced by Still Life, a new third person point & click adventure coming from Microïds' Montreal-based internal studio.
We were given a first look at Still Life is a quiet meeting room far away from all the buzz and boom of E3. It's immediately apparent that Still Life is almost a spiritual succesor to Post Mortem, starring an FBI investigator named Victoria McPherson--who is indeed related to Post Mortem protagonist Gus McPherson. However, Still Life looks more like Syberia than anything else, using a slightly updated version of the Syberia engine. In fact, the game feels so similar to Syberia on the surface, that we're reminded of the days of SCUMM and SCI, when companies used incrementally improved versions of the same technology for building remarkably different games.
In this case, the improvements made to the engine are mostly cosmetic, with some impressive new shadow effects enhancing the mood of the scenes. The foremost gameplay enhancement is the ability to look at inventory objects more closely and rotate them in 3D, which will obviously be a factor in some of the puzzles. Also, inventory objects can now be combined to create new items.
The scene we were shown dealt with some CSI-like investigative puzzles, though we were told there are only two murder scenes in the game, ensuring variation in the puzzles--and with the added ability to combine objects, we expect greater complexity in the puzzles as well compared to Syberia. In the gameplay that we saw, Victoria McPherson investigated a dead body, and cleverly uncovered a clue written in blood on the wall at the scene of the crime.
The story of Still Life switches between Chicago of 2004, where you play the role of Victoria, and Prague in 1929, where grandfather Gus worked on a case that has mysterious parallels to Victoria's. As Victoria reads her grandfather's old case files, the flashback scenes are played out by the player. All of this is set in a gloomy cinematic world that is completely unlike Microïds' previous games. Still Life is much more bizarre than anything Microïds has developed previously. It is also decidedly M-rated, with a gritty atmosphere that reminds somewhat of the movie Seven.
While Post Mortem was once described to us as Syberia's lower-budget brother (and received proportionately less critical acclaim), it's clear that the same artists who worked on Syberia are working on Still Life. The game has a clear sense of artistic direction, with beautifully detailed and expertly lighted scenes.
Our only point of concern is the dialog. Although we didn't get to see too much of it in action, the game has a dialog system in which either a "personal" or "professional" reply can be made at any time. While this sounds very original, we can only hope that the execution will be better than Post Mortem's brutally flawed dialog system. However, we take comfort in the fact that the dialog of Still Life (what we saw, at least) seemed to be more of Syberia-like quality, and not as frustratingly awkward and poorly translated as Post Mortem.
That said, Still Life was easily one of the adventure game highlights of E3 2004, especially considering how little we knew about it before the show. It demonstrated a very high level of polish. We can only hope that Microïds will continue to utilize its Syberia engine to build more games of the same high quality. Keep a close eye on Still Life, and don't forget to check out the game's official page and download the impressive teaser video.
Still Life will be published in North America by XS Games, and various other publishers in Europe. It is due for release in early 2005.