Missing: Since January Review

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Graphics: 8.0
Sound : 8.5
Gameplay : 8.0
Multiplayer : N/A
Overall : 8.2
Review by Tim Eller

The making of a successful adventure game includes all the same rudimentary aspects of just about any other type of game – environment, play style, interface – with a heavy emphasis on story. Because of the plodding physical movement through a fabricated world and the grilling thought needed to pass some of the very cerebral puzzles, players can get lost in the slow pace. Story is key – the thicker it is, the better, and if it’s presented correctly it can strike its own unique note amongst the chorus of adventure titles already out there.

Lexis Numérique has taken a story, washed it in the blood of a lamb, given it the polished sheen of obsidian, and displayed it unconventionally, hovering in mid-air. Very rarely does presentation come across as innovative as it does in Missing: Since January. I’ve heard the name Majestic thrown around a little bit here and there, but I’m quite sure that game has nothing on Missing. What might make Missing a quiet candidate for cult status or under-rated gem is its unusually simple structure, and disproportionately large entertainment factor.

On the surface, it’s a game that’s disguised as a package you receive from a publishing company, enlisting your sleuthing abilities to help crack the code on a mysterious CD that’s been found. This CD turns up after their star photographic journalist, Jack Lorski, disappears along with his investigative companion, Karen Gijman. Unique in its approach to player involvement, Missing proceeds to engage the player’s resourcefulness and intuition, forcing them to crack the CD’s code in order to save the lives of Jack and Karen, using the practical methodologies of a detective.

It’s so easy to get lost in the regular process of the game. This has to be the most powerful tool at Missing’s disposal; it’s a cryptic, challenging CD that contains the explanations for the disappearances, and more than you’d probably ever want to know about the kidnapper who names himself “The Phoenix”. The entire story revolves around a super 8 home video that Jack had come across, showing images of someone’s Greek vacation and, inadvertently, a murder on the beach. In between the puzzles, brief glimpses of Jack’s movie documentary are shown, and play out, bit by bit, the pursuit of an explanation for the super 8 movie and its subjects. By doing this, the player learns a little more each time about what happened to Jack and Karen, and that the story contains more dark and dangerous corners than it started with.

That’s pretty much all that’s on the CD. The rest of the game’s contents lie in the investigative acumen of the player, their instincts, and the ability to see clues in ordinary, out-of-game resources. About 300 real and “simulated” web sites are at the disposal of the player in order to solve the riddles on the Phoenix’s CD. If that isn’t enough to inspire muckraking, the player also receives periodic emails containing clues and helpful utilities from fictional colleagues. Both of these basic resources are available through a menu bar that has been included within each puzzle screen. I discovered that I did have to be careful of the 'net. In my searches for legitimate data to help me solve the game’s puzzles, I ran into hordes of walkthroughs and giveaways for Missing that could easily tarnish the fun. Take note of this while playing. Aside from that, the factual ambiguity of the information you can find on the internet has been masterfully exploited in Missing, with its many deliberately placed solutions amongst the “legitimate” informational nebula of the internet and the 'net’s staple of anonymous communiqué. It’s all designed to give a thrilling life to a situation that’s manufactured.

Ambiguity shows its face in other places of Missing, and not to the advantage of the game’s construction. Because of the widespread use of the internet to find clues (which invariably lead to other clues) or outright solutions, some directives can become a bit obscure, or even transparent. Missing does its best to help you along, either in the form of an email or even gentle chiding from the Phoenix himself, but there will be many moments of consternation and loss of momentum that take away from Missing when that next step isn’t clearly, or even partially, spelled out. This may be the one thing that Missing holds in common with its genre cousins.

Even in the light of that rather common shortfall, there’s no shortage of atmosphere here. Take the visual feel of SE7EN and wrap it up in the technical premise of Fear.com, and you’ve got a pretty solid representation of how dark Missing is supposed to be. Strange, zodiacal icons shimmer on black, indiscernible screens, while the grinding screech of metal tears through the aphotic imagery. Grainy black-and-whites of a terror-stricken woman, or murder site photos of a clue-bearing victim flash and blind the player in an effort to shock and horrify. Whoever put these crisp glimpses of madness together at Lexis Numérique is probably taking a very protracted vacation from themselves, after having to put together this stuff of nightmares. It’s moving content, and altogether too convincing.

It would have been folly to support a gripping story such as Missing portrays with actors that had no presence, and there are no stuttering, melodramatic, cardboard casting-couch rejects here. Jack and Karen, along with the many incidental characters shown in the film shorts, do an excellent job of keeping it real. The quality here actually encourages progress to the next clip, just to see exactly how good game and voice actors should be earning their pay, in-game or on-screen.

Conclusion:
No matter what angle I come at Missing: Since January, I always come back impressed. It could be that it’s found a way to involve me in what’s transpiring, while eschewing the obvious elements that would remind me I’m just playing a game. Digging through the fake web sites in order to find clues I can use on real web sites takes a gentle charm, especially for someone who bludgeons their way through most real-life and game-related problems, like I do.

Charming is not, however, an encompassing word I’d use to describe Missing. Vivid. Frightening. Dire. These are much better terms for such an engrossing play experience. I would highly recommend this if you’re into grim thrillers, or the odd variation on adventure game constructs. It’s as compelling as it is morbid and innovative.