Still Life Review

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Graphics: 6.0
Sound : 5.0
Gameplay : 4.0
Multiplayer : N/A
Overall : 5.0
Review by Stevie Smith
Since console games generally operate through handheld controllers, there has been a diminishing call as of late for mouse-powered point-and-click adventures. In fact, the genre itself has been sadly under represented outside of its more traditional PC heritage. In 2003, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon successfully breathed a welcome blast of life into the floundering body of console adventure games, but since then nothing truly substantial has emerged to maintain that renewed vigor. But now publishers The Adventure Company, and developers Microids offer console adventure game fans an eerie alternative to the more conventional genres with Still Life.

In Still Life, players adopt two character roles. The first of these is based in present day Chicago and sees you as Victoria McPherson, a brilliant young FBI agent on the trail of a mysterious serial killer. During the course of her investigation, Victoria uncovers similarities with an old case her grandfather investigated in both Prague and Chicago during the 1930s, which leads players back in time as Gus McPherson (of Post Mortem fame). The game alternates between both McPhersons as the plot gradually unfolds across timelines, and the player is tasked to uncover clues, interact with characters, and solve puzzles in order to finally put an end to the gruesome killings.

A decent premise and solid narrative complement Still Life’s claims of being “a gripping investigation” and its fluid cut scenes are impressive in terms of both graphics and animation. The pre-rendered backgrounds, especially while investigating in the 1930s, are wonderfully produced and realistically gritty and worn, which also reinforce Still Life’s boasts of “detailed 3D environments”. The game’s puzzle-based progression can certainly be labeled as “original and creative” and, once again, Still Life delivers on the promises of its packaging.

However, though these traits are worthy additions to Still Life’s resume, videogames are not evaluated upon just story, visuals, and challenge…or at the very least, they shouldn’t be. Almost without fail it is gameplay performance that emerges as the major contributor in amassing a memorable points score with reviewers. And it is here where Still Life fails miserably.

The fault lies not with the control interface, which is bread and butter point-and-click fair, but rather with the actual level of immersion that players can expect to participate within. The game’s narrative may well be interesting to observe as it plays out, but that interest quickly becomes stagnant disappointment as the game offers players nothing more than nudging the story forward with clicks of the right and left shoulder buttons. There are no defining plot choices to be made here, and no dialogue selections in order to guide conversations. Interacting with extraneous characters emerges as little more than uncovering linear information before moving on to the next set piece or embarking on a retrieval quest. It isn’t long before the dulling sensation of being a spectator in a fractured movie begins to deaden hopes of Still Life becoming anything more than a point A-to-point B intrusion of your game time.

Direct and tangible contribution to Still Life’s evolution is only necessary when thrown into a puzzle-based dilemma that acts as a narrative roadblock, and sadly, is where the game further descends into the realms of disappointment. Original and challenging they may be, but the majority of the puzzles in Still Life reach far beyond the capabilities of all but the most obsessive gamers. Though intermittent clues are in evidence for the solving of certain puzzles, most of the challenges thrown before the characters will leave you either drowning in trial and error frustration, or surfing the Net for a walkthrough guide. Puzzle-based games should obviously test the gray matter, there’s nothing worse than breezing through unopposed, but there is a fine line between genuine challenge and overwhelming frustration. And it is the latter that dogs Still Life at every turn. The required solutions should be hidden within the game, there for the player to find, but not staring them flat in the face. This simply isn’t the case here as your characters flounder amid a supposed hunt for a serial killer where clues are collected through mundane conversations rather than actual intrinsic investigation.

Aesthetically speaking, the impressive rendered backgrounds are compromised by the character animation that sits atop them, as every character suffers from an awkward stiffness that suggests the onset of an arthritis epidemic. And the environments themselves are incredibly restrictive in terms of where characters can actually explore, which is truly limiting considering the necessity of freedom of movement. This restriction lessens the impact of the backgrounds in terms of tangible depth, and also the variety available through item interaction. Aurally, Still Life’s voice work is often bland and flat, and the sheer amount of dialogue tends to highlight directional errors and ill fitting edits that jar the ear through lack of subtlety. Musically, the game occasionally chimes in with suitably ominous themes, but during large stretches of play there are all-too obvious holes in the score, especially for a game where atmospheric tension should be of vital importance.

From a gameplay standpoint, what’s all the more disappointing is that Still Life’s opening sequences hint at an angle that is never truly pursued. Victoria arrives at an apartment building where the killer’s latest victim and the direct crime scene are being processed by fellow FBI agents, and here she searches for and gathers evidence (ala CSI) with a variety of investigative equipment. However, what initially appears creative and appealing in its execution suddenly loses all worth as it is largely abandoned in favor of narrative prompting interspersed with moody and atmospheric cut sequences. Everything about the game smacks of what it could have been as it fights for an identity and fails at every attempt.

Even the impressive visual flair is sullied by an unbelievable lack of NPCs. Chicago and Prague are positively filled with scrumptiously rendered buildings, rivers, sewers, parks, etc. But where are the people? It’s astounding. Chicago and Prague are major cities, regardless of the timelines involved; there should be some element of populace on the streets, in the apartments, along the rivers, in the parks. But outside of the central characters and those NPCs who are directly linked to the story…there’s no one. The linear sensation this invokes is disgracefully inadequate for a modern videogame where the power to create superfluous characters is well within the range of any developer. Knowing that information and progression can be garnered by running from place to place and talking to the handful of NPCs in attendance swiftly promotes the urge to simply reach for the power button. It’s unforgivable.

Yes, the story is intriguing and wanting to know what happens next will drive most players to battle through the gameplay tedium, but the experience the plot delivers is in no way exceptional and certainly nothing that couldn’t be surpassed by the rental of a decent DVD. The realization of the game as a true investigation, involving modern forensic techniques with Victoria mixed with tried and tested legwork with Gus would have made for a far more rewarding package. As it is, Still Life is an exercise in gaming mediocrity, which offers nothing to the player beyond watching, wailing, and wishing.