Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Reviewed by Laura MacDonald
"Missing: Since January" is not exactly a new game. It was first released in Europe and Britain under the name "In Memoriam". The developer, Lexis Numerique/Eric Viennot, may not be entirely unknown to those who play family-based games. Before this latest venture, Viennot was the creative force behind the imaginative childrenís titles, the 'Uncle Albert' series. These games used a mix of interactive pages. In one instance, bugs would crawl and butterflies would flit across the page as you grabbed after them to trigger a new event or chapter in the story. Any number of innovative interactive surprises were built into this lovely set of adventures. Given Viennotís drive to push the boundaries of his creative output, "Missing" promised to be something entirely different from the usual adventure fare.
The result is unusual. Missing is in fact quite different from most games, although there is a structural similarity to aspects of the online website-based games 'Majestic' and a free game based upon the movie 'Artificial Intelligence'. However with its strong story and stylish cinematic presentation, Missing has its very own unique position within gaming history and varies in many key ways from these earlier online offerings. One of the best distinguishing points is the baseline story. Missing would lead us on the trail of a serial killer, track him to his lair... and even worse, perhaps take us deep into his mind.
This game is played out through a series of relevant websites and a madmanís ramblings. Essentially, you have to play along with the mysterious killer who is presumably behind the disappearance of Jack and Karen. In return for participating in his macabre puzzles and meanderings, you get snippets of tape and clues that shed light on his motives (sane or otherwise) and his methods. Ultimately this montage of facts and conjecture should lead you to Jack and Karen, the gameís missing pair. Even better, you race against time and events hoping to find them alive. In theory this is an excellent premise for a plot, a game, or a movie. In practice... well, it lacked.
As you move forward in the game, you go from one web-based page to another. Each page is a cipher of varied difficulty. So you are really moving through a series of imbedded puzzles to get your reward of another piece of the overriding mystery. Sounds like fun... and it should have been. Unfortunately, too many of the puzzles were video arcade-style games. Move the piece along a maze while avoiding killer drones. Snatch at pieces of video flowing past to rearrange them. I would have preferred the style of web sleuthing that was present in the web-based game 'A.I.' Even better, it was free. You had to delve into web pages, imbedded coding and other tricks to discover hidden places, sites and buried info. But the pace was set by your own curiosity and available time to ramble along the pathways the web sleuthery presented.
Now to be fair, not all of the puzzling was twitch or quick finger oriented. There were many devilish challenges that I truly enjoyed, and these brought me back into the spirit of the game and captured my imagination. There were even a few of the trigger finger games that were still highly unique and enjoyable. At that point it was not too far fetched to start seeing the elusive Phoenix as a true nemesis out there, taunting and baiting you, while two people's lives possibly hung in the balance. If this had been the entire gameplay, it would have been a quick tumble into the chase, with the relentless pursuit uneasily turning into the feeling of being the hunted yourself. If there is a sequel built upon this web-based hunt for a madman, I say leave out the Pacman clones and bring on the obscure and the mystical.
Graphical and ambient chillers...
Some of the best parts of the game were the odd bits of film, both recent and old, that surfaced in your research and as parceled out by the Phoenix. The parts that were 8 mm truly haunted. I could see this as being a real incident from the past, and see itís impact reaching far out into the future. I was my most riveted at these points in the game, and truly impressed. The websites themselves added greatly to this eerie ambiance of the game. I would say that this is where the game truly excelled for me. Donnie Darko and such come easily to mind. Odd snippets of tangled music, fleeting images and spooky ghost typing that appears as you go from site to site and represent communiquťs from your quarry build as you move through the maze of sites in the game. I would give the developers high marks for this aspect of the game.
The players in this Dance Macabre...
All of the game characters, those seen and unseen, were excellent. I am hard pressed to think of any other game that had this high a caliber of talent. The actor who portrayed Jack in the game also provided the narration. His voice work was superb. In fact, I thought all of those filmed for the game were perfect for their roles. The credibility of their characters never faltered. I have to admit that, even though I truly disliked many of the challenges or perhaps mini games that you have to 'beat' to progress to the next level or segment. The reward was almost always worth the effort.
These snippets of video and film footage varied depending on the source. Some provided semi-biographical moments from Jack and Karenís investigation into a series of murders, beginning with the brutal and unexplained murder of her own father many years before. This same footage also details the course of their evolving close relationship. Other pieces of film are shot from a black and white hand-held camera. These short pieces appear to be the work of the elusive Phoenix. He is the architect of a series of brutal murders that we uncover while following the same trail that led to Jack and Karenís disappearance. Now ordinarily this would be scant reward for a parasitic version of 'whack-a-mole'. But this game, while missing much in some regards, hit it out of the park with these 'tape rewards'. Time and time again, I found myself forgetting my irritation with the last mini game I had struggled through... and instead was deep into the storyline again, thinking "this is one amazing situation".
And then there was the mystery man himself, the Phoenix. Just when you told yourself "Whatever... itís just a game", along would come an e-mail. Or that spooky auto typing backed by a haunting musical overlay.
Then you reach the end, which I found to be shockingly abrupt. I actually sat there and thought, "What? This is it?" Well I wonít say more, but endings have an odd way of not necessarily being what or even when you expect them. What does this mean? Well letís just say I was left feeling a bit ripped off at the end of this game. But... then I found that games sometimes linger on your hard drive, and the end isnít always what it seems. Cryptic? Well, yes. So I will leave it to you to decide what this means. I do think that, though it was not very long, I did detect a small shiver later when I thought about this cryptic madman and his legacy. And what was he really? Madman, twisted killer, or perhaps avenging angel. Again, I will leave it for you to decide on your own.
Youíve got mail...
Although much of the game is based on internet sites, some built specifically for the game and others that are independent pre-existing sites, there is a layer of interactions and devices within the game that are offered up as part of the gameplay. Sometimes this works, other times it really is inconsequential. Before starting the game, you are directed to use your existing e-mail account or to create one. The point is to have an e-mail contact for messages from within the game.
Now there are times when this messaging enhances the mood of the game. Unfortunately you really donít have a give and take in this, and what started as an enhancement becomes a distraction. After awhile I ceased to even check on whether I had any in game related e-mails. Useful? Not really. I did read them after I had finished Missing, and was surprised at how many had accumulated in my mailbox. Would they have helped, or added a layer to my involvement? That is hard to say. For me they were so superfluous that I never remembered to check back once I had gotten the few tools I needed to continue certain puzzles. But for those who like these sorts of interactions, you will encounter numerous people that arrive to 'help out'. They are a number of web-based helpers or assistants of sorts who periodically communicate via e-mail to give you hints, guidance, and tools to make your search easier. It would have been nice if this feature had more of an interactive flavor, meaning you could mail them and get responsive mails back. But it does add a small note of realism to the gaming experience.
There was one moment that was an exception, and that was when you got a very personalized message from our nemesis in the game. I truly regret that this wasnít a larger part of the e-mail base. This lone message truly drew me back into the game and gave me that edgy "This IS just a game, right?" sort of feeling. Unfortunately this device was abandoned after that point. I really think the developers missed a unique opportunity to expand the depth of the gaming experience by their scant use of this device.
Why wonít you just die...
This subtitle really is just to represent my level of frustration with the way the game played on my PC. There is a patch out which I dutifully downloaded, but the thought did occur later that perhaps I should have left it off. I spent a very long time trying one fix after another, and fiddled with the setup as best I could. I truly do not know whether it is an anomaly with my system config or the game itself. So take this part of the review with a large caveat attached. But I could not ever get the in game web search engine to function consistently. Fortunately, by jerry-rigging downloads and such, I was able to get all the essential tools needed to complete some puzzles integrated into the game. The review copy came with a list of solves for web-based challenges, so for those that I couldnít get to load from within the game, I did have whatever code was needed to open up the next video sequence. I managed the rest by locating and installing a copy of In Memoriam. I played through that version with little difficulty, but it felt a bit odd to finish up a review of one version by way of playing another. From what I could tell the games differ in no real way in plot, game play, websites and such. But since it was such an odd way to finish the game for review purposes, I felt it deserved to at least be noted.
Regardless, the game felt glitchy and disjointed to me because of the ever-present technical difficulties. So consider yourself fairly warned... this game may not play well on all machines.
This is the end, my friend...
This is a difficult game to write about. First, it is not structured like any other mainstream adventure title out on the market. This is a mixed blessing. It does result in moments of fascinating gameplay and storyline. By being played online it sets itself apart from the predictability of some games. The layer of personalized interaction provided by accessing your e-mail account can be intriguing. However, it also likely means creating a new account just for purposes of playing this game to avoid clutter in your main account. Some people are not adept at this. The e-mails were also not employed in the most engaging manner and were never truly interactive. Just once it would have been great to hit the 'reply key' and actually engage in a dialogue with one of these people. Hmmm... and if it had been the Phoenix himself, well that would have been fun.
Another real problem with the game was the inability to save. The game auto-writes your progress and has just the one save point. This was not always a problem, but worse than some of the mini games was the fact that if you failed at any one of their increasingly difficult levels you had to go all the way back to the start of the puzzle and begin again. Arghhhhhh!
The film pieces were fascinating and beautifully made. They also created a point of separation from the figures at the center of this story. You watch from a distance like a web voyeur. I think the intent was to make the player feel like they are side by side with the Phoenix watching his macabre plans unfold. But it never quite reached that level for me as a player. There were too many aspects that stopped gameplay abruptly, so that I was pulled out of the story and reminded that it was indeed just a game and one that truly frustrated me at times. So in the end I felt separated from everything, and just felt isolated.
However despite my reservations about this effort, I remain captivated by what the developers were trying to accomplish creatively. I think they took a real risk and would hate to see that dissuaded. I also think that much can be learned from what worked and what didnít for future efforts. So I am looking forward to the sequel, rumored to be in the works right now. They missed the mark in a few places, but they are on an interesting path with their style and mode of game development.
What does all this mean in terms of recommending the game?
If you are a traditionalist about your adventure games, get massive headaches over anything arcade and think one save point is some cruel joke... then wait a bit. I am not unhappy that I played the game at all; I just wasnít as mesmerized as I had hoped for. In my opinion, the older game "Point of View" has a similar serial killer motif, a great music track, excellent FMVís, strong acting and a more accessible storyline. Start with that game and work your way to "Missing". Pick it up when you feel more daring.
But if you are comfortable playing games online, donít mind toughing your way through the arcade styled mini-games posing as puzzles, adore unique and mind-stumping challenges and enjoy well-crafted FMV sequences... then go for it. You may not have a game of the year experience, but this game is so unique and different that it is well worth a try.
© 2004 Laura MacDonald
Developed (2004) by Lexis Numerique and published by The Adventure Company.
Rated: M for Mature 17+ (blood, violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium II 333 MHz Processor; Windows 98 / 2000 / ME / XP; 128 MB RAM; 8X CD-ROM Drive; SVGA Graphics Card with 32 Bit Color; 16 Bit Sound Card; 700 MB of Free Hard Drive Space; Keyboard, Mouse and Speakers; 56.6 Kbps or better Internet Connection
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