(Warning: This review contains spoilers. I wouldn't normally do this, but as a reviewer I feel a duty to keep people from being as horribly disappointed as I was.)
Murder mysteries have just a single rule that they need to obey. No matter how outlandish the setting, characters, or events, any entry in the murder mystery genre must contain but one thing—a solution. At the end of the story, we must discover who did it. It's actually right there in the genre title. Given that I've chosen to open the review this way, would anyone care to guess what my main problem with the game Still Life was?
That's right. It doesn't have an ending. Of any kind.
When a writer conceals a character's identity by placing them in a mask, they enter into a sacred covenant with their audience, assuring the reader/viewer/player that at a key moment that mask will be removed providing a shockingly revelatory moment. Still Life breaks this covenant, and it's a tragedy, because right up until the end, it's a very good game.
It's too bad the ending is such an incredible mess, because Still Life has a few nice features that separate it from the average graphic adventure experience. Eschewing the traditional "dialogue tree" conversational structure of most adventure games, Still Life features completely linear conversations. While this may seem like a limiting feature, it actually goes a long way towards increasing the realism of the experience, since it avoids the old implausible adventure game trope of having people standing around for minutes at a time, asking and answering the exact same questions.
Another notable difference is the game's story structure, which splits the plot into two separate storylines centered around two detectives investigating two serial killers with disturbingly similar MOs who operate nearly a century apart. The game does a good job of intertwining the two stories, gradually meting out information as the two stories progress in parallel. Players spend a roughly equal amount of time playing as either character, and that's a bit of a pity, since I believe that most players will prefer playing the first half of the story, rather than the second.
Still Life marks the return of Gus McPherson, the psychic, painting detective star of Post Mortem. This time around he finds himself looking into a series of prostitute murders in Prague at the behest of his fiancee, herself a former Czech whore. While the relative lack of suspects makes the mystery a little too easy to solve (ripperologists will recognize it as a variation on the Walter Sickert theory), the setting is used extremely well, and the well-written dialogue and interesting main character make this half of the game a pleasure to play.
Gus is a complicated, soft-spoken man—something of a breath of fresh air among videogame protagonists. His style of detecting is wonderfully refreshing as well. He questions, he observes, he eavesdrops. It's low-tech, and it's massively entertaining. Unlike Post Mortem, the writers don't even cheat and give Gus any psychic clues to go by. The player has to do all the heavy lifting this time around. As the game progressed, I found myself really drawn into his story, and couldn't help but dread every time the story brought me back to the present.
That's right, it's the second half of the story where all the weaknesses lie. Not the least of these problems is the game's true main character, Gus' granddaughter, Victoria McPherson. While Gus is a compelling, unusual lead, Victoria is every single female cop from every badly-written game and movie for the past twenty years or so. She's sarcastic, she's tough, she doesn't put up with crap from The Man—in short, she'll dull as dirt. It doesn't help that Victoria's half of the story is far more trite, preposterous, and poorly written than Gus' half. While Gus finds himself working against an apathetic (and possibly complicit) police force, Victoria's actual job as an FBI agent is to solve the new series of murders. Gus does everything in his power to keep the next potential victim alive, but Victoria, even after finding a photo of a woman with the words "SHE'S NEXT" scrawled on the back in blood, can't be bothered to take that woman into protective custody.
Even the game's puzzles vary wildly between the two halves. Most of Gus' puzzles are solved through careful observation—the worst that he has to deal with are some comically elaborate locking mechanisms. Victoria, on the other hand, begins promisingly enough with a little CSI-style trace evidence hunting, but it goes quickly downhill from there. There's a gingerbread man cooking sequence that basically requires the player to actually know how to bake gingerbread cookies to solve it, and one ridiculous sequence in which Victoria must use a remote-controlled mechanical spider to destroy locks keeping her out of a secret FBI file storeroom.
But these problems pale in comparison to the big one. Throughout Victoria's half of the game clues are dropped about the killer's identity. He's able to sneak into the FBI building without anyone noticing. He's killing women who work at an ultra-exclusive S&M club. He has two opportunities to kill Victoria, but chooses not to either time. Worst of all, another character sees his unmasked face, and seems to recognize who it is in the second before he's killed. I don't think I'm being unreasonable when I state that it's dishonest for a company to drop these kinds of clues and then not reveal the killer's identity. Especially when the ending makes it crystal clear that even if Victoria didn't actually see the villain's face, had it been any of the suspects that appear in the game, there isn't any way that Victoria couldn't have found out about it the next day.
I was so infuriated by the (lack of an) ending that I contacted Dreamcatcher games about it to ensure that I hadn't missed anything. They confirmed that the developer had chosen to withhold the identity of the killer for a possible sequel. A sequel that, because the developer, Microids, has gone out of business, will probably never be made. According to the Publisher, "We at The Adventure Company are currently looking at different options to get the ending out to the fans." That's all well and good, but I just can't imagine a filmmaker putting me in a situation where, once the movie stopped, I was forced to go onto a website to find out how it ended. I also can't imagine how anyone at Microids couldn't see just what a fatal misstep this lack of an ending was.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.