I remember when adventure gaming simply involved rescuing my friends in Maniac Mansion or helping Guybrush Threepwood on Monkey Island (and romance Elaine Marley at the same time). Wow, how times have changed. As most of us have matured, so have our adventure games. Gone are the colorful 8 bit graphics and midi-like songs that repeated over and over, the mind-numbing puzzles that involved produce and plants, the odd characters who were bent on world domination. Nowadays, adventure gaming has become so realistic and mature that it feels like a good book or an involving TV show. The characters have histories and motives, the plots are dark and twisted and the graphics look so realistic that sometimes you wonder if they're actually real. At the same time though, adventure games have been on a steady decline. Who wants to play CSI when they can just sit back and watch it? And all that reading. And those puzzles. Luckily, the Myst games have come out like clockwork (although their sales are not as high as the original) and The Adventure Company and Microids have released enough games to keep the genre alive and healthy. You'll also note that Ubisoft (publishers of Myst) have recently aquired Microids Canada, so the bittersweet news does leave hope for a bright future. As it stands, Still Life is a wonderful Swan Song.
Still Life follows a very high pedigree of Adventure Games; Microids is responsible for Post Mortem as well as the two wonderful Syberia games. In this outing however, it's clearly the Post Mortem world that is at play. The story follows FBI agent Victoria McPherson as she investigates a grisly serial murder case involving slain women. As the story begins, she is arriving on the scene of the fifth victim and it is obvious that the evidence is still not revealing any useful clues. With nothing to go on, a boss who doesn't like her and the Holiday Season upon her, she takes a break at her father's house and discovers a chest of old case notes by her grandfather, Gustav McPherson, a private investigator. Some of you will immediately recognize the name and rightfully so, Gus was the hero of the PC's Post Mortem game. If the name is new to you, fear not, the previous game is in no way mandatory to play or enjoy this one. From this point on, we travel 75 years back in time, in Prague no less, to also assist Gus on a series of increasingly familiar killings. And so, with each consecutive chapter, the game will focus on Victoria and her grandfather alternatively.
If Still Life has one trump card over all others, it's the story. So much so, that the rest of the game actually suffers because of it. Not only is the story so ambitious and well thought out that you'll be anxious to find what happens next, but Gus and Victoria's journals are filled with so much pertinent information that you'll want to read every last bit of them. Unfortunately, when the game throws a puzzle at you (this is an adventure game, right?), no matter how well conceived and logically placed it may be, it detracts from the story-telling to the point of annoyance. It doesn't help matters that some of the twelve puzzles in the games (particularly the lock pick puzzle) are so time-consuming in their logic that you'll get mad at the simple inability to further the story along quicker.
For the most part, the game is your typical point and click affair with a cursor that changes form when a "hot spot" is being perused. The characters are easy to control and the loading between scenes are extremely short. The game is a high quality build that is very proficient at doing everything right, but as all games do, suffers from a few problems along the way: The text in the journals, while larger in print then Syberia's, is sometimes hampered by a picture in the background that makes reading very difficult. Some locations are hard to navigate because a distinction in paths isn't always obvious. The "picture" puzzles are harder than they need to be because of the angle differences. The game is not overly long to complete and holds no replay value. There's no shooting (not that you'd need it in an adventure game). There is a lot of reading required which may throw off a few.
The graphics, as seems to be the norm in adventure games, are beyond reproach. The static backgrounds are incredibly well populated with objects and details and the characters, while not having the same shine to them, blend in very well. I believe it is impossible to judge adventure games on polygon counts and framerates, and so, I always tend to judge them based on artistic merit. You know, like in figure skating. And Still Life sets the atmosphere to every scene perfectly. From the brownish, weather-beaten look of Prague in the 30's to the dark, cold modern-day Chicago (along with countless dizzying and gruesome crime scenes in between) this game does graphics right. The characters aren't as detailed as they could be and they sometimes seem out of place when near the foreground, but overall, Still Life is a masterpiece to behold. The cut-scenes are simply amazing, and allowing us to enjoy them in 720p is a nice bonus too.
The sound of Still Life, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The composed score of the game suits every time period perfectly and is a joy to the ears. And while the voice acting and delivery is competent and engaging, some of the characters' lines are simply so out of place that you'll despise them immediately. This would be a none-issue for most, but the fact that Victoria is the biggest offender in this category is unsettling. I know that her character is a stereotype of modern-day Chicago policewoman, but her constant need to use four-letter words in every sentence is belittling. The contrast between her and Gus is immediate and so much so that you may find that playing as Gus is more fun than snooping around in modern-day Chicago. The delivery is fine and the actress reading the material is not to fault, but more time should have been spent making Victoria a likable character as opposed to a Direct-to-Video policewoman.
Still Life is a fantastic adventure game. It will make you want to play it and it will make you want to piece together its mysteries. Its characters are varied, engaging and just different enough (to North Americans anyways) to catch you off guard once or twice. When you look back on certain scenes, they will seem like trips you took as a child; hazy, but completely memorable. The game is very mature though, you will find adult language and textual crime scene descriptions throughout, as well as the grisly visual aftermaths which usually involve female nudity. The game is rated M and never shies away from showing and telling you its story without compromise. If you are at all queasy about watching CSI however, then this game may not be for you.
So why does the overall score seem so low? Well, the score doesn't truly reflect the game as a whole and should not be a reason to miss out on it (considering its low price point). The score is more indicative of the taste the ending will leave in your mouth. You will invest a lot of time and care into this game and while you will enjoy the trip, the ending is so overwhelmingly disappointing that you may find yourself hating the entire product just for that. Yes, Hollywood movies have given us similar endings, but after the game has taken so much time to carefully and painstakingly create a perfect mystery for us, leading us to expect an intelligent and satisfying conclusion, it feels shallow (at best) to finally see what Still Life amounts to. This may sound harsh, but it is a reality. I can only hope that a sequel had been in the works. Should this stop you from enjoying Still Life? I hope not. It is a lovingly crafted game that just falters slightly under the weight of its own greatness. A mediocre game with a similar ending would have worked, but a great game with a mediocre ending just doesn't. Still, if you've help Guybrush in the past, do yourself a favor and help Victoria and Gus now too. It's nice to see where adventure games are going.