Art of Murder: Hunt for the Puppeteer review
The opening cinematic of City Interactive’s new adventure, Art of Murder: Hunt for the Puppeteer, is impressive: in New Orleans, a SWAT squad marches toward what appears to be an unused warehouse, and a search of the dusty, shadowy building reveals a tormented corpse, suspended in the air by hooks and wires piercing his dead skin. The vision is sudden, macabre and shocking. As soon as I saw it, I thought: “This game is going be better than the first one”, and I meant it. It seemed to me, judging from that opening cutscene, more daring and brave, more grim and catchy than the competent but lackluster first chapter, FBI Confidential. Unfortunately, it took only five minutes of actual play to dispel this hopeful illusion, and while the rest of the game displays some improvements over the first title, particularly in regard to graphics and sound, the underwhelming core of the series remains unchanged.
Let’s start with the premise: the FBI is searching for an elusive serial killer nicknamed The Puppeteer, who has a penchant for arranging his victims like in Edgar Degas’ paintings. If you have seen The Silence of the Lambs or played Still Life, this basic foundation can’t help but feel a little overdone, if not unwelcome. The bad news is that the more the game expands the plot and its inevitable twists, the stronger this sense of déjà vu grows. Unfriendly local inspector? Check. Stupid police officers easily duped by a doughnut (only in this case it is a croissant)? Check. Moonlit stroll on a cornice with cracked bricks? Check. I can go on, but the point is made. This is not to say the story is never interesting, and if you are willing to overlook the complete lack of originality and the dim-witted dialogues, Art of Murder 2’s plot can offer up some mildly decent entertainment at times.
Players will once again control Special Agent Nicole Bonnet, returning from the first game and sent this time to Paris to investigate a new murder with a similar M.O. Upon arriving, Nicole finds proof that the Puppeteer has indeed fled America for Europe, and a new string of hideous killings leads her to an American tourist researching his roots. Nicole starts digging into his story to expose its many secrets, and after teaming up with a private detective, she realizes that the Puppeteer is choosing his victims according to a pattern tracing back to one of the darkest periods of European history. So begins a journey to Azarra, Spain, where the Puppeteer’s next chosen victim might live, and this is only the start of a dangerous adventure that will take her across the ocean to exotic Havana, and then back to the City of Lights.
Even an unoriginal story can be saved by good writing and well-rounded characters. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case here, because the writing is poor and equally unimaginative, compounded by being filled with mistakes about French culture. For example, the writers not only mixed up Decadentism, Bohemianism and Impressionism, often mistaking them for the same thing, but they also botched Paris’ geography, placing the famous Moulin Rouge in Montmartre, while the cabaret is really in the red-light district of Pigalle. Even aside from these quibbles, the overall dialogue is uninspired and flat. Nicole seldom describes anything around her while examining certain objects or rooms, and her comments are extremely simplistic, offering nothing more than plain, informative statements without any spark of creativity. Sometimes they are downright laughable: when Nicole enters a secret room hidden in the killer’s hideaway, she cleverly notes “Blood in the dressing room. That’s suspicious.” This after finding two enormous chalkboards full of photographs of the slaughtered Puppeteer’s victims in the living room.
Aggravating the situation, the characters are, with the possibile exception of the sarcastic FBI secretary, paper-thin and shallow, and even the protagonist is an uninteresting lead without the slightest sign of a personality. Nicole often shows a presumptuous attitude that was clearly intended as a token of inner strength but is really just a bothersome, failed attempt at characterization. The supporting cast is even worse: from the gourmand Inspector Pety, more interested in novelle cuisine than the investigation, to the rowdy P.I with a fondness for hard-boiled talk or the dusty librarian who refuses modern technology, they are forgettable clichés if not ludicrous caricatures.
At least these characters are brought to life by a cast of decent actors. The lines – even the ones that don’t make much sense because of dialogue translation problems – are spoken clearly and believably, often with proper emphasis and a striking dose of sarcasm. Even this praise comes with a major caveat, however, as the dreadful pronunciation of French words totally undermines the first half of the adventure. There aren’t many games out there, new or old, that manage to simulate an acceptable French accent, but Art of Murder 2 is in a league of its own: French characters distort names of people and places and, most importantly, often drop the fake French inflection right in the middle of a sentence. Listening to the lines of Louis Carnot, a pivotal character, was so painful that I had to turn the volume down because it distracted me from the story.
Fortunately, aside from this fault, the game’s sound design is very solid. The effects are plausible and well done, atmospheric and appropriately menacing, while the musical score is perhaps the diamond point of the game, alternating soft piano orchestrations and breathtaking crescendos accompanied by drums and eerie violins. Similarly, the graphic design is neat and detailed, sports a great use of light and shadow, and the cutscenes that intersperse the gameplay are as good as the opening cinematic. This is especially true of the brief FMVs seen from the killer’s perspective, which remind me of Dario Argento’s Deep Red. The character models could have used more polygons, but the smooth animations do a fine job in covering this lack of definition, and the general visual quality is surely improved over the first Art of Murder installment. Two locations really stand out from the rest, thanks to lavish care put in their design: the killer’s apartment, which seems a modern, metrosexual version of Victor’s prison from the movie Se7en, and the cozy interior of the Moulin Rouge, filled with colorful costumes and disquieting mannequins.
The locations are explored through the simple point-and-click interface already seen in the first game, further refined by the improvements introduced in City’s other adventure, Chronicles of Mystery. Mousing over a hotspot, the cursor automatically changes into a Look, Take or Talk icon, while a double-click will make Nicole run. The inventory is easily accessible at the bottom part of the screen, where the player can also find icons for revealing all hotspots, reading Nicole’s diary (a rather unnecessary option, since she has almost no thought or emotion to share with us) or reviewing all documents and dialogues. Also like the previous game, only one location can be explored at a time, severely limiting freedom and eliminating the need for much creative thinking. Forcing players to stay in a given location until all tasks are completed is only one of the ways in which the game lays down its sometimes irritating linearity: actions must be executed in a precise order, and some hotspots won’t even appear until the player thoroughly explores everything and exhausts all possible dialogue options. For example, early in the game you’ll have to distract a police officer: to do so, you must first talk to him two times, and then retrieve an item that was perfectly visible all along but couldn’t be taken previously.
Puzzles are the usual adventure fare, mostly inventory-based with the occasional diversion offered by mechanical or slider puzzles. They are extremely predictable but often tortuous in their McGuyver-like solutions. In one instance, to grab keys hung beyond a hotel reception desk, Nicole chooses to make a grappling hook instead of simply hopping over the desk, which she easily could have done. The problem with this kind of puzzle is that they seem placed there to artificially lengthen the game with phony, unnecessary obstacles. The intelligent puzzles you’ll stumble upon from time to time – like decrypting a code based on Roman numerals, colors and cardinal points – are a severely endangered minority. Furthermore, many challenges are just silly and do nothing more than disrupt the suspension of disbelief. For example, to find some money, Nicole resorts to a public fountain which is filled with coins, despite the fact that it is located in a little village where everyone laments the lack of tourism. And this money serves no other purpose than to operate a slot machine to gain even more money through a simple but silly pattern-alignment minigame. The absurdity of such tasks would strain credibility in any game, but it particularly defies Nicole’s status as an FBI agent, making the scenarios feel even less realistic.
It took me almost twelve hours to reach the end of the game, with the challenge becoming a little harder in the final phases. The story also reserves a few nice surprises for the end, but this late improvement is insufficient to redeem the previous failings. Despite all these criticisms, however, Art of Murder 2 isn’t a bad game: it has many faults, but none manage to ruin the experience entirely. Yet it surely lacks any real merits that can keep players enthralled from beginning to end. Mildly diverting at best, but uninspired and dull at worst, it is overshadowed by the better, similar thrillers it so clearly was trying to emulate. Fans of the first game will no doubt like the sequel as well, though previous experience is certainly not required. So if you're new to the series, you may want to keep hunting for something better, but if you're searching for a light filler game that you can easily play without much challenge, and are willing to turn a blind eye to the hackneyed story, pedestrian dialogues and shallow characters, Hunt for the Puppeteer may deliver just enough of what you’re looking for. It’s like a fast-food game that you can quickly devour, only to forget all about when tastier, more interesting dishes are served.
For better and worse, Hunt for the Puppeteer is a simple adventure without any pretensions. It can be relaxing filler easily played with your brain off, but lacks both the quality and character to bother with otherwise.