Evidence: The Last Ritual
Evidence: The Last Ritual is a sequel to In Memoriam/Missing Since January and I have to say it's well and truly been polished to produce something quite engrossing and (other than the first game) quite unique.
Anyone who read my review of the earlier game will know that the good bits were very good, and the ordinary bits ... well they were a lot less than ordinary. It was a mixed bag, but I said that a sequel which focussed on the good would be very good. Which is what we have now got.
The basic gameplay in Evidence: The Last Ritual is the same as in the first game. It's fairly simple: a puzzle introduced with a clue must be solved. Successfully completing a puzzle will result in a film clip. Watch the clip, and then move on to another puzzle. It sounds simple but it's a whole lot more intricate than that.
The film clips are telling two stories. One is about what happened to Jack Lorski, the journalist in the first game. The other is a sister's search for her brother who has been missing for 5 years. All the clips have a hand held first person point of view, putting you into the midst of what is unfolding.
The common denominator is the Phoenix. A sadistic murderer, he dribbles out the puzzles and the clues for you to follow. You are his Little Friend, and he is clearly in control.
The International Committee for the Phoenix Arrest (ICPA) wants to stop him. He has sent them a CD which they have sent to you. It's his trail of breadcrumbs, for you and anyone else who thinks they can best him. If you want to join in, load the CD and you're away.
There are some movies you watch where you just know, right from the first screen, that not much good is going to happen to the people involved. I felt like that here.
Evidence: The Last Ritual is probably best described as a puzzle game, but these aren't sterile conundrums we have all seen before. They are also far from easy. You will need patience, persistence and brain power to get through.
There are in the vicinity of 50 or so puzzles, and many are unique. Just about all of them are intriguing. Working out what to do is a big part of quite a few. Cause and effect will be important, as will an eye for detail. Lateral thinking will help a lot (actually it's essential). So too will the internet.
One intriguing aspect is the way that the internet has been woven into the tapestry. You will have to search for answers on-line to solve quite a few of the puzzles, and Google will be a great friend. Many of the websites are "real"; others I suspect have been created for the game. Your search techniques, and then your ability to identify clues, will ultimately lead you to another piece of the solution.
It may also lead you down a myriad of paths that go nowhere except they are intriguing. I learnt stuff too, things about Dante and Botticelli and Templars and Confucius. And about auriculotherapy. I didn't even know there was such a thing.
To assist you, you will receive emails (in your actual email account) from fictitious people who are also pursuing the Phoenix. They will give insights, analysis, and other information which will assist with particular puzzles. It's not as contrived as it might sound; these people are also on the case and are sharing their efforts with you and each other. It's not at all like a hint book — it's far too cryptic at times for that. But they will give you invaluable clues. Just don't expect outright answers.
One of them will also send you a number of little analysis tools you can use in the game window to further decipher what is before you. A simple one allows you to zoom in on parts of the image on screen. Another deciphers strings of letters and numbers. They will form part of your tool kit as they become available.
Indeed, at times it isn't help so much as an essential piece of information without which a solution is not possible. This is where some of the patience comes in. On the whole, though, I think I received the emails well and truly after I had tormented and teased a puzzle for some time; I don't recall sitting around waiting for mail, except in the endgame.
At times the email integration is exceptional. I received a tool and hadn't used it. I didn't seem to need it, so simply moved on. I received emails reminding me about the tool as part of the regular email traffic. Eventually there was one telling me that only I could do what was needed. However I was still moving forward in the game so put it aside. Ultimately I reached a point where I was pretty stuck so reviewed the mail. The most recent one was an agitated message saying something like "what the hell are you doing, we are all sitting here waiting for the codes, get this sorted out". It was clear that this tool was now very necessary, so I switched my attention, and the stuckness was resolved.
So whilst there is an element of artificiality about the mail, in that you might reach a puzzle and trigger an email insight, there is stuff coming in all the time. So there is a definite feel of a real dialogue going on.
You would be well advised to read the emails frequently, and to not delete them. Reviewing things can be not only helpful but necessary. One puzzle in particular requires you to provide information you will quite likely not have known you needed. So be frugal with the delete button.
Ditto on the films. Watch them closely. You can pause them, rewind them, and review them over and over. Many contain keys to one or other of the puzzles. I tended to complete a chapter, and then watch all the videos through in sequence, taking notes on occasion, before opening the next level. I also needed to go back several chapters many times.
There are 8 separate chapters or levels in Evidence: The Last Ritual, each containing 4 to 6 puzzles. Some of those are in two parts, meaning you may well have to solve 8 or 9 conundrums to move forward. You can back out of any puzzle within the level and try another if you are stuck, and this is a good strategy; revealing mail may well arrive. There is also an endgame sequence requiring multiple solutions.
Most things are inter-related and it may sound a little like random mayhem. But it's a lot more ordered than that, intricate in its construction and tantalising to pull apart. It's a little hard to describe without giving away a solution, but consider the following: A row of eyes will reveal a sequence when manipulated properly. The sequence needs to be decoded, and if done correctly will reveal a name. To complete the puzzle you need the nickname so hit the web. Search with the information you have, then search again based on what you learn about the person. Keep at it and you will eventually uncover the name you need to enter to complete the puzzle.
Some more direction would have helped at times, and on occasion I did feel hopelessly lost in a big Googley world, with little or no idea whether I was on the right path or not. There is a connectedness to many of the clues that can be very difficult to spot, and I suspect for many will be considered impossible. I certainly didn't spot quite a few of them. Its difficulty and "openess" may be its biggest drawback to many players.
So too some of the answers can cause frustration; I think I needed the name of a mountain and had the right one but didn't appreciate that some parts of the name were not necessary. So I assumed I had the wrong mountain and kept going.
One huge complaint I had about the first game was the large number of little arcade like games you had to play. Well, they are all but non-existent here. A few have some arcade-ish elements (puff a little ball into another, collect letters Tetris style), but they are minimal and well balanced. Not overdone, not arbitrarily difficult. The challenge in this game comes almost exclusively from the puzzle construct, not because you can't win at Tetris.
The Phoenix is a murderer as I said, and the canvas created for Evidence: The Last Ritual is far from pretty. Each puzzle will have an image of some kind in the background. Relevant bits and pieces (which again may contain some key information) form a pastiche for the particular puzzle. At times, these might be of the Phoenix victims, revealed or used in ways that show his power. It's an adult game about a sadist, so expect to be confronted occasionally.
You should also expect to have the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, or to want to shout at Jessica, the sister looking for her brother, to stay out of the castle she is about to enter. I was completely drawn into Jessica's search, and found it more engrossing than the story about Jack. But it's a question of degree only. Both tales draw you on, and it's inevitable they will converge.
Did I mention the Phoenix talks to you? And sends you mail?
The film clips are excellent as are the actors involved. Jessica made me want to save her. The hand held camera works well, and creates an intimate relationship. The jerkiness that results also helps convey the impression that this is a record of an actual event, not something that is being acted.
The two tales will take you to many locations across North America and Europe, and you will bump heads with Templar lore and devotees, ancient ritual, arcane knowledge, and a secret codex. It is, though, a somewhat disturbing murder trail first and foremost, and never becomes remotely Da Vinci.
My version came on 4 CDs, but only one is needed to play. There is no swapping once everything is loaded. The box is tagged to look like a piece of evidence, complete with a chain of custody, which is in keeping with what you are doing. Lots of dialogue is by written word, but the films do not have subtitles.
A little tool bar slides across the top of the screen when you activate it, and from there you can access all your tools, the movie clips, and the internet. I also used the alt-tab key as I usually had several Internet Explorer windows open at the same time.
There are some sound puzzles, which I don't usually like, but one in particular stands out as being among my favourites in the game. It's part of Remenhare, the puzzle with the nickname I referred to earlier, and saying anything about it other than there is a screen with a building full of windows would give away too much. And tell you next to nothing, other than I enjoyed it a lot. So too Ha-Tet, with its rivers and suns, and the intricacy of Tom was exquisitely difficult. And has 'spot the difference' ever been as interesting as in Zar Knum? It's doubtful you could find the puzzles boring, even if you don't like some of them, and you won't find them anywhere else.
I will confess to needing help in quite a few of the puzzles, but was well pleased with my own efforts. It took me many weeks to complete, and I played several other games at the same time to provide a less cerebral interlude. Many people were playing at the same time and you will find some great hints on some of the gameboards. At the time of writing I had also noticed walkthroughs starting to appear. And if you register at the Phoenix site, you can share information and help with other players as well.
The endgame was about the only time where I got impatient and thought things didn't move along. It's different to the rest of the game, and involves watching on cctv and opening doors. Mail which is critical seems to take far too long to arrive, and there are 8 doors which is about 3 too many. Part of my impatience was caused by the fact that the chase was reaching its conclusion, so a sense of eagerness heightened my potential for frustration. But it did get a little bogged down. As for what happens, I'm not telling, but I doubt the final scene (a bit unbalanced) was everything it seemed.
Evidence: The Last Ritual is an exceptionally good brainteaser. I suspect it won't appeal to everyone, but the mix of puzzles and clips, and the way it has all been put together, provide a formidable and intriguing challenge. Other games have provided puzzles tacked onto a would-be story, but here they mesh well. The sights and discordant sounds give it an edginess I like, and a feel that is always just a little unsettling — like waiting for someone to scrape their nails on the chalk board.
A true Phoenix indeed.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2006.
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