In Memoriam / Missing: Since January
I have agonised somewhat about this review. I have not experienced such highs but also such lows in one game, or anything quite this interesting for a very long time, if at all. It deserves the highest praise for what it has tried to do, as well as a brickbat for some of what it has actually done.
Keep all the best bits, fine tune some others, and throw out a few things and you may well have an absolute stunner.
In Memoriam is very much the sum of all its parts. Looked at in pieces its attractions are not that apparent. Receive some e-mails, do some Internet surfing, solve 40 or so self contained puzzles and watch another piece of a movie each time you are successful. Indeed, after about puzzle 21 or so it might all seem to be a bit repetitious.
Except that the whole thing is woven together in a way that brings it to life, and which involves you in a game within the game to find a missing journalist and his friend, orchestrated by the person who took them.
Here is where it first gets interesting. Jack Lorski, the journalist who is missing, works for SKL Networks. SKL received a CD-ROM and a video from a person calling himself The Phoenix, exhorting them to "go public" with his great work. That work is the CD now in your possession, called In Memoriam, and through which The Phoenix will tease you along a path to learn what has happened.
When you first load the CD you will be asked to enter your e-mail address and create an identity. Then things really get going.
The Phoenix speaks to you through the CD. His messages are spelled out across the screen. You are his Little Friend, and he wants you to find him. He dribbles out clues and hints, tugging you onward in your endeavours to learn what has happened. He starts by showing you a piece of video footage, shot by the missing journalist himself, in which Jack is showing you an old piece of film footage he found inside a movie camera - films within a film. It concludes with someone being executed on a headland. Jack tells you in a voice-over to his own footage that he needs to find out who the person is and why they were killed.
It's clear Jack recorded his efforts, and it's that footage which The Phoenix is now showing you, piece by piece, if you follow the path he has laid out.
You aren't alone though. SKL want to help, and have set up a website with useful links. They have looked at the CD and it is clear that you are expected to find much of the information The Phoenix wants you to find on the Internet. Their site includes a Google Bar, a translator and a notepad. They will also put you in touch with people who can help, and who communicate with you through e-mail, including a profiler and other "people" who have taken up the challenge of the great work.
Now and then The Phoenix will correspond with you as well.
From within the game you access all of these things via a pop-up toolbar. You will receive e-mails regularly, and will need to look for information to solve many of the puzzles. The Google Bar will probably be your best friend as you search a large number of sites, some real and some created just for the game.
The Internet searching is in no way painting by numbers. It is creatively but logically put together, and is often a many-layered search. You will need to think about what you know about The Phoenix, reflect on the insights of your helpers, and consider the puzzle you are working on itself. An image or a name may give you a lead. Many of the sites you visit will also add depth or background to one or more of the characters, and they will take you to many locations around the world.
You will also receive e-mails containing links to other little tools that can help you. A video analyser will be extremely useful in searching footage for clues, and a sound analyser will help you discern the message amongst some white noise.
All of this will reveal more of Jack's video, and what you learn and where you go will help add to the picture of The Phoenix. It's a picture incorporating ancient esoterica and other arcana, and you will soon find that it isn't pretty. It's psychotic, it's cruel, and it has many victims.
Not all of the puzzles need the Internet. Some are contained in the single screen before you; others require you to play little arcade-like games. More on them later.
What else? Jack's video is extremely high quality, and is much more than just a record of his efforts. Some of the locations are exotic, some of the footage quite touching. The acting is not at all bad, and Jack's voice-over is somewhat flat but not dull.
The atmosphere is well constructed. This isn't a stroll in the park; the game world has a dark and quietly threatening mood. It utilises staccato imagery and a discordant or grating soundtrack to link the puzzles and heighten the mood. The puzzles themselves can add tension, or downright creepiness. In one of them I was trying to piece together snippets of what couldn't be called a song, but was more a keening wail. The screen had a black and blue toned house merged with a face. The impression created was of a doomed and imprisoned young girl singing forlornly to herself for comfort.
As I said, In Memoriam is the sum of its parts. If you just play the puzzles, and don't read your e-mails, or if you don't delve into the sites you come across, you will miss a lot of the experience.
It is unique; I found it entertaining, and at times enthralling. So why the opening paragraph?
The very large turn-off is the number of little arcade like puzzles you are required to do, which to me simply did not fit the tone of the whole thing. Perhaps The Phoenix wanted to accentuate the fact that he is playing with you; perhaps he wanted to show that it isn't just a question of how clever you are.
However, I thought it completely unbalanced the whole thing, particularly as you will receive prods from The Phoenix if you are lingering too long on an ordinary puzzle, almost as if he is impatient, and you might even receive the answer or a key part of the solution by e-mail. So why then should you have to spend hours and hours trying to puff little letters all around the screen hoping to get the right ones to stick in the corners? It's a puzzle for which there was seemingly neither skill or (much) method but predominantly dumb luck, and which, if you cannot do, will grind the game to a shuddering halt. Yes you can move on and do something else in the meantime, 6 or 7 puzzles being available at any one time, but you have to do this one eventually.
This was the worst of the arcade type puzzles but there are quite a few. There might also be 4 or 5 levels to each one, each level progressively harder. Let me say I am not completely opposed to these types of puzzles, it is just that there are way too many here for the feel of the product as a whole. I got quite fed up with having to do them at all.
Nor, I suspect, can you easily get a save game from someone else just past your stuck point. The game autosaves, and the way it makes you set up a profile suggests that it isn't easy to use someone else's save game.
Other grumblements are that it is a bit repetitious; do a puzzle, see a clip, do another puzzle, see another clip. Some judicious editing (ie most of those arcade games) would help. The e-mails can also tell you the answer to a puzzle whether you want it or not. Plus you would be well advised to play it soon given its use of Internet sites.
But it's ultimately a positive and to be encouraged experience. There is talk of a sequel. Lets hope the kinks are ironed out, the roadblocks dispensed with, and a true Phoenix emerges.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2003.
All rights reserved.
Windows 95, 98,2000, Me, XP, Pentium 333 processor, 700 MB disc space, 64 MB RAM, 8x CD ROM, 16 MB graphics card, Minimum 800 x 600 resolution (1024 x 768 recommended). 16 bit Soundblaster compatible sound card, Internet connection, 56.6 KB modem.
Mac OS 8.6 and above (OS X classic mode only), 700 MB disc space, 64 MB RAM, 8x CD ROM, 16 MB graphics card, Internet connection 56.6 KB modem.