Inside Pulse 12

Review: Casebook Episode 1 – Kidnapped (PC)

Casebook Episode 1 – Kidnapped
Genre: Adventure/Mystery
Developer: Aero Cinematic Games
Publisher: Big Fish
Release Date: 10/27/08
Minimum System Requirements: OS: Windows XP SP2/Vista, Processor: 1.5Ghz or better, Memory: 1GB or more, DirectX9.0c or better.
Buy it Here: Areo Cinematic Games. Try out the demo HERE.

The “interactive movie” game genre is mostly dead at this point, and depending on when you started playing games, you might not even know it ever existed. Back in the days when CD technology was new and impressive, all sorts of people tried to make games with FMV (full-motion video) visuals, in hopes that this impressive new technology would REALLY sell gamers on the idea that they were IN a movie. Most of these games were just Dragon’s Lair-esque games that essentially asked you to press a button at the right time or die in the process (Night Trap, Double Switch), but a few games like Mad Dog McCree and Phantasmagoria showed that the technology, while not quite where it needed to be, COULD be used to make games that were competent, if not spectacular. Years after the fact, developers are still coming up with ways of incorporating FMV into games in hopes of eventually hitting that “interactive movie” sweet spot that will make their game feel like the player REALLY IS THERE, and Casebook Episode 1 is no exception. However, the technology the game is using, combined with the stellar premise, actually manages to elevate the product above being just another “novelty game”, and while it’s not “just right”, it’s absolutely a promising start.

The game casts you as yourself in the role of a police detective, taking on various cases (hence the name of the game), along with your partner James Burton and your forensics expert Pete Inverness, who act as your allies while also providing plot exposition as needed. Episode 1 sees you investigating the abduction of the Birchermann children from their home in the dead of night by an unknown kidnapper, who has left only a ransom note demanding their return in his wake. It falls to you to discover the whereabouts of the children and find out who kidnapped them using the clues left behind, as any good detective would. The writing in the game is surprisingly strong, as the case itself features plenty of interesting twists and turns to keep you thinking and guessing from start to finish, and the dialogue is very solid across the board, especially whenever James Burton is on-screen. The game also makes the case and the clues needed to crack it open fairly convincing and seems to have a decent understanding of how forensic science works, which helps sell the experience well.

Casebook uses real environments and live-action FMV for the majority of its visuals, and these are all very high-quality and well presented. The game uses a very interesting technology that allows the player to look around the environment as if they were actually there in real-time, essentially allowing you to inspect the photo-realistic environment as if you were in the game. This is both very pleasing to the eye and very convincing from an immersion standpoint, though the technology isn’t quite perfect, as the environment tends to blur as you turn and move, which is odd looking, if not wholly bad. The in-game music is sporadic, and tends to play only during particularly dramatic moments in the case, which is a nice contrast that makes the dramatic scenes more powerful, even if it does make the regular scenes a little more flat at times. The sound effects are mostly okay and while they aren’t anything exciting, they certainly get the job done if nothing else. The best aspect of the audio is the timing and delivery of the actors in the game. Nearly every line in the game is delivered expertly. The actors and actresses in Casebook Episode 1 are very gifted at their job, and they manage to elevate the experience very well in the process.

Casebook Episode 1 is very simple to play. All of the controls are assigned to the mouse (though you can use the keyboard if you prefer), making it very easy to do everything you’ll need to do to crack the case. Your time will be divided between picking around crime scenes for evidence, sorting through said evidence trying to find links and valuable clues, and performing tests on evidence to determine if the information provided is of any worth to the case. The bulk of your time will be spent poking around crime scenes and taking pictures of anything that looks suspicious. This is all accomplished with little more than some mouse movement and a click or three. The crime scenes are presented from a first-person view, and you’ll essentially be asked to walk around them, looking for evidence that may be useful. Once you find a piece, you pull out your camera, frame the evidence inside of a red box that will appear around anything that may be useful, snap a shot of said item, and then move on. There are all sorts of items that can be photographed in all of the various crime scenes, though many of them are useless (which Pete will helpfully point out if you happen to bring him such a thing), and it’s your job to figure out which is which. A true detective will want to pick and choose which items to snap pictures of. However, if you’re stuck or just want to move on, pressing the I key will activate your intuition, which guides you to the next useful clue in the location for you to snap a shot of.

Once you’ve snapped eight shots (the limit your camera can hold), it’s off to the crime van, which acts as a mini-lab for you to sort your evidence in. The eight items on your camera, as well as anything else you may have turned up in the process, will be presented to you on your PC for you to look over in hopes of finding a useful clue in the process. Useless items will be discarded by Pete immediately, but useful items will be added to the evidence list and, in many cases, trigger a forensics mini-game to play. Depending on the type of evidence discovered, that will determine what needs to be done to discover the clue, which can be anything from dusting for prints, taking chemical samples from an object, tracking identifying marks in a fingerprint, scanning an item with a blacklight for trace staining, and other fun things. Many games tie together, as they would in a real crime scene. This means you might dust an object for fingerprints, then ID the print itself, or you might take a chemical sample and then use the centrifuge to separate it. None of these mini-games are particularly difficult, but they’re presented in a believable way and they’re interesting enough that they’re neither annoying nor unwelcome.

Once you’ve assembled your list of evidence, you’ll have to visit the evidence file to organize everything. The evidence file is divided by the location in which it’s found, and it will either be free-standing evidence or linked evidence, depending on the circumstances. Free-standing evidence will be something that is perfectly fine on its own, like a hair sample from a kidnapping victim or a fingerprint that belongs to one of the residents of the location. Linked evidence, however, is evidence that is inconclusive and requires more information to be understood, like a chemical stain from the bottom of a shoe or a ripped piece of fabric that doesn’t belong to anyone in the house. As you find more evidence, you’ll be able to tie the unlinked pieces together, as well as to the exemplars (the people tied to the case) to build a stronger and more understandable case. As the case progresses, so too does the evidence, and you’ll find pieces of evidence from two or three crime scenes past tying to newly discovered evidence, as it would in a real case. It’s surprisingly satisfying when you see everything begin to come together for the first time.

The game also does a few other novel things to keep the game interesting. As you discover pieces of evidence and clues, James will pop in every so often to offer words of advice or to interview a suspect/victim about a particularly condemning piece of evidence you’ve just uncovered. This keeps the story flowing along without making the game into an item hunt. A couple of the cutscenes require you to make a decision on how the investigation will continue. While these don’t really change the game, they do change the following scene, which is nice, if nothing else. A few other mini-games pop up as well to keep things interesting, like asking you to pick out a location on a map that might be the kidnapper’s hideout or reassemble a tape or what have you, just to keep you guessing. The core game is unfortunately pretty brief, clocking in at around three to five hours, depending on whether or not you abuse the intuition feature. At least it’s an interesting and enjoyable three to five hours.

Unfortunately, the short length of the game is only one of a few notable problems with the game that make it harder than it really should be to recommend. Even without the intuition feature, the game isn’t especially challenging. Finding useless evidence simply wastes your time, and the game won’t do anything with the useless evidence otherwise. It might have been interesting if the game had thrown in some red herrings to string you along, or offered you evidence pieces that required you to go back and re-check older crime scenes with a fresh perspective. Instead, once you’ve finished with a crime scene, you never go back there again, and the game keeps no evidence but the useful kind. This makes the game more about finding the important stuff and less about any sort of thought process or deductive reasoning. It can be interesting mulling over what places to investigate, but the game doesn’t penalize you for taking a picture of something useless, and you can just use intuition to breeze through a section if you want. Thus there’s no point in bothering to do things on your own except for personal satisfaction. There’s also no way to really FAIL the game, as you can’t collect incorrect evidence, you can’t mess up any of the evidence testing games, and you can’t really do anything that causes you to lose, which, again, just makes the game about eventually finding the right evidence to tie the case together. Also, aside from experiencing the game over again, there’s no reason to return to it once it’s complete, as there’s nothing new to the game once you’ve finished it off. While I’m certain this is hardly surprising, it’s still a shame all the same.

All in all, for the low price tag, Casebook Episode 1 is honestly worth it if you’re at all a fan of adventure gaming or crime drama. The story, dialogue and characters are all great. Nearly everything looks and sounds good. The game is very easy to play and can provide for plenty of brain-teasing moments if that’s what you’re into, and the overall experience is honestly well-presented. Yes, it’s pretty short. No, it’s not particularly challenging. No, you won’t have any reason to come back to it once you’ve completed it. Yes, these things are very unfortunate. That said, for the price, Casebook Episode 1 is well worth checking out even so, simply because everything it does well, it does well enough that it overcomes its weak points. For ten dollars, you get a good, solid story told by good, solid actors, and the gameplay is entertaining and solid enough to keep you interested through the game. As a full-priced release, this might be a bit of a letdown, but as a budget release, it’s well worth checking out.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: DREADFUL
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GOOD
Final Score: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Casebook Episode 1 is exactly what the above score says: an enjoyable game that’s well worth checking out if you like adventure games or crime dramas. The story is well written and well presented, thanks to the interesting twists and turns and the strong acting throughout the game. The gameplay is simple to learn and easy to work with, and the different mechanics are easy enough to understand and work with, even if you’ve never seen a crime scene investigation show in your life. It’s true that the game is a bit on the short side, and the game isn’t anywhere near challenging, and some sort of adjustable challenge option might have added more to the game, which unfortunately offers you no reason to come back to it once you’ve finished it. For the low price, however, Casebook Episode 1 is pretty much worth it, simply because if you’re a fan of the genre of game or the genre of story, you’ll easily get your money’s worth from it and more.