January 2003. I was fourteen years old, on what (at the time) seemed like my last winter break ever - I was to go to high school next semester and things would never be the same, or so I thought. My brother used to buy a local gaming magazine and I was going through it trying to find a game to take my mind off the painful reality of crunching for entrance exams. Something caught my eye: a three-page review of a game set in 1920s Paris, called Post Mortem. The story sounded interesting: Gus, a former private investigator, now fine painter, solving a gruesome murder after being contacted by the beautiful and mysterious Sophia Blake. The review promised mystery, wild plot twists, loads of interesting characters, locations modelled after what streets of Paris really looked like in 1920s and I knew: I had to have this game. Especially after I learned there are Templars involved.
And so I got it a couple of months later and played it while being sick with cold (the kind of cold that always seems to show up during the exam period). It was one of my first adventure games and I was excited to discover there was more than one ending. It depended on the choices you made in one of the last segments of the game. Both endings could be easily viewed by reloading a savegame and selecting a different choice.
A couple of years later, I read something intriguing on a forum somewhere - there was a third ending! You had to be extremely careful to get it, though. It was necessary to collect all of the evidence items and present them to an officer in a very specific order. No wonder it was considered a Ďrareí ending - I had to use a walkthrough to get it right.
Seven years later and I find myself at the crossroads again. Get a higher degree, get a job, juggle both? I donít re-play my games often, if ever, but I really wanted to plunge myself into the world of Post Mortem once again. I admit I was a bit scared. It was one of my favorite games for a long time, what if I didnít find it as good anymore? I was scared it would be like watching a movie I loved as a child, realizing it is not that funny, adventurous and captivating as it once had been.
Since 2003, one thing changed significantly: operating system compatibility. If you are on Windows 7 or Vista, the game will give you 'Please insert CD1' error even if you have the disc in your CD drive. Make sure you install the patch. Additionally, you may need an unofficial No-CD patch to make the game run correctly. I am not sure if this affects the downloadable version available at Microids website, as it claims to support new operating systems. The game I played was from my old discs.
The opening cinematic - a view of a stormy night in Paris and some quick, but graphic shots of a murder scene - was as good as I remembered and it brought back a lot of memories. There is a number of beautiful pre-rendered cinematics scattered throughout the game, usually showing an exterior of a location you are about to visit for the first time. You can view them again later from the Options menu.
We get the first glimpse on our main character, Gustav 'Gus' MacPherson, painting in his small studio apartment. He is rudely interrupted by a knock on the door - a beautiful woman named Sophia Blake comes looking for help, knowing that he used to be a private investigator in New York, before he chose to retire. The case is very delicate: her sister and brother-in-law, The Whytes, had been murdered in Hotel Orphee the night before. Their heads have been cut off and ancient coins have been found in their mouths, pointing to a ritual murder. Gus is the perfect person for the case because of his unique psychic ability to 'see' certain events in flashback-like manner.
Even though the game is in first person, all conversations are presented in third person view, with dialogue options arranged in tabs on the bottom of the screen. It is here where two flaws of the game come through: first, the lips move out of synch. There is no excuse for this, other than lazy animating and the fact that the game is released in a couple of different languages. Blocky models can be forgiven, given the age of this game.
Second, some dialogue options simply disappear if you talk about your 'main' objective first. There is, however, no indication of what is a main objective and what is not. Too bad if you want to know more about a piece of evidence - you will either have to reload and work your way through the dialogue again or live with the fact you cannot know everything. This is a minor flaw, as none of the major information can be omitted, but if you are like myself and like to dig into the game as much as possible, it becomes an annoyance.
As you talk to other characters, you can present yourself as a journalist or a private detective. This does not affect the story in a great way, the only thing that will happen is that certain locations will open up sooner than the others. There might be an additional dialogue or two, but nothing major. I even managed to tell people I am a journalist, then backpedal and say Iím a detective - it made no difference.
Environments and atmosphere bring this game to another level. The game is presented in free 360 degree view and everything, from floor to ceiling, is masterfully rendered. The entire story takes place at night, which is reflected in dimly lit corridors and sombre music track. Designers clearly put a lot of work into bringing the locations to life: all of them are highly detailed, packed with interesting things to examine. The only place where this looks bad is in Alambic Bistro, as all guests are simply painted on the background. Quite ironic, considering the sequel to this game is called Still Life.
Exploring the locations is pretty typical for a game of this genre: the cursor changes depending on the type of interaction you can do (look, take, talk), When shoe icon appears it means you can walk to another area. To look around simply put your cursor to the edge of screen and it will automatically scroll.
On the bottom of the screen you will find Gusí leather bag that can fit anything in, from small coins and purple powder bottles, to mysterious puzzle pieces and lit candles. The one youíll be using the most is his Notebook, where all information about the case is stored, from telegraphs and character biographies to important clues and some of Gusí own observations.
The inventory has an, in my opinion, interesting addition: the Sketchbook. Itís with you from the very start and itís filled with Gusí drawings, mostly beautiful burlesque ladies (perhaps early concept works?). It adds more personality to the main character and the overall game. The Sketchbook will come in handy on two occasions, where it will help you solve puzzles.
Another thing about the Notebook: it carries a great weakness of the game. Every time you collect an evidence, a subtle animation plays in the bottom right corner of the screen. So subtle, you wonít even notice it most of the time. What this animation does is alert you that new information has been added to the Notebook. You may find yourself confused when characters start talking about things that make no sense without reading the collected information first. This may even bring the gameplay to a complete halt, as reading the Notebook triggers important conversations or even opens new locations. Make sure you read it every once in a while, especially if you get stuck.
The scripting in this game gets so bad that characters talk about things that havenít even happened yet. Although Post Mortem is mostly linear, there are certain actions that can be performed in more than one order. Doing some things sooner will open up conversations you cannot otherwise access. This gives the game some replay value.
On your journey through the dark side of Paris you will meet many different people. Hotel receptionist, barmen, occult lady, a creepy psychiatrist, even a lady of the night. As mentioned before, the models are a bit blocky and lip movements arenít exactly the most pleasant sight. Animation is alright, if a little stiff.
Most of the characters are there to help you with your investigation, so you wonít get to know a lot about them as people. If you make it out of the mess that is the Notebook and disjointed conversations, you will find valuable information on who the characters really are. This adds another layer to the mystery when you realize people arenít what they present themselves to be and you find yourself not knowing who to trust.
Gus himself is a well-mannered person, although he lets a bad word slip here and there. Some people argue heís bland and boring. I think he comes across as passive-aggressive, often being very blunt and honest with people he meets. There is a certain charm and a dash of naivete that helps him get through the most improbable situations. The game makes it clear straight away that he has a troubled past, but you wonít get much more than a vague mention or two throughout the game. This doesnít make him any less interesting, however, and if youíre keen on finding out more, please play Still Life.
Midway through, the game will put you in shoes of a different character, Jacques Helloin, a detective who had been framed for the murder of The Whytes. You will get to see his side of the story first-hand as he tells it to Gus. Designers paid special attention to details, so the map and icons change, and Gusí trusty suitcase transforms into Helloinís.
Adventure game wouldnít be an adventure without puzzles. In true Microids fashion, there are a number of inventory-based puzzles, as well as mechanical ones. Some of the hardest ones require careful observation and looking for clues on walls - this may become a problem due to the age of the game. Screen resolution is very small and, when stretched over a big screen, some of the details become blurred and hard to see.
One puzzle made this game almost famous. Iím not going to say what exactly it is, but it is near the end of the game and involves the most tedious pixel-hunting puzzle ever created by man. No matter how many times I play the game, I always end up looking up a walkthrough to get it right. That aside, the variety of puzzles is quite good and will keep you entertained.
In conclusion, Post Mortem is a quality game with an intriguing storyline and beautiful, haunting atmosphere and a good prelude to the even more successful Still Life. Donít miss it!
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