Casebook: Episode I - Kidnapped review

The Good:
  • Intriguing mystery story enriched with real-life forensic procedures
  • Very good writing and captivating noir atmosphere
  • Top-notch FMV production values, with great cinematics and pleasant soundtrack
The Bad:
  • Some sections of the gameplay suffer from repetition or excessive ease
  • The lack of subtitles is sometimes impairing
Casebook 1
Casebook 1
The Good:
  • Intriguing mystery story enriched with real-life forensic procedures
  • Very good writing and captivating noir atmosphere
  • Top-notch FMV production values, with great cinematics and pleasant soundtrack
The Bad:
  • Some sections of the gameplay suffer from repetition or excessive ease
  • The lack of subtitles is sometimes impairing
Our Verdict: Not only a very good pilot for a promising mystery series, but in its own right Kidnapped is an entertaining, if brief, adventure game – oops, “interactive movie".
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There are few subjects capable of polarizing the opinions of adventure fans like Full Motion Video games. Some people like the realistic dimension that good direction and live actors can bring to a story while others find the frequently cheesy quality unbelievable and the gameplay in “interactive movies” too simplistic. Love it or hate it, however, in the late ‘90s this technique seemed to fade away due to the enormous production costs, so I was surprised to learn that a brand new episodic series is now trying to revamp the old splendours of FMV adventures. Surprised and delighted, which should make it obvious which of the two categories I fall within.

The series is Casebook, from a small team of independent developers in New Zealand called Areo (until recently known as Clocktower Games). The first of six planned episodes is Kidnapped, and this debut adventure is a pretty courageous one. In a time when developers are confronted with serious budget limitations, Areo chose a potentially expensive approach, but in developing their own technology they’ve managed to raise the bar in terms of indie production values and film quality. Even better, they included a massive dose of direct exploration of the environments, a quality reminiscent of the old Tex Murphy classics but often underutilized in other interactive movies, and even a pinch of casual gaming in the form of dozens of mini-games. The initial results aren’t completely successful, but a solid foundation has clearly been established and the bravery of the attempt is admirable.

Kidnapped introduces players to the silent role of a young police recruit on his first day of duty, paired with Detective James Burton, a well-dressed, snappy but rough police detective with a reputation for being a real pain in the neck. After a quick briefing on the case, Burton leaves us alone in Harry and Greta Birchermann’s bedroom, from which the two young children of a notorious industrialist have been abducted during the night. The only obvious sign of the kidnapper is a creased letter requesting three million dollars as ransom, but it is our task to meticulously scour the bedroom in search of better-hidden evidence. Meanwhile, Detective Burton interrogates the suspects, from Sylvia, the newlywed second wife of Mr. Birchermann, and Clara Mitworth, the old nanny of the house, to Larson Birchermann himself. “Everyone lies. And if they haven’t already, it doesn’t mean they won’t”, says Burton, as the investigation proceeds and the skein entangles more and more.

The deeper the investigation goes, the more questions arise. Why there are stains of whiskey scattered on the bedroom floor? Why does Clara say that the Birchermann’s marriage isn’t exactly a love nest? Why does Mr. Birchermann hush up the theory of a revenge crime, and why he is so uncomfortable with the police being in his house? Why doesn’t Sylvia speak gladly of her past as a soap opera actress? Everyone seems to have closely-guarded secrets and as the mystery unfolds, the episode’s plot delivers more than one surprise and several well-planned coups de théâtre that will hold the player’s attention up until the very end. Through the four acts in which the adventure is divided, the writing – mindful of noir movies from The Maltese Falcon to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown – always demonstrates a high quality and cracking sense of pace and suspense. The dialogues are believable and often filled with a hard-boiled, sharp sarcasm that not only proves to be extremely fitting but also helps construct an intriguing old-Hollywood atmosphere.

Like every good mystery worthy of its name, Kidnapped provides a well-assembled cast of supporting characters. Whilst a little stereotypical and perhaps a bit restricted, each character is given a detailed background, and the main suspects are particularly polished, both in their motivations and in their lines. Amongst them, James Burton really stands out as a fascinating lead character: behind his fancy outfit and trendily-shaved beard, one can sense more personality than the average rough-and-tough detective and there’s at least one detail about him, which I won’t give away, that makes me really curious about his personal story. Of course, since we’re dealing with an interactive movie, even the best script would have miserably failed without a good group of actors, and whilst it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see any of them nominated for an Academy Award, they nonetheless manage to give a believable ensemble performance, with only a few exceptions that fortunately don’t invalidate the overall impression.

Creating an equally favourable impression is the game’s luxuriant graphical presentation. The direction may not shine for originality or virtuosity, but the cinematography depicts both the high-class locations of the first act and the dirty, poor outlying settings of the later ones with vivid mellow colors, appropriate lighting and atmospheric chiaroscuro, as in the most effective film noirs of recent years. The editing of the cutscenes is also nicely done, and the ability to move the camera slightly even in these non-playable segments adds greatly to the player’s feeling of immersion. Eye movement is simulated with striking resemblance, with the exception of a slight peripheral blur that occurs when the player pans too fast and a little loss of definition during the forward movements.

The sound department is just as polished, with realistic effects – traffic noises, water drippings, police sirens and so on – and a soundtrack that reminds me of those old noir movies where the detective, after a tough day of work, always visits a smoky, shadowy bar with a soft piano accompaniment. The only complaint I can make is that the actors’ voices are sometimes too low and murmured, making it hard to understand their lines completely. In this regard, the lack of subtitles is an unpleasant fault that I hope will be corrected in further installments.

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