Does it ever feel like media is actively trying to keep new participants from getting involved? Whether games, books or movies, half the time if you didn’t pick up the series when it first started you have to do research just to figure out where to start. What’s wrong with numbering sequels appropriately. Sure, it’s not the catchiest title, but at least I know the order. Unless there’s a number at the end (or nowadays, a colon) I don’t assume it’s a continuation. Unfortunately, this issue now means when I played Still Life, I’ve actually started in the middle of a trilogy.
Still Life, despite the name giving no hint whatsoever, is a spin-off/sequel to Post Mortem. In it, you switch between the role of two characters. The first (& main) is Victoria McPherson, a FBI agent working to hunt down a serial killer in modern-day Chicago. The second character you play as is her grandfather, Gustav McPherson, who was the protagonist of Post Mortem. Through reading his journal, Victoria realizes that her case is identical to the one her grandfather worked as a private investigator in Prague in the 1920’s, investigating the brutal murder of prostitutes in a Jack the Ripper-esque fashion. The story bounces between the two, following Gustav’s hardships in Prague & Victoria’s efforts to find the copycat killer before he kills again.
Still Life is an old-school adventure mystery game. You run your mouse over the screen looking for objects to interact with. Some items can be examined or picked up for later use. You’ll find yourself visiting various locations to sift for clues, speaking to witnesses and solving puzzles to reach the next step in your investigation. Often the route to the next stage is blocked by a puzzle of some sort you’ll have to solve to progress. And as you switch between characters, you learn that Gustav has a sort of passive psychic ability, allowing him to get glimpses of the crime that occurred.
Narrative: Despite my giving it grief for being a sequel without my knowing, Still Life is actually more of a spin-off. I didn’t even know it was a sequel until I pulled up the Wikipedia page after I’d finished the game. The only real connection to Post Mortem that I saw was that it has Gustav. As far as I read the plots themselves aren’t related, so I can’t really take points off for that. Overall, the story was decent. Like any good mystery, the killer isn’t obvious right away, and there are few red herrings thrown in. Although I found the plot progression to be a bit stilted at times, I was curious enough to keep going. I found the use of switching between the two characters an interesting way to link the two sets of murders together, & liked that the devs stuck to switching between chapters to make sure each character had decent progression. The two main PCs are likeable enough, although some people may be put off by Victoria’s sense of humor. However, having worked with officers and other emergency responders, I can tell you it’s a pretty accurate representation of the attitude these people have to develop just to protect their own psyches. That being said, I did find two faults with the narrative. For one, the game ends on a cliffhanger, & we don’t find out the identity of the killer. Because there’s another game to wrap the series up, which I’ll assume reveals the mystery, I can’t get too upset, but it was still disappointing. At least tell me who the killer is, even if I couldn’t charge him. Also, the progression felt a bit too linear, even for an adventure game. It felt like the game was holding my hand through the experience. Maybe I’m just used to adventure games being a bit less direct, & it’s not like it’d make sense for a FBI agent to get sidetracked doing favors for someone to earn the next clue. So overall, I felt the story a bit slow-paced & linear, but interesting enough to keep me going. Score: 3
Mechanics: As someone who’s played many adventure games, overall I felt the mechanics a bit simplified. Of course the point-&-click aspects are the same, but everything felt straightforward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it means you’re rarely lost or unsure what you’re looking for. But it’s fairly obvious what items can be used, & there’s only a few things you can actually interact with. Also, I found it strange that you have no control of the conversations you have with people. In most games, you’re given a variety of topics you can choose to ask people about, with various responses that may or may not be relevant. But in Still Life, you just keep clicking the mouse to progress the dialogue with little control of what’s said. And while I suppose that’s more realistic, it just struck me as odd. I also have mixed feelings about the game’s puzzles, which are the heart of any adventure game. One the one hand, I liked that most of the puzzles made sense & had obvious solutions assuming you paid attention. It’s said of adventure games the main aspect is searching for various definition of keys to open various definitions of doors, & it’s no less true in Still Life. The solutions make sense. When I had to overload a circuit panel, I instantly thought of the taser I’d just picked up. And there is a nice variety to the puzzles. However, some of the puzzles are painfully obtuse or frustrating. Three words: sliding block puzzles. I wish there were more forensic puzzles. What’s the point of having one character be a FBI agent if I don’t get to examine the clues I find. You only get to use the forensic station twice, and that’s just dusting for fingerprints. I think they missed a big opportunity in not having a more investigative approach. Why can’t I help with an autopsy or something? And why not more crime scenes? The game cheats a bit by letting us be involved in the crime scene in the very beginning, photographing evidence, using black lights & luminol to find hidden messages… A major missed opportunity. Score: 3
Aesthetics: As a game from two console cycles ago, the graphics aren’t the best. The pre-rendered backgrounds are quite nice. I particularly liked the architecture, even if I’m sure some of the modern buildings are unrealistic. Who has three huge stain glass windows on the front of their house? I doubt even Chicago’s DA has that in real life. The cutscenes are pretty good, although they do have a grainy quality to them. The in-game models are also a bit blocky. And I noticed several of the NPCs mouths opened disturbingly wide when they talk. It reminded me of The Grudge, like they were going to try to eat my character’s face. The music’s okay. It really excels in the scenes where it’s creating tension or unease. There are a few section where nothing was going on, but the music made me think, “Let’s get out of here now.” The voiceacting is hit or miss. At best it’s passable, at worst it’s gratingly stereotypical. So overall, I’d say presentation is average. Score: 3
Replay Value: Low. I don’t see any particular reason to play it more than once. Even if there’s a section you like, you can replay cutscenes after you’ve unlocked them. Score: 2
Final Word: While a bit dated & not the most memorable game, Still Life could serve as a good introduction to adventure games to those who’ve never tried them or found other entries into the genre a bit hard to get a handle on. While not the best example, it’s serviceable, & typically comes bundled with the rest of the trilogy for a reasonable price on Steam.
Title: Still Life
Console: PC & XBox
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: April 15, 2005