Still Life is barely underway when it becomes apparent that the game is intended for the mature gamer. The murder depicted in the opening movie is unnerving enough, and once the interactive part begins, the player’s first task is to engage in a dialogue with a particularly foul-mouthed character. The graphic violence and coarse language continue throughout the game, but Still Life doesn’t approach its material in the sensational, almost campy manner associated with the more famous M-Rated games such as the Grand Theft Auto series. From one perspective, Still Life is a mature-oriented game in the literal sense of the term: the deliberate pace and gradually unraveling murder story are unabashedly intended for an audience with adult tastes.
The main character of Still Life is young, snappy FBI agent Victoria McPherson. While not having the exaggerated features of a Lara Croft model, she looks like she’s dressed as much for a rock concert as for agent duty. The story begins in modern Chicago, where Victoria is investigating the fourth in a series of serial killings. This particular victim, like the three before her, is female and there are creepily cryptic messages painted at the crime scene. The player is introduced to the mechanics of the game by performing police procedures in the collection process for this evidence.
A couple of hours into the game, Victoria returns to her family’s house. There, she finds some papers belonging to her grandfather Gus that describe his experiences in Prague as a young private investigator. The star of the 2002 PC game Post Mortem, Gus McPherson is hired by the city’s prostitutes to find a prostitute-obsessed serial killer. The Prague killings and Chicago murders have only vague similarities at first, but as more information is unveiled, the two appear increasingly alike.
If Still Life is anything to go by, today’s Chicago is lonely and relentlessly grim. In the game, Victoria’s time is spent visiting places like a near-empty police station, an expectedly creepy S&M club, and a still creepier art museum. Combined with the already disturbing serial murder story, it is a bit surprising that the game never feels like a depressing weight on the player, likely due to the cheeky dialogue that supports the tale. Victoria is always prepared with a quip or two, and the effect is enhanced with Sarah Leger’s fantastic voice acting.
Gus McPherson has a drier sense of humor than Victoria, but Sven Erickson’s somewhat uneven voice work occasionally obscures the dialogue’s effectiveness. The Prague of Gus’s story is brighter on the surface than modern Chicago; Prague is always displayed under full light, while Chicago seems like a city of the night. There is a feeling of danger bubbling under the surface of Prague, however – the infrastructure is crumbling and the only characters about are likely to have a sense of malevolence about them, like the gangster with his hired goons or the suspicious policeman.
Still Life is very much a classically styled point-and-click adventure game, complete with inventories and the odd bit of pixel hunting. For the Xbox version, the controller is thankfully not used to emulate a computer mouse. Rather, the player uses the controller to have their character walk about the screen, concentrating on hot-spots. The player then interacts with that part of the screen, possibly gaining an item for use later. There are a small number of items to pick up in the game, but all have an important use. Due to the scarcity of usable items, the inventory screen never feels cluttered.
The inventory puzzles inevitably provide little more than fodder for gradually advancing the story. The game isn’t an especially demanding challenge overall, but its difficulty is hardly trivial because of the many larger, self-contained puzzles spread throughout. For these, the player will usually have a set of objects to manipulate in order to meet a cleverly elusive goal. A crass way of looking at this is that these are just math puzzles interrupting the normal flow of play, although the story does attempt to explain the context of each one. Some of the later ones get pretty interesting, like the case where the player maneuvers a robotic spider through a three-dimensional grid of lasers. The early situations are somewhat less entertaining, where the player will guess the solution immediately or become frustrated with the obtuseness of the problem once it stumps them.
Significant offenders are the puzzles occurring earlier in the game where the player orders a set of encoded numbers, finds the right mixes for baking a batch of cookies (not surprisingly, this one could have been removed without negatively effecting the plot), and fiddling with a couple of tumblers and a large set of interrelated locks. The problem with these puzzles is that there is not nearly enough feedback to tell the player what kind of progress they are making. The solution could be one or two steps away, but Still Life indicates nothing about this status. Each puzzle is enjoyable right after it begins, but quickly becomes annoying once it devolves into a trial-and error-based exercise in tedium.
The story is the high point of Still Life, but it loses the plot in the end. As the player heads into the final chapter, it looks as if the major questions are going to be answered, but by the end of the game, these questions are answered half-heartedly and a new set of questions are thrown into the mix. Whatever the reason for this choice of plot development, it was an extremely poor decision on the part of the developer, Microids. Instead of feeling rewarded after completing the game, many players will no doubt leave Still Life with a dour taste from the unfulfilling ending.
Still Life doesn’t start with a bang; rather, it consistently builds towards an interesting and eventful finale, only to let the player down in the end. This might be the most significant factor in helping one decide whether to play the game or not. Some players will not mind a shoddy ending as long as the material leading up to it is top-notch; others, especially fans of traditional mystery stories, may not be able to get over the fact that Still Life avoids providing any reasonable kind of closure. Still Life is certainly a good example of its genre, but this glaring flaw along with the hit-or-miss puzzles prevents it from approaching greatness.