Have you ever wished that you could change your life in a dramatic fashion? Not just a better-paying job or painting the kitchen a brighter color, but truly live your heart's desire? Be careful what you wish for, because it might come true ...
Father Randolph Holton, a local parish priest, feels that he's lost his faith. His liturgies have fallen flat, and he's found it necessary to seek out the help of one of the newer priests to put some "oomph" back into his service. One day during the daily confessional, a mysterious man confesses that he thinks his life is in danger. Before Father Randolph can learn more, the man drops a post office box key and runs out of the church.
Once he's retrieved the package, Randolph learns of the Lifestream. A parallel existence to the "real" world, the Lifestream allows you to live your heart's desire. Randolph is at once consumed by a hunger to find out more and, later, by the temptation of actually living in the Lifestream even though he knows that once inside he may not be able to return.
Then Father Randolph disappears. No one hears from him for weeks. His son, John, is worried about his father's inexplicable disappearance, yet he cannot tell anyone of his concerns as it would ruin Randolph's reputation. So John elects to uncover the mystery on his own.
So begins Lifestream, a new game from independent developer Christopher M. Brendel. If the name sounds familiar, it's because Brendel also created the music for The Arrangement.
Lifestream is similar to most first-person perspective games - completely mouse-controlled point-and-click - yet a little different. Instead of each prerendered, node-based scene popping into view as you turn in a cardinal direction, most scene changes are accomplished via a transitioning process that gives the appearance of actual movement. The transitions are quite smooth and in one instance made me a tad dizzy. Graphically, the transitions were, um ... We'll talk more about that later.
Gameplay is the standard left-click to interact with objects and people or for movement from one room to the next. Movement is indicated by a small arrow (it's really a half-diamond shape), while interactive objects will display a stylized eye icon and talking to people will give you little orange lips. Items are accessed via the inventory bar at the top of the screen, and saving/loading is called up by hitting the Esc key.
Clicking on objects will treat you to either a description of said object or a verbal clue indicating there's more to that item than meets the eye. Repeatedly clicking on several objects will reward you with some of the wackiest Easter eggs ever seen or heard. My favorite was the rope and bucket sequence, while the one in the organ vestry was hilarious in a rather disturbing and disco-ey psychedelic way. (There are just no words to really describe the scene, it has to be experienced to be believed. Even then, it's indescribable.) Trust me when I say the Easter eggs, alone, are worth the price of admission.
The story's presentation is excellent. Each chapter - there are ten plus an epilogue and prologue - alternates between Randolph and John's perspective. As John uncovers more of the mystery, he's sometimes able to see the torment that Randolph suffers as he searches for the Lifestream.
Lifestream's puzzles are varied and plentiful. Conundrums range from inventory-based, like using a key to open a music box, to standalone puzzles such as figuring out how to preheat the oven by adding and subtracting six numbers to get the desired temperature. There are also two mazes (eek!), two timed puzzles and the ever-popular slider. (So don't say you weren't warned.) None of the puzzles are particularly difficult - as long as you can see the item in question.
I'll admit that I wasn't pleased with the water valve puzzle. There were just too many possible permutations of which valve(s) should be in what position(s). To my way of thinking, it all boiled down to endless fiddling and blind luck to figure out the correct combination. I'm not a huge fan of "dumb luck" for the answers to a puzzle. Logic? Definitely. Hints hidden in a locked drawer? I'm all for it. Luck simply frustrates me.
In playing Lifestream, I ran into a few technical glitches: two puzzles wouldn't complete when I'd done everything correctly and one I was able to skip right through. A quick reload of a prior save set things to rights. There were also a couple of instances where finding the object of my desire was obscured either by the darkness of the scene itself (the trigger to a secret cubbyhole) or the item not graphically standing out (the crowbar).
Remember the aforementioned screen transitions? Well, let's be blunt here - they were not the prettiest I've ever seen as there were lots of bleed-overs from other scenes, including the opening logo - however, it was great to see the effort in not only a first-person game but a first attempt at producing a game. It helped tremendously in keeping me "grounded" so that I always knew which direction I was facing as the scenes changed, including during a dizzying maze!
For an independently produced game, Lifestream's graphics are quite pretty. Most objects have a real-life quality about them. I especially liked the character models' ability to show expression - from Father Randolph's surprised look when asked if he had any children to the librarian's smirky eyebrow wiggle when he enigmatically answered a simple question. The models do suffer from a strange affliction that causes them to stand stiffly and their hands to display a stiff-fingered, doll-like position.
Background music for Lifestream is incredible. The orchestrations evoke feelings of melancholy, mystery, danger and sometimes inner peace. I particularly liked the music used for Father Grandl's room - it was reminiscent of The Exorcist. I'd like to have a CD of just the music tracks used for the game.
Ambient sounds include something not usually heard in a first-person game - the footsteps of your character as he walks over various surfaces. Sometimes, the footsteps are a little faster-paced than the transitions lead you to believe, but you hear them nonetheless.
Once again, the inimitable John Bell shows off his vocal chops and voices almost all of the male characters in Lifestream. The supporting actors handle their jobs just as well. The synching of the character models' expressions and lips to the voice work was very well done.
At first, I wasn't enamored of the voice used for Holton the Younger. He had such a whiny, world-weary, why-is-this-happening-to-me type of voice; however, as I played through the game, I changed my mind about him. His father is a priest, so he's spent his entire life "hiding in the shadows." Now that his father has disappeared and he seems to be the only real family that his father has, Holton's suddenly got the weight of the world on his shoulders as he attempts to unravel the mystery of Randolph's disappearance. So I suppose a little whining is due.
Ultimately, it all boils down to this: Lifestream is a fun little jaunt. It isn't the world's longest game - about eight to ten hours - but it's enjoyable nonetheless; and although I wasn't surprised by the ending, I did find it infinitely satisfying, much more so than the last couple of games I've played. Its story made me want to find out more about Randolph's search, the puzzles kept me entertained and the hunt for Easter eggs had me clicking like a madwoman.
So now it's simply a matter of your taking my hand and stepping into the Lifestream to live your life's desires...
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