Inside Pulse 12

Review: Casebook Episode 2: The Watcher (PC)

Casebook Episode 2: The Watcher
Genre: Adventure/Mystery
Developer: Aero Cinematic Games
Publisher: Big Fish
Release Date: 03/03/2009
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.

As most of the elements between the first and second Casebook games are nearly identical, many of the sections written for that game will be re-used for this review.

So, a week or so ago, we looked at Casebook Episode 1: Kidnapped. My conclusion was that Casebook Episode 1, while not quite as fleshed out as it could have been, was enjoyable for its price and generally pretty entertaining. The second game in the series, Casebook Episode 2: The Watcher, didn’t have to do anything different from the first game in order to be worth a look, as even with minimal or no changes to the overall product, it would have still been a good, solid adventure game that would have justified the cost (at this point, about fifteen dollars). Surprisingly, it actually changes and expands upon a few things and almost manages to justify the initial observation one might make that it is indeed a BETTER game. Unsurprisingly, and sadly, it manages to shoot itself in the foot right in the last leg of the race, and ends up not quite living up to its own potential.

When last we left our intrepid heroes, you and James Burton were on the way to investigate a presumed suicide. It’s here that Casebook Episode 2 picks up the storyline, as this is your next case to investigate. The victim is Francis Salt, an Egyptologist (though whether he’s a professional or an amateur is never sufficiently explained) who, by all indications, had all sorts of fun and interesting mental issues. Burton seems to think this is all just a waste of time, but your forensics examiner Pete seems to think there’s more here than meets the eye. It’s your job to figure out just what’s going on and put this matter to rest. Casebook Episode 1 did a generally solid job of introducing the characters to the player and fleshing them out. Casebook Episode 2 focuses a great deal more on developing those characters and exploring their motivations in the process of presenting the case and its twists and turns. The case in Casebook Episode 2 is also a great deal more involved than that of its predecessor. It also presents more suspects and elements to investigate than the previous game, which helps not only to make the case more intriguing, but also to flesh out the experience a bit.

Except for one tiny, itty-bitty thing that I feel hardly bears mentioning, and yet I feel that I must: the ending is absurd.

Now, the game sets up a “To Be Continued” ending that’s meant to allow the player to continue onward into the third chapter with a familiar villain to pursue. That’s fine and all, but there’s absolutely no reason the killer should have been allowed to escape in the first place. See, there are only two reasons the killer escapes: “Double Jeopardy” (I.E., the legal defense that protects one from being tried twice for the same crime) and that the killer has an alibi. This sort of an explanation as to why our killer walks off free and clear doesn’t especially make sense. While this is coming from someone who’s spent years and years intrigued by court cases and police drama, it doesn’t take an aficionado to spot what’s wrong here. First, the developers are very coy about the actual real-world location that Casebook Episode 2 takes place in, but it’s fairly obvious where it DOESN’T take place. England, New South Wales and Queensland all have dramatically re-written their Double Jeopardy laws to allow for re-trials in appropriate scenarios, and the game world isn’t believable as being located in the US. In other words: the game either takes place in Scotland, Western Australia, or New Zealand. For those wondering what the point of this was, it wasn’t to narrow down the possible locations the game could take place in. Rather, it is to note that when your aim is to make the game take place in an unnamed location that is purposely vague, and then you introduce elements that don’t apply to certain locales, you have failed at being purposely vague. Sorry. Nice try at it, but no.

Second, when your alibi is, “I spent the night with one person in private”, THAT IS NOT A SUFFICIENT ALIBI, especially not when there is enough evidence to convict you three times over. That is not how the law works. A police detective worth a damn wouldn’t say, “Well, we’ve got a room full of blood, rare evidence that can only be traced thousands of miles away, numerous possessions of the deceased in the hands of the killer (most of which he can’t justify being in possession of) and enough scientifically provable data to convict God himself, but the killer was spending the night alone with his girlfriend, so LET HIM GO BOYS.” That’s not how the police do things. What makes the whole thing worse is how the game essentially fails to ask any of the pressing questions like, “So, mister killer, why IS your handwriting all over the place, including in a location virtually no one could readily access?”, or “So, mister killer, why do you have the same blood in your apartment as was found in the apartment of the victim?”, or even “So, mister killer, we have a video of a man who’s about your height and build striking the victim with one of his own possessions, a trauma analysis of another victim with the SAME skull damage as the first victim, who I should remind you was struck in the head with one of his own possessions, and NOW we find that VERY ITEM in YOUR APARTMENT, so I’m wondering if you can explain why you have this?”, when this is the FIRST thing they should be doing. Again, I understand that this was done for cinematic purposes, and I understand that this was done for the express intent of trying to make the third episode a hot title, but the entire final series of scenes is jarring because of how disconnected from reality it truly is. The very last scene just left me screaming, “OH COME ON! YOU’VE GOT HIM ON BREAKING AND ENTERING!”

So I guess you could say that the ending kind of takes you out of the experience a bit.

Much like the first game, Casebook Episode 2 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. This 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 2 are very gifted at their job, and they manage to elevate the experience very well in the process.

Casebook Episode 2 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, which 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 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, but 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, as noted, will be discarded by Pete immediately, but useful items will be added to the evidence list. In many cases these will 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. You might dust an object for fingerprints, then ID the print itself, or you might take a chemical sample, then use the centrifuge to separate it. None of these mini-games is particularly difficult, but they’re presented in a believable way and they’re interesting enough that they’re neither annoying nor unwelcome.

Most of the case-solving mini-games from Casebook Episode 1 are back for another go in Casebook Episode 2, though the developers have added in more than a few new and interesting additional mini-games to keep things from getting boring. Your victim this time around had a habit of taping, well, everything, so you’ll end up viewing a few of his last videos throughout the case, but some are more damaged than others. This means you’ll have to correct their picture quality and reduce the video noise to make them viewable so you can add them to evidence. The game also throws a few other one-shot minis in, including one that asks you to simulate the velocity of the falling victim and another that asks you to line up blueprints over a map to see changes.

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, which is 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, to keep the story flowing along without making the game into an item hunt. One of the cutscenes requires you to make a decision on how the investigation will continue, unlike the first game, which offered a few of these scenes, and as the cross-examination in question occurs right before the end of the game, it doesn’t really mean anything to the narrative process, regardless of what you choose, which is kind of a shame. 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, but it’s an interesting and enjoyable three to five hours, at least.

Unfortunately, the short length of the game is, once again, only one of a few notable problems with Casebook Episode 2 that has been carried over from the first game. 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, and the game keeps no evidence but the useful kind, making 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. You can just use intuition to breeze through a section if you want, so 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, you can’t really do anything that causes you to lose, and you can’t convict the killer anyway, 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.

Once again, for the low price tag, Casebook Episode 2 is honestly worth it if you’re at all a fan of adventure gaming or crime drama and you can accept some heavy artistic license in the name of plot resolution. The dialogue and characters are all great, and the story is mostly superior to that of the first game. Most 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. Unfortunately, it’s still pretty short and it’s still not particularly challenging. You also won’t have any reason to come back to it once you’ve completed it. The ending is complete bollocks, and while it’s obvious the writer had nowhere else to go with the plot and pretty much HAD to wrap it up that way, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t ANOTHER way of getting to this point. That said, for the price, Casebook Episode 2 is a solid enough continuation of the story the first game was telling, and it looks like the third chapter (due out in May) will hopefully be a strong enough game to make the story failings of the second game seem inconsequential. For fifteen dollars, it’s a better effort in most respects than the first game, and it shows enough promise to sell the possibility that the third game will be even better, but Casebook Episode 2 still doesn’t quite live up to the promise it makes. It’s worth playing, and it’s well done in most respects, but it’s not all it could have been, and all it should be.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: DREADFUL
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Casebook Episode 2 is, unfortunately, a one-step-forward-two-steps-back sequel. Though the game features some notable improvements, the core elements don’t work as well as they should, and this is to the game’s detriment. The story is mostly solid, the presentation is very nice, and the gameplay has been tweaked and spiced up a little. In theory, this should make the game an easy recommendation for fans of adventure games. Unfortunately, the game is still on the short side, still isn’t anywhere near challenging, and still offers you no reason to come back to it once you’ve finished it. Further, the ending of the game is borderline unbelievable, and for a game that’s based in large part on having a satisfying story, that’s very unfortunate. For the low price, Casebook Episode 2 is still somewhat worth playing, if only because Casebook Episode 3 promises to be a good bit more satisfying and seeing the series through to the end will most likely be worth it, but taken on its own merits, it’s simply not as good as its predecessor, and that’s a shame.