Review: Casebook Episode 3: Snake In the Grass (PC)

Casebook Episode 3: Snake In the Grass
Genre: Adventure/Mystery
Developer: Aero Cinematic Games
Publisher: Big Fish
Release Date: 11/01/09
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 three Casebook games are nearly identical, many of the sections written for the prior games will be re-used for this review.

So, back in March we reviewed Casebook Episode 1: Kidnapped and Casebook Episode 2: The Watcher. The first game showed a lot of solid promise, and while it wasn’t about to set the world on fire with renewed interest in full-motion video style games, it was a good effort that was fun and entertaining. The second game… was mostly the same game, with some minor gameplay tweaks and a less believable storyline attached. The second game’s story issues, it seems, were meant to set the stage for the third game, Snake In the Grass, to give the player a nemesis to face and some cohesion between the second and third episodes instead of making the games feel like they completely stood alone. Well, considered in this light, the argument can be made that if the third game makes up for the stumbling of the second, it is worth dealing with said stumbling to see the series through when the ending is truly worth seeing. As such, let’s take a look at Casebook Episode 3: Snake In the Grass and see if the game is a worthy ending to the series or another stumble for a series that, at first, showed plenty of promise.

At the end of The Watcher, you and Detective James Burton watched Marlon Hapman, the murderer in that game, walk away clean because of the fact that the police in this town are idiots the game claims you didn’t have sufficient evidence to put him away. Hapman, being a braggart, opted to mock Burton with a painting left in his house of the dead victim shortly before he then disappeared off the face of the Earth. Burton, instead of maybe having the painting analyzed to see if there was blood in the paint, which was established to be a trait of Hapman’s AND would have probably given the police force enough evidence to bring Hapman up on crime scene tampering charges, decides to obsess over Hapman in private for the next few months until he corners the guy in a city called Garden. Burton brings you with him on an unofficial case to track Hapman down, but your visit isn’t ALL about tracking down your long lost rival; it seems that a man has wound up dead at the hands of a local teenager, and Burton is convinced that Hapman had a hand in it. Hapman, however, claims to have found God and, in turn, to have repented for his sins, leaving you to pour through the events to discover if Burton is obsessed with nothing, or if Hapman did, indeed, have something to do with the crime. Needless to say, events become a good bit more involved than they first seem, as nothing is what it seems in Garden, and you’ll quickly find yourself in a situation a great deal more involved than you first assumed.

Snake In the Grass, like its predecessors, does its best work with scene building and character dialogue, and in that respect, the story is pretty solid. Burton once again comes off as a gritty film noir style detective, rattling off dismissive or angry one-liners that are just the right amount of corny without being too absurd, and the residents of the town are about as deluded and creepy as the game needs them to be. Hapman, in particular, has some well written dialogue in this game, as his character comes across as some sort of redeemed soul with just the tiniest bit of Hannibal Lecter poking out at various points, making him one of the more interesting characters in the game overall. On the other hand, when the game begins going into its various big reveals (and it has a couple), it stumbles a bit. Now, the obvious problem, IE that the player has no reason to believe Hapman is innocent and thus never would, aside, the murder that brings you and Burton to Garden turns out to be one small part of a bigger, and more absurd, plan. The “more absurd” part of the plan is where the story hits some snags: simply put, the discoveries you make as you progress through the story are questionable at best and somewhat ridiculous at worst. It’s not even that the concepts are bad specifically so much as they feel like they belong in a completely different series, simply because they’re kind of… out there, for lack of a better way of describing it without spoiling anything. The game also ends on something of a sour note, and while it implies that there will be more sequels (which is good), it also ends in a way that leaves you feeling like you didn’t accomplish anything (which is not so good). Overall, the execution of the story is less tortured than it was in The Watcher, so we’ll say the story is better overall and move on.

Much like the prior games, Snake In the Grass 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 is still using the same technology as the prior games 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. There was one scene in the game where something was noticeably inserted, however: in the shed Hapman owns, you notice that the roof is inserted after the fact if you pay attention while walking around, as it seems to move while you’re walking. This isn’t terribly jarring, and nothing of this sort appears in the remainder of the game, but this looks awkward and unpleasant when you see it for the first time. 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, as 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. Unfortunately, while Hapman and Burton pick up their roles for this game, Pete the forensic scientist has been replaced by Anja Nilsson, who, while not a bad actress per say, is not a suitable replacement.

Snake In the Grass is very simple to play, as 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 Anja will helpfully point out if you happen to bring her 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 Anja 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, so 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, for example. 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 the prior games are back for another go in Snake In the Grass, though the interesting tape organization minigame from The Watcher has been excised, for obvious reasons. In fact, none of the minigames in Snake In the Grass are really unique to the game, with the exception of the few one-shot games you’ll have to play at specific points. These aren’t bad at all, mind you, and you’ll find yourself disassembling a clock, assembling a crude chemical payload system out of irrigation parts, and trying to assemble a chemical concoction using more than trial and error, for instance. These puzzles are interesting when they pop up, though they don’t make up for the fact that Snake In the Grass doesn’t have any sort of interesting gimmicks otherwise to make the game its own thing. It literally apes the formula of the prior two games without adding any significant changes to the mechanics, which is disappointing when compared to the minor but interesting changes The Watcher added to the game.

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. In this case, we also see a few scenes of James basically losing all hope as the case begins to fall apart in front of him, which provide a nice contrast to the prior games, where Burton was always sure he was on the right path. The majority of the cutscenes are simply scenes you watch, though there is still a scene at the end that requires you to make a very important choice that will affect both you and Burton immensely. The core game is still unfortunately as brief as its predecessors, 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 Snake In the Grass that has been carried over from the prior games. Even without the intuition feature, the game still isn’t especially challenging. Finding useless evidence simply wastes your time, and the game won’t do anything with the useless evidence otherwise. The game really could have benefited from some red herrings or false clues 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 in your inventory, 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, and 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 the end of the game is the only place where your choice makes any sort of significant difference to the narrative, 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, and while I’m certain this is hardly surprising, it’s still a shame, all the same.

Snake In the Grass is still a fun and amusing game for adventure game fans and crime scene investigation lovers, and while the plot is a little more unbelievable in concept than its predecessors, it’s generally better executed than the second game, making it a bit more enjoyable overall. The dialogue is quite solid and characters are mostly great, though the game hurts for Pete’s absence, and the story is mostly superior to that of the second game, though it doesn’t come together as well as that of the first. Most everything looks and sounds good, the game is still 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, and you won’t have any reason to come back to it once you’ve completed it. The overall plot also takes some notable suspension of disbelief to really get into, though it’s not as hard to accept as the ending of the prior game. That said, for the price, Snake In the Grass is a solid enough final act for the Casebook series, at least for now, and should there be more games in the series, at this point, they have a solid place to start from. For fifteen dollars, Snake In the Grass is a solid and enjoyable effort that, while not as tight conceptually as the first game and not as mechanically interesting as the second game, stands on its own as an interesting and enjoyable experience, and if you enjoyed the first two games, or you enjoy CSI shows and police drama, it’s worth a look if you can ignore its flaws.

The Scores:
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: DREADFUL
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE


Short Attention Span Summary:
Casebook Episode 3: Snake In the Grass is a fair finale for the series, or at least this particular arc of it, and while it doesn’t fulfill the promise of the first two games to the level it should, it’s still a fun and engaging adventure game that should be worth checking out for fans of the game or story genre. The story is an improvement over the second game for the most part, and the game is still as easy and amusing to play as ever, making it easy to recommend for casual players or those who want a laid back experience. Unfortunately, the game is still no longer than its predecessors, still isn’t anywhere near challenging, and still offers you no reason to come back to it once you’ve finished it. The story elements can occasionally seem far fetched, the game does nothing to improve over its predecessors, and the omission of Pete as forensic examiner also don’t help the game much. The price is still low enough and the overall experience is still interesting enough that it’s safe to say that Snake In the Grass is still worth checking out, either on its own or as the finale to the series. It’s not as good as it could be and doesn’t quite pay off on the promise of the prior games, but it’s fun enough and engaging enough to justify the asking price, and if you’re a fan of adventure games or crime dramas, that’ll probably be reason enough.



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