The ending to the original Still Life, released by Microids in 2005, caused a bit of a rift between fans. Some were disappointed that many questions, such as the identity of the killer, were left unanswered. Others claimed this simply added to the authenticity of the game. After all, many mysteries in real life remain as mysteries. Why should video games be any different? There was a great deal of talk about a possible follow-up which would reveal more behind the original story. Sadly, the development team was dissolved shortly after Still Life’s release. The truths behind the Chicago killings remained buried. That is, until a new team took on the challenge of developing a sequel.
In Still Life 2, players once again take control of disgruntled detective Victoria McPherson. This time she’s hunting a new antagonist, the gasmask-wearing East Coast Killer. We’re quickly brought up to speed on developments since the previous game via some clumsy butler-maid dialogue between Vic and returning character Claire, the police coroner. Lines such as “Well, I shouldn’t have to remind you…” are particularly cringe worthy. Besides this, various documents, clippings and photos strewn around Vic’s bedroom serve as a reminder of the events of the original case - definitely a good thing if it’s been four years since you played the first game.
The story picks up pace with the introduction of a second playable character, news reporter Paloma Hernandez. After hassling Vic for info, she receives an unwelcome visit from the East Coast Killer himself. She’s soon trapped in a creepy old house in the middle of a forest, with a shock collar around her throat and a number of cameras watching her every move. Apparently this killer doesn’t just murder his victims - he likes to play games with them first.
Clearly the developers are big fans of the Saw franchise, as Paloma’s segments are a series of tests she must pass in order to survive. These sections are genuinely tense, especially with the inclusion of timed sequences - a definite love-them-or-hate-them mechanic amongst adventure fans. Haters won’t be won over, as there never seems to be enough time to save yourself on the first attempt. Matters aren’t helped by the slow, jerky movements of the characters, or their total nonchalance despite their impending doom. Paloma will happily chat away about how dusty the place is while the room she’s in fills with poisonous gas. Failure always results in death and there’s no option to restart at the beginning of the sequence, so be sure to save as soon as the timer starts counting down.
Although the timed sequences can be annoying, the sadistic challenges and puzzles are generally well implemented into the game. Paloma may be a stereotypical reporter and have some annoying quirks, but I genuinely rooted for her as she played a feisty mouse to the killer’s cat. These segments also acted as a welcome break from Vic’s detective duties, which form the other half of the game.
As Vic, you’ll be searching crime scenes for clues of the killer’s location. This mostly involves pixel-hunting, although you do get a CSI kit to analyse and collect any samples you find. The forensics parts are fairly basic - Gil Grissom would probably snort with derision, before launching into a sermon about the life cycle of wasps. At least they’re logical and enjoyable, even if picking up and analysing hairs gets a little repetitive. The interface is concise enough, with objectives and documents all stored on your ‘smart phone’ which is accessible through your inventory.
My main criticism is that the game is very linear, and most cutscenes and developments are only triggered by finding every piece of required evidence. On a couple of occasions you even have to find some rather trivial hotspots before progressing, which can be pretty irritating. The worst part is that the game is quite dark, which makes hunting around unnecessarily difficult. My eyes actually started to ache at points. On one occasion I couldn’t even see an object stored in my inventory, because it blended into the background.
Despite this, Still Life 2 is almost an accomplished effort and worthy of recommendation. However, there’s a few more niggling issues that add to the frustration. The first is the inventory. Both Vic and Paloma have a very limited amount of space to carry items - 16 ‘slots’, to be accurate. This may seem like a lot, but bear in mind that some items can fill up as many as eight slots, or even the full 16. The result is a lot of backtracking to stash items in storage devices, just like Resident Evil. It was bloody annoying back then, and it’s still bloody annoying today. Any arguments that this is done for realism are laughable. After all, how can a chunky oil can only take up a single slot, while a lock pick takes up two? You can bung something as hefty as a mattress in your inventory, yet there’s no sign of it in Paloma or Vic’s hands while you’re walking around. You select it from your inventory and it simply pops into existence.
The graphics have sadly taken a step back compared to the original. The first Still Life had beautifully rendered backgrounds, but the sequel introduces a new 3D engine that looks a little ropey. Characters appear somewhat lifeless at times (the live ones too, not just the dead ones). Also, the camera moves as your character walks and sometimes switches unexpectedly, which can lead to confusion and make trekking through various rooms a bit of a chore. Sometimes areas you can reach are concealed until you happen to move into just the right spot, which impedes progress as much as the darkened hotspots.
Finally, the sound. Music is on the whole decent, with plenty of haunting violins and other horror staples. The urgency builds in timed sequences, adding nicely to the tension. However, the sound effects are variable at best. A lot of the noises you’ll hear in the sinister old house, for instance, are just bizarre. Unidentifiable sounds can really add to a game’s atmosphere and raise the player’s nerves, but when the sound appears to be a hedgehog scampering across a bag of frozen peas, it simply raises eyebrows. I also noticed a couple of bugs where the sound cut out. This was most noticeable during a ‘scare’ sequence halfway through the game, which then fell completely flat.
The game has full speech for all of the characters, and the acting varies from decent to inoffensive. On the whole it’s well done, but the characters can suddenly switch from whispering to shouting for no good reason. You’ll probably get a little tired of Vic and Paloma screeching “that can’t possibly work!” at you, especially if you adopt a ‘try everything and see what fits’ approach to adventure games. I also have to take issue with the killer’s lines, which at times are hilarious. Just wait until he spits out “you got that right, hot stuff!” and you’ll see what I mean.
The original game was such an accomplishment that I really hoped Still Life 2 would match it. Sadly, there are too many flaws and bad design decisions for me to recommend it with any real enthusiasm. It’s by no means a disaster either, however. I was honestly intrigued to see how the story turned out, both in terms of tying in with the first game and to see if Petrona managed to escape her captor (I won’t give it away, but there are multiple endings). The puzzles are generally fun and for the most part logical. Some are quite sinister, and really add to the tension.
Basically, if you can overlook the flaws, you’ll likely find enough to hold your interest through a single play at least. There’s still some life here - just.