Still Life review
What makes a game great? It's a simple question, really, but there's no easy answer, which probably explains why there are so few great games. For narrative-driven adventures, though, the criteria certainly include a gripping story with challenges that make the quest worthwhile, all wrapped up in an abundance of sensory thrills and topped off by a style that is unique to that game. Now, we all want a great game like that. With each new release, we're like kids at Christmas, hoping against hope that when we open the package, this one will be a game we remember long after we're done. Well, get ready, because Santa came early this year. Though there are plenty more games on the horizon, Still Life is easily going to be a game of the year contender for 2005.
So where does one begin to describe a game that seems destined to take its place among the classics? Not just the best this year has offered so far, but perhaps in an elite group of the best ever made? What better place than the beginning, so as not to miss anything.
Still Life starts with a sweeping musical crescendo. The visuals are a montage of lights, falling snow, and harsh streaks of color splashed across a stark, blank white canvas by some unknown painter. The color is vivid against the muted tones used for the backgrounds. A bright and relentless red. Blood red. The color of life… and of death. The scene shifts to the surreal image of a figure cloaked in black, and faceless behind a silver-embossed mask. He scampers down a dark tunnel dragging the body of a woman, stripped and pale in the moonlight. For this is a madman who preys on the underbelly of the city, killing those who no one misses and society would just as soon forget. We have a formidable villain, but do we have a hero? Indeed we do, and equally important to this story, we also have a heroine.
After this mesmerizing opening cinematic, we are swept along a riveting tale of murder, seduction, passion, and justice. This is a story that spans time, continents, and even generations. For if the sins of the fathers are visited upon their young, so are the ends of justice sometimes tied by future generations as well. With that thought, we meet the first of our two main characters, Victoria McPherson. A young woman with an impressive heritage, Victoria is granddaughter to a mysterious private eye and daughter to a noted Chicago District Attorney. An FBI agent in the Chicago office, she is a profiler of serial killers, and this time she has the case that may make her career or haunt her for life. A prolific and brutal hunter is on the prowl, leaving behind a trail of dead women, brutally drowned and mutilated with vicious disregard.
On this night, another body has been found in an abandoned building on the verge of collapse. Victoria processes the crime scene and ends up with little more than she started with to solve the crime. Tired and weary, beaten down by this case and even the crime scene itself, she retires to her childhood home. It is Christmas; time to lay aside work and be with family. The gift she receives spurs memories of her grandfather, and her curiosity sends her to the attic to look through his trunk and the notes he kept on his old cases. Although not an official "detective", he was privately employed in that capacity. This occupation led him through the darker side of life in the many places he lived. His travels initially took him from New York to Paris. However, events there led him to move on and seek out a new life in Prague. Victoria is surprised to learn from a set of discovered hidden papers that while there, he was deeply immersed in a murder investigation. And not just any case -- one that parallels her own with an eerie consistency.
After this startling revelation, we are transported back in time to Prague. It's the jazz age; the 1920s, and we meet Gus McPherson, an old familiar face to those who have played Post Mortem. Gus is a would-be artist and part-time private detective haunted by flashes of psychic visions, who has created a new life for himself far from the horrifying murders that plague his past. Unfortunately, some people cannot escape their destiny no matter how far they roam. With Gus, death -- specifically gruesome murders -- are never far away. In his new home, he finds himself once more swept up in an intricate mystery and a trail of corpses. This time it is a Ripper-like killer that troubles his thoughts, and the concern is personal. Among those at the mercy of a relentless and elusive madman is a former cabaret girl with a questionable past named Ida; the girl who has stolen Gus' heart and now asks for his help.
Victoria learns that wintry evening that events in Chicago bear some strange association with the past experience of Gus. Though these events are separated by two generations and decades of time, the circumstances and modus operandi are similar. In both sets of slayings, the victims are the girls who sell themselves daily in the streets and dark alleyways. The killer is elusive and travels almost undetected in his hunting grounds. The victims have been drowned, horribly mutilated and meticulously posed. A still life portrait in blood. Whether the lessons learned in the past can travel to the future and stop a killer is the premise of this story. And what a great story it is.
Fueling this dark tale is an exceptional cast of characters. Those who met Gus in Microïds' earlier game are in for a pleasant surprise. This incarnation of our psychic detective is presented with a depth of detail and credibility not present in Post Mortem. For first-timers, you will meet a character that just feels real, and whose character gives solidity to the storyline. Gus is a man who is heavily introverted, with a subtle and articulate calm. He has clear sympathy for the fallen angels of the world, and feels a camaraderie with them due to his own status outside of normal society. It is not surprising that he falls hard for Ida. Her friends are exclusively drawn from the seamier slice of life, though she does what she can for them and her concern draws Gus deeply into the search for the killer who preys upon them. In Prague, there are a host of these girls that you meet, as well as a crime boss, his brawny sidekicks, policemen and others. All are believable characterizations, and there are plenty of details revealing a deeper story about the personalities of this game. The same can be said for the plethora of personalities you'll encounter in Chicago. One of the best things about Still Life is that life is anything BUT still. Between Prague and Chicago, there are two playable characters, twenty secondary players with significant parts in the game, and numerous animated figures who populate the various scenes. If you value diverse environs that always seem alive, this is the game for you.
Serial murderers are a rare breed, fortunately for the rest of us. Although regarded as madmen, in truth most are deviously clever, leaving few clues. What's worse, they are relentless and stop killing only when they are hunted to the ground and stopped. The killer in our dark tale runs true to type. He is masked and travels almost magically, unseen even when transporting the bodies of his victims. Victoria has just processed the evidence from victim number five and the body count threatens to grow along with the list of potential suspects she encounters in her investigations. Her search takes her through a host of locales. This modern day Ripper leaves his mark from a dilapidated tenement to a university campus, through the inner sanctum of a private club for sexual fantasies and even into the hierarchy of the FBI itself. This is as twisty a ride as you would find in a well-thumbed thriller, and a true find in a game.
And it is a tale well told in music, ambiance and cinematics. The music is phenomenal; edgy, modernistic, and yet with overtones of another time and place, from the techno-tinged musical strains in Chicago to the dark, carnival haunting melodies of Prague. The main theme of Gus' world has an odd, strained, breathy cry mingled in that gives an erotic tone to the music, setting things on edge in just the right way.
The ambiance created by the haunting melodies wonderfully complement the rich pre-rendered 2D images and riveting cutscenes. With dynamic editing, the opening cinematic deftly sets the stage for Still Life. Even here an alert eye spots inconsistencies across time and place that hint at the mysteries ahead. The animated sequences created by Microïds are a tour de force for gaming and would stand proud with animated films in quality, creative design, and effect. The dramatic use of lighting transitions, accompanied by fluid color changes and extreme camera shifts is superb. For those that can't get enough of them, there is even a cinematic viewer included so you can visit these cutscenes again.
Then there are the little touches to discover. If you are walking through a decayed structure, don't be surprised to see a very healthy looking rat scuttle across the room, or a bird flapping out from smoke-blackened rafters. These small animations are randomly generated, so expect to be creeped out as various things scurry along your peripheral vision. Each of these touches show the artful hand applied to the game's look and mood.
The voice tracks range from exceptional to merely acceptable, which segues into the one real flaw of an otherwise stellar game. The story is neatly split between the past and present, featuring Gus and Victoria. While Gus' world seems entirely credible, the present day world of Chicago at times feels strained and hard to swallow. Now, the game does carry with it a rating of "Mature," earned in no small part by the foul language used in these segments. For some, like the shivering street cop, it seems a perfectly realistic treatment of the character. However, I do think the designers took a slight misstep with Victoria, who frequently offers that same gritty, expletive-laden commentary. While this might have been believable had she risen through the ranks in the dirty Chicago back streets, as a female senior FBI agent, the characterization just felt wrong. Combined with the occasional valley-girl overtones, this effort to make her character seem more street savvy detracted at times from immersion in the game. Though a noticeable flaw, however, it certainly wasn't enough to diminish my enjoyment. In fact, the character's lines are redeemed by the genuinely funny delivery of many of them, despite their incongruence with her assigned professional role within the game.
The dialogue scheme is also a refreshing change from past games. There are two choices for the gamer with every interaction. A left click on your mouse gives responses that are related to the game goals, while for those interested in a bit more tête-à-tête, the right button gives backstory comments and character asides. Unless you are a person who really can't stand exchanges more than a few words deep, I highly recommend exploring all the options on both sides of your mouse. The characters make up one of the best things in this game, and they become far more personal when all their dialogue is heard.
Of course, the true test for any game is how it plays, and Still Life is firmly grounded in reality. For example, in the first chapter, Victoria has a tray of coffee she has brought to the crime scene. A nice gesture to warm up the chill of the night air and earn some cooperation along the way, except that until she hands out her goodies, she can't access a forensic kit and begin processing the crime scene. Your character has a run option available with a double click of the left mouse button, but would you run with a full tray of coffee in your hands? Nope, and neither does Victoria. There is a natural logic to what you do in the game that makes the gameplay an intuitive treat and never stops you dead in moving through the game. Even in those moments when you wonder what to do next, you never feel completely stuck.
Going back to our initial crime scene, you can look at any number of items as you make your way towards the newly discovered victim, but until you have the proper tools of the trade at your disposal, there is not much to do other than take a note of where the evidence might lie. Once you do have an item and wish to use it, select it and Victoria automatically uses the item. Once it's used, the item vanishes from your briefcase. The same applies to your travels through the streets of Prague with Gus. There are any number of things to make note of and some may be important later on, but you can't interact with what isn't logical to that moment in the story. Such items barely register until their significance is raised at the proper time to interact with it more closely. This adds to the near seamless feel to the gameplay.
The game features an intuitive cursor, which makes these interactions flow well. The developers also built in an auto-recording feature of events and dialogues as the game progresses. These game notes, along with documents you uncover, the inventory, and the main menu are stored in one easily accessible separate screen. The inventory screen may seem cumbersome to some people at first, as it takes up the whole screen when opened, but really it's a minor detail that you'll quickly adjust to. For those who dislike taking notes, there really is no need to have a pen in hand while you play Still Life. Like I said, there is nothing that takes you too far away from flow of this game as you move through its twisted paths.
The natural progression of the game is further enhanced by the integration of story-based challenges. When the game opens with a crime scene, logically the gameplay consists of a thorough search of the premises with appropriate devices. When you are infiltrating a locale, the challenges turn more appropriately to hidden devices and lock mechanisms. There are moments when dialogue challenges occur, or an inventory item is needed to pass a more pedestrian obstacle. There is even a hands-on stealth puzzle; perhaps the first in an adventure game that is clever and fun rather than frustrating.
All this is not to say that the puzzling is a complete walk in the park. Several are very ingenious and involve some time to master. The designers managed a masterful balance between making puzzles challenging without being unduly obstructive or obscure. The mix is diverse, and at no time did a challenge feel like it was put there to kill time or to simply be a puzzle. Granted, there is a slider and a maze of sorts, but they work well within the story and fit the design.
When you get to the end of Still Life, you'll feel as though you have been through a well-crafted tale, challenged along the way, and met memorable characters to keep you thinking past the credits. And should you linger there, you'll find a hint of something more to come… or perhaps not. For not all mysteries are tied up with a nice red bow -- either in life or in fiction.
With Still Life, there are the few inevitable flaws -- there always are even in the best of games. But if it isn't an instant classic, it is nipping at the heels of the all-time greats. Regrets? The only downside to this game is that it represents the last creative effort of the Canadian design team that used to be the heart and soul of Microïds. Still, if there had to be a final curtain call, this is what you would like to leave behind. Let the applause continue on after the lights have all been turned out. What a great game.
Still Life tells a story that is a masterful blend of challenge, characters and story. It is a definite game of the year candidate, and will likely earn a spot on many gamers' list of favorites. Highly recommended to fans of content-driven adventures.