Review: Still Life (XB)

Review: Still Life
Developer: Microids
Distributor: The Adventure Company
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 6/7/05

Still Life is the newest in a long line of point-and-click style games whose lineage dates back to the original Nintendo. It also happens to contain copious amounts of blood, gore, and foul language. Not to mention challenging puzzles and some CSI style investigation. But when all is said and done, does it improve upon the genre, or is it just another piece of filler?

Many of you who grew up in the 80’s can probably look back and remember playing a ton of point-and-click games on both console systems and home computers. Titles such as DÃÆ’©jÃÆ’Â Vu, Shadowgate, 7th Guest, and 11th Hour were incredibly popular, and groundbreaking in their own right with their innovative mix of puzzle solving, storytelling, adventure, and mystery. But in the past decade, games of this type have become something of a dying breed.

Recently there has been somewhat of a resurgence of this genre, at least on the PC. For that matter, Still Life itself was released on the PC before it came out for the X-Box. And it’s no wonder, really, as using a mouse to play is about as instinctive as you can get. Just hover the pointer over the object you want to examine, and viola. But I honestly can’t remember the last point-and-click to hit a console.

1. Story

Still Life starts off with a bang. You begin the game playing as Victoria McPherson, an agent for the FBI who is tasked with apprehending the culprit behind a series of murders. As you start the first chapter, you find out that the latest victim is the 5th, and that she has been drowned, just as all the others before her. However, the killer seems to getting more and more violent, as unlike the previous fatalities, this woman was also stabbed multiple times in the chest and eviscerated.

Once you finish collecting evidence and filing your report, you head to your father’s house for Christmas where you discover an old trunk in the attic that belonged to your grandfather, Gus McPherson. Inside is a diary that contains details of a case which Gus investigated in Prague in 1929 that is eerily similar to the one you are currently on.

Over the course of the game, you actually switch between playing as Victoria in the modern day, and Gus in 1920s Prague. Throughout both time periods you will need to complete multiple puzzles and search for clues to solve the murders and find out what the common thread between the two cases is.

Overall the story is intriguing and engaging, and will certainly satisfy mystery and detective story fans. Unfortunately, the ending leaves much to be desired. I don’t want to give anything away, but I was thoroughly disappointed after becoming so invested in the storyline.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

On the whole the graphics are fantastic. However, there are a few cases where some really shoddy characters come along and mess things up.

For the most part the character designs are well done. Each one moves in a realistic fashion and has their own little personality quirks. Clothing looks realistic, and interactions with the environment are all smooth with very little clipping problems. There are a few character models that looked like they were thrown together at the last minute though. In particular, the police officer near the beginning of Chapter 2 looks terrible… his face is puffed up and his hands and fingers are incredibly out of proportion for the rest of his body. He almost looks like he came from an entirely different game.

The crowning achievement in the graphics department is easily the backgrounds. Every one of them is meticulously detailed wonderfully textured. Everything from the interior of a modern Chicago Police autopsy lab to the exterior of a broken down gothic church look almost photo realistic. At one point my girlfriend wandered into the room and wondered what movie I was watching before realizing that I had a controller in my hand. Of course part of the reason that the backgrounds look so good is that they don’t move. Camera angles are fixed at all times, so you don’t get the aliasing effects that you otherwise would.

Keep in mind that because the graphics are so realistic, many of the crime scenes are truly disturbing. Microids spared no expense when it came to disturbing the player and putting together some incredibly graphic images. You’re probably going to want to steer clear of this one if you have a weak stomach.

Lighting and particle effects are all spot on, with a few small exceptions. Forensic lamps, car headlights, gas lanterns, and torches all have their own unique look and feel, and cause realistic shadows to be cast on the floors and walls around them. The use of color on most of these is exceptional and they really help to add to the realism of the environment. Perhaps my only complaint is with the water effects, which at certain times look a little haphazard.

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

I just want to say that the choice of ‘Dies Irae’ from Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ as the musical score for the opening cinematic is pure brilliance. That piece combined with the visuals completely sets the tone. Rarely does a game suck me in from the start like that and really make me want to play. Crank the speakers up and sit back and enjoy.

The remainder of the music for the game is quiet and ambient, and serves more to add flavor to each particular scene. It works perfectly within the context of the game, and helps to enhance the overall experience.

Any kind of real sound effects are few and far between, as the majority just serve to add to the overall ambiance. Again, they work perfectly within the context of the game, but there is nothing here that is going to give your speakers a workout.

Unfortunately the voice acting leaves a lot to be desired. The main actors who voice Gus and Victoria just seem flat, and any scene involving emotion from either of them is either underplayed or way over the top. Supporting characters are a mixed bag, with some being perfectly suitable, and others being completely terrible. The voice work for the black police officer in Chicago is particularly poor, as he sounds like he walked right out of a blacksploitation flick.

Overall, the music and sound are excellent, but the voiceovers could have been a lot better. And seeing as how there is a ton of dialogue in the game, that’s a real shame.

Sound Rating: 6/10

4. Control and Gameplay

So, is the analog stick on an X-Box controller a suitable replacement for a mouse? Not really… but it’s not too bad…

This is probably the one area where the game wildly deviates from the PC version. Obviously on the computer you use the mouse to point to where you want to walk, as well as scan the room for things to interact with. Instead, you use the analog stick to move around your character, and nearby areas of interest will highlight when you get near them. Personally I would rather have had the character stand still until I used the control stick to point to an area for them to move, but it could be argued that this is nitpicking. Occasionally your view will switch to first person, and in this mode you use the control stick exactly like a mouse, moving over things you want to get a better look at. On the whole it works out pretty well.

The biggest problem with not being able to point at specific things while in third person is when two or more objects of interest are right next to each other. It seems that nine times out of ten the object you want to use isn’t highlighted, and you will spend a few moments slowly walking around until the correct one pops up. This can get really frustrating in a few areas, but fortunately it doesn’t occur that often.

Inventory management is pretty simple, as with the press of a button you can see any items you have, your case log, conversation log, and the games main menu. Unfortunately when reading really long case logs you aren’t allowed to scroll faster with the control stick, so if you need to read something down at the bottom, you might be sitting there for a while. Also, occasionally using the control stick to move around the inventory can be frustrating as you might end up skipping over an option completely because it’s not directly next to whatever your cursor is over. This just takes a little practice, and is another area where a mouse would have been preferable.

And that’s actually just about it as far as control goes. You can use the X button to make your character run, and the L and R triggers move you through conversations. It’s a pretty straightforward control scheme, which just happens to have a few quirks.

Speaking of conversations, the only difference between the L and R buttons is that L is necessary information (you can’t proceed until you’ve gone through the conversation thread attached to it), while R is general conversation and doesn’t actually add much to the game itself. The only reason to go through the R thread is to get a little more background information on some of the characters, and occasionally get a laugh.

The gameplay itself is incredibly simple. Wander around, talk to people, solve a puzzle, rinse and repeat. Unfortunately this process is slow. Very, very slow. Those of you who are used to the fast paced action of most games on the market today will be extremely disappointed, while those of you who enjoy a more methodically paced gaming experience will be right at home. Although amazingly enough, if you happen to be a puzzle solving genius (or go out and find a cheat sheet *cough*), you can beat the game in less than a day. Assuming you don’t get stuck on any puzzles, start to completion is somewhere near 7 hours. Less if you skip past the voice acting and just read the dialogue for the important stuff.

The puzzles themselves mostly involve moving objects around with the analog stick, and are easy to work with. However, that doesn’t mean that the puzzles themselves are necessarily easy.

Control and Gameplay Score: 7/10

5. Replayability

And here is where we start running into the real issues with Still Life.

The game has no replay value what so ever. None, nada, zero, zippo, zilch, diddly squat. Once you’ve completed the puzzles and gotten to the end, there is nothing to get you to come back. No added difficulty levels, no hidden items or characters, no multiple endings. The only reason to play the game again is because you want to share it with a friend.

And I do wish there was at least one extra ending, as the main one really is disappointing.

Replayability Score: 1/10

6. Balance

This is actually a tricky category to apply to the game. For starters, you can’t die. And the only thing keeping you from progressing is your own puzzle solving ability. The remainder of the time you are wandering around talking to people, and basically playing an interactive movie. So in theory, the game is incredibly easy, meaning that you are only playing it for the story.

On the other hand, the challenge offered by the puzzles themselves range from grade school level simplistic to obscenely difficult. This is partly based on the design of the puzzles and partly based on what information the developers felt you needed.

Let’s look at a few examples…

The first major puzzle of the game involves finding the combination to your grandfather’s old chest. However, instead of numbers, you need to use card suits. You’re given the combination, but adjusting each of the five sections moves three others. It’s not incredibly difficult, but it will take a while.

The next major puzzle involves opening a safe in a church. Again, you have the combination, only this time you are given 8 numbers and have to make them correspond to 8 symbols, with no other clues to help you because the old fart in the corner is losing his memory. This is easily one of the more annoying puzzles in the game, and you are either going to intuitively figure it out, or be stuck working your way through the 40,320 possible combinations.

The last puzzle I’ll mention here involves baking some Christmas cookies. Yes, cookies. I suppose that even FBI agents need to take a little leisure time. Although if I ever had to work with a recipe like this one, I’d probably shoot myself. Hands down (for me, at least) the hardest puzzle in the entire game. You are given a recipe and… well, that’s it. The problem is it’s written in code. Does anyone have a tablespoon of romance sitting on their spice rack? Neither do I. Good luck getting through this one without some help.

In the end, the game’s difficulty depends a lot on how good you are at solving the puzzles. And ones that took me forever might only take you a few minutes. The rest of the game is a snap, and just involves a lot of busywork.

Balance Score: 4/10

7. Originality

As I mentioned earlier, Still Life is a point-and-click game, which is a genre that has been around for quite a long time. In addition, the game is something of a sequel to Post Mortem which only came out on the PC. However, you certainly don’t need to have played Post Mortem to enjoy Still Life.

That all being said, there is less than a handful of point-and-click style games on consoles these days, and it is nice to see the genre getting a little attention. The storyline is solid, and switching between the past and the present is a nice touch which helps to keep an otherwise clichÃÆ’©d story fresh.

Originality Score: 7/10

8. Addictiveness

The opening sequence is like crack on a screen. It will suck you in and grab a hold of you and make you want to play this game. And at that point, one of two things is going to happen… Either you are going to really enjoy playing through the game, wanting to find out the connection between the two different cases and solve the puzzles, or you are going to get incredibly frustrated by the slow pacing and the puzzles that are nigh impossible to figure out.

For me, it was the former. I really got involved with the storyline and wanted to get through the puzzles to see what happened next. Although a few of them definitely made me throw down my controller in disgust and walk away for a while (bloody cookie recipe). But if this is a genre you enjoy, you’ll be sticking with it until the end.

Addictiveness: 8/10

9. Appeal Factor

Well, CSI is one of the biggest television shows on the air right now, so if you happen to like watching that, you might want to consider giving this a try. Old school point-and-click fans will definitely find something to like here as well. As will mystery movie buffs and puzzle lovers. That makes for a pretty good cross section right there.

Unfortunately Still Life’s slow pace is going to turn off a lot of gamers, and those looking for a Resident Evil style action game are going to turn this off in a matter of minutes. As will those folks who find racking their brain for two hours on a puzzle to be boring.

While I recommend a rental, those of you who might look to buy the game should be pleased to know that you can find it brand new for between $20 and $30 most places. You could certainly do a lot worse.

Appeal Factor Score: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

Still Life is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant gaming market right now. Unfortunately it doesn’t do enough to revitalize the point-and-click genre, and with almost no replay value, the average gamer is going to forget about the game after finishing it.

However, when this game works, it really works! The visuals, the music, the overall mood and ambiance are just fantastic. If nothing else this game is worth playing just to experience those things. It crawls along at a methodical pace, but sometimes it’s nice to slow down and play something that doesn’t require you to pad your thumb.

Miscellaneous Score: 6/10

The Scores:

Story: 7
Graphics: 8
Sound: 6
Gameplay/Control: 7
Replayability: 1
Balance: 4
Originality: 7
Addictiveness: 8
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 6
Overall: 60
Final Score: 6.0 (Above Average)