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.
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.
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
Microïds 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 déja 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.
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