“Conspiracy”, as a word, produces images of the dark corners of our everyday lives, where pieces of our existence we’re not even aware of are controlled to an alternate end by an unnamed person or power. Inherent in this projection of deceit is the seriousness of a conspiracy’s nature. In a story or game that carries the titular term, one would expect to feel the dark helplessness of a clandestine effort as the details of the secret were revealed. In Anima’s spearhead adventure game, Conspiracies, there’s a noted ambiguity in exactly how seriously it wants to take itself at any given time, and this hurts the final product rather badly.
The story starts off effectively identifying a singular character, initially unconnected to the larger plotline, to start unraveling the yarn of secrets. Nick Delios (a dead-ringer for Billy Bob Thornton) is a down-on-his-luck professional gambler/drinker, who discovered his current gambling/drinking talents after a devastating double-cross by a fellow lab jockey. This betrayal ended an otherwise illustrious medical research position at a top university. Now Nick is approached by that same (now high-powered) double-crosser, as well as a friend in the law-enforcement community, to investigate a disappearance and a murder. Nick, owing one of these employers his life and dependent on the other’s cash payment, can do nothing but accept the terms of the offers.
If only the story could carry the rest of what could be considered a rather messy production. Normally I wouldn’t start in with a critique of the graphics, but in an adventure game, they are integral in presenting mood and functionality. Conspiracies comes off looking like a diorama made with square-ish props and magazine photo cutouts. The simplicity in Nick’s surroundings actually does serve the purpose of identifying retrievable objects quite well – nothing stands out more than an item of importance placed on a tabletop or floor that has almost no shading or color variance to speak of. But this also takes away from the challenge of finding said item and the immersion of actually being in this virtual place. I’m tempted to argue that, for all of its movement restrictions, Cyan Production’s Myst did a much better job of presenting a unique and relatively believable environment by keeping things simple without skimping on the depth of the climate. Conspiracies actually shoots itself in the foot by not putting enough into its landscape, and I ended up feeling more like I was just marching around in a boring world constructed almost entirely of right angles.
To liven up this barrage of polygonal rigidity are key live-action sequences, featuring real locations and, dare I use the term, “real” actors. These rather short sections of dialogue and story sometimes include a multiple choice response, which will either impede or progress your conversation in the scene. For instance, in order to get a drink from the bar, you could choose from three or four pre-scripted methods of attaining some alcohol, usually varied on mood or conviction, i.e. pick a response that’s amicable, surly, or pitiable. Depending on whom you’re talking to and the response you pick, the conversation may end abruptly. After seeing some of the blatant over-acting and cinematic no-no’s, I got the impression that I was watching portions of a poorly produced, low-budget film. There are even a few scenes where the boom mic kept dipping into view from the top center of the shot – always a classy addition to a professional effort. Where Conspiracies tried the hybrid approach of combining the live-action characters with computer generated backgrounds, the foibles of both techniques deprived the scenes of any convincing weight. They might as well have been recording the scenes in a disused broom closet.
The gameplay style follows a pretty straight-forward setup, but employs a first-person perspective as opposed to the ubiquitous third person viewpoint. This was actually a welcome change to me (regardless of the motion-sickness I suffered), since watching the plodding movements of a character in third-person can get very old, especially in an adventure game. First-person mode made for smooth movements through each environment, and saved me from watching live-action representations of Nick traipsing around under my command. Walking to key exit points in each location brings up a map that identifies the places you’re allowed to go, depending on where you are in the story and what steps you’ve accomplished. A simple crosshair designates your focus, and right and left clicking the mouse are about as difficult as the action commands get – one is for description and the other for direct action. The item menu is also suitably simple, though the mouse button layout to use, combine, or inspect items can get confusing at times. I found myself ogling a tube of toothpaste when what I really wanted to do with the bloody thing was throw it to the floor.
The puzzles presented were thankfully pretty diverse, and probably what saved this game from being a complete loss. Sure, there are the occasional “find the key” missions, but most of them seemed to involve steps less banal than either looking for an actual key, or things that could create or emulate an actual key. There’s a bit of virtual hacking that harnesses the complexity of a security password written on the back of a photo, or the ID card found in the dumpster (I know the ID card isn’t that original, but I give two points for making me dig through a dumpster). Though the item listing got a little lengthy at times, the items certainly aren’t overtly confusing or counter-intuitive; if two things look like they might go together, they probably will. This helped me progress rather quickly and encouragingly through a world built to stunt and disgust my senses and headway in the game.
And in an anticlimactic coup de grace, I present to you the music. Ah, the music – haunting, plunky, synthetic tones that sounded as if they were lovingly composed by a third grader on a 25 dollar Casio keyboard. This may be the crowning and most provocative piece of the game that convinced me I may be watching either a low-budget indy film effort, or high-budget porn. It’s the sort of thing that actually detracts from the quality of the game. However, I did enjoy the music video cleverly included as a part of the story (probably friends of the developing house that wanted any kind of mass exposure) – ZZ Top’s grungy blues style has never been ripped off so accurately. If every other sound was dropped from the game and the music video remained, I would be just as pleased.
The preconceptions I had for a game called “Conspiracies” ran pretty high when I began my sojourn through the story. As the insidious curtain of deceit descended on my character, and the dawning realization of the truth arched my brow, I wanted to feel enlightened, oppressed, and propelled to new objectives. Conspiracies’ problematic technicalities all but took any existing tension from the game, and left behind a glorified treasure hunt. I’m sorry to say that aside from the workable puzzles and amateur camp acting, there really isn’t much here to inspire the shadowed crannies of your imagination or justify the discovery of the truth.