Here’s the best thing I can say about 15 Days: it has a really cool opening cinematic. More like a sequence out of an action movie or 24-style TV show than the average adventure game, it uses split screens and smart camera cuts to show a number of high-energy scenes: two men in black scaling London’s Big Ben; a white-haired man in a fancy office collapsing onto his massive desk; a bold swath of paint brushed across a blank canvas; a gloved hand tapping a key into a safe. It’s a set-up that promises a game of heists and chases, of intrigue and adventure.
Better enjoy it, because it’s all downhill from there.
House of Tales, the German studio behind 15 Days, has made a name for themselves with intelligent, dramatic, and at times experimental adventure games, including 2004’s The Moment of Silence and 2007’s Overclocked. On its stylish surface, 15 Days appears to follow suit. The protagonists, a trio of altruistic art thieves, are kind of like Robin Hood meets the Mod Squad. They steal paintings in exchange for big money, then give their earnings to charitable organizations. This has been working well so far, but they’re about to get in over their heads, and it’s the player’s job (in theory) to help get them out.
Cohabitating in a trendy London loft, the confident, clever, and often sarcastic main characters have a complex relationship that at first suggests the developer’s signature style of modern storytelling is back at work. The loft is an urban twentysomething’s paradise, strewn with wine glasses, wall art that includes a Che Guevara poster, and an appropriate amount of clutter for a shared flat. This is where the game begins, as Cathryn (the cute girl of the bunch) stumbles out of her bedroom. Hung over and depressed about her 30th birthday, she starts snarking at her male roommates, Mike and Bernie, with amusingly snappy dialogue. So far, so good. Then the player gains control over Cathryn, and the problems begin.
But wait... before we delve into the issues, let’s get the nuts and bolts out of the way. 15 Days uses 3D graphics with fixed cameras, and all interactions are performed with the mouse. Though Cathryn is the playable character for most of the game, there are brief portions where you control Mike, Bernie, and Jack Stern, an international police officer looking into the trio’s crimes. You can double-click to make the protagonist run or instantly exit a room, and pressing Esc allows you to skip a long string of dialogue or a cutscene. (As far as I could tell, there’s no way to skip individual lines without jumping to the end of the entire exchange.) Click on an item and you’ll get options to look at it or (occasionally) use it; move the cursor to the bottom left of the screen and you’ll have the option to visit the quick travel map or slide open the inventory. This interface is at times more stylish than functional. Often when I tried to select something from my inventory, I jiggled the mouse and accidentally canceled the action instead of performing it. Even so, the game’s controls are fairly straightforward and I didn’t have any major problems with them.
If only that could be said for the rest of the game. So what’s wrong with 15 Days? By far the biggest issue is that there’s almost nothing to do. Occasionally you pocket an item and there are a couple of standalone puzzles, but the vast majority of the game is spent walking from one room to another in a desperate hunt for gameplay. There are some people to talk to--in fact, once the NPCs get going you can’t shut them up--but these dialogues are far from interactive. There’s no choice about what to ask or how to answer a question, no thought required. You typically only get one dialogue icon at a time, and frequently that “option” seems to have been thrown into the conversation just to keep the player from dozing off. Hotspots are few, and those that exist generally come with extremely obvious observations that weren’t worth the effort you put into clicking on them. The game’s heist-themed storyline has a number of potentially exciting scenarios, yet more often than not, the player sits back and watches what happens. No suspense. No drama. No adventure.
Fans of this genre tend to engage in lively debate over the pros and cons of “interactive stories,” the assumption being that in an interactive story you simply click every now and then to make the action progress, and in an adventure game, you do stuff (solve puzzles, use objects, etc.). I usually fall on the interactive story side of this debate. I really don’t mind minimal gameplay if the story is good and the gameplay that exists is well integrated. I’m sure there are those who will say 15 Days is an interactive story, and that’s why it’s a bad game. I disagree. 15 Days is a bad game for far more egregious reasons than its story (interactive or otherwise).
For one thing, it feels conspicuously unfinished--like a beta version, not a game ready for release. Character animations are at a bare minimum. They sit or stand in place while long conversations go on between them. No hand gestures, no pacing around the room, no camera zooms or cuts reminiscent of that exciting opening movie. This isn’t too unusual for an adventure, but in a game with this much talking, it’s pretty obvious. Even worse, 15 Days is also plagued with animation glitches that should have been caught: characters popping from one spot to another, or hovering a few inches over a chair instead of sitting in it, or making a phone call without picking up the phone. Lip sync frequently doesn’t work, giving the impression of very stylish ventriloquists. There are even questionable camera angles that sometimes result in conversations taking place with one of the speakers entirely off screen. During one lengthy dialogue outside a Paris museum, the camera was focused on an extreme close-up of Cathryn’s butt. (I don’t think it was an artistic decision!)
There are more serious bugs as well. 15 Days crashed on me a dozen times on one PC, and at least as often on another test machine, with multiple message board complaints showing I’m not the only one. These crashes were usually random and easy to recover from, but twice I hit show-stoppers that required me to use other players’ saved games in order to proceed. The game also has some awful audio issues, with the volume of voice, music, and effects jumping around from scene to scene. I prefer to play with subtitles turned off, but the audio frequently dipped so low--independently of the audio settings in the game controls--that I had to turn them on just to understand what was happening. One or two issues like this I could forgive, but 15 Days has so many that it seems clear the production team worked on it just long enough to make it playable, and no longer. It is playable, but we deserve better.Continued on the next page...