Game Review: Still Life 2

Sequels can be a dicey prospect.  Even if you leave a game on a cliffhanger, there’s always a chance that by the time you get the next installment out, no one will care about it.  Either they’ve moved on, lost any interest in the series, or completely forgotten what happened in the previous installment.  As a developer, how do you get around this?  Well, you could always have the next installment only tangentially related to the previous.  This appears to be the route Microids took with Still Life 2.

Still_Life_2_cover

If, like me, you need a reminder of the first Still Life’s plot, it follows FBI agent Victoria McPherson attempting to track down a serial killer who works as a modern-day Jack the Ripper.  It also ended on a cliffhanger, with the killer’s identity never revealed.  So fans might not be happy to learn that while Still Life 2 is a continuation of Vic’s story, it actually focuses on a new mystery & a new killer.  Picking up several years later, we find Vic on the trail of another serial killer dubbed the East Coast Killer, who instead of taking nods from Jack the Ripper, bases his M.O. on the Jigsaw Killer, capturing women to put them through dangerous tests all while filming them.

Along with the similar plotline, Still Life 2 carries over most of the same mechanics as the previous games.  It’s a point-&-click adventure game, with the focus being on collecting clues & evidence.  Players will also switch between characters throughout the chapters.  Whereas in the previous game we switched between modern-day Vic & her grandfather Gustav (chasing a similar killer in Prague), this time we switch between Vic & Paloma Hernandez, a news reporter captured by the killer.


739463-still-life-2-windows-screenshot-working-too-hard-on-the-caseNarrative: So let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: Still Life 2 does complete the cliffhanger from the previous game.  I find it strange how the devs went about it.  It feels like they didn’t know how to make a full second game just based on the first killer & were more interested in making a completely new adventure, but realized they’d get flack if they didn’t address the cliffhanger.  The identity of the Chicago killer in the first game is revealed through various flashbacks, & it did end up being someone I recall suspecting from the first game.  And while I appreciate that, although not specifically related to the current case, the events of the confrontation do have an impact on Vic’s overall story, I think the dev team went awry by having the first level in the game being a direct continuation of Vic’s search for the Chicago killer, ending with her finding some condemning evidence to their identity, then jumping several years to Vic being on the East Coast Killer case.  It’s very jarring, & honestly took me several minutes to piece together through conversations that this was, in fact, years later & completely unrelated to previous events.  I can’t help feeling that nothing would be lost by having the entire flashback section being one level as part of the prologue.  Nothing would be lost in terms of story impact or Vic’s character development.

The story as a whole feels a bit disjointed.  The main narrative is fine in terms of structure.  I think the problem is their insistence on plopping me down in the middle of an ongoing investigation & then telling me all the background information that, conceivably, Vic would already know because she was a part of it when it occured.  I have no problem with using in medias res, which is a literary technique where you start the story in the middle of the overarching plot (think the start of Amnesia: The Dark Descent), but that only really works if the character we’re viewing the story through is learning the story just as we are.  Otherwise, background exposition just feels like a hand wave.  Like, the devs knew they had to show the confrontation with the Chicago killer.  They couldn’t get away with just having a support character question how Vic was doing after finding out so-&-so was the killer.  So why did they think it was okay for the main plot?  It’d be the equivalent of reading a book where the author suddenly says, “Oh, by the way, this thing that happened off-screen is really important but I’m not going to show you & I’m only bringing it up now because I say the info is important at this point.”  It’s just bad writing.  Not only that, but because this background is important in shaping our understanding of the killer & their motives, we don’t get a good feel for the history between them & Vic, so every plot twist or reveal has no impact.  Toward the end I was like, “Who is this person & why should I care?”.

All that being said, the actual plot as we have control over what unfolds is at least compelling enough to get players through.  I did enjoy how it bounces between Vic & Hernandez, creating this odd sensation of trying to save myself one minute & then trying to find where I’ve been taken the next.  In a way, there’s two parts to the game: finding clues to uncover the killer, & then trying to get out of their torture devices.  For the most part, the characters were likeable enough that you want to save them.

Overall, while the plot as it’s presented is a compelling murder mystery, the devs were in too much of a hurry to tell their story to properly establish it, leading to lack of investment on the player’s part.

Score: 3


21556.1Mechanics: There are a few mechanics that, I feel, help set Still Life 2 above most point-&-click adventure games.  One is the forensic tools, which I found a lot of fun to use.  The game helpfully changes your cursor to blue to indicate you can “investigate” a clue, as well as Vic commenting about it.  There’s enough variety in your tools so that it’s not always the same procedure for every thing, but what’s needed makes sense.  Think there might be fingerprints on that remote?  Dust it, then use the 3D scanner to get a print to analyze on the computer.  Unlike the previous game, the forensics are pretty down to earth.  No using luminol to uncover secret messages.

The game also has limited inventory space, as opposed to most adventure games where you apparently have extradimensional pockets.  This isn’t usually a hassle because there are places you can store inventory, but I would’ve liked a way to drop items on the fly.  I get that the backgrounds are all static, so that’s not how it was programmed, but at one point I thought I was going to have to quit the game because I couldn’t pick up a remote I needed to stop gas from entering the room due to my inventory being full.  I was getting quite mad, because the last separate save I had before getting trapped was an hour ago.  I ended up having to let Vic take damage from the poison & using all my medkits to heal her to make room.  Tip: Always keep at least one space free.

This could’ve easily been avoided by the game automatically removing items that I wouldn’t need anymore.  Strangely, in the first few levels it did.  I don’t know why in the later half of the game it stopped doing this, because it gets you in the mindset that if it’s still in my inventory I might need it.

One surprisingly positive feature was that you can actually die in Still Life 2.  This is a game about surviving traps, after all.  But rather than being insta-deaths, you get a timer countdown.  This really helps add to the sense of panic you would naturally feel in these scenarios.  With enough logic & observation, you can always find way out.  And, as mentioned above, the game does provide healing items if you mess up.

I do have to mention, though, that this can be a buggy game.  It just up & crashed on me a few times, mostly through no fault of my own, it would just crash loading a scene.  One time, though, after examining an item Vic mentioned calling a support character about it, so I went to the phone while still in the inventory screen to call — but I was supposed to exit out of the inventory & a cutscene would play with Vic calling — hence another crash.  There were also a few smaller, more humorous bugs, like Vic going downstairs on thin air or getting a phone call as she entered a room before it loaded.

Overall, Still Life 2 has some mechanics that set it above your typical point-&-click adventure game, but there a few oversights & bugs that hold it back.

Score: 3


1744848125Aesthetics: This is a slightly older game, so the graphics aren’t the greatest anymore.  But it seems to have done away with the odd animations & gestures that were prominent in the previous titles (no Grudge mouths or odd posturing).  I’d say the graphics fit for what they were trying to do, with the pre-rendered backgrounds helping interactable items stand out.  Oddly, it looks like everything has this grainy filter to it, making backgrounds & cutscenes look a bit blurry.  Not sure if that’s a conscious design choice or just part of the engine.

The voice acting is just okay.  During what are supposed to be highly emotional scenes it’s a bit laughable.  And I swear Hernanadez’s voice is always the one that says when an item can’t be used, even when playing as Vic.  The music, while a bit sporadic, is nice, always lending to the feel of the scene.

Overall, somewhat dated presentation, but serves its purpose.

Score: 3


Replay Value: Low to moderate.  I say “to moderate” because according to some sources, if you fail to save Hernandez in the second-to-last puzzle, you don’t get a second chance short of starting a new game entirely.  According to them, even if you go back to a save before the room, Hernandez will automatically die during what should be the killer’s threat.  I haven’t tried this myself, & I’ve only seen one guide mention it.  Otherwise, there’s not much reason to play a second time.

Score: 2


Breakdown

Untitled

Overall Score: 3

Final Word: Throughout the entire experience, I kept feeling like Still Life 2 wanted to be a different game, but was hampered by being tied to the previous entry.  A crime drama is a perfect fit for an adventure game, & this one offers some intrigue.  But the bugs & questionable design choices mean it hasn’t aged well, so I can only recommend it to veteran adventure-game fans.

– GamerDame

Title: Still Life 2
Console: PC
Rating: M
Developer: Gameco Studios
Publisher: Microids
Release Date: August 10, 2009
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Filed under 3, Adventure, PC, Reviews

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