Inside Pulse 12

Review: MISSING Since January (PC)

MISSING since January
Developer: Lexis Numerique
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Genre: FMV Detective Game/Analytical Research

You know me. I’m not a PC gamer. I don’t touch PC games except for three big exceptions: The title of the game is “The Bard’s Tale,” the game is made by SSI back in the 80’s-90’s or it’s a Dreamcatcher published title. I love this company. They game me Dracula: The Resurrection, Dracula: Final Sanctuary, Necronomicon, and many others. And now Dreamcatcher’s offshoot, The Adventure Company has published MISSING Since January, also know as In Memorandum and published by Ubi Soft in Europe.

When I first heard about this game, I was very intrigued. Not only because DC/TAC puts out a constant string of cheap costing games that are high in quality, but because I’m a folklore researcher and cultural anthropologist at heart. And so the concept of a game where you have to solve riddles, figure out puzzles and actually do research in order to foil a deranged sociopath’s plan was something I was jumping at the bit to get my hands on, even if it was a PC game.

There are two things that stood out in my head about this game. The first is that we received a return to FMV games, a genre of video game that had it’s heyday on the venerable and vastly under-rated Sega CD system. Games like Dracula Unleashed, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, Who Shot Johnny Rock, Mad Dog McCree and the infamous Night Trap. Just mentioning these makes me cast an eye over to my Sega CD systems and want to take a quick break to play one quick game of Double Trap. Thankfully MISSING is a wonderful homage to this style of game play, and actually got some very good actors for the roles needed instead of really bad B movie types that gave us a performance even an Ent would define as wooden.

The other thing it reminded me of what that terrible Electronic Arts game Majestic. For those of you not familiar with that game (and thank god you aren’t), Majestic was not a real game as such, but instead used your email, fax machine, web browser, and phone in what is some sort of Alien conspiracy coverup. The game tried to be like the X-Files, and was a highly original idea, but it fell short in every way possible and the end result was exceptionally pathetic. The end result was you are little more than an internet surfing errand boy for the characters in Majestic. Terrible, terrible game that could have been so much more.

So whereas I was excited about the return of FMV style gaming, I was worried that MISSING was going to be a cheaper non monthly fee based version of Majestic. I was thankfully wrong. What I received was the most addictive game I have played since the Suffering, the most surreal game since Ribbit King, and the most fun I have had on a PC that doesn’t involve vampires, dragonlances or doppelgangers.

Let’s review

1. Story

Here is the game in a nutshell. Two people, a journalist named Jack Lorski and a woman named Karen Gijman have gone missing for many months. Recently Jack’s employer, the SLK Network has received a CD-Rom from an enigmatic being known only as “The Phoenix”. The problem is the CD rom is not a cut and dry, “Here’s where Frick and Frack are at.” Instead the CD-Rom consists of layers on top of layers of strange and macabre games that must be solved in order to receive a hint in regards to Jack and Karen’s whereabouts.

And this is where you come in. You are in fact, yourself. You have agreed to try and help SLK solve the puzzles and find where Karen and Jack are…if they are still amongst the living that is.

In its’ purest form, MISSING brings back a style of gaming rarely scene any more. In the same vein as things like Maniac Mansion, Shadowgate and Lunacy, this game with tax your logic and deductive skills far more than any game you have played in the last few years. Consider MISSING the video gamer’s chess.

You have so many questions to answer besides finding out where Jack and Karen are. Who is the Phoenix? Why is he doing this? Is he a serial killer? A psychopath? Or something else? And what is so special about this Super 8 film the game revolves around? What makes this tape so valuable people have died because of it?

The plot is gripping, the FMV documentary style footage is incredible and keeps you motivated to solve bizarre puzzle after bizarre puzzle. The actors are very believable in their roles and you can’t help but feel the line between reality and fantasy blur a little when playing this game. The interaction you have with other “Players” add so much depth to the game. All my fears about this being Majestic 2.0 were wiped away because MISSING does everything right in terms of story telling.

If you are looking for a game whose story will make you think as well as entertain you, there’s not too many games around that will do that job better than MISSING. It’s a beautiful blend of the Esoteric with deductive (and inductive) reasoning, and a lot of style. You don’t play MISSING, you experience it. And it’s a shame most games don’t give you that opportunity anymore.

Story Rating: 9/10

2. Graphics

It may surprise you, but aside from the FMV parts, MISSING is pretty much a hodge podge of Quick Time, Shockwave, and Flash. And little else. The game doesn’t tax even an old computer graphics or processor speed wise. And that’s actually a good thing, as it will get console gamers to pick it up. After all, the biggest complaint towards PC games is that you constantly have to update your system so it’s not obsolete, while a console lasts for many years.

And amazingly, the graphics are pretty good. They’re not amazing by any means, but the video footage is terrific and looks as if you’re playing it off a TV or actually camera. And all the puzzles and animation for the games are clean without any slowdown. Graphics are crisp without any jaggies or blurring. I was very happy just watching the game go through it’s own motions. And was especially impressed by the intricate and well designs astrological and metaphysical artwork and diagrams in the game.

Overall this isn’t a game that is going to blow your mind visually, but what is there to behold is stunning in its simplicity, but more importantly its design. A game doesn’t have to strain your PC in order to have a top notch look to it, and MISSING proves that pretty well.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

3. Sound

Oh my god! Excellent voice acting in an FMV game! Proof that the apocalypse is nigh upon us! Jack and Karen are done very well, and most importantly, they are done so that you take the characters seriously. How many times did you laugh at Dana Plato in Night Trap? Bingo.

The sound effects are very well done. But again, they are nothing major. In this day and age, the sound of running water or oil trickling out of a can isn’t anything to get excited about. And often times when doing a puzzle, the sound and background noises cause distraction when you’re trying to truly ponder over a puzzle.

MISSING is one of those games where sound is only needed in a few key areas where you are actually playing. But in the FMV areas, if you don’t have sound, you’re pretty much screwed. There are no subtitles to the film footage after all. But that’s to keep with the realism. After all, why would there be?

Note that you will not find a soundtrack worth of your car’s CD player on here. You will find some excellent voice acting, and a lot of average sound effects. Nothing else.

Sound Rating: 6/10

4. Control

What’s interesting is that no two puzzles in MISSING will have the same controls. As well, you are given no instructions on what to do. Only a vague riddle or hint. You have to figure out the object and the answer to each game/puzzle/etc yourself. Often by doing research on the net by using search engines or checking your emails sent to you by other people working on the case.

Yes, you read that right. You’re going to be getting emails from this game. Some will be auto generated. Some will be by real people playing the game as well. You can email other friends and players that you know are involved in the game, and some people emailing you just might be NPC’s to help push you in the right direction and add depth to your experience. I learned first hand that MISSING does an excellent job keeping you guessing at what is real and what is fake when I emailed what I thought was a computer generated character/email only to get a live human response in return!

The controls for MISSING are excellent. Mainly because they vary so much yet almost all involve the mouse clicking on something and dragging it elsewhere. There are also riddles that are primarily solved by typing, and a lot of puzzles that can only be solved by research, research, research. Even though each game requires you to learn the controls from scratch, all are fairly easy to figure out the basics and give a gamer a run for his or her money.

For a great dose of variety, everything from playing Breakout to watching a movie ala Pokemon Channel style, MISSING keeps you on your toes in more ways than one.

Control Rating: 8/10

5. Replayability

Alas, this is the downfall of MISSING. Once you beat the game, there’s no reason to go back and play through again. You’ve solved all the puzzles. You’ve unlocked all the pieces of Jack’s film. You have the super 8 film. What point is there to go back? Nothing new is unlocked or waiting for you.

If you’re the type of gamer who wanta a reward for playing again, you will be disappointed here. You’re going to go away empty handed. However, if you are the type of gamer who loves to play a game again and again for story value and sheer fun…well, there’s still a bit of a problem.

As MISSING heavily relies on both real sites and faux ones for one to continue the game, what happens inevitably when the pages go down? Or when TAC/Lexis Numerique stops sending out emails or involving people to join in the fun. Then the game is in effect, unplayable, much like when Sega stopped providing servers for PSO on the Dreamcast. Or more importantly, servers for my beloved Touken Restuden 4. The problem with a game set up in the way MISSING, is that when a game is not solely confined to a disc, the chances it can still be replayed in even a year drop dramatically. Ironically the same steps taken to ensure MISSING is a highly original and innovative game also serves to create an achillies heel for the game in terms of replayability.

Replayability Rating: 3/10

6. Balance

This category too, exposes the other major flaw with MISSING. You see when you design a video game that involves Google or other search engines to help you with the research, interesting things come up. Like say, WALKTHROUGHS or FAQ’S. It won’t be intentional, but they will show up, sometimes even before the correct answer the game wants you to find will. And it’s tempting to click on them. I didn’t while playing the game so that I could get the correct experience and review the game honestly for you all, but it’s far too easy for someone to do this, and thus ruin the entire feel of the game. Trust me when I say whoever designed a walkthrough or FAQ for MISSING needs to be kicked in their genitals for it’s a slap in the face not only to all that this game is supposed to be, but gamers and the developers themselves. Besides, you have other players and NPC’s that are in fact real humans that will give you hints and help if you need it. And it keeps the line between reality and fantasy blurred.

There are other problems. For example there is a name puzzle in the game. One of the names is an oriental name that when you plug said name into google, you get a lot of Asian porn. Seems the name of the character in the game is the same as a female willing to bare it all. Ooops. There’s little things like this that help to ruin the balance of the game, as how hard would it have been to google the characters name to make sure that didn’t occur?

The final internet based problem again goes back to, “What happens when the websites made especially for this game and that need to exist in order to advance in the game finally go off line.” Three years from now, I doubt I’ll be able to play missing, while I know I can still pick up my 8 year or so old copy of Lunacy for my Sega Saturn or play a little decades old copy of Deja VU on the NES. Same detective skills and intense thinking needed. But at least the longevity is there.

Finally, thanks to the fact most gamers now have the brains of swiss cheese thanks to a steady diet of nothing but 3D platforms and games where people play more to look at pixilated boobies rather than challenge themselves, many will find this game too hard. They’ll give up on a puzzle or proclaim the game to be lame and stupid because you can’t killing anything. The game is a true cerebral experience, and as sad as it is to admit it, this is a day and age where people find the plot of Beyond Good and Evil to be well written instead of seeing it for the paper thin clap trap of porly laid out cliché plot devices that it was. MISSING, if video games still had the same audience it did back in the 80’s, would be a huge success. Instead, it’s saddled down with the audience of the 21st century, where style overshadows actual gameplay. Too bad really.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

Highly original and innovative, MISSING puts a bunch of older dying out genres in a blender, mixes them together and then adds a ton of fresh new ideas and content. Missing takes a series of puzzles that would otherwise have no connection and strings them together with a purpose. It gives you a mystery movie you wouldn’t watch if it was on TV, and made it into a gripping piece of film that inspires you to keep going in the game.

MISSING Since January is one of the most original games I have ever played, and definitely one of those games that will go down as a cult classic years from now where those that have played the game will share a bond and memories of playing through this game while other sit and wonder what the game was like and how they can get a hold of a copy.

Originality: 9/10

8. Addictiveness

I didn’t rest until I beat this game. I scoured the net for the appropriate sites, emailed people/characters to see who was real and who was auto generated. I looked up everything mentioned in the game to see what sites existed before MISSING and what sites are in fact real. I got into this game in a way I never had before, if only because it reminded me of my own research days where I would spend hours in a library going through musty old tomes special ordered for me by the Librarians in order to find a paragraph or even a sentence to help me with my essay or paper to be published. This game is a must have for any history, English, folklore, etc major.

At the very least, you can give it to a technophobe and by the end of this game this will be quite adept at surfing the net.

This game is the intellectual gamer’s heroin. I even went to the Volker Institute website and looked up every book mentioned under “Publications” to see what was a real source and what was made up. Can we say intense? Oh yes. I am.

This game will steal your soul if you let yourself truly become immersed in it. If you have a history of Schizophrenia, stay far far away from MISSING.

Addictiveness: 10/10

9. Appeal Factor

Two words. Very. Limited. Put them together in that order to make a phrase than that sums it up for MISSING.

In order to truly enjoy MISSING, you have to be willing to step outside the comfort zone that is the norm for gamers. And most can’t/won’t do that. People fear the strange and unusual, and calling MISSING strange and unusual is a heavy understatement. MISSING has the two big factors to make a game a cult favorite: A very niche audience that will pick up and enjoy this game first time around, and a great combination of excellent gameplay and a well designed plot. The fact remains though, the majority of modern gamers won’t “get” MISSING. Very few of the old Zork/Wizardry/Monkey Island gamers are left, especially in comparison to the people who somehow made Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness a best seller

Appeal Factor: 4/10

Miscellaneous

This game has everything I’ve wanted in a game. Total immersion. The blurring between reality and fantasy. Original plot and gameplay. The ability to use my research skills for pleasure and not a massively annotated piece of work only people with PhD’s can appreciate. People that may or may not exist in the real world. The return of GOOD FMV games. Good acting in a video game! A real thrill when part of the game is completed. It literally has everything I have looked for in a game. About a year ago I described to Bebito things I wanted in a game, and bam. Here it is. Yes there are some flaws, like only being able to play it once and you’re done with it. But this is as good as it gets for now. And I am overjoyed to have tasted the banquet that is MISSING.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

Short Attention Span Summary
An amazing game that will satisfy any gamer looking for an intellectual challenge, as well as a dark story coupled with a lot of mini games. MISSING’s only downfall is the complete lack of replayability, and that its status as the “Frasier Crane meets Hannibal Lector” of video games may dissuade people from stepping outside the box they have imprisoned themselves in.