STATIC: Investigator Training review
Does the prospect of exploring an old, creepy mansion pique your interest? Does the thought of searching every dark corner for signs of ghosts with only a flashlight as your guide send shivers of delight down your spine? If so, STATIC: Investigator Training could be right up your alley, although even hardcore ghost hunters may find more frustration than spirits in this independent FMV offering.
STATIC is the second adventure by Ethereal Darkness, but it’s a much different game than the indie developer’s earlier Lost City of Malathedra in just about all respects. In this game, players take the role of Julie Masters, an amateur investigator trying to join the Berkshire Paranormal Society. She is summoned to North Adams, Massachusetts, at the company headquarters in the famed Houghton Mansion. There has been documented paranormal activity in the mansion, and the Berkshire team wants to put Julie to the test to see how good a ghost hunter she can be. The whole game takes place in a few rooms of the mansion and its surrounding grounds, and really just consists of Julie trying to discover signs of the haunting for herself.
After a lengthy dialogue sequence introducing Nick and Lindsey (head of the company and the receptionist, respectively), then a historical slideshow about the mansion’s 1914 family tragedy, the real game begins with players choosing from six available gadgets to use in the quest: a camera, camcorder, thermometer, voice recorder, pendulum, and an EMF (electro magnetic field) detector. Each device offers different types of “evidence”, some of which is stored like inventory items. Players are allowed only three of these gadgets to play through the game, and depending on which you pick, a different part of the mansion’s haunted story comes to light. Once you make your selection, there is no way to go back and choose differently, so be sure about the ones you want.
You can complete the game with any combination, but some instruments, like the thermometer and the EMF meter, are pretty useless for learning new information. Seeing that the temperature has gone down suddenly is all well and good for alerting you to a ghostly presence, but it doesn’t reveal anything beyond that, and there’s no way to record your findings. The camera, camcorder, and voice recorder do trigger actual evidence and offer much more insight about the mansion’s ghostly residents. The pendulum does not add any physical evidence, but it’s a very useful tool for discovering additional background. You’ll have to look closely for it in the tool case, though, as it’s quite small and easy to miss amongst the bigger gadgets. Besides the three devices, players are also given a comm piece to stay in touch with Lindsey and a flashlight, even though the lighting in the mansion is perfectly fine without it.
The basic search for evidence provides most of the gameplay, yet it can be very aimless. Most of the player input consists of using each device in each room to see if it catches any paranormal activity, but there’s really no indication of where the device is best used. Going room to room, clicking on hotspots or right-clicking each device in random areas is about all that the “puzzles” consist of, with a few exceptions like one short sound puzzle and an item-arrangement challenge. When new evidence is collected, a nice little noise alerts the player, yet you’ll repeatedly need to go back to that same room and use the same device again, with no reason to think that’s what you’re supposed to. There’s no way to gauge your progress or get any feedback on what you’re missing, so you’re left simply trying all available actions in each room, time and time again. Picking gadgets is about the only freedom players get in the game, and which you select will determine its length. If you choose the ones that do not record evidence, there isn’t as much to do, while taking other devices can lengthen the experience somewhat, even introducing a new puzzle or two. This offers a certain degree of replayability to the game, as you’ll need to play twice to see everything, but the experience would have been much better off making more strategic use of all six devices in a single playthrough.
The graphics in STATIC are a mixed bag. The game opens with a black and white cutscene with bits of its own static, which really sets the mood and establishes a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. A rare third-person supernatural adventure, the game itself uses FMV and real actors, providing a sense of reality that a cartoon or even CGI could never achieve. Some spooky lighting and a foggy outdoor visit to the cemetery add to this eerie ambience. Unfortunately, some glaring problems during gameplay detract from the visual appeal. The rooms within the Victorian-era mansion are rather plainly decorated, and it is sometimes too easy to distinguish objects that Julie can interact with, since they seem to stand out from the rest of the background more than they should. The live actors, meanwhile, feel like cut-outs pasted on the game scenery. Julie’s movements seem very unnatural, and filmed gestures are poorly looped and spliced together; Nick can drink coffee and talk at the same time, and Julie smiles when she walks towards the camera, then quickly goes back to a serious face when facing left or right. Even Julie’s highly visible ankle tattoo is misplaced, as the video clips between locations clearly show the tattoo on one ankle only, while in-game it’s on both.
Fortunately, sound in the game is generally excellent, with subtly ominous music in the background that never distracts. One aspect I must single out for praise are the recordings from the voice recorder. When successfully using the instrument in a room, players hear ghostly whispers amongst the white noise in the background, and the game does a wonderful job of making these voices understandable yet still mysterious. I’ve played many ghost hunting games where voice recordings are nearly unintelligible, so it was a treat to be able to hear what the ghosts are supposed to be saying. The dialogue among the living is also fully voiced, and Julie provides comments for most hotspots, though there aren’t very many. The acting in general is pretty good, though you may want to click through the dialogue subtitles instead of focusing on the badly lip-synched close-ups of the characters as they speak.
While the game is more hauntingly atmospheric than scary, there are a few “pop out” moments that are tastefully done, giving a small fright without being overused. Unfortunately, other issues tend to break the eerie mood on occasion. Most noticeably, although STATIC is a classic point-and-click adventure, controlling Julie is sometimes a hassle. She’ll often get stuck on objects in the room when trying to move her, and even when travelling through open territory, frequently she’ll simply stop partway through. You can minimize this by holding the mouse button down or using the arrow keys, but neither of these alternatives should be necessary. The interface has other inconsistencies as well, such as hotspot clicks that generate no result or commentary.
Regrettably, the plot of the game also leaves a lot to be desired. Gamers looking for a deep, twisting storyline will be disappointed with what STATIC has to offer. Assuming you pick the devices that reveal it, the haunted backstory revolves around Mary Houghton, the daughter of the town mayor who owned the mansion in the early 1900s, and you try to determine how she died and under what circumstances. As you learn right away, Mary, her father, and the family chauffeur all died in a related pair of tragedies, and the ghosts give clues about what really happened, so it’s up to Julie to piece together these few cryptic messages, which she eventually does by herself without any input from the player.
Characterization in STATIC is equally threadbare. Besides wanting to join Berkshire Paranormal and loving coffee, we learn next to nothing about our protagonist. This would be okay and even expected in first-person games, but there should be more character identification in a third-person game like this. Julie delivers all of her lines in a deadpan voice that conveys nothing about her, and she shows hardly any personality despite the extraordinary circumstances she’s investigating. As a playable protagonist, there is hardly anything to like or dislike about Julie, and I found myself much more attracted to the ghosts and their stories.
The receptionist, meanwhile, would rather be doing her nails than her job, which is apparent whenever she conveniently misses seeing many paranormal activities that she’s supposed to be watching for. And when she does notice, she comments through your earpiece that she doesn’t know what’s going on either. Julie has to pass by Lindsey in person quite often, and every time she does, they go through the same few lines of dialogue without prompting, which gets quite annoying when it happens for the tenth time. The banter between the two is supposed to be sarcastic and witty, but ends up feeling dry and irrelevant. The few interactive conversations consist of standard dialogue trees, with options being grayed out once picked, but any new options are listed below them, so you’ll have to keep tediously scrolling down to find fresh things to say. One conversation with a haunted radio, however, is quite refreshing, as it doesn’t answer every question Julie asks, and players don’t know who is talking on the other end.
In all, I really can’t recommend this game even to hardcore ghost hunting gamers. I was very excited for this adventure, since I love games about paranormal investigation. But while it does have a few good ideas, STATIC just has too little gameplay and too many unpolished aspects to interest many gamers, and the lack of interesting characters or compelling background further compound the problems. There’s a certain amount of replay value, although a single playthrough with the right gadgets will give you most of the story, and the game itself is very short, delivering just a few hours of gameplay at most. It’s inexpensively priced at the developer’s website, but interested gamers might want to test out the free demo first. It’s independent of the final game and doesn’t feature Julie, but it does introduce Lindsey and Nick, and offers a suitable sample of the full adventure to come. If you get past that test and are ready to move on, perhaps you’re ready for some further Investigator Training after all.
An unpolished effort that mars its own potential, STATIC: Investigator Training tries to spook players with ghosts, but will probably scare more away with its aimless gameplay and uninteresting story.