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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Title: Post Mortem
Publishers: Microids, The Adventure Company Release Date: Febuary 28, 2003