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Review for Fate By Numbers

I suppose I have a love-hate attitude toward full motion video (FMV) adventure games, and I would suspect many other gamers do as well. When done right, such a game can be an instant classic, pulling the player into the action and truly making the story an “interactive movie.” However, the medium also leaves significant room for problems to creep in that undermine the benefits. I played a handful of FMV games when the technology first took center stage in the mid-'90s, among them Phantasmagoria and Under A Killing Moon, but the novelty wore off fast and I took to chiefly playing traditional animated games.

However, when I heard that Fate By Numbers had been released as a freeware endeavor by independent Dutch development team Revival, I jumped at the chance to play it, eager to see if the game brings anything new to the genre, or at least to the Underground adventure scene. As it turns out, the game often shines, particularly considering its shoestring budget, and provides players with a fun escape into the world of a level-headed and resourceful sleuth.

The third-person Fate By Numbers puts players in the shoes of Alice Sanger, a young private detective in the sprawling futuristic metropolis of (appropriately enough) Big City. As the introduction begins, two men ask her to swipe a briefcase from a passenger at a train station, refusing to tell Alice what is inside it. Naturally unwilling to turn down an assignment, she agrees. Upon arriving at the station, Alice is suddenly shot by an unknown assailant. After she recovers from her wounds, players take control of the action as Alice attempts to uncover the identity of her attacker, find out what was in the briefcase, and discover how the two pieces of information are related.

Stylistically, Fate By Numbers draws heavily from film noir. The game is done completely in black and white, which not only contributes to the sense of mystery, but also creates an interesting juxtaposition between the nostalgic “old movie” feel on the one hand, and the futuristic technology of Alice’s world--ranging from flying cars to a computer monitor that disappears into Alice’s office desk when not in use--on the other.

The game’s video sequences are generally crisp, but a few--especially closeups--seemed slightly blocky and pixelated to me. Fate By Numbers is available in two versions, a low-bitrate and high-bitrate incarnation. The low-bitrate version’s video quality has been reduced, to make it easier to run on older systems. However, I played the high-bitrate version and had no problem with it on my 2 GHz machine. To play the game, you’ll need to create an installation DVD from the downloadable image file, which requires a DVD burner and disc creation software. However, the game files themselves are loaded on the player’s hard drive during the installation process. Both versions of the game require hefty downloads, either a little under or over 1 GB depending on which you choose.

The interface is fairly standard but provides a few nice touches. The cursor changes color when over a hotspot, and clicking on one either changes screens or displays a group of action icons as well as a list of the items in the inventory. From here, the desired action can be chosen and inventory items can be used and examined. A menu bar at the top of the screen provides access to a “hint” option, which briefly highlights all available hotspots on the screen. Additionally, a chime sounds whenever Alice accomplishes an action that advances the story or triggers access to a new location.

The puzzles are mostly of the “use-item-on” variety, but there are a handful of exceptions to this, such as examining photographs to look for clues or finding a place to hide from an approaching character. Most puzzles are logical, but a couple left me stymied for a while and I had to resort to other players for a nudge in the right direction. The aforementioned hint system isn’t documented on the game’s site and the option is only visible if the mouse is moved to the top of the screen. Had I been aware of it, I wouldn’t have had trouble at the beginning of the game when I had to find an inconspicuous hotspot. At another point midway through the game, the player has to talk to a certain character to advance the story, but it’s not obvious this character has the information you need. Aside from these issues, the puzzles are logical, and a few have interesting solutions.

Gameplay is mostly linear and the world is quite small, consisting of Alice’s office and a few other locations such as a local bar, the house of a Big City resident, and a gunshop. Players usually move from one location to another by means of Alice’s car, and select destinations from an in-dash map. The small size of the game world means that players usually have a good idea what they should do next, and the adventure can easily be finished in a few hours.

No aspect of the game truly disappointed me, but one did surprise me a little. The characters are voiced by actors with various accents, among them Scottish, American, and Dutch. This was probably a natural consequence of the game’s creators being university students with easy access to a pool of potential cast members, and also may have been an intentional attempt to make Big City into a cultural melting pot. However, in some cases the accents--whether natural or acted--were so strong that I found it difficult to understand what the characters were saying, and this decreased the game’s realism for me slightly. The acting itself is decent for the most part, but often lacks professional polish.

Despite its rough edges, Fate By Numbers makes up for them by providing an engaging story. Particularly considering that it was developed by university students on a very limited budget, the game is of surprisingly high quality and even brings a few welcome touches. Any adventure fan looking for something that feels new while really hearkening back to old-school FMV games should try it. Perhaps even better than its novelty, though, is the fact that the ending scene of the game all but guarantees there will be further adventures for Ms. Sanger.

The game can be downloaded from the Fate By Numbers site.

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