Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Art of Murder: FBI Confidential Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

Art of Murder: FBI Confidential, developed and published by City Interactive.
The Good: Rewarding puzzles, sharp graphics, gritty locations
The Not So Good: Annoying voice acting, spotty translation, outlandish elements clash with the realistic setting
What say you? A decent third-person point-and-click adventure hampered by B-movie dialog: 5/8

Nicole Bonnet, a young FBI agent, goes to fetch some coffee during a routine stakeout, only to return and find her partner shot dead. She's quickly assigned to a case involving the ritual murders of wealthy old men whose hearts have been cut from their chests. Now it's up to Nicole and her mysterious new partner, Nick Romsky, to find a link between the victims and track down the killer before the city runs out of that most precious of commodities: wealthy old man hearts.

The pre-rendered backgrounds range from lush greenery to decrepit apartments right out of David Fincher's Seven. Despite the gruesome subject matter, it's an oddly comfortable game. Some of the sets, especially the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, are captivating. Nicole Bonnet looks like Rachael Leigh Cook, which never hurt a game's sales. Too bad she sounds like a cybernetic valley girl. Half the time she speaks robotically, as if her dialog was pieced together word-by-word, and the rest of the time she comes off as a second rate Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The music is oppressive and atmospheric, just the thing for a serious FBI investigation; but man, Nicole Bonnet made me want to swab my ears with a sacrificial dagger.

The life of a FBI agent is filled with danger. These are the guys who took down the mob, rescue kidnapped children and hunt the FBI's Most Wanted. So it comes as no surprise that Art of Murder: FBI Confidential begins with the Case of the Missing Printer Paper. As I entered the supply closet and clicked on everything from flashlights to latex gloves, Nicole gave variations of the same, baffling response: "FRANKLY, I've no idea what to do with it!" Or, "Frankly, I've NO idea what to do with it!" And so on, emphasizing each word as if it were her last. (She has no idea what to do with latex gloves? Can somebody please check her badge?) Later, while investigating a crime scene, Nicole complained that she couldn't handle a newspaper because she'd leave fingerprints on it. This actually became a full-fledged subplot when she was scolded for handing in a rare artifact covered in fingerprints -- her own, naturally.

A lot of adventure games I've played lately combine the Look and Operate commands, which makes things a bit too simple for my tastes. Art of Murder is more traditional; the left mouse button handles Talk/Operate/etc., while the right button allows you to look at people and objects in more detail. Weirdly enough, the game has a lack of dialog trees. Questioning a witness, usually a crucial part of detective work, is simply a matter of pressing “Talk” over and over until they start repeating themselves. You don't even get to carry around man-eating topics of conversation. To the right of the inventory at the bottom of the screen is a magnifying glass that highlights key items in a room. There's also a handy in-game PDA with a phone, notes and camera.

The player is restricted to a single location made up of several rooms until the puzzles in that area are solved, which keeps things from getting overwhelming. The inventory puzzles are, for the most part, fun and rewarding (a picky bum was only sated after I forged an expensive bottle of booze by slapping a new label on some cheap bourbon). But some of the solutions are a bit silly for the serious subject matter. At one point, I needed to move a heavy crate. What to do? Why, shove an inflatable dinghy in the gap between the crates and use a fire extinguisher to inflate the raft, of course (just like in Silence of the Lambs)!

Unfortunately, the game doesn't always play fair. Once, I repeatedly tried to replace a broken cell phone battery, to no avail. Out of ideas, I scanned Nicole's desk with my magnifying glass and realized that a heretofore non-interactive bit of desk had mysteriously turned into the one spot in the entire universe where I was allowed to fix the phone. After that it was just a matter of finding a ladder, climbing to reach some electrical wires hanging from the ceiling, clipping them with scissors I had stolen from the evidence room (fingerprints, Nicole, fingerprints!), and bringing the wire back to the One Desk to Rule Them All. Turning bits of scrap metal into expensive electronics is par for the course; what bothered me is that there was no indication that I suddenly had to remove things from my inventory just to combine them. A simple, "I need more room to work!" message might have helped.

Perhaps in its native language Art of Murder: FBI Confidential is a much better game. It's not entirely the voice actors' fault; they could only do so much with the translated script. In the very first room, I clicked on a diploma and Nicole said, "Actually, we all know each other from our Quantico days." Lady, I'm just clickin' on stuff. I never said you didn't. If you value plot over puzzles, you may want to look elsewhere. But if you focus on the meat of the game, you'll have fun. Ultimately, whether or not you enjoy Art of Murder depends on your tolerance for b-movie dialog. Mine's normally high, but this game rubbed me the wrong way. I just don't like listening to people talk like automated telephone systems. After the tone, press five for Five Out of Eight.