Category Archives: PC

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

Leave a comment

Filed under 3, Adventure, PC, Reviews

Is Undertale Worth It?

So, even though I finished Undertale back in February, I had originally decided that I wouldn’t do an actual review.  I mean, what else could I say about this game that the internet hadn’t already?  But with Undertale preparing to release on Playstation 4, as well as physical copies for PC, it occurred to me that there may actually be people who haven’t played it yet.  I mean, it’s been out for two years, & I only just recently played it.  Maybe there are people who only have consoles, & are now left wondering if the game is worth all the hype.

I had a bit of a laugh at the Wikipedia page for Undertale claiming it was a cult video game.  This designation usually refers to games that receive universal praise by those who play it, but aren’t commercial successes.  Think titles like Psychonauts or Okami.  But I find it hard to believe Undertale was not a commercial success.  It has its own merchandise & is getting a physical release on a major console even two years later, for godsake!  The creator, Toby Fox, even commented if he never made another game again he’d be happy.  But, I don’t know.  The games press ate it up, but that doesn’t always translate into what gamers want.  And I could see some people overlooking it due to its presentation.  Not to mention there always tends to be backlash when something becomes unexpectedly popular.  Some people just can’t let others enjoy things (strangely, none of the “backlash” to Undertale says it’s not a good game).

Because of this, I decided to take it upon myself to pose the question that others might be asking after the hullabaloo surrounding the pre-order announcement: Is Undertale worth the hype?

To answer the question briefly: Yes.

Talking about Undertale in any capacity is difficult because discussing what truly makes it good might involve spoiling it, & Undertale makes the most impact when the player goes in blind.  It’s the same problem one encounters when discussing why The Cabin in the Woods is a good movie.  The things that make it so good are the very things you don’t want to ruin for others.

To that end, here is an abbreviated, spoiler-free review:

Undertale is as charming retro RPG that will both elate & devastate players who explore its many secrets.  It easily ranks among one of my favorite games, & serves as an example of why gaming is so good.  I place it among my games that everyone, gamer & non-gamer alike, should play.

Beyond this point, I will avoid story-related spoilers as much as possible.  But I will endeavor to explain my experiences with Undertale that made me love it so much.  Caveat lector.  Let the reader beware.

I first learn about Undertale before it even came out, having up-voted the trailer on Steam Greenlight.  I was intrigued by an RPG that blatantly tells you that you can get through the entire game without killing a single foe.  Saying that you can find a peaceful way through isn’t a spoiler, as it’s part of how the game was advertised.  Lots of games offer non-lethal alternatives, such as by letting you sneak around confrontations, smooth-talk your way out of fights, or put people to sleep.  Generally, these are the routes I prefer to take when offered a choice, because I find them more of a challenge.  Not that I have anything against the catharsis of violence in video games.  It probably doesn’t say good things about my person that I’d rather manipulate people to get what I want as opposed to just punching them.  Then again, I’ve long known I’m passive-aggressive.

Somehow, I managed to avoid spoiling the game for me for a whole two years.  Thankfully, most people are in agreement that revealing too much to the uninitiated would ruin the experience for new players.  All I knew going in was what the trailer showed & that everyone kept saying it was a great game.

I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, because it blatantly announces this fact, but for those who haven’t played yet, regardless of everything in between, I recommend playing a full Pacifist route before a full Genocide route for the best experience.  I imagine that most players’ pattern involved a Neutral run first, kinda doing what comes natural, sparing some enemies but killing others, before trying a full Pacifist then Genocide.

Undertale does a really good job of presenting this moral dichotomy within the structure of its gameplay.  It is very much a “mechanics as story” thing.  It starts all nice & sweet, & then suddenly, “Oh my God this thing is trying to kill me without provocation!”  But then you’re saved & guided through the first stage by this character you really come to like, & they straight out tell you how to do a Pacifist run.  In their motherly fashion, they encourage you to talk to the monsters that attack you, to befriend them & let them live.  They’re just confused.  They don’t know better.  The first area does a stellar job of teaching you everything you need to know about the mechanics of this world, including the moral choices.  During this hand-holding session, you don’t have to listen.  You can still beat monsters up.  But even when I later did a Genocide run, I didn’t let them see that.  I played along so they… wouldn’t be disappointed?  Considering I knew I’d kill them later, what was the point?  To catch them off guard?  To hide my wickedness?

Undertale does a good job of bringing out the best & worst in the player, as we’ll soon see.

Then comes the first boss fight.  And like any good boss fight, it tests what you’ve learned up to that point.  Not just about the fighting mechanics, but of your understanding of this world.  It tests your resolve, whichever way it might lean.  They make it clear they don’t really want to fight you, & are doing this in a misguided effort to protect you.  They haven’t really done anything wrong.  What will you do?  You’ll either need a cold heart to Fight through the opposition regardless of who they might be, or you’ll need to hold strong to your desire to Spare even when the enemy hurts you without justification.  Whatever you choose, the first area culminates beautifully (or horrifically), & sets you on your path.

Knowing it was an option in the beginning, I wanted to do a Pacifist run the first time, but I struggled at this first boss.  I knew not to fight back, but I didn’t know how to convince them to stand down.  Before that point, there were things you could say, Acts to perform, to make enemies lose the will to Fight, but not with the boss.  So I foolishly struck back, thinking I could wear them down until they’d relent.  Then I felt guilty.  Then I Reset.

Then the game remembered.

When characters started saying I seemed familiar to them, that they already knew my responses, I knew I was dealing with a game that was going to mess with me.  I haven’t tested it as fully as others might have, but I doubt there’s much you can do in the game that it won’t remember & call you out on.

From that point on, I endeavored to Spare every enemy, even though it becomes a far harder task as the game progresses.  I’ve heard some people levy that as a criticism against Undertale; that they feel the message is a bit, if not wishy-washy, simplistic & naive.  That not everyone in the world will be nice to you if you’re nice to them.  But… isn’t that the point?  Yeah, it many cases the player would be justified in fighting back.  I’m just trying to get through this level unmolested, yet monsters keep trying to murder me.  But in our own world, don’t acts of selfless kindness and compassion make us take notice?  The world can be a cruel, uncaring place.  But when people see someone being kind to them when they know they don’t deserve it, it gives them pause.  Our human nature is inherently selfish, so rising above that takes a great act of will.  That’s why it stands out to us so much when we see it.  The exact same is true in Undertale.  The monsters view humans as the enemy, as creatures without compassion, and behave according to their prejudice.  It is through the player’s Acts of Mercy that they come to realize their mistakes.

That is what Mercy is — giving someone something they don’t deserve.  Showing kindness when the person has done nothing to deserve it.  Withholding a punishment someone justly deserves.  The more I thought about it, the more I was impressed with the message (even if Toby Fox wasn’t intending it to go that far).  It’s not a message we hear often nowadays, where it seems like any action, no matter how deplorable, can be justified.  It’s one of the things humans are best at, finding an excuse to salve our consciences.  No one’s to blame for anything.  We’re all just victims of something: our genetics, our environment, our situation… Too few people stop to say, “No, you can do better than this.”  In fact, the game outright says that several times to the player if they take the easy way out.  You can do better, even if you don’t think so.

Through Mercy, through failing to respond in the way the monsters expect, the player helps bring out the best in everyone.  Everyone gets the chance to have what they’d always dreamed of…

And then I True Reset.  Despite the game blatantly asking, “Are you sure you want to do that?”  Dude, this is the best ending you can get.  Whatever you do past this point will only be worse.  And if you just want to get the same best ending, are you really willing to take away their happy ending, making them go through all that over again, just for the selfish joy of playing savior again?

But, I mean, it’s just a game.

Right?

When all is said & done, it only made matters worse that I took away everyone’s happy ending just to turn around & kill them all.

I’ve played a lot of games that revel in carnage.  Sometimes you’re the good guy, & sometimes not.  I won’t deny there’s a sort of glee that comes from being an a-hole in games, especially when they don’t want you to be.  I enjoy my Dooms & Saints Rows.  I’ve even taken the evil route in RPGs like Jade Empire & KOTOR.  But I don’t think I’ve ever had a game made me feel as bad as Undertale.

It started off innocently enough… well, as innocently as a Genocide run can be.  There’s a joy in taking out enemies in a single hit.  In becoming this god of destruction.  And I’ll freely admit I felt some satisfaction in taking the motherly first boss by surprise.  But then, I killed the second boss.  And oh my God, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a piece of crap in my entire life.  Maybe it’s because I got to know the characters through my Pacifist run (hence why I recommended playing it first), but I felt so bad after the second boss fight.  Rip out my soul, Toby Fox.

And I know that’s the point.  That’s sort of the point of no return.  It’s like, if you can kill this character,  who you don’t even have to Fight, then you are evil incarnate.  And the game past that point reflects it.  It doesn’t even play out the same if you’re just doing a Neutral run.  I like that there’s a distinction.  In a Neutral run, you might Spare some enemies, but you might kill others.  Maybe they’re too hard to Spare, or you’re in a hurry, or just tired of dealing with them.  And the game acknowledges that.  It will flat-out ask you, “Did you do all you could?”  But with the Genocide route, several characters flat-out tell you you’re going down a dangerous path.  I didn’t even realize this until I saw someone point it out, but in a Genocide run, you’re literally chasing monsters down to kill them.  It’s true.  To do a true Genocide run, you have to wander around the area before the next boss fight, killing everyone, the random encounters becoming fewer as you go, until you get a message that there’s no one left to fight.  You are literally cornering these monsters as they’re trying to evacuate.

I felt like crap after that second boss, & kept moving on thinking, “Please, someone kill me!  Give me a fight too strong that I can’t beat in a single hit!  Give me an excuse to stop playing!”  Thankfully, the game provided, & after wiping out the next area, the third boss annihilated me.  And rather than being angry, I was elated.  “Yes!  I don’t have to keep going!”  And I haven’t been able to pick up the game since, not even to reset.  I’m afraid of characters remembering.  And don’t think your conscience is safe by watching someone else play a Genocide run, because the game will call you on that, too.  I swear I was watching a Let’s Play, & a character commented something to the extent of, “Or maybe you’re too much of a coward & are watching someone else kill everyone, you sicko.”

And when all is said & done, that is what I appreciate most about Undertale.  It is a story that, at its core, could only be told through a video game.  Every mechanic has some justification for existing in the story.  It gets in your head.  Nearly every action we take for granted under the justification of “it’s just a game” is acknowledged.  I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that before.  It would be the equivalent of reading a book where a character in the story suddenly realizes that they aren’t actually in control of their actions, but that they’re being dictated by someone writing out the story for their own amusement.  Undertale knows it’s a game, & therefore knows its being played.  And it points its finger at the person behind the screen & says, “You, player, are the villain.”  There is no separation between player & proxy.  You are always in control, for good or ill.

– GamerDame

Leave a comment

Filed under 5, Editorials, Indie, PC, Reviews, RPG, Uncategorized