Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Game Review: Fahrenheit

Before I start, I should note that I played the uncensored European version of this game, "Fahrenheit", but American players might recognize it as "Indigo Prophecy".

A friend of mine noticed that I occasionally blog about DOS-era adventure games, like the Sierra Quest line. That was my favorite genre growing up - which isn't to say I passed up the occasional "Wing Commander" or "System Shock", and I'll even admit to playing a few rounds of "Doom" before realizing that I'm absolutely hopeless at first-person shooters. But adventure games made up about 90% of my hard drive back then.

Anyway, said friend noted that my lament for the adventure genre might be premature, given that - while they're much less prominent these days than they were ten or fifteen years ago - adventure games are still being produced today. As a somewhat-contemporary example, he suggested I should try "Fahrenheit".

The tutorial gives you a pretty good idea of how the creators of this game saw their product: while you're learning how to control your character, designer David Cage appears in the (digital) flesh and talks about how he and his team want the player to view "Fahrenheit" as an interactive film. Which actually reminded me of "Phantasmagoria", in the sense that you spend more time watching the story unfold than you do actively determining its course. To be honest, I don't mind that particular mode of gaming: there's something to be said for sitting back and enjoying a good story.

But the game interface is a lot more complicated than just clicking on objects; for example, you have to drag your mouse in specific patterns during dialogue as a way of selecting which topic of conversation to pursue; if you don't move fast, the timer runs out and the conversation swerves away unpredictably. There are also numerous action sequences reminiscient of Simon Says, where the player must repeat a string of keys as they appear on the screen; failure will result in the loss of a "life", at the end of which it's game over. It's an unorthodox addition to an adventure game, and in the case of "Fahrenheit" it's both a great strength and a great weakness. The action sequences add a lot of adrenaline and reflexive play to a typically sedate genre, but they're also incredibly distracting, in the sense that they tend to kick off at crucial moments in the story, only you're too busy focusing on which keys to press. Entire scenes can pass you by while you're struggling to survive.

Another interesting - though inherently problematic - element of "Fahrenheit" is the Sanity Meter. As you progress through the game, your protagonists have all sorts of optional activities they can do, ranging from watching TV to listening to music to having sex. Some actions - the sort that you'd find calming and reassuring - grant you Sanity Points. Actions that could discourage or even damage your character's psyche (losing a bet, finding a dead body) subtract Sanity Points. If the Sanity Meter hits zero for any of your characters, at any point during the game, you lose. Sounds complicated? It is. Because "Fahrenheit" - despite its wide array of choices - is still a scripted game, and certain events will happen whether you set them up or not. So you may find yourself losing points without being able to do anything about it (for example, Carla's tarot reading which goes completely south, costing you a whopping 30 points). No way out of it, no way around it. And if you don't stock up on points beforehand, you may find yourself in a losing scenario through no fault of your own.

The story of "Fahrenheit" holds together rather nicely for most of the game: you start off with Lucas Kane, a man who wakes up in a restaurant bathroom, having just murdered a man while in a trance. Lucas is sure someone else was controlling his actions, but he has no way of proving his innocence - your first task is to help him conceal evidence and escape into the night.

And once Lucas is away, control shifts to Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles, a pair of detectives investigating the very same murder Lucas committed. It's fun to unravel your own crime scene, and in fact, some of the best moments in "Fahrenheit" involve the constant shifting between Lucas on the run and Carla and Tyler hot on his trail. Of course, Lucas also has to piece together what really happened that night.

It's an imaginative storyline. Unfortunately, it takes a right-angle turn towards the end of the game, after the amusement park sequence with Tiffany. I'm not going to spoil the twist, because it's a genuine yeahbuhwhat? moment, but let's just say you have a very sudden clash between the supernatural and science-fiction, and these things don't co-exist easily when they're set up well in advance; cramming them into the last hour or two of gameplay just feels like either someone lost a bet or the last act of the plot was cobbled together from different scripts. There are multiple endings, but not one of them really delivers an appropriate payoff.

Still, poor endgame aside, I honestly enjoyed "Fahrenheit". It's a different kind of adventure game, and aside from my issues with the action sequences (somewhat ameliorated by the fact that when you complete the game most - but not all - of the sequences are available for play-through or viewing) I thought the game mechanisms and interface were refreshingly innovative. I doubt I'll play the announced sequel - seriously, the endgame is just that bad - but it was fun while it lasted.