With adventure games occupying a smaller (yet fiercely loyal) niche these days, it’s great to see The Adventure Company continue to carry the torch and hold it high and proud. Famed developer Microids’ latest release, Still Life, is a well-done thriller that features the company’s trademark lush, detailed visuals and music, and a compelling storyline that has players traveling back and forward in time playing as two separate characters racing to stop a serial killer from adding to his list of victims. Fans of movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, along with those who catch CSI in its assorted incarnations should be pleased with what’s here, and I’d recommend the game to anyone looking for a well-written and dark, disturbing treat laced with bits of humor and plenty of twists and turns.
In Still Life’s present-day sequences, you’ll play as Victoria McPherson, a young, attractive Chicago FBI agent on the trail of a brutal killer of prostitutes, while in the past, you’ll play as Gus McPherson, Victoria’s grandfather, and lead from the 2003 PC game Post Mortem. This is a great touch which makes Still Life a sort of sequel to Post Mortem, and the changes in investigative methods and overall atmosphere is a great touch. While Victoria relies on science and modern forensic tools to aid her in her cases, Gus is blessed (or cursed, if you want to look at it that way) with a unique sporadic psychic sense that draws him closer to the killer through brief visions and tantalizing clues that require closer examination. Both characters are different in the way they handle their cases, but you can definitely see where Victoria gets her investigative chops from.
The game takes place in Chicago (for Victoria) and Prague (for Gus), and you’ll explore a number of beautifully rendered environments in each time period. Like any great adventure game, success in Still Life revolves around exploration, investigation and dialogue. By carefully examining found objects from all angles, combining them with other objects, and using them in certain spots in each area, the two characters will be able to piece together clues around the bigger, bloodier puzzle of flesh that‘s keeping them employed. You’ll also need to speak to everyone you come across for clues and information, or just to get past them to the next area. Victoria is quite the comedienne at times, but from what I’ve read and seen, a sense of humor helps quite a lot in her line of work. Gus is more pensive and ’detective-like’ in his mannerisms, and his brief visions are disturbing enough to jolt you from the slightly lighter tone of Victoria’s era. The game can be played with either the mouse or keyboard- I preferred the standard point & click style for the immediacy it provides, but it’s certainly nice to have the option for those that like it.
There are plenty of cryptic clues in both periods that require you to do a bit of creative thinking, from deciphering scrawled words at a crime scene to figuring out the true depth of a painting hanging in a gallery. For fun, you can speak to your cohorts or other characters to get additional information not relevant to either of the cases, which adds a nice layer of personality to the rest of the cast. Like any detective thriller, you’ll also have a number of suspects to question, and par for the course, sometimes the most obvious person isn’t whodunit at all. The killers seem to have this almost Jack the Ripper-like hatred of women, and the game isn’t shy about displaying some fairly graphic images and cinemas to drive home its point. This is definitely not a game for the easily disturbed; you’ll see those photographs from Victoria’s files and some of the ruined, staring faces and twisted bodies of the victims in your mind’s eye for a while. Those jokes and light moments sprinkled throughout the game really go a long way here, as some of the cinemas are unsettling enough to make you want to look away.
But with graphics like this, it’s impossible to look away. As usual, Microids has outdone itself here with these lush pre-rendered environments, and every screen in Still Life is a sheer, sometimes shocking treat to look at. Rich with period elements and variety, you’ll pore over each screen with a mixture of bliss and dread. Bliss at the beautiful texture work and attention to detail, and dread at the sight of yet another mangled corpse to examine up close. I love how Microids makes the present-day stuff a bit more futuristic than it actually is, yet also somehow quaint as well. You’ll see this in the architectural designs in the assorted buildings and little touches like the computer in Victoria’s 4x4 with the retro-looking gadget on the dashboard. Prague looks suitably aged and stunning with plenty of lovely scenery and lighting to go around. Both eras use lighting excellently, and you’ll even see a few weather effects for good measure.
The characters are solid and have that familiar mixture of realism and caricature found in Micriods titles. For some reason, I always think of Daumier when I see a Microids game, but maybe I’m egg-heading a bit too much. Anyway, as mentioned above, Victoria is beautiful and funny, while Gus goes more for moody and tense. The assorted supporting players range from great to a wee bit too stereotypical, but overall, you get a nice balance of personalities. The same goes for the voice acting which is solid for the most part. The rest of the audio is stellar stuff with a great soundtrack throughout, and plenty of great audio effects. The game’s opening cinema is amazing, with a dynamic operatic theme driving the cross-cutting action as the killer does his dirty work in the past while Victoria and her beau are about to hit the town in the present, then she rushes off once she gets a call about another body being found. The game sues a comic-book style typeface for menus and such, which I thought was strange or about five minutes, but once the game was underway, it really felt like a good graphic novel playing out while I was mouse-clicking away.
As far as negatives, there are only a scant few at best. If you’re not patient and overlook something, it’s entirely possible to get stuck on a minor puzzle; but that’s definitely not the fault of the game. Some of Victoria’s jokes are a bit too corny (you’d think Gus was a washed up vaudevillian she got her humor from instead of an ace investigator), and one or two of the accents is more silly than believable. Finally, at about 8-10 hours for skilled players Still Life might seem a tad short, but if you want more I’d really recommend picking up Post Mortem as a nice chaser or prequel to what’s here. Overall, this is one superb, scary as hell, and stunningly beautiful bit of adventure game greatness that you won’t soon forget. If you’re reading this and don’t play PC games but are an Xbox owner, you’re in luck; the game is supposed to be coming to Microsoft’s console shortly, which means I get to play it all over again and get just as frightened… yet determined to solve the case all over again.
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