Still Life 2
Publisher: Encore (Microids in Europe)
Release Date: 08/11/2009
Ah Still Life. Such a complicated history. The original Still Life was the second game in the Post-Mortem series by a French/Canadian (as opposed to French-Canadian) development studio called Microids. The first Still Life game was met with rave reviews as you not only didn’t need to have played Post-Mortem to understand it, but it was quite popular due to the mixture of supernatural, occult, detective and CSI-esque aspects. The real kicker was that fact that the game never outwardly revealed who the killer was. There were lots of red herrings and several big hints, but nothing that could be cemented. The third game in the series was never to be as in 2005, Microids, or at least all their staff was purchased from M2 by Ubisoft. As such, in February of 2006, I tracked down some of the original PM and SL teams and told them that the game was making my “Top 30 Spookiest Games of All Time Countdown” and that I wanted to do my readers a service by revealing the killer. As the game was never to be made, they agreed and with their help, we revealed the killer and how the game was meant to be an homage to the classic occult-detective story, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch. I won’t ruin the story for you, but the motis operandi of the original SL killer was for the same reasons Jack the Ripper killed in that story. If you want to know who the original killer was supposed to be and how he did it, click through to the spoilers.
In 2007, M2 announced the relaunch of the Microids brand, which could be done as Ubisoft only took the staff, not the intellectual property. What we have received over the past two years are some really crappy Adventure games making a buck off with the Microids brand name and the churning out of sequels to their classic franchises made by horrible dev teams that have sullied their good name. Cheif of these is Dracula 3: Curse of the Dragon which is not only a bad adventure game, but it has nothing to do with the previous Dracula titles and it played like ass.
So imagine our (the original Microids team and myself) surprise in late 2007 when we learn Still Life 2 is announced and is being handed over to a company that has never made a video game, much less and Adventure Game before. Okay then. Then imagine the controversy when GameCo said they were going to ignore the original killer and the whole supernatural/occult themes of the first two games and go into an entirely different direction. Uh-oh. However, even though Still Life 2 is “Saw” to Still Life‘s YT,JtR mixed with “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” we all still had confidence that Dracula 3 was a one-time misstep by the new Microids.
In late June I received an offer from Encore via Facebook (I know, right?) to get a review copy of the final game. However I was warned that even though this was the final version that there were some downloading errors with the game along with some noticeable bugs. Even though I have a high end gaming computer, it took two weeks to get the game to work properly and even then it was jury rigged with certain errors (See the screen shots in this review!) that would constantly pop up in the script. Please note that some of these errors appear to be exclusive to the downloadable version of the game, but a lot aren’t. As of July 9th, 2009, Encore is still hard at work trying to figure out what is causing these issues, but until I hear otherwise, I’m going to recommend if you want this game, get the boxed version.
So, we know that we have a new dev team ignoring the continuity, story and characterization set down by the original Microids teams and that the game chose to reveal a different person as the killer than intended along with taking the game in an entirely different direction. That doesn’t necessarily mean the game is bad after all. It just means there will be issues where it doesn’t jibe up with the first two games in the series. Now, after all that exposition, does Still Life 2 bring a worthy end to the SL series, or was this as bad as Kheops handling Dracula 3?
First things first. This is not a direct continuation of the original Still Life. Some characters are the same, like Victoria McPherson, your protagonist, her ex-partner Hawker (Who was named Miller in the first game and had a completely different personality) and her coroner pal Claire, but most everyone else is new and different. Throughout the game you will get four flashbacks to the original Still Life as the new team wraps up the unresolved ending there in a rather poorly fashion. The problem is that they took a character it was established as a very big red herring, changed his entire personality…and then made him the killer. However these pieces are just bones thrown at people waiting for a conclusion of the past four to five years. I actually would have preferred these pieces to have been excised as it rather ruins the original game. Still, I suppose it is the thought that counts.
The main game is actually a pretty interesting story, at least for the first half of the game. It’s now 2008. Vic has quit and since rejoined the FBI. Now she is on the case of a near serial killer, dully named “The East Coast Killer” by the media. Vic is rather lost and approximately half a dozen people have been killed while she attempts to find a lead.
Enter Paloma Hernandez, a reporter for Channel Five up in Maine. Not only is she someone of a nemesis to Vic, she ends up being kidnapped by the killer. So now instead of playing as two detectives across two time periods, you’re playing as both the detective and the killer’s prey. As Vic you’ll be doing crime scene stuff trying to get ever closer to Hernandez while as Paloma, you’ll be forced to run through sick and sinister traps courtesy of the killer himself.
I really loved the first half of the story. Granted SL2 felt more like a survival-horror game than an adventure game, and some of the stuff that happens was far less believable that the supernatural and psychic bits in the first two games, but it felt rather like a horror movie and I could get behind that.
However the last half of the game dragged for several reasons. The first is that almost all of the game takes place in the same house so there is an aberrant amount of backtracking and seeing the same few locations over and over again. The second is how insane the last half of the game’s story resolves. Not only does the game get a bit nonsensical with killing about a dozen people (Five victims, six cops, one FBI agent, and possibly Paloma depending on which ending you get) but the revelation about who the killer is and why he is doing it is so bloody stupid that it should have any fan of the original game swearing when it happens. Especially since it is telegraphed so early on.
Now for those who haven’t played the original, you won’t care as it’s not a complete retcon of continuity but you still will be annoyed with how telegraphed it is. To make up for this, GameCo has given us well, a bit more of a swerve by the killing having, oh let’s say an arsenal up his sleeve. Plus each time you think you have killed “The East Coast Killer,” you have to kill him two more times. I can’t say more without really spoiling the game, but needless to say I really didn’t need to have both the original SL killer and the one in this game be outed by Gameco as people Vic knew and were purposely doing this do her for some sick psycho revenge/betrayal scheme. If you already do it with the first killer by not going with the original Microids plan, why would you do it with the new killer as well IN THE SAME GAME? That just screams that you have no ideas storywise. This annoyed me to no end and it would have been so much better if both killers weren’t people Vic knew. Even if it had been one, it would have been okay, but to have two killers with the same motive and to showcase both reveals within 15 minutes of each other? That’s sloppy writing. That’s lazy writing. That’s BAD writing.
The endings of the game are a bit weird too. The good ending really just leaves you going, “That’s it?” as it just kind of ends on a weird tense note. It makes me feel like the bad ending is supposed to be the “real” or “canon” ending. The bad ending is also preferable because the game is set up that once you get that ending, you can ONLY get that ending unless you can guess a special password in a hidden screen in the menu. Interesting and fun touch to really hone home the seriousness of bad choices.
In all, true fans of the original Still Life will no doubt be put off by the characterization of returning characters here and the way they are treated. The “resolution” of SL1 is poorly mismanaged and Gameco really didn’t show the original Microids team any respect at all here. SL2 is a fun and gripping story if you are new to the series, but only for the first half of the game. From there it’s all downhill and a bit of an insult to your intelligence.
Story Rating: Decent
On one hand, Still Life 2 boasts some of the best cut scenes I’ve seen in an Adventure game in a long time. The detail, shading, fluid motions and quality are pretty amazing. However the in game graphics suffers from serious issues including an amazing amount of lag, jerky, unrealistic motions, characters sometimes sliding or teleporting across the floor, characters having items in their hand one second and not the next and vice versa. There are a lot of technical snafu’s with the character visuals in Still Life 2 and it is sometimes hilarious sad to see Vic and Paloma move in the game. It’s quite amusing to see Vic draw her gun, only to have nothing in her hands as she stalks or to see a fire extinguisher appear and then disappear in Paloma’s hands while she is bashing down a door. Oops.
The backgrounds are well rendered and quite static as you might imagine. Nearly everything you see will be part of an old house, look like something amount of an abattoir, or a combination of both. Everything here looks quite realistic and this is the most impressive aspect of the new game.
I will say that the fire effects in SL2 are quite amazing and it’s actually some of the best I’ve seen in gaming, regardless of genre. It makes me long for a new “Burning Rangers.”
Overall, aside from the weird character moving and item using visual bugs, this is quite a pretty game indeed.
Graphics Rating: Good
I’m not really a fan of the music in this game. It irritates me with how dull and repetitive it is. It’s not that the music is badly done; it just rubs me the wrong way. It doesn’t fit the overall vibe of the game of the series in general.
Most of the voice acting is pretty good. Vic almost sounds exactly like she did in the first game, as does Claire. That was a nice bit of matching. Paloma has a great voice actress too. There are a few exceptions. Richards Vic’s boyfriend now sense like a overly feminine wuss and he is impossible to take seriously. This is the voice you use for a comic relief character, not romantic lead. Hawker/Miller is decent, but it’s hard to put this voice with the character as it’s so different from the original.
The new characters are good for what they are. They service the plot and deliver their lines in a believable enough manner. They’re not amazing by any length of the imagination, but they get the job done. God, especially compared to Richard.
Sound effects are also nicely done. Everything sounds realistic and it’s impressive to see (or rather, hear) the array of sounds in this games. The big negative here is that in many of the cut scenes, the audio effects don’t match up with the visuals at all. One example is with the scene where Vic uses C-4 to blow open a door. You hear the explosion before Vic goes behind cover and puts her hand over her ears and then the game is oddly silent with the actual explosions. Sometimes effects are late and sometimes they are early, but very rarely do the scenes synch up exactly.
Sound Rating: Decent
4. Control and Gameplay
…and here is where everything just falls apart. Gameplay-wise this is one of the worst experiences of my life. It’s so buggy and broken that I will try to only touch on the big bits rather than everything that is god awful about this game.
First up is the mouse click detection. With all Adventure games, it’s all point and click. You left click to interact with something and right click to bring up your inventory. Supposedly you can double click to run, but in fact it’s usually eleven of twelve clicks and by the time it registers, you’re already there so you run one or two steps. This wouldn’t be SO bad if it wasn’t for the fact your characters move amazingly slow when walking and only a tiny bit faster when running. As such, out of the dozen hours I put into this game I can safely say half of it was walking at a speed slower than a sloth on a lazy day. You’ll also find this to be an issue with clicking on items in your inventory or in the area you are on. Sometimes you will have to click multiple times to get a response from the game. Annoying doesn’t begin to describe it.
Next up is the inventory issue. As I said earlier, you could tell Gameco was trying to make Still Life 2 a border line Survival horror game. Well this aspect really shines with the limited inventory screen. Instead of having an unlimited inventory like in most Adventure games, you are limited to a minimal amount of space to store your items. Okay, I could live with this at first. It’s trying something new. Especially since there are a few storage bins in the game where you can keep your extra stuff. However there are two problems. The first is that you can’t set something down when you pick it up, even if it is the same spot. Nope, you can only put things in these particular storage space. The other really big issue is that the storage spaces aren’t communal. You know how in Survival Horror games like Resident Evil you can store stuff and pick it up in a storage bin several areas away? Nope. Not here. It’s backtracking central. This is such an obviously decision to make in order to cut down on boredom and frustration, I’m shocked Gameco didn’t do this. First game or not, this is a pretty big blunder.
Third is the area for clicking on items. Usually items and objects have a decent amount of pixels to let you choose from. Click in the general area and you can pick up the item. Not so here. In Still Life 2 the areas are not only abundantly small, but are often offset from the item you always want to interact with. As such you may be trying to pick up an item off a desk or shelf only to find you need to have your cursor some distance from the item in order to interact with it. Wisky Tango Foxtrot? The game really could have benefited from what has become an industry standard by having a button like TAB or SPACE that highlights all the interactive objects.
There are also the numerous bugs in the game. Before multiple cut scenes I was treated to script errors and was asked if I wanted to cancel, try again, or continue. If I chose “continue,” the game would cut out the cut scene entirely and cancel just would make the error pop back up. If this happens to use, please remember to choose “try again.” It’s the only way to get it to work properly.
There are a few areas in the game where if you move a character on top of that spot, the character will stop responding. Thankfully these are rare, but it means you have to save the game, exit and reload and get them to move. It’s as if ther eis an invisible object blocking their way.
The use of the ultra unrealistic super FBI detective kit package is pretty bad. You right click to bring up your inventory. You left click on an item to pull it out. You either right click to bring yourself back to the main screen or scroll to the “X” in the lower right hand screen and left click that. Then you left click with your item on the blood spill or bullet casing or what have you and it brings you back to the detective kit. If you right click here, instead of dumping your item as it normally does in every other case in the inventory screen, it instead closes the inventory screen and leaves you in the action area with your no longer needed item. Instead, you have to wait for the game to process you’ve added a new clue and it will make automatically drop the item…just not right away. You may have to double or triple click on an item to highlight it though.
The game also tries to do an Adventure game version of active time events. As in you have a limited amount of time to complete a puzzle or you die horribly. This in and of its own accord is not a bad thing. Yes, it is once again a step towards making SL2 far more a survival-horror game than an adventure game, but at least it’s not as badly implemented as in Dracula 2: The Final Sanctuary where you have no idea you’re even in one until a werebat eats you. Here you are given a time that slowly ticks down. However, slow is the key word because remember all those issues I mentioned with the game being buggy, the game ignoring run requests and where you have click detection issues? Well they all merge to bite you in the ass here. Thankfully the timer is so long that even with your character moving at a snail’s pace in the midst of high drama you can still finish things off with time to spare. However I play way too many Adventure games for my own good, so the average player will no doubt run out of time on more than one occasion. This would be fine if it was due to your own fault for not figuring out a puzzle or getting the right combination of items. It’s quite another when you die because the game will not respond to your requests or it moves you left when you clicked right or because you are moving like a Sunday driver when you should be running for your bloody life.
The only good thing I can say about the engine is that it never crashed on me. Although god knows it wanted to with all those script errors popping up. Again, Encore is well aware of the issues plaguing the downloadable version of this game and I can’t say for sure if the CD/DVD-rom equivalent will have the same issues. With the shape this game is in now though, it’s one of the worst point and click experiences I’ve ever had. Of course, I also preferred the Xbox version of the original Still Life to the PC version, if only for the controls in the robot maze thingie at the end.
You can definitely tell this is Gameco’s first ever title as they do everything wrong and sometimes, spectacularly so. The game is not unplayable, but at times it certainly feels that way. I don’t ever remember swearing at a point and click title the way I did this one in regards to unresponsiveness or a lack of detection. Man, just thinking about it raises my ire again. M2, what were you thinking giving these guys your most asked for sequel?
Control and Gameplay Rating: Worthless
Most Adventure games are a one shot experience due to a lack of any linearity at all. You have to do certain things in a certain order and at a certain time with no deviation. At least SL2 gives you two endings and two ways to solve the penultimate puzzle. Even with the bonus ending there’s no real reason to replay the game. Save the game before you free Paloma, get the good ending, start from the save, get the bad ending and joy, you now have everything with all the cinematics available to you at any time. The game is just too buggy and poorly done to recommend a second playthrough, although the cut scenes are worth watching again simply for the quality of the visuals.
Replayability Rating: Poor
One of the things I loved about the original Still Life was all the unique puzzles. Even the annoying remote controlled robot one was so outside the box, I couldn’t help but embrace it. The lockpicking, the slider puzzle, the maze, the weird thing on the safe and the crane game. Those were all a lot of fun. Sadly, the variety and innovation in the first Still Life is all but missing here. Most of the puzzles here are just find an item and use an item on something else. Sometimes you combine two items to make something new and use THAT on something else.
However, the puzzles that do try to be original are either really good or really unwieldy. The good puzzles are the three at the end. You have a stealth shoot out with the killer, which was fun. You have to save Paloma from getting electrocuted, and it’s one of those rare puzzles with TWO solutions. Awesome. The final puzzle is a bomb defusing situation with again, is kind of neat. Although with that one, you have to have been pretty pedantic to know the solution off the top of your head. What can I say, after Dark Fall, I’ve learned to write everything down. You know, like we did back in the days of Wizardry.
My favourite puzzle was the lazer grid one, where you had to steer Vic through a set of tri-colour lasers. My least favourite was the mine field, because the controls in this game are so god awful, I would click to neutralize a mine and the game would instead register that i walked all the way across the lawn, BLOWING MYSELF UP. HATE. SO MUCH HATE.
None of the puzzles in the game are really stuff as long as you read all the clues and take note of them. A tried and true trick to do is to try and combine everything in your inventory once you get something new so you can be prepared down the road. That’s how I discovered how to save Paloma in ten seconds. “Oh hey, look what I made! What, I can make four of them? I wonder why?”
The worst aspect in regards to balance is the heavily flawed inventory system. Having to remember where you stored everything and having to backtrack to find something will be a real bitch unless, again, you wrote everything down. The puzzles aren’t bad, just fairly generic. There are a few times the game really shines but those are at the climax and still aren’t as interesting as the first game. Still, a longtime Adventure fan should have no problems with this save for the lag, control issues and bugs.
Balance Rating: Above Average
As a third game in a series, the originality obviously takes a hit. It also doesn’t help that a lot of the game follows the Adventure cliches that I’ve been encountering since the early to mid 1980′s. Now that’s not to say the game doesn’t have its moments of creativity, but when those moments DO arrive they are generally poorly implemented and actually make the game worse than better. We see these with the active-time events and the inventory issues. Now the puzzles themselves towards the end get quite intriguing and fun, but that’s about 5-10 percent of the game at best.
The game REALLY shows a lack of originality when both the SL1 and SL2 killers are shown to have the same motive and the game is all about “OH NOES! Victoria gets betrayed again and all these people die because of HER!” It’s so bad that if Vic hasn’t snapped and become a killer herself in SL3, I will lose any and all respect for the franchise. There’s no way someone stays sane after two people do the exact same thing in nearly the same exact way like this. Really, would it have been THAT HARD to come up with a second motive?
Overall, the fact this is GameCo’s first title one again rears its ugly head as the game stuck nearly to the tried and true trappings of the genre with very little foray into trying something new. Of course, considering every time they DID try the game took a nosedive into suck, that might actually be for the best. Seriously M2, just hire some of the original Microids staff back from Ubisoft and let them make their games. That way you get the name brand staying intact AND you get quality games.
Originality Rating: Poor
I’ve been pretty rough on this game, and deservedly so. Thus it might surprise you to learn I beat the game in two days. I pretty much ate, worked out, slept and played Still Life 2. Part of this was because I loved the original game and Post Mortem so much, that I have grown quite attached to these characters. Part of it is that I’ve befriended some of the original dev team and getting to leak the secret of who the killer was originally supposed to be was a nice little treat. Part of it was that I hated playing this game so much, I just wanted to get it over with.
Again, it’s not the story or the puzzles or the way they disregarded the original plot for SL2. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit this game would have worked a lot better as its own thing under a different name or just ignored the original SL story outright and moved on. It was the slow plodding movement, the lag and the multiple bugs that broke me. I could only play the game for an hour or two and then I needed to take a pretty long break. I went into this from the very beginning knowing this would be a very error laden and buggy game because Encore was honest about it and they are doing their best to fix the downloadable version. Without this knowledge, I probably wouldn’t have finished the game and I’d be a lot more rancorous with my commentary. With it, I realize that it’s probably the Digital River download manager and it’s well known issues with destroying games rather than letting them work properly.
If the controls worked properly, there wasn’t such detection issues and the game wasn’t so slow that you would think you were playing with molasses I’d have been a lot more positive with my experiences and this section would especially be higher and the story and puzzles did have some awesome bits. However the way the game is currently running I have to say in its current state, Microids has allowed it’s last remaining quality franchise to take a nose dive into suck and I applaud Encore for stepping up to the plate and trying to fix issues while Microids is just sitting on their ass.
Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre
9. Appeal Factor
Still Life and Post Mortem have a lot of fans. This is one of the most sought after sequels I can think of in Adventure gaming save for maybe another Maniac Mansion or Grim Fandango, neither of which we will ever get. However the game has such issues that a huge chunk of fans will no doubt be pretty upset at all the bugs. Heck, a quick look at the Gamefaqs message board for this game is pretty much all venom.
Still Life 1 fans will also probably be upset with the way the original game’s story is treated and cast off, and perhaps even more upset with the treatment of the returning characters, with one particular character having such a personality shift, it’s no wonder they changed his name from Miller to Hawker.
Adventure games are a very niche genre here in the US, even will companies like Telltale making licensed ones involve Monkey Island, Wallace and Gromit, and Strong Bad. The original Still Life and its Xbox release did a lot to bring newcomers to the point and click fold. This one however may just drive some away.
That being said, Still Life 2 does have some decent puzzles and an interesting (albeit it transparent) story, so aficionados of the genre may find this worth their time, especially if they are patient with the control issues and multiple bugs that plague this.
Appeal Factor: Poor
It’s my personal opinion that due to the shape Still Life 2 is currently in, that Encore should nix the downloadable option for the game entirely and go straight to the boxed format. I realize that’s probably more expensive, but if it is indeed true that all these issues are unique to the downloadable version and that they still are having problems fixing this, then they need to do the right thing for consumers and not let them get their grubby mitts on a half-assed version of a game.
At the same time it’s very big of Encore to admit the issues with the game right out and Jane (who I have been working with) and the rest of the staff have been top notch at dealing with this problem and trying to make things work properly. I applaud them for this. More publishers need to be this hands-on and willing to take responsibility.
The question however, is where does the blame lie for this mess that Still Life 2 has become. Is it in the hands of Digital River as this is yet another game that appears to go through their download manager barely working? Is it in the hands of Gameco for making such a mediocre, at best, title? Is it in the hands of Microids/M2 who have been willing to whore out their classic licenses to developers that have neither the skill nor talent to do the original games proud? Or is it a case of every one of those three deserves a bit of blame and finger wagging for this snafu?
Again, with the shape that this is in, I am saddened to admit I can’t in good conscience recommend this game to anyone. At the same time because Encore has been so upfront and honest about these issues plaguing SL2, and because of my love for the original, I am more than happy to revisit this game once the many issues are worked out. Here’s hoping the controls, script error, slow moving characters and the like eventually get patched. For now though, it’s a bit depressing that the final game in the trilogy ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
Miscellaneous Rating: Bad
Control and Gameplay: Worthless
Balance: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Poor
FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Still Life 2 is game that really needed a little more polish and quality control before being released. It’s quite buggy and there are some really big flaws in the game that detract from the overall gaming experience. At the same time, the game’s cut scenes are incredible and when the game wants to be, it shows the occasional flicker of outright brilliance. At the end of the day though, the sheer amount of bugs combined with some really bad gameplay decisions and a bit of a middle finger to the original Still Life and Post Mortem fans means that this game is left best in the hands of someone who has not played the original and/or who is unaware of who the original Still Life killer was meant to be. Supposedly these issues only plague the downloadable version of the game, so my advice is to wait for the boxed version to be available in August. Otherwise you are getting a game that is, at times, nigh unplayable.