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 Microïds 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 Microïds 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

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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