If the Tex Murphy games were the epitome of sci-fi trash silliness, then Microïds’ 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 café 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.
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