Review for Indigo Prophecy
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Adventure Gamers gives Indigo Prophecy "Two thumbs left-right-down-right-taptaptaptap-UP!"
If that unusual endorsement sounds like a cross between a game review and a movie critique, then it truly reflects the unique nature of the product that inspired it. Every once in a loooong while, an ambitious title comes out that's determined to break down the barriers that exist between the two media, demanding that we throw our preconceptions out the window and accept it on its own terms. Typically producing a lot of scratched heads, perplexed looks, and unsatisfactory sales, there have been some qualified successes in the past, from Blade Runner to The Last Express to Shadow of Destiny. Now Indigo Prophecy seeks to claim a place alongside its progressive predecessors, though no doubt hoping for better results at the box offi... I mean, retail outlets.
French developer Quantic Dream is unapologetic in referring to Indigo Prophecy as an "interactive drama". Even the main menu refers to the option of "New Movie", and the truth of that claim quickly becomes apparent. It's not that it ISN'T a game; it simply refuses to be defined by its gameplay characteristics, focusing instead (or at least equally) on an unparalleled cinematic presentation that's fully dependent on player control. Once you've sifted through all the semantic mumbo jumbo, what this means is that, unlike conventional titles where gameplay consists of overcoming challenges intended to hinder your progress, the primary goal in Indigo Prophecy is experiencing the story itself, and guiding its course in tangible, innovative ways. The good news is that when the game maintains this single-minded vision, it offers a worthy adventure unlike any other. Unfortunately, it does ultimately succumb to far too many "gamey" activities that break the narrative immersion it works so hard to create. The result is a title with something of an identity crisis that doesn't quite blend media so much as confuses them at times. As such, it's still a bold step forward with plenty to recommend, but not without losing its balance along the way.
In case you've been frozen in a cryogenic sleep for the past few months, Indigo Prophecy (known in Europe by its original title, Fahrenheit) is a paranormal thriller set in New York City. Outside, the temperature drops dangerously as a relentless winter storm descends on the city, while indoors a series of inexplicable murders has begun, with random strangers brutally killing each other with ritualistic precision. One of these killers is Lucas Kane, the game's central (though not only) protagonist. When we first meet Lucas in a diner restroom, he is entranced by a disturbing vision that compels him to viciously stab a defenseless man. As he snaps out of his homicidal hypnosis, he is shocked and horrified at the atrocity before him. With no memory of committing the crime, yet still holding the bloody weapon, Lucas knows he must evade capture in order to discover the truth behind his unwilling involvement.
From this intensely personal beginning, the story eventually snowballs into a convoluted mess of occult themes, from ancient Mayan mythology to apocalyptic prophesies to rivaling secret societies. As the game progresses, the plot holes become bigger and narrative credibility drops faster than the mercury. Normally I'd be more critical of a story handled so clumsily, but Indigo Prophecy is no ordinary game (recurring theme here) and its storytelling more than atones with its immersive, multi-layered, interactive techniques. You may not believe where the story is taking you, but you'll feel far too involved to give up the journey.
As we gain control of our fugitive anti-hero, we're faced with something rarely experienced in adventure games: choice. Not simply "right or wrong" choice, either. Lucas has quite a few equally legitimate options for escaping his immediate dilemma, and it's entirely up to the player to decide on a course of action. This opening scenario has been well-documented in previews and offered first-hand in the playable demo, so I won't go into detail here, but you need to think quickly and act smartly (or vice versa), as how you leave the crime scene has a direct bearing on the police investigation to follow.
This element of choice is the most highly-touted aspect of Indigo Prophecy, and there's no question that the game offers far more player options than traditional titles. Quantic Dream refers to this as a "rubber band" approach to storytelling, allowing enough narrative flexibility to let each player stretch, pull, and twist it into a unique experience. However, the advanced hype over this feature has likely created unrealistic expectations that the game simply will not be able to fulfill, as this particular rubber band isn't nearly as elastic as the opening would lead the player to believe. In fact, the game becomes increasingly -- and even rigidly -- linear at times. This really isn't a criticism, though, as it's inevitable for any narrative-driven experience. Sure, it'd be great to significantly impact the story with our choices, but it just can't be done without losing all kinds of continuity (or without a massive budget to accommodate each alternative).
Outside of a few exceptions, IP can't even really be said to have branching paths, as each individual choice tends to have only a superficial effect on the plot. So while the game may appear to offer freedom of choice, what it really offers is illusion of choice, created more with smoke and mirrors than with genuine influence. Fortunately, for the most part it does so successfully. It may not quite be the David Copperfield of gaming, but it does perform enough sleight of hand to make you feel... if not exactly in control of your fate, then at least an occasional contributor to it. Set your expectations accordingly, and you'll view this as a definite strength of the game, not a weakness. It's unfair to fault the game for such limitations when they're only exposed by pushing well beyond existing boundaries.
One of the rabbits pulled from Quantic's hat is the use of several playable characters, which helps create a more tangible sense of cause-and-effect, at least at first. In an interesting twist, you'll play Indigo Prophecy as both hunter and hunted. No sooner will you have directed Lucas to temporary safety, you'll return as detectives Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles, assigned to track the killer down. As much as I liked the concept, I wondered how such a game of cat-and-mouse against myself would play out, as it struck me a bit like playing both sides of a card game -- not a lot of suspense when you already know what's in the other hand. As it turns out, this anticipation also proved to be somewhat misguided, as the characters' paths rarely intersect, and the direct consequences of either side's actions have no substantial effect on the other. Instead, the various roles (you'll also briefly control Lucas' brother, Markus) play out more conventionally as different perspectives of the same larger story.
Fortunately, each character is surprisingly complex and nuanced, as the game delves as deeply into their personal lives as their professional ones. Love, fear, guilt, faith, despair... you name it, Indigo Prophecy boldly embraces the emotional concerns of its protagonists. This is another aspect that sets the game apart from the norm, and it's certainly a welcome addition. But it isn't just a bonus. In fact, the psychological condition of your characters is the main area of consequence for your choices. Each character has a mental health bar that rises and falls according to the story unfolding. Make an upsetting decision and you'll lose points; take a favourable course of action and you'll gain points. The only discernible in-game effect of this gauge is if you lose all your points, as your character will either go mad or commit suicide. Admittedly, this is fun to do once or twice, but when the novelty wears off, you'll generally find yourself making the perfectly reasonable choices available, which will keep your characters stable enough to progress the story as necessary. Still, it's another element that makes it SEEM like your decisions are important, even as you start to realize they rarely are to any degree.
If the "interactive" part of Indigo Prophecy comes with some caveats, however, the "dramatic" component requires no such qualifiers. From start to finish, the game demonstrates an inspired audio and visual presentation that really helps bring the experience to life. IP features an instrumental soundtrack by the acclaimed Angelo Badalamenti, who, as a veteran composer for David Lynch films, must have felt right at home in creating original scores for this eerie, supernatural tale. The soundtrack is judiciously used and provides a wonderful ambience throughout, without ever being overbearing. There is also a nice mix of licensed songs that adds a refreshing change of pace and an individual tone for the respective playable characters. Even the voice acting is consistently well performed by all of the game's characters. My only complaint here is that, despite the quality of the delivery, several of the actors are overused in multiple roles; an ill-advised compromise which I found rather distracting.
Esthetically, the game's real-time 3D graphics look decent, though their console limitations ensure that they're less than cutting edge technology. Even optimized on PC at 1600x1200 resolution, the visuals retain a slightly grainy appearance and blocky character models, though these distinctions will matter only to the most discriminating graphics snob. On the plus side, this means the settings can be scaled way back without sacrificing too much quality, making the game accessible to people even with (relatively) low-end computers.
These technical issues don't tell the whole story, though, as it's the small design touches and strong cinematic elements that make the game so visually immersive. Unlike the static environments afflicting so many adventure games, the world of Indigo Prophecy feels dynamic and alive, whether from children playing in the park, cars driving by (and honking if you get in the way), or the ever-present oppressive winter elements. It isn't just the gameworld that's fully realized, either. Every character in the game, no matter how minor, has a distinct individual appearance, and facial characteristics are both detailed and wonderfully expressive. Lip synching is excellent, and physical animations are fluid and natural, which can be attributed to Quantic's extensive use of motion capture. While none of these factors alone may seem significant, collectively these sorts of subtle details add an engaging realism that draws you further into the story.
The (dare I say it) cinematography is another notable feature of Indigo Prophecy, but with varying results. The game makes clever use of dramatic camera movement and composition, particularly during the many scripted cutscenes scattered throughout (which is good, because they're unskippable). Occasionally, the screen even splits into multiple views to show a secondary event on a collision course with your own, whether a goal you must reach or a threat to avoid. It's a simple technique, but very effective at ratcheting up the tension. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the default cameras during player-controlled gameplay, but for much different reasons. The game alternates between fixed and roaming cameras depending on the environment, and though serviceable, neither is particularly intuitive. The fixed camera angles don't always let you see or move where you're trying to go, and the roaming cameras need constant adjustment that never gets comfortable. Fumbling awkwardly with stubborn cameras is anything but new to third-person games, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Since this is such an integral aspect of a player's experience, it's a wonder why developers feel the need to sacrifice accessibility for artistry. The only thing riskier than tinkering with cameras is messing with the control scheme…
Of course, by now it should come as no surprise that the control scheme is yet another area Quantic Dream designed from the ground up. Seeking to create a greater sense of physical immersion for the player, Indigo Prophecy takes direct control to a whole different level. Once again, however, what begins as a commendable ambition occasionally becomes all thumbs in its execution. In this case, I mean that both literally and figuratively, as navigating the game feels more natural using a gamepad with dual analog sticks (after resolving a strange glitch that leaves the right stick unassigned by default). The PC version can also be controlled with a mouse/keyboard combination, but this setup takes more getting used to, and probably a certain amount of customized button re-mapping. Fortunately, the game wisely utilizes a screen-relative orientation for gamepads and character-relative orientation for keyboard.
The interface has no cursor and no inventory, consisting instead of icons at the top of the screen that indicate available options. You can only perform actions the game enables you to, as interactive freedom has its limitations here, as well. Whether it's lighting a candle, breaking a window, or choosing dialogue options, typically this involves nothing more than moving the stick or mouse in the direction indicated, but other times the actions are a little more complicated. Intended to mimic the onscreen activities, you'll need to simulate the motion demonstrated by the icon. So doing around-the-worlds with a yoyo (I kid you not) or climbing a fence is meant to feel more like you're actually performing the actions yourself than abstractly directing your character. Frankly, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for which actions are chosen for this treatment, and any connection between wiggling my mouse back and forth and pushing a mop is tenuous at best. In any case, the finicky controls tend to pull you OUT of the game instead of immerse you more deeply in it. Thankfully, these special activities are few and far between.
Much more frequent are the game's genuine action sequences. Yes, we return at last to the unavoidable issue of "gameplay" in this interactive drama. The game initially revolves around exploring various environments, interacting with objects, talking to people, searching for clues, and generally advancing the story in logical, meaningful ways. Before long, though, the focus starts to shift. While forsaking anything resembling traditional "puzzles" (okay, maybe a couple -- barely), Indigo Prophecy builds an increasing dependence on rudimentary mini-games to oppose progress. Regrettably, this sounds far more fun than it really is (even if it doesn't sound like much). What initially promises a new layer of energy and excitement quickly gives way to boredom and/or frustration as you slog through one tedious and sometimes surprisingly challenging reflex exercise after another.
The most prevalent of these is a twin version of Simon… That's right, Simon -- you know, the electronic game of Simon Says that dates back to the late 1970s. At regular intervals throughout the game, a pair of translucent coloured rings will appear overlaid on the main game screen. As the colours light up, you'll need to match their orientation with your controller of choice. The speed and duration of these 50-plus(!) sequences vary according to the tempo of the events of the game. Again the theory is to have the directional controls coincide with what's physically onscreen, but concentrating on the rings makes that a pointless distinction, as you can't focus on the action to see the correlation. So while the game has Lucas dodge a car in the same direction you pressed your buttons, you'll be far too busy pressing the next set to notice. You're free to try observing both at once, but expect to spend the rest of the day cross-eyed if you do. The long sets that occur during certain dialogues are even more of a nuisance, as they're an actual hindrance to following the story. If asked what I learned from the autopsy on my trip to the morgue, I'd be forced to answer something to the effect of, "The knife was [red-blue-green-red-red]… the arteries, causing [blue-red-yellow-green-yellow]… victims all [green-yellow-blue-blue-yellow]." Everyone catch all that? Right. Me either.
Then there are the button-mashing segments. Though not as frequent as the Simon exercises, what they lack in number they compensate with aggravation. When your character is required to do something extremely strenuous, you'll need to fill up a bar by hitting alternate buttons in rapid succession. The only question besides whether this is harder on your nerves or the controller is: WHY?? Beating the bejeebers out of your keyboard simply does not emulate physical exertion, though it does provide the identical absence of fun. Even worse are the eight or ten dramatic combat or chase sequences that combine the two activities, ramp up the difficulty significantly, and force an abrupt "game over" if you lose all of your accrued "lives". The first of these will probably send many people scrambling to drop the difficulty settings to easy, but even that's no guarantee of success. Veteran action gamers will certainly overcome, but these are NOT forgiving sequences for anyone unaccustomed to dexterity-based challenges, and they occur too often to luck your way through. So be forewarned. If you're already asking yourself right now, "Does he mean me?", then yes, I do.
Make no mistake: I'm not criticizing the game simply for including action sequences. My complaint is that most of them don't accomplish what they set out to do. While they certainly get the adrenaline pumping, they fail to create the desired tactile immersion with organic, physical challenges. Instead, they actually sever the connection to the narrative and force the gamer to play the interface rather than the story. Nothing says "arcade" quite like the GET READY! message that flashes onscreen every time Simon Says. When we're finally treated to some variety, Indigo Prophecy is far more refreshing, including two clever sequences of controlled breathing, a precarious balancing act, and target practice at a shooting range. Even the now-apparently-requisite stealth sequences provide a welcomed change of pace, despite relying too much on trial and error. With a little more diversity and relevance in its action, IP truly could have been the well-rounded experience it aspires to be. In an otherwise innovative title, it's disappointing to see such uninspired, derivative gameplay elements featured so prominently.
Before all is said and done, one thing that should not be overlooked about Indigo Prophecy is its overall polish. Where so many games seem to cut corners wherever possible, Quantic took no such shortcuts with the game, and it shows. Even before gameplay begins, players are treated to an interactive quiz about the game's themes that runs during installation, and a helpful tutorial narrated by a digitized version of writer/director David Cage. The game is completely stable throughout, and offers a nice selection of unlockable bonus features, where you can finally see those impressive Hollywood-style cinematics that you missed while playing Simon through them originally. And despite not having a manual save feature, IP is quite user-friendly for those who wish to replay parts of the game without starting over from the beginning. The game is split into 44 short chapters, auto-saving on completion of each (and occasionally during), and you can pick up from any chapter and resume under a new profile so your existing progress isn't lost.
It should go without saying (but obviously won't) that any game involving a ritual murder in the opening scene isn't shying away from mature topics, and that's certainly true of Indigo Prophecy. However, the game is by no means gratuitously violent or gory, opting instead for a psychological focus. There is also a small amount of swearing and mild sexual content -- the latter being all that remains after the well-publicized censoring of the European Fahrenheit version, along with some farcical measures to remove the game's brief nudity. So while the game handles its adult themes quite tastefully, bear in mind that it's still not a game for the kiddies.
By now I hope you've drawn your own conclusion about whether Indigo Prophecy is right for you, because a title this unique is sure to have extremely subjective appeal. There are those who will reject it as a hybrid scourge and others who will herald it as the saviour of adventures, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. While the action sequences will surely alienate a fair percentage of the hardcore adventure fanbase, the game also brings innovative new ideas to a largely complacent genre, so those with enough ability and tolerance for the arcade elements will find much to value here. The game's strong cinematic presentation, dynamic gameworld, increased player options and interactivity, and top level production values put it head and shoulders above most of its traditional genre contemporaries. Where it stumbles is in pushing its ambitions too far with poor plot development, camera control, and interface implementation, and not far enough in its repetitive mini-game activities. Action-oriented or not, resorting to a 27-year old electronic toy to supplement gameplay doesn't qualify for the label "evolutionary".
Perhaps the only thing that can be said for sure is that there's nothing else quite like it. Part movie, part game, part action, part adventure… call it what you will, Indigo Prophecy is a daring, original experiment in interactive storytelling, and well worth its eight to ten hours of gameplay for anyone feeling adventurous. If you're up to the challenge, Simon Says give it a try.