Lifestream review

The Good: B-movie fun with atmosphere, mood, atmosphere, mood, atmosphere, an original story, mood, John Bell, and atmosphere.
The Bad: B-movie setbacks, including low-budget graphical quality, simplistic dialogue, a sometimes-illogical story, and some voice acting that will make you cringe.
Our Verdict: A surprisingly moody piece about esoteric organizations and human nature that never takes itself too seriously. Brendel’s low-budget adventure game will permeate players minds and have them contemplating the existence of the Lifestream even as they shower at six a.m. in the morning.

I feel nostalgic. Like a box of old photographs, the images from my past come swirling back into focus. A baby blue ’56 Chevy. A huge bag of popcorn. A bubbly date in a tight pink, angora sweatshirt. And--above all--the distant screams of a helpless murder victim. Okay, so maybe I’m flashing back a little too far. I’m only twenty-four, soon to be twenty-five, and never owned a hot rod or sat at the drive-in theater with a blonde bombshell at my side. But I do clearly recall the incessant ethereal mumblings of a satanic priest and the distinct sound of slicing flesh and screaming victims. B-movies have been the very staple of coed entertainment for decades, a teenage treat made even more popular by “new wave” drive-in movie complexes during my father’s youth in the 1950s. Unimatrix Productions, run almost completely by one man, Christopher Brendel, plans to keep the B-movie tradition alive with its first, quite teasingly successful adventure game. Lifestream is a nostalgic hearkening back to better times when psychological and supernatural crime capers ran amok--when the dark, crawling fog and moody piano solo foreshadowing some unknown impending doom meant more than intelligent characters and dialogue. Yes, this game understands, like its predecessors, that all it needs is a hook; we’re suckers for atmosphere. And Lifestream’s got plenty of it, even though the game’s hook does eventually tear a few gaping holes in its ozone layer.

You begin the chaptered game as John Holton, a real son of a priest--literally. Your Father of a father, Randolph Holton, is missing and now you are one of the only people in this claustrophobic world in search of him. Since you are his son, however, you cannot make yourself known to the outside world. Catholic Priests devoted to complete celibacy cannot have children, not even test-tube babies. Thus, John Holton, our main character, is a walking “no-no.” This startling opening factoid draws in players and immediately yanks attention to the story--not to puzzles or to voice acting, just story.

As the story progresses, however, the player discovers that the Lifestream, a secret and esoteric occult mystery, has--in fact--not been so refreshing for everyone, including, but not limited to, Randolph Holton. I must admit that I am partial to movies, books and games that delve into the abstract realm of occult traditions and ritualistic beliefs, so it is of no surprise that Lifestream’s opening sequences would spark my interest. What is a shocker, however, is that I found the story more intriguing than the plot from Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, another well-received adventure game focused on the mysterious realm of the spiritual and supernatural. Sure, in both games, you play two specific characters at different moments, but the effect is so much more powerful in Lifestream. The story in Brendel’s game progresses much like a Dan Brown novel: short, concise and intriguing chapters, present to past to present time shifts as the narrative follows John and his father Randolph, and cliff-hangers--the very substance of entertaining cheese.

To be absolutely sure, many of the games I review for Adventure Gamers do not beckon for me to play them, or call me in the middle of sleep, begging me to carry on the story. In fact, the opposite is often true: I must usually force myself to sit at the computer to chug along the same boring, pre-calculated Adventure railway. With Lifestream, however, I came back for more because I wanted to. Each step a player takes in the game is another step deeper into the heart of the story, not the usual puzzle-heavy adventure game leap around it. I remember sitting down for dinner, pausing with the fork only half-raised and thinking, “Hey, I wonder what that Piano at the church has to do with the crystal in my pocket?” And I was eating perfectly grilled porterhouse steak at the time.

Like any good B-movie, the plot in Lifestream is rather implausible, sometimes predictable, often warped and full of Australia-sized holes. But also like any good B-movie, the sprawling, too-big-for-its-britches story is made fascinating and captivating by the consistent brooding mood from chapter to chapter. If Lifestream had a middle name, it would be A-T-M-O-S-P-H-E-R-E. Whether intended or not, each breath of air is fresh in this game. The low-budget feel in just about every niche of Lifestream makes it all that much moodier, from its simplistic and repetitious piano solos to its overly dark, grainy and drab environments. Traveling the muted paranormal world in first-person perspective, clicking here and there to turn, watching a transition scene that shows you moving or getting a closer look at the carpet is actually quite lovely. In fact, it provides the game with an authentic, gritty quality that lacks in many other more recent third-person adventure games featuring the paranormal, such as Midnight Nowhere.

While the game’s varying bits and pieces, its music, its graphical presentation, and its dialogue would all crumble under pressure if they stood alone, Lifestream as a whole works quite well because its individual, B-movie-grade gears turn and click in harmony. The church hallways look like prison cells. Character animations are stiff. Colors are muted. Music is overly intense at moments and completely subdued the next. Dialogue is self-evident and often repeated. Yet, together it all feels good, like you have just broken your South Beach diet by chomping into your first Super Sized crate of grease-dripping fries. Lifestream is that guilty pleasure without the fear of raising your cholesterol or losing your girlish figure.

B-Movies are called B-movies for a reason, however, and Lifestream, without a doubt, falls into this category and also suffers from many of the genre’s same problems: a convoluted story, random tidbits of information, odd jumps in logic, and--last but not least--the infamous “how the heck did that happen” effect. These aforementioned issues relate, in particular, to the game’s endearing puzzles. Let me be positive and first say that there is heart and adoration in each puzzle; it is pleasing to know that a wide variety of brainteasers reside in the meandering paths of Lifestream. Players will have to use inventory objects to open sealed cabinets, and unlock nearly non-existent closets. Yet, players will often have to sit and smack their brains over peg games, slider puzzles and other “Cracker Barrel” variety puzzle-puzzles.

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Unimatrix Productions

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Worldwide September 20 2004 Unimatrix Productions

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