Category Archives: Adventure

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.

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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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Game Review: Post Mortem

Way back in 2015 (does that count as way back?) I reviewed a murder mystery-adventure game called Still Life.  In the review, I lamented that this game was, unbeknownst to me at time of playing, the second in a trilogy.  Two years later I’m finally getting around to playing the first, confusingly named Post Mortem, thus not hinting at any sort of connection at a glance.

Somewhat fortunately, Still Life (& its direct sequel Still Life 2, which I’ll be playing next) is more of a spin-off than a direct sequel to Post Mortem.  And after going back over the plot of Still Life, I can attest that, aside from introducing one of the main characters from Still Life, there’s no real carry-over that took away from my understanding of the subsequent title.

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So what is the plot?  Post Mortem plants us in the role of Gustav McPherson, who after retiring from being a private investigator moves to Paris in the 40’s to become an artist.  At least that’s his goal, until one evening a mysterious woman enters his studio to hire him to investigate the brutal murder of her sister and brother-in-law.  Possessing passive psychic abilities, Gus received a vision of the murders as they were committed, and thus agrees — the large sum of money the lady offers doesn’t hurt.  The oddly ritualistic murders lead Gus down a trail of occultism and shadowed motives.

Gameplay is very old-school point-&-click adventure game stuff.  You direct Gus around various environments, snatching evidence and clues, talking to people, and doing general detective work.  There’s a strong emphasis on speaking with people, with the correct dialogue choices in some cases affecting the path you take later in the game.  For example, tell the front desk clerk at the hotel where the murder occurred you’re an insurance rep & he’ll let you in, but tell him you’re a detective & he’ll kick you out, blocking off that part of the investigation.  And of course there are puzzles to unlock various evidence or progress the story.


Narrative: I’m not an expert on the subject, but at least to me Post Mortem gives a very strong film noir vibe.  It literally starts with a sultry femme fatale walking into the office of a man who’s given up on being a detective & being all secretive about offering him a very shady, & lucrative, job offer.  From there we deal with corrupt police giving a show of investigating the murders but being useless & corrupt, artist/bar owners who double as fences, street-wise prostitutes the detective falls in love with… all the usual suspects in film noir.  Betrayal & uncertainty abound around every corner, all set within the seedy pretentiousness of old Paris.  When I think about it, a lot of Post Mortem feels like it draws directly from other sources.  First film noir & detective fiction, then from occult fiction.  Towards the end of the game we’re dealing with alchemy, immortality & the Templars, of all things.  It’s difficult to tell if these beats are intentional homages & genuine inspiration or just following a formula.  Things like the Templars & the occult are pretty commonplace today, but Post Mortem originally came out in 2002, before Assassin’s Creed made such themes more salient in gamers’ consciousness.

That being said, I did find the story a bit of fresh air, thanks in large part to Gus’ character.  He’s not some brooding, guilt-&-alcohol riddled PI, as seems to have become the norm in such stories today.  Although the game does mention he’s “retired” for unknown reasons & suggests he fled to Paris, it’s not really focused on aside from giving him reluctance in the beginning.  Though at times he’s written a bit like a wet-cloth, Gus comes across as a generally nice guy who strives to uncover the truth to bring justice to the right people.  He acts like a normal person would, psychic abilities notwithstanding, & thus makes for a good proxy character for players.  He gets frustrated when people impede his path, shows compassion & caring for those wronged, & generally isn’t motivated by greed.  Even the secondary characters, although suspicious at times, never come across as strictly evil or one-note.  They seem, for the most part, like normal people in extraordinary circumstances.

As for the story itself, I felt it came across a bit disjointed.  I feel this is a standard adventure-game problem, where you know your overall goal, but end up randomly bouncing around places for so long that by the time you get what you need to progress your goal, you’ve forgotten it.  For example, early on I recognized that I either needed the old newspaper-pen routine to get a key from a locked door.  By the time I got them, I’d forgotten what I needed them for.  Sometimes it is more straight-forward, like being told by the police you need a sketch of the suspect so you go see the barman who saw the guy.  There were also times when Gus seemed to know things before I’d asked or come to conclusion I’d never thought of.  Some questioning branches repeat, such as learning from mystery woman about the Head of Baphomet, only to ask another question later about it as if he’d never heard of it.  Or toward the end when I took a picture of a dead guy, which I presented as evidence that Gus claimed proved he couldn’t have been the murderer because he’d been dead for too long.  Which was true, but at no point did the game suggest this was the case.  I think, to that end, another big problem is that Gus never comments or speculates on anything he sees during the investigation.  He’ll write notes sometimes, but the game never prompts you to look at what he’s written, so a lot of times I’d find myself doing things without understanding the connection but blindly stumbling into it.

Overall, while I appreciate the mystery itself & some of the characters, the story could be told more competently.

Score: 3


Mechanics: I mentioned it in the last paragraph, but I’ll mention it again here as it’s both a narrative & mechanical fault I had with the game: the lack of feedback between game & player.  I really didn’t like that Gus never comments aloud on anything during the investigations.  Although the game keeps track, it’s entirely up to the player to solve the problems.  On its own, that’s fine, but they need to make the gameplay aid that.  I wish that whenever you read a file or Gus makes a note about something, it would automatically take you to his notebook to see what he wrote.  You don’t even automatically read anything you pick up, or know what it is until you examine it in your inventory.  This caused a major problem for me at one point when the game bugged out & I couldn’t read any notes.

This seems to be a common bug people experience after picking up de Allepin’s file from Dr. Kaufner’s office where once you’ve read the file you can’t read any other note but will see “cannot locate source” messages in your notebook.  After this point, I was limited to only being able to access the coroner & journalist notes.  This doesn’t prevent you from playing further, but without Gus’ notes you’ll be running blind.

I found that, after picking up the book on Templars, if I went to the notes by selecting the book, instead of pulling up documents from the menu, I could access my files appropriately.  Not sure if that will work using other documents to access.

Gameplay revolves mostly around two activities: talking to people & solving puzzles.  Sadly, I was disappointed that the game favored the former.  I play adventure games for the exploration & puzzles, which Post Mortem pushed to the background.  Yeah, a detective would ask a lot of questions to witnesses, but I would’ve preferred a better balance.  In fact, puzzles only come into play in the last third of the game, & there were only five in total (including one that basically auto-solves once you’ve found all the pieces).  It’s a shame because they were pretty good puzzles, taking a bit of brain power to solve without being impenetrable.  There was a nice variety, as well.  I would’ve liked more detectiving in this detective story.

Two other mechanics that I’ll briefly touch on, because I liked them, were that you can control your view with the mouse rather than having to click to turn in any direction, & that the ending you get depends exclusively on how well you investigated & collected evidence.  There were a lot of things you can collect along the way that doesn’t play into any puzzle or seem to help the case progress other than confirming the player’s conclusions.  But it’s all worth it in the end to go through the final big dialogue tree, presenting all this evidence you’ve been collecting up to that point.  It’s very satisfying to be like, “Bam!  Here’s their passports showing they weren’t who they claimed.  And here’s a written statement from the person who hired them.  And here’s the strange powder you found in the murder room that I made in the dead man’s house.”  Actually, it’s kinda funny how lax the law was in Paris in the 40’s or whenever this is set.  They don’t seem to care about me claiming to break into places, including crime scenes & influential banker’s houses where I claim to have found the man dead, or withholding evidence.  My modern sensibilities were like, “Why did you pick up the murder weapon with your bare hands?”

Overall, while there were some really nice puzzles in the game, as well as some chuckle-worthy shenanigans, I felt the lack of feedback between game & player & emphasis on sending me chatting with random people rather than looking for clues dragged the experience down.

Score: 3


Aesthetics: Obviously, since this game was made in 2002, the graphics look dated.  For the time, they were probably on-point.  Other games made during this time were Morrowind, Hitman 2 & Eternal Darkness, & I think the graphics matched those games.  The cutscenes still look pretty nice, as do most of the environments, even if they look a bit blurred now.  I found the character movements generally pretty smooth, although the characters posture oddly at times.  During dialogue, Gus always stands with his hands clasped together like he’s holding a case — which he is in cutscenes but never in dialogue.  They also have a lot of repeated stock movements, but at least they always fit with what the person was saying.

The audio I don’t think held up quite as well.  There’s nothing wrong with the background noise or music, & I liked that each environment has its own theme.  But the acting… my God.  The voices themselves are fine, & usually the acting is okay.  But there were quite a few scenes where I was laughing at their attempts at emotion.  *affect dry tone* Yes, Gus, I can tell you’re really broken up over your friend’s brutal murder.  You sound like you’ve been crying for hours, Bebe.  But bless them, they’re trying.

Score: 3


Replay Value: Low to moderate.  As I said, there are some different paths based on choices, but they all lead to the same end.  There are basically four endings, a good & bad based on if you found all the evidence, & then two twists on each of those outcomes based on your last choice.  I’d say save your game at the start of the final act &, if you don’t have all the evidence, go find it.  Otherwise, there’s not much point to playing a second time.

Score: 2


Breakdown

Untitled

Final Score: 3

Final Word: While there are some nice elements to Post Mortem, there are definitely better adventure/mystery games out there.  I can’t see this really capturing anyone’s attention, & it feels like nothing will be missed by skipping it.  If you can get it as a bundle with the Still Life games, maybe check it out.  Otherwise I’d pass.

– GamerDame

Title: Post Mortem
Consoles: PC
Rating: M
Developer: Microids
Publishers: Microids, The Adventure Company
Release Date: Febuary 28, 2003

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