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Still Life (Xbox) artwork

Still Life (Xbox) review

"I use the term ‘playing’ rather loosely. Still Life doesn’t usually feel like a game. Instead, it’s like reading an interesting mystery novel but all of the pages are stuck together and you have to fight just to keep reading. Though you do control the protagonists directly, there’s not much to do with them but walk from place to place, talk to people and maybe solve some irritating puzzles along the way."

You are a dashing young man and you have a date with a beautiful woman. You’ve been anticipating it for awhile. It should be a memorable evening. You show up and the date begins. Suddenly, your love interest pulls a knife from her purse and stabs you in the back. As you sink to the floor, coughing on blood and blinking against the fading light, you think that this evening was crap. That’s Still Life, all summed up and packaged with a pretty bow.

The game begins promisingly, with a murdered prostitute soaking in a bathtub full of bloody water. As a homicide detective named Victoria, it’s your job to gather the evidence that can crack the case. It’s an awesome premise. I expected a disturbing mystery and a rewarding journey through chaos. One out of two… isn’t really worth playing.

I use the term ‘playing’ rather loosely. Still Life doesn’t usually feel like a game. Instead, it’s like reading an interesting mystery novel but all of the pages are stuck together and you have to fight just to keep reading. Though you do control the protagonists directly, there’s not much to do with them but walk from place to place, talk to people and maybe solve some irritating puzzles along the way.

This flaw is immediately apparent. Before you can even enter the apartment where the body awaits, you must talk to the policeman who stands guard. He’s cold and he likes to use the word ‘fuck’ a lot. Fortunately, you brought some coffee. This magical elixir is exchanged for news: the body is upstairs and Miller (your partner) has been vomiting because he can’t handle the gore. This is your clue to go talk to your less fortunate partner in law enforcement. When that’s done, you get to go talk to your lead CSI before dusting the area for fingerprints.

You may have been willing to forgive the long lead-up, but now the situation worsens. Collecting evidence means diving through menus as you select an item, use it for a split-second, then return to the menus to use another item. In a way it’s neat because real CSI folks must experience similar tedium, but the game doesn’t save such joys strictly for crime scenes. You also must enter a security codes to access a room that shouldn’t even have been locked, grab an umbrella to open an attic, enter a combination to open a trunk and even bake cookies for your father!

I’m not kidding.

These ‘puzzles’ are important for only one reason: they make you feel like you’re playing a game. The problem is, the game isn’t much fun. The only reasons to keep playing are the plot and the atmosphere. In these two areas, Still Life shines.

Plot-wise, there’s a lot going on. This is a game about a crime spree, after all. Or rather, it’s a game about two crime sprees. There’s the one set in the present, where you play as Victoria. There’s another set in Prague around 70 years ago. For that hauntingly familiar mystery, you’ll control a man named Gus. He is Victoria’s grandfather. As the player, you must piece the mystery together as you play. This means that you’ll talk to a lot of police folk, a handful of hookers, and even a few ‘normal’ people that I suppose exist so the game feels somewhat grounded in reality.

While we’re on the subject of realism, I should mention in the game’s defense that the areas you’ll visit really are atmospheric. Music and sound effects compliment each location perfectly. The seedier side of Prague feels just perfect. The audio almost promises a dead body, so it’s always shocking but never jarring when one turns up. The word of the day here is ‘appropriate.’

If only I could say the same for the voices. Clearly, the actors worked very hard. The foul-mouthed policeman is memorable and credible. Your boss in the present, a woman named Claire, sounds weary of the situation in which she finds herself. She lends the game its humanity. Then Victoria sucks it away with her ridiculous comments and even cheesier delivery. When the game wants to interject humor, such as when she says “Hello, Clarisse” in a tone that I suppose is to remind us of Hannibal Lector, the voice inflection is so hideous that you can’t help but wonder if some programmer’s mom signed up for the job.

Even so, bad voice acting can’t kill a game. I blame general shoddiness for that. The protagonist’s snail-like pace bogs things down terribly. Areas sometimes lack sufficient distinguishing marks, which means you can get lost amid bland textures and frequent load screens. Plus, it’s all just klunky.

See exhibit ‘A’, the autopsy lab. During my visit, I talked to Claire and she gave her analysis of the crime. Then I walked around the table to her other side (this time-consuming exercise proved necessary because I couldn’t squeeze past her) to investigate some papers lining the counter. Victoria instead decided to converse with Claire again. I was forced to watch with disgust as the heroine sluggishly circled the table I’d just skirted and proceeded to engage in the same bland discussion I’d already witnessed. That’s but one example of how a lack of common-sense design (or a character capable of interacting with the map in a reasonable fashion) marred the game.

In the end, though, I suppose Still Life wasn’t ever really intended to be a proper game. Whoever came up with the idea must’ve just wanted to see where it went. The overall lack of polish certainly supports that notion. Don’t make the same mistake I did. You don’t want to wind up like I did, stuck with an ugly knife in your back. I guess it could be worse, though. I’m not a dead whore.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 12, 2005)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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