The Tex Murphy adventure game series might now only be seen with nostalgic eyes as something from the inglorious past of the FMV era of early CD-Rom titles, but this doesn’t mean the formula of full motion video with interactive point-and-click elements can’t be done again. Clocktower Games tried to prove the modern games industry wrong by releasing the episodic Casebook games in 2008, but only made it through half of its 6 episodes. Why it failed and what it accomplished can partly be found in the trilogy released 2010 as a retail product by indie publisher Lace Mamba.
As a forensic rookie investigator, the player has to help detective James Burton to solve crimes about kidnapping, suicide, deception, murder and others in consecutive cases.
Episodic crime solving
The quality of storytelling varies from episode to episode. Therefore I’ll provide some short summaries and individual scores:
The free demo, numbered as Episode 0 with the title The Missing Urn, is more like a tame and fun introduction to the series in which Burton’s older generation-family has to be interviewed in order to find out who’s stealing in the house. Despite the lack of some thrills or kills, it’s still fun to watch the characters interact. This game can also be downloaded for free for those who’re not sure if the gameplay and presentation is their cup of tea.
The first proper episode then (Kidnapped) isn’t the most suspenseful or interesting when it comes to plot and characters. The story of a rich couple’s children being kidnapped is rather clichéd and lacks suspense, while the characters are of the typical everyone-has-something-to-hide-or-a-grudge-against-or-affair-with-someone-else variety.
The second one (The Watcher) is much more engaging, because it doesn’t only offer more oddball characters in a high tower, but it also introduces a main villain, a complex story with unexpected twists and turns and some genuinely creepy scenes. This is helped in no small part by the use of different videos the player finds which unlock more mysteries, making looking for clues that much more fun.
The third episode (Snake in the Grass) tries to build up some sort of Twin Peaks atmosphere, but only succeeds in parts. It offers the most variety in puzzles and some interesting insight into the mind of Burton and his relationship to the player, but again suspense is kept at a TV-level minimum. Only the ending and how the player decides on the outcome is interesting to watch and play, making it a bittersweet goodbye to a series which could have been so much more.
It’s interesting to note that the player is constantly addressed by Burton, but is never shown as a character/actor. This makes for both a passive and active experience. In some scenes the camera can be moved a bit to the left, right or up and down when the detective walks, drives and talks to his partner, creating the illusion of being there with him. In other parts of the story characters like the forensics team, one is directly spoken to on a monitor, and in some scenes in which the player is not present, a typical TV-like static camera is used to show Burton interview witnesses or suspects. So despite the repetitive gameplay and some awkward acting, there’s always enough dynamic action to make proceedings more involving.
Watch and play
The gameplay is rather simple and doesn’t require obscure combinations of inventory objects. These have to be photographed, and as there’s a limited number of photographs in the camera, one can only “carry” few items to a van for analysis. But they’re not used in the traditional sense for puzzle solving, because the main objective is to find evidence, connect clues and evaluate people’s statements.
Most playtime is spent walking around closed spaces in 360 degrees and scrutinzing certain key points with a magnifying-glass-kind of close-up. This can get rather tedious, especially when there are a lot of objects which have no importance for the current investigation. As it’s seldom clear by the blurriness of the graphics or simply how items relate to a crime, picking up all sorts of stuff becomes less fun and more of a chore.
Usually Burton gives the player some hints where to look next (either in a video or in a notebook where all the leads are collected), so finding clues isn’t as random as it might sound at first. There’s also a help system in the form of a pyramid icon which prods the camera in the right direction, even though it can’t be compared to a simple hotspot key which highlights the relevant places with text.
Realistic investigation with limited access
Limiting the amount of objects one can take at a crime scene adds another layer of frustration, as it can happen quite often that going back and forth to the investigation van doesn’t progress the story when only trash is found. Despite some adventure gamers’ opinion the hotspot key is like cheating, it’s more than justifying in this case when there are simply too many objects to look at and take away which unnecessarily stops the story in its track.
What happens in the investigation van is a collection of mini games, e.g. for matching blood samples, hair etc., and combining evidence and suspect portfolios. The former can get quite boring after a while, the latter exhausting. Looking for specific patterns in a fingerprint, taking a DNA sample at the right moment while adjusting a lense, or spinning around a blood probe might be casual fun at first, but gets old very fast. As the file with the different evidence and suspects grows with each new discovery, it’s also quite difficult to keep track despite some rudimentary filing system.
Streamlined experience or decision-making lite
The repetitive gameplay is broken up with some interviews between the detective and other people, but they can’t be influenced by the player’s input. Unlike so many other adventure games, it’s not possible to choose multiple questions, although when it comes to confronting the main suspect, one can shake the head or nod by using the mouse sideways or up to give Burton signs in which direction the interrogation should go. This is actually very fun and thrilling, because depending on the person, different tactics have to be taken into account in order to pin the crime(s) on her or him. It can even happen that the prime suspect has to be let go because of the lack of evidence, something which in a way is also taken up in other episodes. Even if it doesn’t have the same impact as The Walking Dead, it’s a nice touch nonetheless, giving the game a non-linear appearance and less a watching-a-TV-show experience.
SD visuals and sounds with something similar to acting
Graphics are a mixed bag, as the video quality varies and the real places to visit can get a bit too blurry when moving around them. Of course these are made up of video compositions, but like the close ups, it’s not often clear what can be picked up or analyzed later. Music is usually in the background and unspectacular, although some more tense scenes are made more suspenseful. Still there’s nothing really memorable about the whole presentation.
The same goes for the acting which can range from the okay, bad to the really bad, but in a way like most FMVs, there’s a certain charme behind the overacting, wild gestures and facial expressions each actor or actress delivers with his/her character. Even Tex Murphy wasn’t portrayed with an Oscar-like performance, but rather because of his clumsiness and dialogue lines remained a memorable character. If this acting would appear on the TV or even on the big cinema screens, people would laugh or want their money back because of its amateurish execution. Maybe it’s because of the reputation of FMVs or simply because there are a lot of oddball characters around that this concept still works for entertainment value alone.
FMV is not dead yet
The Casebook games belong to the niche genre of FMV adventures and try to please casual gamers as well. This works to a certain degree rather nicely, as the individual stories provide a healthy dose of suspense and comic relief, while most of the repetitive minigames are complemented with more demanding puzzles.
There might not be as much interactivity as in other crime adventure games and the acting isn’t up to a high standard (other than TV quality). But the player always feels part of the story and the characters’ world by contributing to the individual cases in both investigating and sometimes hard decision making. The latter one is the most intriguing, and it’s a shame that the series hasn’t been continued. What remains is an enjoyable, even if at times jarring, collection of crime stories which make for an accessible game in the FMV adventure genre.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
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