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Indigo Prophecy (PlayStation 2) artwork

Indigo Prophecy (PlayStation 2) review

"I’m a sucker for a game with a good story…no, let me rephrase. I’m a sucker for a game that promises a good story—that’s what ultimately makes me a sucker. Many months ago, years now, I started reading a preview for a game called Indigo Prophecy, and my pulse quickened. "

I’m a sucker for a game with a good story…no, let me rephrase. I’m a sucker for a game that promises a good story--that’s what ultimately makes me a sucker. Many months ago, years now, I started reading a preview for a game called Indigo Prophecy, and my pulse quickened.

You, an average guy, wake up in the bathroom of a diner, covered in blood, knife in hand. A dead man lies nearby, his chest carved to shreds. A police officer is grabbing a cup of coffee right outside, and he’s feeling a little tingling in his bladder…

You, average guy, what do you do? Beat a hasty retreat, and risk the cop noticing the blood on your shirt and your unpaid bill? Or clean the blood, hide the body, finish your soup, and walk casually out the door before the cop takes a leak? And once you get out, what do you do next? Who are you? Did you kill the man in the bathroom? What could all of this possibly mean?

Not a bad set-up. And in addition to average guy, whose name is Lucas Kane, you also play as the two cops on his trail, and see both sides of a story that David Cage, Indigo Prophecy’s writer and director, promised would be the world’s first “interactive drama.” The central plot would remain fixed, but the details were up to you: different options present in every scene would bend and stretch the story in ways that would reverberate from beginning to end, like a rubber band. “Elastic” and “bending”--these were the words Cage used.

The preview writer bought into it, I certainly bought into it and, eventually, when it came out, many reviewers who played the thing bought into it. This last is inexplicable to me.

The game’s second scene--the diner bathroom, the corpse, the cop, and some snake tattoo Lucas cut into his arm--is as advertised, tense, mysterious, and full of little things you can do (or not do) that matter later. This is the scene reviewers like to mention. What rarely comes up is the later stuff, how a taut, character-driven thriller that takes itself pretty seriously climaxes (SPOILER WARNING) with Lucas, who develops physics-defying Matrix powers, journeying through an apocalyptic blizzard to end a war, fought over a mystical, world-saving prophecy child, between an ancient Mayan death cult and cyber-beings that formed themselves from the very fabric of the Interweb sometime during the Reagan administration. You can’t make this shit up.

Maybe you stumbled in the last paragraph when I referred to the Indigo Prophecy’s introduction as the second scene. Sorry, I was holding off on discussing the game’s first scene, a virtual tutorial from Mr. David Cage himself.

This unique, fourth-wall-breaking gesture seems to me a strong statement: Cage keeps Indigo Prophecy’s story completely free of “game” stuff like tutorials done by means of an in-game character or on-screen button-pressing cues. And credit where credit is due: David Cage told the eager preview writers he would put all his eggs in the story basket, and he did. His characters do “real life” things--going to the office, bickering with spouses, ruminating over past tragedies--not often seen in games, but these do not a compelling story make. Cage shot for an entertainment that would rival your favorite television show or film, and he fell pitifully short of the mark

But I’ll let off on the story a minute--with all the eggs in that basket, which, lest I fail to mention it, includes a fine voice acting cast, what else is the player getting?

Very average visuals, and while a flat, gray, totally unconvincing cityscape and expressionless characters whose lips don’t match their words might be fine for a decent, workmanlike action game like, say, The Punisher, I thought we were getting a little more bang for our buck here. If Indigo Prophecy’s mission was to draw players into a convincing world, these actors and sets aren’t cutting it.

Some undemanding but workable play mechanics. You walk around, you collect some items, sometimes you must interact with them in a set time limit, and during action scenes you do a button-prompting exercise very much like the electronic board game Simon: a circular grid of colored lights flash, you repeat the pattern, and, if successful, the action unfolds in your favor.

Subtle, unsettling music from Angelo Badalamenti, who has scored several great Hollywood thrillers, and many of David Lynch’s films. The creaking, yawning strings are a highlight, albeit a muted one.

Sometimes these elements all come together quite nicely. In one scene, at Lucas’s office, he navigates a sea of cubicles to avoid some impending nasties. Sure, it’s a Matrix rip-off, but it works. You’re following the Simon Says cues, weaving to and fro, baddies are peeking around corners, and the office has that neon, sterile feel.

Sometimes Indigo Prophecy is just unintentionally hilarious. The best is an “action event” where all the furniture in Lucas’s furniture decides to attack him. Only it attacks one piece at a time, the programmers only bothered to program three different objects and two godawful animations for Lucas (up and down), and the scene is endless. Control Lucas as he jumps awkwardly under fifteen indistinct gray cubes and jumps over twenty chairs! The frenetic music heightens the comedy. I have rarely been so taken out of a game experience.

But I’ve neglected the narrative, which would prevent getting too into things even without gems like Attack of the Killer Dinette Set. Lucas’s story is equal parts fantasy/sci-fi Day Watch hokum--hooded figures, prophecies, Chosen Ones, mysterious kung-fu powers--and direct-to-video thriller you see every time at Blockbuster but never rent--one-dimensional nonexistent females, cornball chase scenes, a journey to the creepy mansion of an old lady.

The saga of Carla and Tyler, the two police officers on Lucas’s trail, is the worst NYPD Blue episode that never was, or maybe the other direct-to-video thriller you see every time at Blockbuster but never rent. We see Tyler interact with his significant other before he heads off to work, but the writing is so limp Cage might as well not have bothered--luckily it’s as underdeveloped as any other stab at character development in here.

The ending where it all comes together--the aforementioned (SPOILER WARNING) ancient Mayan vs. Internet monster showdown--is truly grotesque. Actually, there are multiple endings, but I can’t say I was champing at the bit to learn more about whether Carla will stay on the force or how a webpage became sentient. The shit in here would get laughed out of the worst Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie in a heartbeat.

I think Indigo Prophecy apologists would counter that, while the story isn’t Tolstoy, they love the game for the narrative freedom, for the tense moments where what you do determines the outcome. For me, this was the most disappointing part. It’s true, you can bring about negative outcomes--Lucas might commit suicide if you’re not doing enough to solve the mystery of why he killed the man in the diner, or Carla might retire from the force if you aren’t tracking down Lucas with enough vigor–but these are no different from a “Game Over” screen. Essentially, the “narrative freedom” is a free pass to ignore certain puzzles, only not too many, or else the characters will get “depressed,” i.e., Indigo Prophecy will scold you for experimenting.

Many times I toyed with what would happen if I didn’t do the logical, advance-the-plot thing, and almost every time I was hustled along to a shot of Lucas in a straitjacket and a “Restart?” prompt. The one time that didn’t happen was a pleasant experience. I was playing as Tyler, hunting down an item in a bookstore with three floors worth of identical books. I ran down the aisles, mashing X, getting nowhere, the shifting camera angles disorienting me. “You know what? Fuck it,” I said, strolled out of the store without the item, and the plot advanced. That part was kinda neat.

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Community review by jeeeehad (August 22, 2007)

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