Heavy rain beats down on the dark Parisian rooftops. Flashes of lightning briefly illuminate the scene as the camera draws back and we are looking down at the streetscape outside the Hotel Orphee. A window is open, the curtain flaps, and the camera steals in like a voyeur and lingers over items of underwear cast aside and a deserted wine bottle on the table. A woman giggles in the next room; the camera turns to the door. As it opens light floods in spotlighting a couple in the bed. The view lingers just long enough for the blanket to slip down revealing the woman's breasts then switches to the open door. A masked intruder strides forward, long and deadly blade in hand.
Cut to garret of struggling painter disturbed by the vision. A knock at his door and he opens it to reveal the femme fatale, Sophia Blake ... The vision continues; the couple now propped up in bed, their heads severed and placed in their laps. So begins Post Mortem, a disturbing and dark thriller from Microids, set in Paris in the 1920s.
Sophia has come to see Gus MacPherson, not to buy one of his paintings - he doesn't seem to have done any yet, but to ask him to investigate the gruesome murder of her sister and brother-in-law. It seems she has learned that MacPherson was formerly a detective in New York and she pleads for his help as she thinks the police are trying to hush up the case. Oh, and some worthless artefact was also stolen, a family heirloom of little consequence, but she would like it back.
As MacPherson you can accept the case or refuse it, though of course you must accept eventually or the game will go nowhere.
The game is played from a first person perspective but features third person cinematic cut scenes and conversations. Though it draws inspiration from Film Noir in the dark settings and darker storyline, MacPherson is no tough guy PI in the mould of Sam Spade. He does have a certain world-weariness in his demeanour, but he is mild-mannered and softly spoken and resembles a beatnik from the 1950s. And, of course, he has these disturbing visions. Sadly we learn virtually nothing about his background and are offered no real explanation for him becoming a painter in Paris beyond Sophia hinting that he had been a suspect in a previous murder inquiry. Perhaps if he had worked out his demons on canvas during the investigation it might have been more revealing.
This is not to say that the painting angle is completely ignored in the investigation. MacPherson is able to sketch the suspect from vague witness descriptions in a puzzle that has you putting together an identikit picture by changing various features. Another puzzle has you spotting the differences between two almost identical paintings, and yet another has you carefully searching a painting for elusive markings then piecing them together in your sketchbook. But MacPherson needs more than artistic prowess, as he'll also be faced with a lock picking dilemma; a problem involving the mixing of an alchemy potion; and one working out a code wheel. The majority of the game, however, revolves around exploration and conversations to ferret out clues and open new locations. The biggest puzzle is, perhaps, trying to determine which conversational thread to pursue, as sometimes some of the responses on offer don't fit the circumstances.
This has come about because Microids have introduced different pathways through the story so that the sequence of events will change depending on your conversational choices. Admittedly, they have handled it quite well as there are various ways to solve problems as well as several different endings, but conversations can get confusing and stilted at times. The problem lies in the conversation interface where you are presented with multiple choices, some of which are relevant, some aren't. This often means a considerable amount of superfluous reading to ferret out the clue you are after and it can be distracting after a while. It's made all the more problematic because there is no way to skip lengthy conversations. You must keep on interrogating until there are no questions left, only then can you leave the conversation. This is annoying, especially so when you encounter repeat, or redundant questions where you already know the answer, and a couple of times MacPherson must have used his psychic abilities because he asked about things before he (or I) was aware of them.
Admittedly there is some amusement value in reading all the alternatives but in my estimation the conversations could have been filtered more to avoid the above problems. With so many conversational alternatives, at first I was tentative about making a choice just in case it was the wrong one, but I needn't have worried. There isn't a wrong answer, the story rolls on regardless of the few hiccups, and fits together neatly.
The point and click interface is intuitive and navigation is straightforward with node movement and 360 degree turning. Travel between locations is handled by means of a map of Paris that is updated whenever you learn of a new place to visit. Inventory management, however, is another aspect of the game that could have done with some refinement. Your inventory can quickly fill up and you have to scroll through it one click at a time to find anything, though thankfully you can identify items easily by hovering your cursor over them and reading the text description. However some items are inventory items in their own right and you can use them in the normal way whilst others are simply hotlinks to index card entries. This mixture of inventory uses doesn't work well because it both clutters your collection and creates the impression you can use something when you can't. MacPherson's notebook, however, is very useful for re-capping on conversations. If only he had a decent typewriter so that the individual letters on the page didn't jump around making it difficult to read.
Dual-purpose inventory and convoluted conversations aside, Post Mortem really is a very playable game. The graphics are very good and the cut scenes are excellent and atmospheric, backed up by a quite respectable and moody soundtrack. The characters, too, are an interesting lot, not always absolutely honest, and you can pick up their foibles through conversation and decide whom to put your faith in. The character animations are a little exaggerated and repetitive especially in the conversation sequences, but most of the voice acting is reasonable. MacPherson is played in a suitably low-key manner that I thought reflected his thoughtful and sensitive personality.
The puzzles are an interesting collection with some very well disguised 'activities' - observing the paintings, getting the identikit sketch right and mixing the potion - although this latter exercise could have done with more explanation to prepare the player for the task at hand. Another puzzle suffered from the cursor not distinguishing between two hotspots so that you couldn't read a clue in close up on examining an image but you could focus on it clearly if you selected it from a distance. This held me up for a while but generally the puzzles range from easy to moderate difficulty.
Post Mortem has subtitles throughout and there are ample save game slots. It comes on two CDs but if you have the hard disk space you can do a full install, though you will need to keep the second CD in the drive as you play.
Though it had the potential to be a truly great murder mystery investigation it didn't manage to make the grade. Perhaps I was expecting too much; another Gabriel Knight (Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned which touched on a similar theme but with far greater depth) or another Tex Murphy (Pandora Directive which also offers different pathways through the story), but Post Mortem doesn't climb to the same heights as these games. Despite its shortcomings, however, it is still quite entertaining and I enjoyed playing it. The story is interesting, the setting darkly compelling, and it's easy to get drawn into and carried along by the investigation. Because of the varied pathways you might even be tempted to replay the game so that you don't miss a thing.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2003.
All rights reserved.
Pentium(R) II 350 MHz processor (P III 500 MHz processor recommended), 64 MB RAM (128 MB RAM recommended) 470 MB Free Hard Disk Space (720 MB Free Hard Disk Space recommended) 16X CD-Rom Drive (24X CD-Rom Drive recommended) DirectX(R) Compatible Sound Card,16 MB Direct3D compatible 3D graphics card (32 MB Direct3D compatible 3D graphics card recommended)