“Stuff your Combo Burger. I need a Combo Review” – these exact words are being said right now as you read this at a fast food outlet near you (I almost want to call the fast food places “vending machines” they’re so heavily mechanised). The Combo Review will not quench your physical hunger though, only your whetted gaming appetite. Yes, I’m using a nerdy metaphor for what is in simple terms a double review. That is to say I will attempt right here and now to review two games at the same time. I might choose to do so for sequels, or mayhaps because both games are in the same or related genre.
In this case the comparison stems from each of these game’s reliance on story over gameplay, as opposed to the more conventional Other Way Round. First up, I’ll talk a bit about Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, a 2005 PS2 game by Quantic Dream, who went on to make Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Second on the menu, we’ve got Shadow of Memories/Shadow of Destiny, a 2001 PS2 release by Konami. The game was directed and written by Junko Kawano, who has been heavily involved in the acclaimed Suikoden series from its inception. Let the battle begin. Ding ding!
Fahrenheit promises a movie-like experience, with the panache of a stylish Hollywood thriller. I’m not reciting the game’s hype or PR company here. David Cage, the game’s director, shows up in the tutorial in a film director’s chair in front of a blue screen, to promise you, the player, that Fahrenheit will introduce previously unseen sophistication and depth to a videogame.
The game is a qualified success in this regard, and provides an often compelling experience. There are three broad types of gameplay (or “experiences” as the game would no doubt put it). First is your mostly regular adventure-style segments. Roam your character around, look at stuff, talk to people, the usual. Interesting here are the controls, which map most character actions to the right analogue stick, and range from picking up items by pressing the analogue stick up, to climbing fences by pressing the analogue stick left/right, moving towards up in an arc, thereby mimicking each hand’s movement up the fence. This gives you (I nearly wrote “forces you to have”) a large amount of control over your character, nominally for the purposes of making you feel more strongly connected with them. It takes some getting used to but the controls are surprisingly decent. Second are the numerous extended QTE scenes, which are mostly fine, if a bit monotonous. Often, failure in these scenes does not result in game over but affects the story, which saves frustration for those with dull reflexes or tired thumbs. Finally there are a variety of minigames. For example, in one scene your character has a panic attack due to claustrophobia and you have to regulate their breathing with the shoulder buttons, while at the same time guiding the character in first person to certain objectives. These are interesting at times but are mostly diversionary and have a tendency to drag on for too long. Also, in several instances they feel superfluous…
…such as when you’re forced to play basketball.
But onto the game’s main draw – the story. After a fantastically intriguing start in a diner/restaurant toilet where your character has just committed a murder, the game gradually squanders some of its initial goodwill. Chiefly it accomplishes this by getting bogged down by character stereotypes and an overly convoluted storyline. In addition, perhaps I was over optimistic to expect that my actions in the game would impact the ending in some profound way, but regardless this turned out not to be the case. In the end the slippery story turns out to be close to the original Deus Ex in terms of the variability of its endings – not dismal but not particularly satisfying either.
After completing the game, you unlock the ability to go back to any given part of the story at will and experiment within it. You can take new paths and then choose to either save your progress and continue along the main story, or to move around to try other chapters. This bonus mode is a really unique and cool feature, and it does point to the fact that the story and the ability to experiment with it is most fruitful near the beginning of the game. This mode also keeps track of the percentage of cinema/dialogue variations you have come across and allows you to trade in your progress for various bonus videos, including deleted scenes, making of videos etc. This is a really neat, original touch which adds some replay value which would otherwise be lacking.
The game pilfers liberally from cinema, combining a highly atmospheric soundtrack (including songs written by David Lynch soundtrack collaborator Angelo Badalamenti) with cinematic camera angles. Fahrenheit borrows TV show 24’s multi-angle views to show actions outside of your main view, without taking away your control. In your character’s flat, the screen will divide in seamless fashion to show a police visitor walking down the corridor outside, arriving at your door, and ringing the doorbell while inside you are struggling to get dressed and hide evidence of a crime, for example. This technique makes for some very dramatic and tense situations that recall a good thriller, with the added suspense of you yourself controlling the characters involved.
The story holds a degree of arbitrariness at times however because you alternate between controlling the criminal and the police detectives. Do you leave obvious clues so that the criminal is caught or do you assist the criminal in getting away? Although this sounds like it could offer many options in theory, in practice the game’s plot requires that the criminal not be identified/caught before certain events occur, while simultaneously you are forced to uncover certain clues as the detectives that lead them inevitably to learn who the culprit is, at about the right time. So the player’s freedom is really an illusion, something that becomes abundantly clear after about the fifth Game Over screen, when you accidentally let the criminal get caught too early on. That said, there are still compelling changes that you can make that will make (at least) some pretty major alterations in dialogue.
Along with some of the better aspects of Hollywood films, including the consistently high standard of voice acting, there are some negatives. When playing as the female police detective for example, there are a number of highly gratuitous scenes that diminish the seriousness and convincingness of her character. In one scene that feels decidedly adolescent, you control her walking around in skimpy underwear in her flat, only to get dressed before entertaining her stereotypical gay best friend. Among other gratuitous scenes I could mention, there is even a Hot Coffee-esque section in which you use the analogue stick to thrust during sex!
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the game contains a number of QTE-filled scenes. These shamelessly ape The Matrix. Although these are well done, ripping off The Matrix became a cliche about a second after the film came out, let alone in 2006, so I can’t say I was too impressed. These scenes, and the direction the story eventually takes mirror the well-trodden Hollywood route: begin with intrigue, mystery and ambiguity, end with mindless action and hope no one notices that the plot has flown the nest!
Bye bye mop, hello bad-ass Keanu-lookalike mofo!
Shadow of Memories/Shadow of Destiny
Shadow of Memories is marked by a lack of gameplay. Not in a negative sense i.e. the gameplay is bad, but just that there is very very little of it. During repeat playthroughs, the option to skip the cutscenes and knowledge of what to do next brings down the total completion time from around five hours to less than an hour. Instead of traditional gameplay challenges, the game consists exclusively of running around the environment, talking to characters and using items at specific moments, in a relatively linear and foolproof manner. With no health bar, no expendable money, and only one collectable (which is more of afterthought than an integral part of the game), Shadow of Memories is reminiscent of retro PC point-and-click adventures. Unlike those games however, Shadow of Memories has no overwrought puzzles and no arbitrary item combinations. Instead the puzzles are almost entirely straightforward, and you will nearly always be fully aware of where/what to go/do next.
The game’s sense of adventure comes from the game’s time-travel mechanic, which lets you move backwards and forwards through time at will to a variety of chronological destinations. The game’s only setting is a small, quaint German town, which you encounter in time periods from medieval to modern day. The game lacks many of the cinematic qualities Fahrenheit has – voice acting (particularly for the minor characters but the main character too) is hokey and stilted at times on a par with Silent Hill 2, and camera shots are mostly straightforward. The biggest exception to the rule is the character of Humunculus as seen above, a mysterious demon-like figure voiced by Charles Martinet of Mario fame, who completely and absolutely steals the show – rightly so too, given that he is the driving force behind the game’s mysterious plot.
In lieu of gameplay, Shadow of Memories tells an excellent story. In fact I would venture to call it possibly the most satisfying videogame story I’ve encountered to date. The game offers a total of six different endings in the main game depending on the player’s decisions at certain key moments (these moments are handily flagged up making obtaining the different endings relatively easy). Upon obtaining five of the six endings, you gain access to a bizarre, ultra-short new game plus mode which contains a further two endings. These are mostly fun extras for fans. Incredibly, every one of the game’s total eight endings are well worth the effort in obtaining. It is perhaps the game’s single best feature that each and every ending holds some new plot twist for the player, and in a way that never feels contrived. Thanks to a very tightly constructed time-travel scenario, each ending is rife with convincing pay-offs.
Shadow of Memories is not a sexy game, it must be said. On the surface it seems to be plain and ordinary, an early PS2 release with slight production values. Fahrenheit by contrast is a sexy, slick and visually/audibly appealing late PS2 release. Certainly Fahrenheit is a worthy experience if you are interested at all in what the videogame as a medium has to offer, although its pretensions of taking the Art of Gaming to New Heights are slightly annoying and ultimately disappointing when the experience fails to completely deliver on that promise. As such, it sometimes feels more like an interesting experiment which has lots of potential rather than a finely honed, complete product. Shadow of Memories is less ambitious on the surface but ultimately packs so much depth into its storyline that its almost startling. “Slow and steady wins the race” and “the ugly duckling” are two phrases that come to mind when describing these two side-by-side. Both games are worth playing, but if you’re in the mood for an intelligent story-driven game I’d recommend you check out Shadow of Memories/Shadow of Destiny first.