Post Mortem is a gritty and grim murder mystery set in the first half of 20th century Paris. Players take the first-person perspective role of New York detective Gus McPherson, hired by Sophia Blake to investigate the grisly deaths of Ruby and Regis Whyte, her sister and brother-in-law who have been beheaded in their hotel room. With a fee of 500 dollars down and 500 dollars a day, McPherson enters a world of rituals, puzzles, artifacts, enigma, and deception as he uses his camera, sixth sense, and sketchbook as tools to unravel a mysterious conspiracy.
The manual contains helpful hints for the first five minutes of gameplay. The interface utilizes a number of "smart cursors" that change depending on the action possible in each location and McPherson selects conversational responses from a series of tabs when he encounters other characters. The dialogue chosen can affect the path of discovery and lead to multiple endings in the game, which offers more than 15 hours of play and interaction with nearly two dozen non-player characters.
Here we have a straight adventure game, pure first-person point-and-click, with a fairly straight progression through a story from start to finish, only this time the player can take one of two or three possible approaches to many of the puzzles and dialogues, with real differences in gameplay resulting from these choices.
For instance, one of the first puzzles involves gaining access to the murder scene, a hotel room. When you talk to the hotel's desk man, you can either piss him off, requiring you to find another way in, or sweet-talk him into giving you access. If you do the former, which I did, then you are faced with another choice, how to go about gaining entrance, which will affect yet another part of the game further down the road a bit.
All you RPG and action players probably view this as old hat, but this is a pretty revolutionary concept with regard to adventure games. Even if it had been a complete bust, my hat would've been off to Microids for making the attempt. But a failure it wasn't; in fact Post Mortem was a treat to play.
At first I was overly concerned with making the right choices as they were presented, but then after I realized there were no wrong moves, I relaxed and started doing whatever struck my fancy. Before too long I was progressing at a pretty good clip, utterly engrossed.
As the game opens, a couple is brutally murdered in a room at the Hotel Orphee. Their decapitated heads are found with ancient gold coins in their mouths. Post Mortem definitely is not a game for the squeamish; this scene plays out in split-second flashes in full gory glory, setting the stage for the rest of the game.
You play as Gustave MacPherson, a struggling American painter in 1920s Paris who has left his former career as a New York Pinkerton detective to pursue his dream of making it in the art world. Sultry, sensuous fellow American Sophia Blake shows up on his, or rather your, doorstep and persuades you with cold, hard francs to come out of your self-imposed detecting retirement long enough to investigate the murders - the victims, she says, were her vacationing sister and her husband, and she, Sophia, does not trust the French police. She also is concerned about the disappearance of a treasured family heirloom that should have been but was not found at the murder scene.
Little do you realize you have just signed up for a dinner date with the black widow at the center of a web of deceit and lies. All is not what it seems, and as you are trying to make sense of the whole mystery, the killer strikes again. And again. Who will become the next victim? What lies behind these ritualistic decapitation murders? What is the "family heirloom" that everybody wants? Who controls the secretive Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross? Can you trust the shiftless police captain LeBrun? Is your client all that she seems?
Much of the puzzling is conversational - you must talk with the various characters to pick up clues to new locations, news of others who might know more, or be given new inventory items or documents. An unfortunate side effect of the various paths through is that sometimes the conversations will seem disjointed, and sometimes you will find yourself learning about something that you already know. Never, though, do you hear about something too early.
The remainder of the puzzling is inventory-related, with the exception of a couple of manipulation puzzles. The inventory puzzles are pretty straightforward; however, due to the multiple paths through the game, you wind up with a lot of useless items that might have come into play had you chosen a different course. And they are there to stay - I found myself wishing more than once that there was somewhere to discard all of these extraneous items.
The inventory is brought up by a right mouse click. You can view five items at once and must scroll through them until you see the one you seek. Invariably and infallibly, the one I wanted was the farthest away, and I got sore tired of cycling through upwards of 20 or 25 items.
Conversations are logged in your notebook, which too is accessible with the right mouse click. You may view the notebook at any time, not only to view transcripts of your interviews but also to access game options, to save your game, or to read the documents you have in your inventory. Next to the notebook is the map; all travel between locations is accomplished by viewing this map and selecting a location.
Two or three of the puzzles are not very well realized. For instance, in one puzzle you must draw a sketch of the suspect based on a witness's description. You call up your sketchbook (remember, you are an artist!) and must cycle through and apply various preset facial features, similar to a modern-day Identikit. However, there are several features in many of the categories that fit the description equally well, which leads to an inordinate number of appropriate combinations. You must then commit your choices to paper and show the finished product to another witness to obtain his yea or nay. Or really a seemingly neverending stream of "Nah"s. This puzzle was an exercise in excruciating tedium - I probably showed the guy 75 different mug shots before I finally hit paydirt.
Another reason why this particular puzzle was so painful is that there is no skipping dialogue even if already heard. I had to give my three-sentence request for him to view the picture those same 75 times.
There was one puzzle that was just plain unfair in my opinion - on the left side of the screen was the clue required to solve the puzzle on the right side of the screen, but the printing was too indistinct, on my 19-inch monitor, even with my glasses on, to make out the diagram. A little visual clarity here would have helped immensely.
Other than that, most of Post Mortem's puzzles were of medium difficulty - all were fair in that you can obtain all of the clues you need to solve them and it is a mere matter of putting together the information properly. There was one puzzle involving alchemy that really tickled my fancy - it was perplexing but so very satisfying when I finally hit on the solution. I had to resort to a walkthrough twice, once for an item overlooked due to insufficient cursoring and the second to look up what the figures in the illegible diagram were.
There are no mazes, there is no dying, there are no timed puzzles, there are no sliding tile puzzles. There are only a couple of instances of insane pixel hunting ... I think that's about it for the usual suspects among the adventure gaming uglies.
Between me and Skinny Minnie, who finished the game shortly before I began, we came up with three different endings. I only got two because of a bad choice I made about halfway through the game, but Minnie was able to see all three. The pivotal point is just before the finale, so you can restore your last save and see all of the endings yourself with only minimal repetition.
Cutscenes and backgrounds are beautiful. They are in color but muted enough to lend a noirish feel in keeping with the dark themes. The 3D characters, on the other hand, aren't the greatest - their movements are repetitive, their appearance frequently is blocky, and many times they have distinct lines in their necks between where their bodies stay still as their heads are moving about. They're by no means terrible, but I do wish the designers had taken a little bit more time with them to bring them up to the same level of quality as the rest of the visuals.
The music by Robert Marchand was very authentic-sounding for the game's setting - it was mainly smooth, light, understated jazzy stuff - but the loops were too short. There was one piece in particular that drove me to distraction; it was a regular sort of soundtrack but with periodic bursts of something that sounded like statical swing straight from some 1930s radio broadcast. About three-quarters of the way through the game, I finally had enough and turned off the music altogether. In fact it was so jarring that I wondered whether it was a bug in the music programming.
Voice acting is sometimes very good and sometimes sort of flat. Your character, Gus MacPherson, is so low-key as to seemingly lack personality. The actor who plays the character Hellouin is a pleasure to hear, as is the police inspector LeBrun, but the actors playing a couple of the more insignificant characters sound as if they're reading. There is an option for subtitles.
All in all, though, Post Mortem is a far cry from an experiment gone awry - while there were some ideas that could stand some serious rethinking, they were more than compensated for by the parts that were exquisitely realized. I always appreciate it when a game treats its players as if they were intelligent adults, and Post Mortem does that in spades. The experimental multipath, multiple-solution aspects, on balance, worked surprisingly well and could certainly be refined by the developers into something magnificent for their next game.
For all that it is and for all that it tries to be, I give Post Mortem a gold star. It certainly is not for everyone, but it certainly was for me! It is one of those rare games that will remain in my consciousness for a long time, like a good book.
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