May 19, 2002
There is one thing that Activision's adventure game Sacred Ground absoultely, positively isn't: unique. In fact it looks and feels a lot like a twin sibling of its predecessor in the Santa Fe Mysteries mini series, Elk Moon Murder - which it in a way is. These two games are so similar that it's rather hard to tell them apart at first sight. But for your exclusive benefit I'll attempt to do just that.
In Sacred Ground you return to Santa Fe as the mysterious homicide investigator without name, face or voice. The game opens with a TV news report of apparent kidnapping of Randa Tasker, the wife of an influential developer. Just as you were sitting down to watch some more TV, the Police Chief summons you to his office. Just like in Elk Moon Murder, he complains how the FBI is breathing down his neck and politicians are asking for immediate results. He then gives you five days to solve the case, hands you a PDA and assigns your old pal from the previous case, the Native American detective John Night Sky, to help you with the investigation.
You start with a map of of Santa Fe (identical to the one in Elk Moon Murder) and your first task is of course to visit the crime scene, collect evidence, interrogate witnesses, identify suspects, nail the culprits and please your boss. OK, the latter probably won't happen ever and catching those responsible isn't so easy. After arriving at Taskers' residence, you find signs of apparent struggle between Randa Tasker and her abductor or abductors. Then you interrogate Martin Tasker, Randa's husband. It turns out that he has made quite a few enemies by pushing a development project for a ski resort on Indian land (that explains the name of the game I guess) - in the process he evicted thirty families from their homes (lotsa suspects right?).
But that's naturally just the beginning. Taskers' private life was somewhat tumultuous too, with secret lovers and estranged children. Add to the mix embezzlement, bribery, arson, extortion... you get the picture. Nearly everyone you encounter is a potential suspect. Besides, Randa Tasker's sudden disappearance is wonderfully ambiguous: someone may have wanted to take revenge on her or get back at her husband or maybe did it just for the money. And there's still a possibility that the kidnapping was staged by Randa herself - she too had one or two possible motives.
Again, there is not enough time to interrogate all suspects and follow all leads in the time you have allotted to solve the crime. You can also have the alibi of each suspect checked but that takes time and you won't be able to have them all screened. So you'll have to employ heuristics, intuition, scrying or whatever method works for you to determine who is more suspect than others. At the beginning of the game you can only go to the Police HQ and the crime scene but later in the game the map will became a lot more interesting as you learn about new places, witnesses and suspects.
To make matters a little more complicated, just when you've nearly sorted things out, one of the more promising looking suspects is murdered. Which on the one hand casts an entirely new light on the case and seriously upsets your elaborate theories (that is, if you've managed to come up with any) but on the other hand this unfortunate event makes your dangerously long list of suspects a little shorter, which is not all that unwelcome.
The fact that you are now investigating two crimes instead of one actually makes your life quite a bit easier at the end of day five when you need to get an arrest warrant and apprehend one of the suspects. The reason is simple: for two crimes you can have two sets of alibis verified for each suspects. And in this game (unlike Elk Moon Murder), many of the suspects are so very nice to have at least one verified alibi. Thus you end up with only three or four persons who may have committed the crimes. Getting the arrest warrant is perhaps where Sacred Ground differs most from its predecessor. Not only you are dealing with two crimes but you have to correctly fill out several key facts about each of them (time of the crime, weapon used etc.) to have the warrant application accepted. Which means you'd better pay some attention to the investigation. Fortunately most of the facts will be in your PDA (notes from interrogation of informants and suspects and results from forensics lab) unless you were asleep while playing.
Where I felt Elk Moon Murder was unfair by apparently hiding key information from you, Sacred Ground is the opposite: it is possible to arrest the perpetrator of the crimes and win the game even after having an arrest warrant issued for the wrong person! I thought this was a little strange, but hey. At least it didn't make me feel so frustrated. Even the Chief seemed almost pleased.
I won't spend a lot of time dwelling on the technical aspects of Sacred Ground because I'd have to repeat what I wrote in the Elk Moon Murder review almost word for word. Technically these games really are identical, including some of the artwork (map, PDA etc). Even some characters introduced in the first Santa Fe Mysteries game reappear in Sacred Ground, notably the Chief of SFPD and your partner John Night Sky, but there are others as well. The music too is very similar if not identical - quite nice actually, digitized (not MIDI type) and successfully evoking the atmosphere of American Southwest (for me at least). The game in fact contains several references to Elk Moon Murder, mentioning for instance an exhibition of works of art by the late Elk Moon.
Just like in its predecessor, there aren't really any puzzles in the Sacred Ground. Except for one (sort of), which is getting the arrest warrant. That's the only place in the game which tests if the player had been paying any attention at all and not just blindly clicking with the mouse on anything that moved.
The Sacred Ground is not entirely easy to classify - somewhere between an interactive movie and an adventure game. It requires modest amount of brain power to win and gives the player a great degree of freedom like some adventure games. But on the other hand it is rather short (I don't see how anyone could take more than about three hours to solve the game) with very low replayability factor like most interactive movies. On the whole I consider Sacred Ground to be a slight improvement over The Elk Moon Murder and give it a B-.
Final Grade: B-
PC: DOS WIN95 486/66 8 MB 2X CDROM SVGA VESA 1 MB
MAC: 68LC040 66/33 Mhz 8 MB 2X CDROM System 7.1