Reviews: Still Life 2
In this final game of the Still Life trilogy, investigate the chilling crime spree of the East Coast Killer
Developer: GameCo Studios
Publisher: Microïds/Encore Software
Genre: Mystery Adventure
Release Date: North America: June 16, 2009 (digital) / August 10, 2009 (boxed)
Note: Originally published 2 July 2009
WARNING! They are not kidding about the 18+ rating for this game. If you are a sensitive person of any age group, you will want to stay away from Still Life 2. It's not so much the grisly depictions of brutal murders, but the "live" sadistic game scenarios. At times it feels like watching one of those webcam terrorist beheadings. There is a queasy voyeuristic quality to these scenes, almost as if the game designers expect you, the player, to be titillated by them. I would suggest, instead, you try a nice wholesome game like Grand Theft Auto.
There is one other warning I should issue up front: I did not play the first Still Life, or even the first leg of the trilogy, Post Mortem. If you did play SL1 and are reading this expecting either exultation over the brilliant continuation or utter despair at the lack of continuity, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. I have read enough on the web to know that Still Life 1 is a much admired game from four years back. Also that it famously ended without revealing the identity of the killer, the infamous Mr. X.
Well, I can tell you that the unmasking of Mr. X does occur in this sequel. Also, the cut-scene opening is, apparently, a flashback to the closing events of the original game. It looked nice, but I really didn't understand any of it. If you're like me and have not played the earlier game, I would say don't worry too much about any of this. Wait until Still Life 2 proper begins before starting to pay attention.
Where Still Life 2 proper does begin is somewhere in Maine (paging Mr. King). Tough FBI broad Vic McPherson is grumbling about this and that and yakking on the phone to her bud back in the main Chicago FBI office, Claire, the forensic expert coroner. Meanwhile, a local TV reporter is being kidnapped a couple of motel doors down from her. Oh well, at least it makes reaching the crime scene a breeze.
Said reporter is the co-heroine of the game. Paloma Hernandez is the flashy babe reporter for a local TV station, giving on-air grief to Vic over her lack of progress in solving this new, circa 2008, string of copycat grisly kidnappings and murders of beautiful young women. Paloma's impressions of the FBI improve somewhat when she finds a cell phone while in the killer's compound and phones Vic screaming for help. Although I don't really want to poke fun at Paloma. While Special Agent McPherson is more of a cliche action babe, Paloma is a refreshing, realistic portrayal of a smart, resourceful woman under serious duress. She screamed when it made sense and she ran like hell when she had the chance. No Perils-of-Pauline tripping over petticoats here. Even Vic grew on me during the game. Her tough-as-nails act was at times over the top -- "So what if you're sawing off both of my legs, you wimp? Is that the best you can do?" (not an actual example from the game). But Vic too proved to be noticebly deeper than your average horror game heroine, with a halfway decent range of emotions and even an occasional wit.
It's good to like both of these women, because you're going to be spending a lot of time moving each of them around the screen. Fans of the first Still Life will probably be shocked to learn that the sequel takes place almost entirely in one location, a rambling Victorian wood-frame house surrounded by electrified fencing somewhere deep in the Maine woods. However, this house is not as snug as it first looks from the outside. Oh, no. This house has got legs. It goes up, it goes down, it goes sideways. The main house is really just the entrance to the rabbit's warren. You have a fair amount of exploring to do.
The gameplay of Still Life 2 vacillates between the situations of the dual heroines, sometimes flashing backward in time. Sprinkled throughout are additional flashbacks to Vic's experiences following the conclusion of Still Life the First.
When you're playing as Paloma, you are knocking yourself silly trying to escape the maniac who has kidnapped you and plopped you into this Alice-in-Wonderland house for sickos to play out his various sicko game scenarios. The notorious "East Coast Killer" -- wow, could have worked a little harder on a catchier tag than than, Microids, n'est-ce pas? -- looks plenty menacing in his all black outfit and gasmask, but as a character he's a bit of a rerun. Unlike the heroines, his patter is mostly strictly-from-hunger nutjob psychopath. You may find yourself skipping (via the spacebar) through the usual insane raisons-de-etre he sputters.
In between Paloma's mouse-in-a-killer-maze episodes, you take over as Vic, running the investigation. You rather quickly find yourself at the isolated Maine house . . . thinking you're investigating after the culprit has flown, but, umm, maybe not. Like I say, it's a big, surprising place. In any event, Vic is equipped with her trusty smart phone and a rather elaborate FBI on-site investigation kit. This thing has more compartments than a Fuller Brush man's sample case. It does take a while to get the hang of properly using its various components, but soon you'll find yourself swabbing and analyzing like an expert field agent. I have no idea how realistic this thing is, but I thought the game designers did a good job of making Vic's FBI activities seem quite plausible. You will feel like you're on site to do an investigation. You'll also find yourself calling your phone-a-friend Claire back in Chicago as well as interacting with your dutiful if a bit dull partner Garris, and a local woman sheriff who can be somewhat of a pain.
That's as much of the plot as I think I can afford to give away, other than to say there's a lot of it. This is one of those games where you'll think you've reached the end about a half dozen times. There is even one time when you do reach the end, and it's still not over. I didn't believe this until I tested it myself, but there are two different endings, with no going back if you get the "bad" one. Even if you have a save game past that point, the game "reverts" to the bad ending. You have to perform a task within a certain amount of time, and if time runs out, one of the main characters buys it. However, if you do solve it in time, there is yet another timed cliffhanger challenge.
Oh, did I mention that there are a whole bunch of timed sequences in Still Life 2? Oh, no! Anything but that! Well, my reaction exactly, at first. The problem with playing against the clock is that one never really does. At first, when I hit a timed sequence, I'd quit and load an earlier save. But, as it turns out, I learned while playing the game that some of these clock-beaters can be readily solved in the allotted time. Moreover, Microids has either courageously or foolishly made an attempt to insert a “true” timed sequence with that good/bad double ending. However, with the amount of time you're given and the simplicity of the required task, I find it hard to believe anyone will accidentally hit the bad ending. When I did it, just to see, I got kind of bored waiting around. I remain unconvinced that timed sequences in an adventure game can be an asset. Largely because they invariably turn into a guessing game, not a challenge.
Hey, remember dying in an adventure game? Well, in Still Life 2 it's back! In spades. I suppose dying is even more appropriate for a game like this than timed sequences, but it, too, gets mostly tiresome. There's a good reason why game publishers abandoned both dying and timing in the early 90's. Neither is any fun. Neither is a real challenge. What's the point?
Let me take a stab at the point, from Microid's point of view at least: It’s an attempt to attract the vast numbers of action gamers. Well, I wish them luck but I question whether the adventure and action game audiences can ever truly be joined. The two constituencies are too much like the major American political parties, philosophically at polar extremes. What I will say about Still Life 2 is that I had little trouble overlooking these action-game elements. I could have lived without them, but there was enough adventury stuff to keep me happy.
As long as I'm discussing technical stuff, I should mention that Still Life 2 is a "real-time" 3D game. Whatever that is. From what I could see, it was a fairly standard 3D affair, with the furniture looking convincing and the characters looking like, well, walking furniture. Honestly, I couldn't care less. Maybe I play too many classic adventure games on DOSBox, but I have never cared what a game looks like. Only how it plays. I know some people really get worked up about this. It seems that Still Life 2 is a bit outdated in terms of the latest 3D chops. But it plays okay. Sure, it's a bit of a pain having to make your characters cross a large room with little baby steps. You can double-click to make them run to a spot, but for some reason they need a walking start to get up to speed. The game did hang on me a number of times. You can get Vic or Paloma into a "frozen" position. All you can do is restore. But in a game like this you should be saving frequently anyway. Really, any corner you turn in this game can change your situation drastically. There was also a fair amount of what the techies call "clipping," where a character half disappears into a wall. Also, some of the hotspots were wide of the mark. You've got to hunt around for them sometimes. None of this stuff bothers me very much. I have a rather modest PC running the Windows 7 Release Candidate 1, with a widescreen monitor and a 256-meg graphics card. Still Life 2 downloaded, installed and ran smoothly on this system. If the game is a bit retro in terms of graphics, it also appears more forgiving to older or less-robust computers. The people who squawk about a game being not-the-latest should remember that not everyone has a $5000 Alienware machine.
I know two of the things everyone loved about the first Still Life were the gorgeous backgrounds and the varied locations. There’s no question that an all-3D game is considerably less attractive than 3D sprites sprinting across rich pre-rendered backgrounds. Perhaps the decision to go all-3D was economic. Still Life 2 does look a bit rushed out the door. The two biggest giveaways are the voiceovers and the game manual. For the most part, the voice acting in Still Life 2 is on the expert side. I even liked the sound effects, especially the strange noises the house is always making. What the hell was that! But Microids seriously skimped on some of the object descriptions. Since Vic and Paloma, at varying times, traipse through the same parts of the house, they decided to save some dough by just letting Paloma's responses suffice for both heroines. Thus, when you're playing Vic and you click on an overhead videocamera, you will hear Paloma say something like, "This weirdo is videotaping everything." Even I, who don't normally mind small inconsistencies, was irritated by this. Far stranger is the game manual. There is one whole paragraph in it untranslated from French. Another paragraph is mistakenly copied from higher on the page. What text was supposed to be there we'll never know. Everyone knows that nobody reads the game manual. Now we have proof that even some game publishers don't read the manual. Tres sloppy.
I feel sort of the same way about the music in a game that I do about the graphics quality. It's not that I don't like music in a game, it's just that it's rarely a make-or-break component for me. Let's face it, in the vast majority of adventure games the soundtrack falls into one of two categories: nice muzak, or okay muzak. Ideally, a game soundtrack does the same thing that a movie soundtrack does, which is underscore the emotional content of a scene. If you notice it, it's failing. Sure, there are games with outstanding soundtracks, such as the Monkey Island games, or, more recently, A Vampyre Story. Too often, though, the music in a game drowns out the dialogue, which is downright infuriating. Admirably, Still Life 2 has a generous options window, allowing you, among other worthwhile things, to lower the music. This I did. The music appears to be some sort of jangly new-age fusion machinist thingy, aside from the use of Mozart's Requiem for the opening cutscene, which I found vaguely sacrilegious. Speaking of the options menu, it also let me lower the graphic demands when the game action slowed to a crawl at one point. Score another one for the options menu. I know some have griped that the game only supports the one screen resolution, 1024 x 768. I played the game on a 1280 x 720 widescreen and, frankly, never noticed the difference. I guess Vic is a little slimmer than I thought, but that's about it in that department.
What I really care about in an adventure is the puzzles. Give me good, challenging puzzles and you can keep your super-duper refresh rate. Still Life 2, at first, didn't seem very impressive in this regard. For a while there the puzzles consisted of reading stuff, collecting stuff and using stuff. You do have to get adept at meshing your inventory, your FBI kit and your smart phone, all three of which appear on a pop-up screen when you right click. Like most modern adventure games, the puzzling was mostly straightforward and streamlined. The little icons tip you off to the exact action for any hotspot. You won't need to try the screwdriver on the casaba melon because only items marked with the wrench icon will respond, or not. The icons tell you what you can look at, what you can photograph, what you can talk to -- pretty much everything is dictated to you. Which isn't to say that Still Life 2 is easy. It's easy, if not obvious, most of the time, but every so often you run into a real head-scratcher. These tend to be locked doors, which this beat-up old house is replete with. I was zipping along collecting and using up my inventory items when all of a sudden I hit a genuine logic puzzle. At first I couldn't believe it. You mean, you really expect me to solve an actual puzzle? Without help? Actually, there is a help system, with a little "help" icon that appears next to every "game objective" that accumulates in one folder of your smart phone, but I had it turned off. Which is my favorite feature of an in-game help system -- the off switch. By my count there are about a half dozen of these brain-ticklers throughout the game. A couple of them are as hard as they look.
Another untraditional adventure game feature that rears its ugly head in Still Life 2 is the limited inventory. Both Vic and Paloma have a limit of sixteen "cases" to store stuff. A nail file, for instance, fills up one space, while a mattress takes up all sixteen. This means you have to decide what to keep on your person and what to put in the assorted storage bins scattered around the premises. If they'd turned this into an actual puzzle element -- forcing you to carefully plan where to put what when -- I would have liked it more. But as it is all it does is make you walk around a bit more. I guess this is supposed to be more "realistic" than an unlimited inventory. True, up to the point where you stuff the mattress into the kitchen cabinet.
There also appears to be an inside game going on in Still Life 2, between the game designers and the player. Clearly, the designers are drawing parallels between what they do, designing mouse traps for players, and what the killer is doing, building murderous obstacle courses for his victims. This connection is stated rather bluntly near the end of the game. Was there supposed to be some sort of larger social point here? I didn't see it. If you genuinely want to torment the people who buy your game, don't put them through deadly mazes, just limit their save game slots.
The one thing I still wish is that either Vic or Paloma made an attempt, however half-hearted, to get over that electrified fence. I mean, you're trapped in a house with a brilliant serial killer who in several years has not left a single clue, made a single mistake -- and you're going to go back into the house to try to use the phone? You're going to call who? The Rapid Response Rescue Company -- "Housecalls our specialty!" Sure, you're going to get a little singed on the fence, but come on. You think you're going to get better odds in the basement? There's a whole pile of stacked firewood right there. At least try to poke a hole in the cyclone fence. At one point, Vic actually makes it outside the perimeter. Of course, being the stalwart officer she is, she goes back to rescue Paloma. All alone. Is that standard FBI procedure? Check your manual, Vic. I think standard operational procedure at that juncture is run like hell and get real help. Oh well. And where would the fun be in acting reasonably? I'll tell you one thing. I started to get to like that house. Maybe it's the economic downturn, but I kept thinking while Vic and Paloma were running for their lives through its various rooms that, you know, with a little fixing up here and there, a few coats of paint, the place would look pretty respectable.
Another thing people loved about the first Still Life was the story. What I've read of it does sound interesting. The basic story of Still Life 2 I found to be largely revolting. What is really good, however, is the plot. The twists and the turns of the story are well designed and like a good page-turner thriller keep you hooked and anxious to reach the next development. I rather frequently found myself alternately repulsed and intrigued while playing through Still Life 2. The death sequences and the timed runs had me cussing and crushing pencil nibs on my desk, but ultimately I have to say that the game, as a game, is engrossing. I absolutely hated certain aspects, but found myself riveted to the screen until it was over.
As is so often the case of late, Still Life 2 was released in Europe months before the American version became available for download. The download, by the way, weighs in at about 4 gigs. These dates always seem fairly fluid, but I believe the box version of the game won't hit US stores until August.
Many are going to complain that Still Life 2 is not the continuation of Still Life that they'd dreamed of these past four years. Many are going to diss Still Life 2 for not having graphics chops in the Quake 3 range (or whatever the current benchmark is). Many are going to be sickened by the content of Still Life 2 (after ignoring my warning). I know that many traditional adventurists are going to be downright apoplectic about the timed runs and the dying. There are many reasons to hate Still Life 2, some of which I share. But, ultimately, a game is either fun to play or it isn't. Still Life 2, despite its many faults, draws you in, puts you through the ringer and then spits you out like a wad of used gum at the end. I can't say it's a great game -- too flawed and at times annoying for that -- but it does deliver the goods. I'm giving it an A minus. However, if you actually are a violent psychopath, you can bump that score up a couple of notches. And clean that subbasement! It's a disgrace.
Final Grade: A-
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1.5 GHz Intel Pentium® 4
RAM: 512 MB
Video Card: 128 MB DirectX® 9 Compatible
Disk Space: 4 GB Free
Sound Card, Mouse, Keyboard DirectX® 9 Compatible