Review for Impostor Factory
Adventure games by Freebird Games
To the Moon is one of those games that by now requires little introduction; anyone with an interest in deep, emotionally powerful interactive narratives has at the very least heard of, if not played Freebird Games’ 2011 indie darling themselves. The tale that started with that game and continued with 2017’s Finding Paradise (and to a lesser extent, 2014’s spin-off bridge episode A Bird Story) is back for its third full-fledged installment, and at first glance it appears that nothing much has changed. The RPG pixel art aesthetic remains highly pleasing, the formula tried and true, with the developer’s storytelling style firmly established, and there’s a decided comfort in the familiarity of returning to the same kind of experience once again, certain of what awaits you on the other side of Impostor Factory’s title screen. Then the game begins, and the proverbial rug is pulled right out from under your feet.
To be sure, there are many recurring aspects evident right off the bat. Impostor Factory looks and plays almost identically to its older siblings. But as the game opens, it’s surprising to find no sign of Drs. Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts, the main characters from the previous main entries in the series. The two physicians, whose job it is to infiltrate and alter the memories of terminal patients in order to fulfill that person’s life’s wish, even if only in their mind, are nowhere to be seen at first. Also absent is any trace of a sick or elderly client whose memories might play host to our intrepid duo.
Instead we’re introduced to a new character: Quincy, a young man standing in the pouring rain in front of a gloomy mansion in the middle of the woods. Apparently he’s been invited to a dinner party here, though he seems to have no recollection of why, or even whose house he’s just arrived at. Entering the manor, Quincy soon meets his hosts, the elderly Drs. Haynes and Yu, in their cozy upstairs study. Rather than acknowledge him, the pair promptly exits the study, leaving him there to chat with Lynri, a young lady who’s also a guest at the party. It’s here that the game does a one-eighty and carves out a unique niche for itself within the greater series. As Quincy steps out of the study, he’s greeted by a grisly sight: his hosts lie sprawled on the floor, savaged, surrounded by spatters of their own blood.
This unexpected revelation sets up a large portion of what follows, immediately making Impostor Factory quite distinct from its predecessors. Whereas the earlier titles featured plenty of humor with no small number of sad undertones, a murder mystery thriller is new territory. Kan Gao, lead designer and writer since the franchise’s inception, is clearly flexing some creative muscle this time around, changing up the narrative formula significantly. And stumbling upon two corpses isn’t even the full extent of it. After examining the bodies, bloodying his hands in the process, Quincy makes a beeline for the bathroom, scrubbing them vigorously at the sink. Then, stepping back into the main foyer, he makes the shocking discovery of his hosts alive and well, awaiting him at the top of the mansion’s grand staircase. Yep, turns out this is actually a time-travel whodunit, with a Lovecraftian end-of-the-world scenario thrown in late in the game for good measure.
The story does eventually tie back in with the tale established in To the Moon and Finding Paradise, but it requires no shortage of storytelling gymnastics to bring everything back around to Drs. Neil and Rosalene. As a result, this third installment in the series initially feels tangential; without spoiling anything, it functions largely as an aside to further flesh out some plot threads that were previously only teased. That’s not inherently a negative, however; the storytelling is evolving, avoiding stagnation in an established pattern, and the script’s ability to hook players remains as strong as ever, even if the overall atmosphere is darker and more mysterious.
Nor has Gao neglected the requisite emotional heartache, a facet that’s become almost a trademark of Freebird Games. But where previous entries baited players into anticipating a bittersweet moment near the end – these games deal with patients on the threshold of death, after all – the set-up and payoff this time are less predictable. The emotional climax doesn’t have the same game-long build-up, but when it occurred it hit me much more viscerally. It’s less a moment of cathartic release and more of a harsh punch in the gut. Suffice to say, you’ll know it when it happens.
It’s worth noting, however, that the overall game and emotional moments in particular do suffer just a little from the absence of singer/songwriter Laura Shigihara, a series mainstay until now. That’s not to say that Kan Gao, doubling, as usual, as composer as well as designer, doesn’t bring his considerable talents to bear in this regard as well. In fact, the diverse emotions Impostor Factory elicits – from hopeful optimism to loss and sorrow, to intrigue and horror – make a wonderful canvas for Gao to exhibit his skill. Heart-wrenching piano compositions make way for upbeat tunes that accompany a budding romance and unnerving pieces underscoring the murder mystery. But it’s the absence of Shigihara’s vocals that is most keenly felt, as they’ve always served as a surefire prompt for waterworks during the earlier games’ most sob-worthy moments. And for all its obvious musical aptitude, Impostor Factory is unfortunately missing that one particularly stirring tune that’ll get the game stuck in your mind for weeks after you’ve completed it.
In the same way Impostor Factory signifies an evolution in Freebird’s storytelling and musical portfolios, so too do its graphics represent a step forward while maintaining the same sprite-based 16-bit RPG Maker appearance the series is known for. It’s not a different look by any means, but the overall aesthetic has been refined even further. The amount of personality the team has been able to instill into its pixel art has always been impressive, but each passing game has marked an incremental improvement over the last, either by consolidating the amount of on-screen attention grabbers, tidying up clutter in outdoor sections, or providing characters with even more one-off animations.
Impostor Factory is no exception, and seeing the animated details at work over the course of the game is a joy to behold. The wooded manor is opulent and glitzy with its lush carpeting, shiny tile floors and gleaming bathroom fixtures. There’s a vibrant lavender field that becomes a key narrative location over the course of the game. Even the more mundane locations (flats, laboratories, libraries) feel carefully designed and not merely cutout templates. Occasional splash screens are still present, allowing for a more hand-painted look at particularly ambient moments. The 16-bit cast of sprites is expressive and well-animated, with its own situational animations, like Quincy waggling a cat toy on a string to lure a troublesome feline out of his hiding place.
While the presentation is, by and large, a step forward for the series, the process of actually playing the game has been streamlined to a surprising degree – and that’s saying a lot, given how light on gameplay the franchise has always been. On paper, the game flows about the same as the others have before: from a bird’s eye perspective, players control Quincy, walking around the environments and interacting with others via WASD keyboard inputs, mouse clicks, or a gamepad. The addition of a dedicated run button is appreciated, though things like tedious backtracking aren’t really an issue here. Due to the murder mystery angle and how it impacts the game’s first act, slowly setting up tension and atmosphere before the more familiar series elements enter the mix, it’s easy to fail to notice that there is little to actually do here other than move from room to room and watch the plot unfold – there are no puzzles to solve or inventory items to collect.
Eventually, however, Impostor Factory settles into something a little more akin to its predecessors, and this is when the familiar memory links – tiny orbs representing particularly important elements of a subject’s past, whether material possessions or experiences – return to the fold. Whereas previously it was always Rosalene and Watts collecting these links in order to proceed deeper into a patient’s mind, this time it’s Quincy doing the collecting, though why this is and whose memories he’s interacting with are left intentionally nebulous (until later in the game, anyway). Just like To the Moon and Finding Paradise, this game unfolds essentially as a series of connected scenes that must be cleared by finding all memory links in order to destroy the barrier closing off the doorway to the next scene.
The way in which this whole process is accomplished, though, is far more stripped-down than it’s ever been. Without exception, each memory link is triggered by simply walking through the area in which Quincy finds himself and watching the various memory fragments that play out along the way, slowly piecing together the game’s story. Previously some memory links would require a small amount of environmental interaction, but this is no longer the case. The quickie puzzles that needed to be solved to finally unlock the jump to the subsequent memory have also been axed wholesale. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, as they certainly didn’t add a whole lot to the overall experience, but it does deplete one of the few “gamey” elements from Impostor Factory. As a result, it’s more of a passive experience in terms of player interaction than even its forerunners.
Rather than simply iterating on the same established formula, Impostor Factory feels like a slight departure for the series. The whole narrative set-up has a completely different vibe, resulting in an uneasy atmosphere, and switching to a new protagonist affords the story the space it needs to breathe and establish its own identity. You could even start here if you haven’t played the previous games, although the tale eventually does circle back around and joins up with the series’ overarching plot, tying up the odd loose end, so newcomers will miss out on the relevance of some key late-game revelations.
Existing series fans will enjoy another well-written and nicely presented adventure, once again showcasing Freebird’s trademark wit and humor in between the more emotionally powerful moments. And though it cuts back on its focus of Eva and Neil themselves, you’ll nevertheless gain a deeper understanding of them over the course of the game’s three- to four-hour runtime, with the door left wide open for a future installment to deliver closure to their own narrative arc. Despite the further streamlined gameplay this time around, that should be more than enough for series stalwarts to return to the well, even if it quenches a thirst of a somewhat different variety.