Creepy action-adventures: “Shadow Man” (PC)

The serial killer with supernatural elements theme isn’t only part of adventure games like Post Mortem or Still Life, but it can also be found in Acclaim Studios Teesside’s atmospheric horror action-adventure Shadow Man, based on Valiant Comics’ series.

Shadow Man (PC)
(USA 1999, developer: Acclaim Studios Teesside (defunct), publishers: Acclaim Entertainment (defunct)/Night Dive Studios, platforms: PC, N64, PS1, Dreamcast)

Michael LeRoi as the Shadow Man has to prevent the Five, a group of psychopathic serial killers, to bring Armageddon with the help of a mysterious man calling himself Legion who unites them under the slogan “For we are many”.

Comic book-like characters and storytelling
One doesn’t have to read the original comic books in order to get a good idea of what Shadow Man is all about in terms of plot, character development and world building. While the dialogue is full of hammy writing and the plot doesn’t move at a very engaging pace due to the non-linear gameplay, one still feels for Michael LeRoi’s personal attachment to both the world of the living (Liveside) and the dead (Deadside) as well as his emotional connection to Mama Nettie, the priestess who gave him the power to travel between the worlds. His little brother Luke whose teddy bear is essential for going back and forth between the worlds might not be the most subtle narrative device, but it’s enough to give the player some kind of direction. There’s also Jaunty, a top hat wearing snake with a skull for a head who serves both as a wisecracking and advice-giving friend of Mike, serving as a comical sidekick one can return to and receive often amusing comments and sometimes even hints.

The antagonists are also quite imaginative, as they have their own little, twisted background stories that can be read about in investigation files Thomas Deacon, a detective who communicates with Nettie in the background, provides. Without going too much into detail, suffice it to say that their names alone, e.g. Video Nasty Killer or Home Improvement Killer, are unsettling enough, their diary-like descriptions of their role to play disturbingly poetic, and that the real life worlds they can be found in are creepy, especially in the case of the latter whose domain is full of sick pictures on walls and flies buzzing around what appear to be leftovers from his victims. Despite being quite original compared to other serial killers, as can be seen in Still Life 2 or even Heavy Rain, their screen time and interaction with the Shadow Man are too short to leave a lasting impression. The religiously-inspired plot also lacks a bit of suspense, with only a few cutscenes progressing a story that was promised to be epic but is overshadowed by the action and adventure elements.

It’s a big, big, dark and ugly world
What leaves an impression though is how the worlds Mike visits to are constructed and also how each new location is introduced with poetic, vivid descriptions, which might stand in stark contrast to the rest of the writing, but give each their own dark theme. While there are certainly similarities in Deadside between rivers of blood and endless corridors in Liveside buildings which outstay their welcome as well as a rather small selection of enemies, the player is soon lost in both worlds, feeling wonder and horror at the same time. The levels are massive and take a lot of time to pass through which is mainly due to the fact that many paths are closed until one can open their Shadow Gates. This can only be done by shooting Govis, containers which hide Dark Souls, with the Shadow Gun and therefore leveling up one’s Dark Souls power. Collecting these is no easy task, as one has to make oneself familiar with the big world and remember all the places one couldn’t reach before without unique abilities.

An on-screen map or an indication where souls or even Shadow Gates can be found is sadly absent, although one can check how many Dark Souls have been collected in these areas. Only a visualization of Deadside in a printed poster form and the level-select screen with Luke’s teddy bear hint at the vast world where it’s easy to get lost among the interconnected passageways, bridges and ultimately locked and unlocked Shadow gates. The Temple of Life, Fire, Blood and Prophecy doesn’t only are puzzles in and of themselves with variations in their design, i.e. platforming, lever and button pushing or fighting are the order of the day. After completing these trials, Mike receives special powers, e.g. walking through lava, swimming through acid rivers or climbing water(blood)falls among others. Not every ability is necessary to complete the game, some additional weapons (like a machine gun or shotgun) and accessories (like a shield) are optional, but it really helps to find them all before going into the final tough boss battle.

Freedom of choice and pain to inflict or receive
It’s completely up to the player where to go and which souls to find. The same holds true for Cadeaux, small ceremonial pots in the form of masks, that give Mike a boost in health every time he offers 100 at altars in the Temple of Life. While it’s possible to confront some of the Five early on in the game, one won’t defeat them, as Mike can’t use his Shadow Gun in Liveside, a requirement to free them from their earthly bounds and their Dark Souls. Only much later after being in possession of specific objects that can again only be found behind more powerful Shadow Gates is it possible to walk through Liveside as well to acquire souls that were immune against the normal hand gun before.

If going through the same locations again and again without sufficient hints or a map wasn’t difficult enough, then all this is made even more difficult by re-spawning enemies. While these leave orbs to regain health after being defeated with the Shadow Gun, they make level progression more tedious than necessary. Add some very awkward jump, climb and swim controls with the typical camera control issues and you end up with frustrating deaths, as pixel perfect climbing and jump acrobatics are on par in difficulty with an often overwhelming number of enemies shooting or cutting from all sides. The combat system can be customized with attributing two weapons to the left and right hand, but switching between these and keys to open doors or other special objects with a very counter-intuitive inventory system as well as holstering everything in order to climb makes it less fluid.

Despite puzzles being a welcome change of pace, they usually don’t get any more varied than pushing a button here and going to an open passage there, which can become quite repetitive in the already rather long 30 hours journey. Boss fights are also disappointing, even if they have a unique environmental theme, it eventually all comes down to shooting, running away and covering again and again. Considering that they’re presented as unique individuals, they could have used more than different weapons.

Dated but not outdated visuals, still a masterclass in audio
The game still looks and sounds great even today. While the character models and animations aren’t the best, they still have enough details to give them a colorful comic book look. The locations might have unspectacular wall textures and are often indistinguishable with their room and corridor structure, but they’re still visually nice to look at, especially with water and spooky lighting effects, as can be seen in the Bayou area. Special mention has to go to some wonderfully drawn cards that tell the prophecy the Shadow Man has to fulfill and that are aesthetically more interesting than the cut-scenes.

Voice acting is quite good, especially with Jaunty who has a refreshingly unique Irish accent, although Mike’s swearing can become annoying, which is not only the fault of the voice actor being too enthusiastic at times, but also because of the writing, as can also be heard in the case of each individual psycho killer who has a fitting but exaggerated tone of voice. However, the biggest draw to the worlds of Deadside and Liveside is the sound design. Disturbing screams of pain in the distance, wailing children, sounds coming from a music play box, the whirring of chainsaw blades are only a few of the sounds that can be quite oppressive. Music is also appropriately atmospheric and scary, with all sorts of echoing instruments, distorted chorus samples, drum and bass parts among others.

A classic action-adventure with all its highs and lows
Shadow Man is a fantastic game when it comes to the excellent music and sound effects as well as building an unbelievably expansive world with all sorts of memorable characters, antagonists and enemies. The non-linear gameplay is impressive as well. Unfortunately it’s here where the storytelling is left behind in its many narrative possibilities, as there’s simply not enough interaction between them all, i.e. dialogues could have been better written and more rewarding cutscenes added. Controls could also be more accurate, while the levels and boss fights can drag on quite a bit. It’s a very difficult game and shouldn’t be tackled if one is used to less than 10 hours adventures or doesn’t like cumbersome combat and platform elements. If one can live with these compromises and doesn’t mind lots of backtracking, one will find an unforgettably atmospheric action-adventure.

Score: 8.5/10

Buy the digital PC version on
GOG
Steam

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon USA

Official Website

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page:). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG and/or Amazon link and buying the product also helps­čśë.

Posted in Game reviews, Gaming | Leave a comment

Crime Stories: “Still Life 2” (PC)

Can GamecoStudios’ sequel to the surprisingly great storytelling experience Still Life give the McPherson trilogy a fitting conclusion, or does Still Life 2 try to be too much with its survival thriller plot and gameplay?

Still Life 2 (PC)
(France 2009, developer: GamecoStudios, publisher: Microïds, platform: PC)

FBI agent Victoria McPherson investigates the murders of the East Coast Killer who films his victims while torturing them in an abandoned house where Paloma Hernandez, a news reporter, finds herself trying to escape his vicious traps.

To be continued or skipped
One of the biggest mistakes Micro├»ds made with Still Life was to leave the identity of the killer as well as Victoria’s apprehending of him unresolved. While its sequel plays years after and is about a completely different case, flashbacks to the past wrap up these loose ends. It might be disappointing to those who expect a continuation of the intertwining stories of the FBI agent’s and her grandfather’s investigations, but at least the confrontation between her and the killer isn’t left out completely. It’s also connected to the current case, even if these memories trigger a phobia Victoria has to overcome, not the most subtle idea in a psychological thriller.

Saw this before
The main story itself doesn’t have the same emotional impact or uniqueness of previous games, but the plot is still interesting and engaging despite suffering from an over-familiarity with ideas known from the Saw movies or other psycho killer flicks, i.e. the supernatural elements as well as the mix of film noir and historical drama is missing, too. There’s certainly nothing new to the concept of having a psychopath filming his killings and playing sadistic escape-the-room-or-trap games, and being confined to a house isn’t very original, either. However, as the plot develops, new twists and turns add more depth and narrative layers to the thriller than one might expect at first.

Unfortunately one is constantly torn between a suspenseful story and characters who are either too annoying or too shallow to really care about, which partly applies to the killer, too. Despite ripping clearly off the vicious contraptions and dark atmosphere of the Saw series, one shouldn’t expect any gory details. Torture devices aren’t put to graphic violence use despite some uncomfortable situations, although reading through the various FBI files and learning more about the background story of the killer still provides enough gritty realism.

Conversations between police and FBI agents as well as Victoria’s phone contact, the coroner of the first game, help to unravel the mystery behind the identity of the killer and what happened to the victims. They also distract from the fact that most of the 12-hour playtime is spent in one place with two playable characters of which Victoria again plays the major part. Although the house itself is quite big with its various floors and basement parts, one can’t shake the feeling that this confined space was chosen because of budget reasons. Compared to the various locations in previous games, walking through the same doors without a map can become tiresome and boring, especially with very questionable puzzle design.

Tried and tested, but reinvented and flawed gameplay
Post Mortem was quite experimental with multiple solutions of puzzles and alternative dialogue paths, so it’s refreshing to see that after a rather conventional adventure title, Still Life 2 tries to mix things up a bit. Again one can use different approaches to problem solving with various items. It’s not an overly complex system, but at least it gives the player a choice to tackle problems differently. Unfortunately inventory management becomes a big issue, as it’s only possible to carry around a limited number of items. Depending on their size, one even has to rearrange them, so going back to specific storage containers like a box or a wardrobe is necessary in order to pick up others. Of course this is very reminiscent of the old Resident Evil titles in all their cumbersome “glory”.

Tension and annoyance
Survival is a permeating theme with many instances when a timer counts down before something awful happens to the main characters. This is certainly an interesting idea to infuse more terror in the player, but with the fiddly inventory management system and the awfully slow movement of the characters, it turns out to be more annoying and frustrating than anything else. Without the high production values of Heavy Rain or even Heavy Rain Chronicles: The Taxidermist, the standard object combination and environment interaction template feels really out of place when one is tasked to deal with a psychopath or escape deadly traps.

Using forensic tools as in Still Life also doesn’t work as well as it should be. Having more at one’s disposal, their initially motivating use at crime scenes soon turns into a chore. Collecting blood, hair, chemical substance samples, comparing them with a computer database is fun in small doses, but if one has to do this in a house literally covered with evidence, it feels more like pixel hunting work that is only necessary in order to trigger an unrelated event somewhere else, e.g. a phone call or a colleague finishing work on a closed door or computer system. All these problems combined make for a very jarring gameplay experience, which is too bad, because the potential of moving around in a creepy house with a vicious killer is there, while using computers with the right passwords, circumventing traps and security systems as well as using mostly logical object combinations fits the story progression.

Looks and sounds out of place and time
Using a real 3D graphics engine in an adventure game is commendable, but if the artful backgrounds of the original games are replaced by dirtier but also less interesting textures and the few locations hint at a rather low budget, what is left isn’t very nice to look at. Character models and animations weren’t great in the former games, and their inferior quality shows even more here, especially with additional clipping, movement and other graphical glitches. It’s not that the engine is bad or the graphics have terribly aged in comparison to old first- or third-person shooters, but what’s on screen is simply forgettable. Only the atmospheric or tense cutscenes are great, as is to be expected from a Micro├»ds game.

Sound design also leads to mixed results with some synth but no orchestral variety in the musical arrangements that are sadly not always synchronized with the action on screen, i.e. some dramatically loud and disturbing sounds should evoke a feeling of panic and only end up to be rather annoying with a repetitive loop. Voice acting is also more miss than hit, with the killer’s and the reporter’s performance being the weakest and most amateurish examples.

A strong story in a mediocre game
Still Life 2 is something of a missed opportunity and an example of what happens if gameplay stands in the way of an actually quite good story. While it’s nice to see developers try out different things with puzzle design, one should also be aware that a restricted inventory system doesn’t really work in the genre. Alternative puzzle solutions and two playable characters are more like it, although these mechanics are again held back by some unnecessary backtracking and too many timed sequences in which one can die. Add some sub par voice acting, unspectacular graphics, and the end result isn’t a particularly good game, but more like a disappointing conclusion to a great series of games, even if the plot itself sets itself apart from most other psycho thriller stories the more it develops.

Score: 6.5/10

Buy the digital PC version on
GOG
Steam

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Official Website

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page:). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG and/or Amazon link and buying the product also helps­čśë.

Posted in Game reviews, Gaming | 1 Comment

Crime Stories: “Still Life” (PC)

Three years after Microïds breathed new life into the first-person adventure genre with non-linear film noir mystery thriller Post Mortem, Still Life brings two more investigations with a third-person view into the serial killer spotlight.

Still Life (PC)
(France 2005, developer/publisher: Microïds, platforms: PC, Xbox)

In 2004 Chicago, FBI agent Victoria McPherson investigates a series of brutal murders of women and soon finds out that her grandfather Gus(tav) McPherson had a similar case with prostitutes in 1920 Prague, done by a mysterious killer in a black robe and a mask who seems to continue his work even longer than possible.

Intertwining storytelling and memorable characters
Suspenseful and above all intertwining stories in adventure games aren’t common, with most not having the right pacing when too much time is spent on one protagonist and less on the other, as can be seen in Technobabylon. But games like The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery or Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned show that it can work to play different characters in their respective chapters without confusing or boring the player. Still Life is even braver in its attempt to bring two very different timelines and protagonists together, i.e. Gus’ investigation in the past makes sense of Vic’s case in the present. Narrative timing is perfect, so that one is only fed sufficient information in each part without characters or plotlines outstaying their welcome. The few locations which have to be revisited can feel repetitive, but one always comes back with new information or items to use.

Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that the story is even more engaging than in Post Mortem due to the thrilling action set-pieces. These aren’t part of the gameplay (one can’t even die) but of the cut-scenes, while the generally moody atmosphere, similar to the best of serial killer thrillers, adds to the tension as well. This doesn’t mean that one is simply occupied with chasing a killer in two different timelines, but that one also meets many characters who’re memorable and better written than in the former game. While the prostitutes and crooks in Prague showcase stereotypical attitudes, their background stories and speech make them more than just people to talk to in order to progress the story.

A snobby painter with a penchant for doing portraits of prostitutes, a coroner who has bad hearing and a wicked sense of humor or a coach driver who uses crows as pets and sits in a dilapidated building on a throne are some of the illustrious and eccentric characters, while Gus himself is a much better developed and tragic character one can sympathize with than in the former game. Victoria almost appears to be less interesting as a tough FBI agent, but she soon grows on the player with her emotional connection to Gus. Chicago looks to be less romantic and diverse than Prague, but a police officer who continuously has to throw up at crime scenes and a coroner who has almost the same kind of humor as the one in Prague are still likeable enough.

Artful brutality
Again one shouldn’t be easily offended by vividly brutal and disturbing imagery, as the murders involve multiple stabbings and downright sick beatings of women. This unsettling, twisted and dark atmosphere isn’t made any easier to cope with when one is tasked to inspect the mutilated bodies and go through bloody, dimly lit crime scenes or even a modern brothel with some perverse decoration. However, despite the violence and nudity, the way how these controversial themes are connected with art and even puzzle design shows that they’re not used gratuitously, as they’re ultimately a part of the unusual storytelling.

Linear discussions
As in every good crime story, one has to ask people about topics in order to learn about new leads and locations. These dialogues are very linear, so unlike its predecessor, Still Life feel more like reading a book. It’s true that one can either click on the left or right mouse button during conversations for alternative dialogues, but without actually knowing what Gus or Vic will say, this is a rather pointless feature, especially since it doesn’t change the story in any way.

More but not necessarily better puzzles
Puzzles only have one solution, and even if it’s possible to go to different locations and do things in a non-linear order, certain events have to be triggered before Gus or Vic pick up an item or do a specific action, which can become quite annoying with few hints provided. The puzzles themselves are hit and miss as well with some unnecessary logic puzzles, e.g. a devious chain ring sliding mechanism and an annoying lock picking mini-game. The pinnacle of mind-numbing plot stoppers is when one is tasked to bake cookies according to a recipe that uses the terms of human emotions instead of the names of ingredients, an unnecessary even if slightly memorable example of bad puzzle design.

However, there are some very inventive puzzles as well, some requiring Gus to switch between the past and the present state of a crime scene to detect differences in the scenery, although just like the spot-the-differences-in-two-paintings puzzle in Post Mortem, one can’t have the scenes side by side. Vic also makes some nice use of forensic tools in order to collect fingerprints, blood and hair samples or reveal hidden messages on walls. So even if the quality of the puzzles isn’t always up to scratch, they’re varied enough and usually fit the story progression.

Looks like a painting, but it’s still a game
Micro├»ds games are known for their beautifully drawn backgrounds in addition to aesthetically impressive cut-scenes, and Still Life is no different. Both Prague and Chicago look great, the one with its romantic but also dark scenery, the other just as gritty and as dark as the cinematography in a David Fincher movie. Water, lighting effects and even some rain and snow add to the atmosphere, while the video sequences with their fast cuts and unusual camera angles are generally more dramatic than in any other adventure game, turning the game into an even more intense experience despite the rather slow puzzle solving and long dialogues. Special mention also has to go to the many artful paintings which don’t only look great, but play an essential part in plot development.

Sound d├ęja vu
The sound design is accomplished as well with some varied orchestral set-pieces, reminiscent of Syberia‘s soundtrack, in Prague and darker synth music with even some rock music in Chicago. The only downside is the shortness of these musical arrangements, so that the looping sound snippets get quite annoying. Voice acting as well as lip sync and character animations are above average, although some characters, like an Afro-American police officer, overdo their lines and facial expressions a bit too much so that it often looks more comical than dramatical.

A great story disguised in an old-fashioned game costume design
Still Life doesn’t do anything new in terms of puzzle design or adventure game mechanics. At times these actually slow down story progression. However, just like Post Mortem, one should go on, as there’s quite a unique and suspenseful story with an amazingly creepy atmosphere behind all the logic and object combination puzzles. Playing with a walkthrough might be a no-go for most players, but in order to really appreciate all the artful execution of a serial killer drama that spans many years and plays in two very different places, even beginners and gamers who aren’t overly familiar with the genre, should consider this approach. Otherwise they’d miss an unforgettable experience that unfortunately ends with a questionable cliffhanger that would only be resolved many years later in another sequel.

Score: 8.5/10

Buy the digital PC version on
GOG
Steam

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Official Website

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page:). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG and/or Amazon link and buying the product also helps­čśë.

Posted in Game reviews, Gaming | 2 Comments

Crime Stories: “Post Mortem” (PC)

If the Tex Murphy games were the epitome of sci-fi trash silliness, then Micro├»ds’ first-person point-and-clicker Post Mortem is a welcome return to the darker side of film noir with a supernatural twist.

Post Mortem (PC)
(France 2002, developer/publisher: Microïds, platform: PC)

In the 1920s, retired American private detective and now painter Gus McPherson is asked by mysterious French woman Sophia Blake to find out why her sister and brother-in-law were found decapitated in the Orphee Hotel in Paris.

The 1920s have never been more mysterious and bloodier
What starts out to be a mix of film noir and serial killer thriller soon turns into something much more sinister, as the story plays with concepts like reincarnation and eternal life as well as conspiracy theories. Reading through various documents and manuscripts is essential to understand all the references and even if the plot gets a bit too nonsensical towards the end, it’s refreshing enough to stand apart from other adventure games narratives.

The writing isn’t consistently great, as can be seen in rather long dialogues, but McPherson and the people he meets have a certain charm to them, making them distinct in their own little ways, exemplified by a police officer who’s more interested in good French wine than being helpful at the front desk of the police station or an old lady who’s into clairvoyance and is quite eccentric about her dog and record collection. However, they’re not so well written that they stay in the mind for too long, as they’re simply not given enough time to talk more about their backgrounds. The same can be said about McPherson whose only distinctive feature is the superficial struggle of being a painter who wants to leave his private detective years behind, i.e. he lacks any other sympathizing characteristics.

Despite flaws in character development and some minor pacing problems, there’s a tangibly creepy atmosphere, as everything plays in the evening and at night. So even if the first-person view with its static backgrounds doesn’t necessarily add to immersive suspense and horror, the dark places one visits do. One should be prepared for some bloody and disturbing imagery as well as nudity, though. The sense of place is great when it comes to evoking the Parisian ambience, e.g. with the hotel in which the murder happened or a caf├ę McPherson constantly revisits for new leads. More locations are unlocked during play so that one isn’t confined to just one street.

Investigative fun for two, sort of
What makes the game even more varied is a second playable character, a suspect of McPherson who turns out to be someone else entirely. Despite being added rather late and only being reserved a smaller part, it’s a great narrative device and leads to interesting puzzles as well. One shouldn’t expect anything like time travel or interconnected puzzle chains, though, as one doesn’t switch between them on the fly. But the way how both characters help progressing the story with two timelines is intriguing.

Puzzling non-linearity and (un)originality
Puzzle design is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, one can find various solutions to problems by using items, depending on certain decisions the two characters make, e.g. asking or answering different questions in dialogues or using items in different situations, leading to multiple endings as well. On the other hand, some dialogues are out of context, most of the emotional responses of McPherson don’t have any effect, while the quantity and quality of the logical conundrums isn’t great, either.

There are some genuinely annoying puzzles like spotting the differences in a painting made even more aggravating by the fact that one can’t compare the fake with the real picture side by side, or finding hidden symbols in another painting by candlelight which tasks the player to slowly move the mouse cursor over every inch of it and even waiting until some very small detail appears out of the background. Drawing the picture of a suspect with descriptions that aren’t always accurate and without any hints of what to change is another case of flawed puzzle design. The rest of the puzzles is logical and usually fits into the story, although finding the right objects to use is rather difficult, as they’re often indistinguishable from the backgrounds.

Painting the picture and sounding the atmosphere alarm
Visually, the game has some great art direction in atmospheric cut-scenes and also with aesthetic in-game graphics, although the moody atmosphere only comes from painting-like backgrounds with the use of warm colors. It’s no Syberia or Syberia II (from the same developer and publisher), but every location has enough small details to be more than just a lifeless place one can walk around in. The characters are nicely modeled as well, although their repetitious hand and facial movements are outdated.

At least the voice acting is quite good with only a few instances when the lines don’t sound quite right. The orchestral music is great and adds to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the pieces are very short and repeat in a constant loop so that they can become quite annoying when one stays too long in one place.

Memorable experience for all the right and wrong reasons
Post Mortem is a unique adventure title, as it mixes the paranormal with film noire and thriller elements to great effect and is engaging enough to make the player overlook its shortcomings in gameplay. Despite trying to present the player with various options to choose his own way through puzzles and dialogues, these are flawed in design and writing. The rather complicated and also slowly driven plot requires a lot of attention and patience, so it’s annoying to endure pixel hunting and unfair puzzles. However, with a moody setting, some genuinely creepy sequences, one shouldn’t give up too soon, as the game has enough narrative substance if one has the will to persevere.

Score: 7/10

Buy the digital version on
GOG
Steam

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Official Website

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page:). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG and/or Amazon link and buying the product also helps­čśë.

Posted in Game reviews, Gaming | 3 Comments

FMV adventures: “Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure” (PC)

Kickstarter is a good way to revive old franchises and an even better one to breathe new life into niche genres. So is Big Finish Games’ Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure still relevant in today’s industry and a fitting conclusion to the series?

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure (PC)
(USA 2014, developer: Big Finish Games, publisher: Atlus, platform: PC)

Private detective Tex Murphy wakes up in his office with seven years from his memory erased, and while he tries to find out what happened to his sweetheart Chelsee, unsolved murders and the lost technologies of scientist Nikola Tesla crop up as well.

Forgetting and remembering the past
Using amnesia as a narrative device isn’t the most imaginative, but like every Tex game, it has a tongue-in-cheek effect on the main character and the people he meets. The player shares the likeable private detective’s confusion of what happened in the lost years and why he became alienated to people around him, adding a layer of suspense to the intriguing story. Unfortunately, the mystery is only slowly unraveled, with strange connections to even weirder people. Of course this is what a mystery story is all about, but when only more questions are raised with fewer answered, one can get rather impatient. This isn’t helped by the nonsensical background story of electricity, ghosts and mistaken identities, although the locations Tex visits are varied enough to provide as many opportunities to meet oddball or creepy mutants as well as dangerous femmes fatales.

Meeting all the old faces of past games with the same actors is a joy for those who remember them, with newer, memorable NPCs thrown into the mix, e.g. a transvestite who has a fetish for pain or a little man who is a hacker and a big fan of Tex’s detective work. Dialogues are again witty, even if a bit too silly, but at least they’re more enjoyable than the serious conversations in Tex Murphy: Overseer, already exemplified by Smart Alex, a smartphone functioning as an inventory, contact list, and provider of hints, that comments on Tex’s actions and social encounters. Acting is unsurprisingly not the best, but just like in Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon, the exaggerated facial expressions, gestures and intonation add much to the B-movie fun. Special effects and make-up masks fare much better, as they’re surprisingly well done, even if the illusion of being in those places is often destroyed by the use of actors and actresses in CGI-backgrounds.

Nostalgia kicks back in
However, the game often tries to deliver too much fan service, e.g. when one finds all the Kickstarter backers put into photos in various buildings with Tex commenting on their appearance and facial expressions. This makes the rather large world even more difficult to traverse when looking for usable objects. There are also many points of interaction which open up videos from past games. This is obviously a nice nostalgic touch, especially with the higher video resolution, but there are simply too many, so that one is always interrupted while looking for important objects to pick up. The same attention to collectible detail can be found in comics which don’t only have amusing pop culture reference titles like Citizen Candy Cane or Candyman Rings Twice, but which also unlock an additional chapter at the end of the game, which isn’t an easy feat, considering how well hidden they sometimes are.

Talking as in the good old days
The detective adventure gameplay is as old school as it gets, with most of the time spent on interviewing people about all kinds of topics, unlocking new locations and looking for clues. While this can get tiresome with long conversations, at least the relevant topics and optional questions are marked as such. Unfortunately Tex’s replies to questions or reactions in certain situations aren’t as well structured, as they’re very confusing with cryptic descriptions making it very difficult to predict the outcome of these conversations. Unlike the very linear narrative experience of Overseer, there are 3 alternative story paths to follow, depending on the player’s choices. This doesn’t only result in 5 different endings, but also in other puzzles, adding to replayability.

Puzzling as in the bad old days
Puzzles are varied and despite a slow start with very few of them, the difficulty and number increase exponentially. Unfortunately, the quality isn’t always of a high standard, with the usual suspects like the bring-people-over-water-to-by-abiding-to-specific-rules game or stepping-on-stones-with-symbols-and-avoiding-others conundrum. Even if these serve as tests in a secret society initiation, they’ve been done to death in other games and lack originality. More problematic, in addition to out-of-place frustrating stealth sequences, are the tiny objects which are hidden in a way that one doesn’t have any other choice but to look in every nook and cranny.

Additionally, there are some locations, e.g. a research facility, which are so expansive with various levels that it’s difficult to keep track where to use objects which are scattered all over the place, sometimes even requiring to go to other locations. This was a problem in The Pandora Directive and it’s even more prominent here. Of course it makes puzzle solving more cerebral in a way, but one shouldn’t confuse complexity with annoying backtracking and obscure solutions. Fortunately, one can choose between two difficulty settings, the easiest of which makes it possible to skip puzzles, while the use of hints is just as helpful as the flashlight that highlights points of interaction, something that is much needed in the pixel hunt.

Tired looks and bombastic sounds
The first thing one realizes is how amazing the full motion videos look, thanks in no small part to a 2K Blu-Ray-like HD resolution never before seen in the FMV genre. What this means is that every pore of the actors and actresses can be made out, the colors are vibrant, and even the make-up masks are convincing with all their small details. The second thing one notices is how unspectacular the actual in-game graphics are. They’re obviously better than in any other Tex Murphy game, but compared to contemporary 3D games, the textures are older than a decade, and only a few lighting effects and building structures can impress. It’s acceptable, considering that the game can be run on older machines without any problems, a welcome service to those fans who’ve been waiting for the return of their favorite adventure game character and haven’t upgraded their PCs to play the latest FPS or other graphically impressive games. Musically, epic orchestral parts and more subtle arrangements make for a varied, but also a bit overblown production.

Good fan service, but with outdated gameplay and storytelling
Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is everything fans have been craving for. The main character might have aged as well as the in-game graphics, but the nostalgic feeling of revisiting a well-crafted, well-known and well-loved sci-fi world is strong. Maybe too strong for some, as the game still suffers from the same pixel hunting, logic and other same-y puzzles as the other games. The many references to past titles can also become very annoying and confusing for new players, while the plot and character development are even more difficult to follow without knowledge of previous titles. Even for seasoned players, the story takes quite a long time to make any sense, while the witty dialogue isn’t always up to scratch. All in all, the game is partly successful in continuing and concluding the story of Tex Murphy, but it won’t necessarily win over adventure gamers who’re more accustomed to accessible puzzle design, sense-making storytelling and good in-game graphics.

Score: 7/10

Buy the digital version on
GOG
Steam

Official Website

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page:). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG and/or Amazon link and buying the product also helps­čśë.

Posted in Game reviews, Gaming | Leave a comment