“It’s a quiet, peaceful place and yet, somehow, foreboding. For it abounds in haunted spots, twilight tales, and local superstitions.”
Such is the description of the eponymous town from Disney’s animated The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. While the two settings are not connected, it was this very quote that ran through my mind as I played EQ Studios’ The Painscreek Killings, a thoroughly engaging and equally challenging first-person 3D adventure. Not for the faint of heart, or the faint of hardware requirements, this complex murder mystery places you in the midst of a tangled story that will keep you theorizing even when you’re not playing.
You play Janet Kelly, a journalist sent to the deserted town of Painscreek. In 1995, Vivian Roberts, the mayor’s wife and one of the town’s most beloved and respected citizens, was murdered. The case was never resolved and it signaled the death knell for the community itself. Within a few short years, the town was abandoned and is now being auctioned off, but your editor has sent you to take one last look into the events surrounding Vivian’s demise. And so you enter Painscreek, population none in the summer of 1999, with the task of discovering the murderer, motive and weapon used.
When you begin the game, you are warned that “there are neither helpful quest markers, nor any form of handholding throughout the game.” Save for a brief tutorial when you first arrive at Painscreek, which guides you through searching the sheriff’s office for a key to the town gates, this statement is absolutely true. This is a challenging game in which you have to scour your surroundings carefully, pay attention to the relationships between characters and locations, and above all, take notes. Lots and lots of notes. I really felt like I was conducting a proper cold case criminal investigation into Vivian’s death. This included making my own real life bulletin board with cards for the different people and locales involved, with strings connecting them together.
Most of the game plays like the searchable areas in the later Tex Murphy entries, presenting you with 3D scenes to carefully comb through. You need to rifle through drawers, crouch down and look under tables, and snoop around the sides of cupboards. Mostly you’ll be hunting for keys or combinations to locks, or for the ubiquitous diaries that the townsfolk kept, detailing the sordid events of murder, adultery, embezzlement, and mental instability that the seemingly quiet town was hiding. Directly manipulating drawers and cupboards to find what I needed really helped suck me into this experience.
Painscreek is an eerie place to wander through alone. Leaves blow along its deserted streets and empty building interiors suggest that people just walked out, never to return. Unwanted furniture, half-packed moving boxes, and various other odds and ends of discarded refuse are your only companions in the different structures you enter. It’s as if life just stopped here. The creepy mood is further enhanced by the sometimes melancholic, sometimes foreboding musical score, which consists primarily of a lone piano with only occasional embellishments from other instruments.
While exploring you’ll visit a number of locations such as the inn, a tiny church and its adjoining cemetery, the mayor’s opulent mansion, a hunting cabin in the woods, and of course the hospital. Not to spoil anything, but the hospital certainly gave me a jolt as I was roaming its shadowy corridors when… well, you’ll just have to see for yourself. Many of the settings have had their power shut off. Fortunately, early on you’ll discover a flashlight, which is a necessary tool for searching those structures that are otherwise shrouded in darkness. In case it isn’t apparent, Painscreek does an excellent job at making you feel like a complete outsider intruding on the intimate lives of the long-gone residents.
Your detective work will increasingly reveal why the game is named as it is. Vivian Roberts isn’t the only person to have died due to foul play here. A large part of your investigation is spent uncovering the connection between Vivian’s relatively recent death and events that happened twenty years earlier. Before long you’ll find that the body count mounts up rather quickly. This is one of the areas of the game where it’s important to keep good notes, as there are a fair number of connections between the different town citizens. Understanding those relationships is key to uncovering what exactly happened, though to go into specifics would risk spoiling the mystery at the core of this experience.
Your notes will also be critical in helping you determine where to search next. Often you’ll find keys in one part of Painscreek that you have to use elsewhere, but as per the game’s initial warning, rarely is it completely spelled out where you need to go to follow up a lead. I never found any of the connections to be illogical or unfair, though to be sure, this is a game that you have to invest in so you can’t just casually dip in and out or pay only passing attention.
As you proceed, you’ll find that success comes in spurts. You enter a new area that gives you a bunch of different clues to follow that are scattered all about the town. As you dig into these leads, many of them will prove to be dead ends or only offer a few additional details to flesh out the case. You’ll have to keep working through them all, usually getting down to the last one or two before discovering another location that suddenly offers many more avenues of inquiry. For the main investigation, most of what you need to do involves opening locks, either with keys, combinations or the occasional tool such as the useful slim jim which you can use to break into various vehicles. There are also a bunch of side quests that fill in more of the story but are otherwise optional. These tend to be more difficult to access than the central items, such as a particularly well protected safe hidden in a picture gallery.Continued on the next page...