There is a troubling beauty in death and violence, and this dichotomy has rarely been portrayed as seductively as in Still Life. 2005 brought adventure gamers a real treat; a dark and visually beautiful game that had players switching between 1920s Prague and modern day Chicago in trying to solve two seemingly related cases of twisted serial killings. The rub, however, was that Microïds hit financial trouble at that time and the development team was dissolved, finishing their swansong but leaving it without a conclusive ending.
Four years later, a revived Microïds have hired a new team, GameCo Studios, to finish the story and continue the Still Life legacy. The results are certainly more mixed than its acclaimed predecessor, but not altogether unsuccessful. The sequel picks up with Victoria McPherson, the FBI investigator from the first game, still on the trail of the masked killer, and brief memories from 2005 continue to be interspersed throughout a new case in 2009, with Vic tracking a criminal dubbed the “East Coast Killer” by TV reporter Paloma Hernandez. You also play segments as Paloma, who is kidnapped by the new killer near the start of the game.
The most marked departure from the original lies in the different – and unfortunately inferior – aesthetic. Technically, this game looks undeniably dated. Unlike the crisp pre-rendered backdrops of the original, Still Life 2 is presented in real-time 3D, with blocky, raw environments and poorly designed, sometimes ugly character models with very flat, doll-like faces. This lack of sophistication does not mean it performs smoothly, either. A game this graphically limited should not run as sluggishly as it does, a problem especially prevalent in later scenes. My PC exceeded system requirements across the board, but still suffered from frame-rate drops and abnormally long load/save times.
The art direction is also very different from the original. Gone are the flamboyant, theatrical criminals and the painterly themes. The look of this game is functional at best, and definitely not pretty. The visual style, as well as the M.O. of the gas-masked killer, is influenced by film: videotapes are sent to the authorities, references are made to classic movies, and a grainy, dirty new look similar to modern horror films like Hostel and The Blair Witch Project is established. Even leaving the technical shortcomings aside, this earthy, utilitarian direction is less compelling than the distinctly French flair and lavish architecture of the original, and is unlikely to present the same draw for fans. It is certainly less unique.
For a game drawing so readily from the movies, Still Life 2 is surprisingly rather static. Most actions yield either a complete lack of animation (objects picked up, for example, tend to magically appear in the inventory), one of a small selection of over-used animations, or a screen fade from the start point of an action (e.g. moving a pile of leaves) to the end of it (the pile is gone). Bloodstains and such suddenly appear when the correct tool is used, without any sort of bridging animation. The lip-syncing and conversations with other characters aren’t pleasant to watch, either. The only sort of eye-candy offered as a reward for progress in the game are the cutscenes, which almost – but not quite – measure up to the calibre of the original. The one nice touch present in the in-game animation is Victoria drawing her gun to sweep certain unexplored areas, which helps to maintain the realistic feel.
In fact, Still Life 2 doesn’t offer a whole lot of production content of any kind, be it the limited but effective selection of ominous, industrial music or the “sparing” use of art assets. The entire game takes place in a few generic rooms and one – admittedly expansive – old house in the woods on the American east coast. Using just the one house for a game has been done well in adventures before, from Laura Bow’s mysteries to 5 Days A Stranger, but it outstays its welcome here. There is a lot of traipsing back and forth in the house, especially in later sections, and the place is so visually unappealing that having it practically burned into your retinas is borderline painful. The most I can say for the design of the rooms is that at their best, they could plausibly be amongst the most mundane locations from the original game.
There is, thankfully, one area in which this sequel delivers in spades: the story. GameCo have clearly done their homework and produced a gripping, often chilling yarn which links in cleverly to the original plot and provides a convincing revelation of the original killer’s identity. The flashbacks from 2005 only play a small part, but the new storyline is packed with enough compelling events and plot twists in its own right to keep you playing. I don’t want to give away too much about the plans of the East Coast Killer, but they’re elaborate and relatively believable; a series of complicated schemes and riddles that follow a nasty but inevitable logic. The single-setting location is explained pretty well, and the ties with the first game are revealed slowly, never feeling redundant or contrived despite the connection being kept slight. The only mark against it is some forced dialogue exposition at the start, which serves to bring players up to speed with the plot of the original.
There isn’t a huge amount of dialogue otherwise, as there are only a handful of characters in the game, but it is moderately well written and never confusing or unintuitive. Supporting characters include the likes of a selfish local sheriff and Vic’s friendly lab contact, Claire, and they’re all well defined in their limited roles. Victoria herself is a strong lead character, and whilst the characterisation of Paloma as a story-obsessed TV reporter stretches credibility a little, her more minor role – and dire situation – prevent her from becoming too annoying. The voice acting, however, is rather variable; it sounds to me like the actors were capable but sometimes given insufficient direction, so in some scenes of great danger or desperation, their responses sound too casual.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of Still Life 2
Posted by cheesebaker on Jun 23, 2012
Claims the name of the original but none of the fame
Sold by its own, with a different title, Still Life 2, might be a decent but not great game. Taken by its own the rating of three stars by the official review is appropriate. However, it is sold as a Still Life sequel, riding on that one's success but...
Posted by Lucien21 on May 27, 2012
Looks rough and overstays it's welcome
Once again you take control of Vic McPherson in the hunt for a serial killer. This time dubbed the "East Coast Killer". He abduct, tortures and kills his victims without leaving much in the way of evidence. When a reporter following the case (Paloma...