James Patterson is a very prolific writer: since his first novel was published in 1976, he’s written more than sixty books that have been extremely successful. He is particularly well known for his ongoing thriller series like Alex Cross, Maximum Ride and Women’s Murder Club. The latter, about the lives of four women in San Francisco – a police detective, a journalist, a coroner and an attorney – and their work together on various homicide cases, has already been adapted for a short-lived TV show, and was recently launched as a franchise in the so-called hidden object genre, under the creative direction of none other than Jane Jensen.
Working in partnership with Patterson, Jensen served as writer and game designer both for the first title in the series, Death in Scarlet, and the second installment, A Darker Shade of Grey. If you played the first game, which was already one of the more adventure-like casual games available, as Jane herself proudly declared, you’re likely expecting simply more of the same from the sequel. Surprisingly, however, A Darker Shade of Grey has moved even further away from typical hidden object games and into the “lite” adventure realm. It’s still a rather casual adventure, so to speak, but it’s more consistent and full-bodied than many other (superficially) similar games.
Before explaining what really sets A Darker Shade of Grey apart, it’s best to first introduce Lindsay, Claire, Cindy and Jill, the stars of Women’s Murder Club. Players are going to spend time with each of them to one extent or another, slowly but steadily getting to know them, their stories and their feelings. Lindsay Boxer is a strongly-motivated San Francisco P.D. with a penchant for hard, almost impossible cases. She often teams up with Dr. Claire Washburn, a medical examiner with whom Lindsay has been friends for ages. At the local bar where they like to hang out – a hard-boiled version of a Sex and the City girls’ night out – they are often met by Jill Bernhard, a successful district attorney who is the only non-playable character of the series (at least for now) and Cindy Thomas, the youngest of the lot and a reporter for the San Francisco Register.
After solving a string of murders related to human trafficking in Death in Scarlet, the four friends now embark on an even more intricate case, this one revolving around the deaths of two young recruits at the prestigious Jackson-Moore Academy: Winston, who apparently fell from a steep cliff, and Becky, who supposedly killed herself by jumping from a window. While the military is eager to label the deaths as simply unfortunate tragedies, something is wrong with the evidence and the convenient reconstruction of what happened leaves much to be desired, so Lindsay is convinced that something suspicious is going on within the Academy’s walls. When Claire finds traces of chloroform on a corpse, Lindsay starts digging a little more and finds out that someone is smoothing over the cracks, burying proofs and misdirecting police efforts to shed light on the mystery. Could Winston and Becky have known something they weren’t supposed to? When Cindy discovers an odd article from a Charleston newspaper, pieces starts to fall into place and the truth begins to surface.
A Darker Shade of Grey, in keeping with James Patterson’s tradition, is a solid thriller with an interesting political backdrop: there are subtle nods toward the Bush administration and the Iraqi war, but these references don’t feel overdone. On the contrary, they are cleverly intertwined within the main plot, grounded in the real-life experience of these past few years. Don’t expect a cautionary tale or an after-school special, though, because while the political background serves to flesh out the characters and highlight the drama, it never becomes judgmental. This balance between contemporary issues and a classical whodunit is achieved thanks to the successful match of Patterson and Jensen: while the genial Gabriel Knight author is perhaps more comfortable with eerie atmosphere, occult backgrounds and philosophical themes, the combination with Patterson’s often gritty realism is a smooth one. Their synergy has produced a group of compelling characters who demonstrate both Patterson’s curt style and Jensen’s highly elaborate prose. This blend grants a peculiar flavor to these Women’s Murder Club games: plucky and sassy enough to please noir and hard-boiled fiction fans, but also meditative and emotional, like a good psychological drama.
There is no doubt that the heart of the series is its characters, and I’m pleased to say that A Darker Shade of Grey excels in this regard: Lindsay, Claire and Cindy are well-rounded, believable characters that players will start to care about. Not only is their depiction respectful to the book series, which crossover fans will surely appreciate, but their personalities are fleshed out nicely enough that even newcomers will feel like they’ve known them a long time. The dialogue between these characters fluently uses both the correct procedural language and the saucy slang that made the series a hit, and their conversations over coffee or on the telephone sound authentic. This is one of the greatest achievements of the writing: it’s pretty easy to portray an ongoing friendship over a series of novels, but to convey such a strong bond and strikingly illustrate the familiarity of these women over the course of a rather brief adventure is an impressive feat. Unfortunately, the supporting characters like the seamy general and kind-hearted police officer aren’t so generously detailed, and they tend to feel too stereotypical. While this is partly the result of the casual approach of the game, it’s a pity that more time wasn’t spent in detailing the characters outside of the three leads, as this fact somewhat hampers the impact of an otherwise riveting plot.Continued on the next page...