Casebook Episode I: Kidnapped
First posted on 06 March 2009. Last updated on 12 December 2009.
About the author
Igor Hardy is a film editor by profession. While adventure games have a special place in his heart, he loves all kinds of fiction and dabbles in various forms of storytelling himself. His entertainment focused writings and projects can be followed on his personal blog.
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The use of Full Motion Video (FMV) is a practice that seems to have fallen into disfavor with video game developers. With the advent of 3D graphics, FMV is regarded by most critics as anachronistic. Now, indie game developer Areo has boldly brought back FMV as a way to showcase a technology that will provide an alternative process to create fully explorable 3D game environments. Casebook Episode I: Kidnapped is the first in a series of 6 planned episodic adventure games that makes use of this propriety technology.
The premise of Casebook revolves around a series of police cases to which Detective James Burton and you—his rookie partner—have been assigned to investigate. Burton, the more experienced detective, leads the investigation and interviews the suspects and witnesses, carefully trying to coach them to reveal more than what they like. You—the player—secure potential clues and evidence from the crime scenes, assist forensics to analyze and sort out the evidence, and finally build up the chains of evidence that will inevitably lead to the infallible deduction on the motive and identity of the criminals.
Casebook offers you an experience of taking part in realistic police investigations, comparable to those portrayed in popular television crime drama. The game features a combination of non-interactive cinematic cut scenes filmed on location using traditional camera techniques and an interactive playable environment created by a propriety capture process called Areograph. Areograph uses a robotic camera system to capture a series of photographs of a real environment, which are then seamlessly stitched together to recreate a fully explorable 3D game world. As a result, the interactive crime scenes blend seamlessly with the FMV cut scenes—an effect further strengthened by the fact that the camera perspective in these sequences is often the same as your own. In some of the FMV cut scenes, you even have the freedom to pan around a bit as if you are looking freely around you.
All the cinematic sequences are filmed in a very professional manner. Most of them show Burton offering investigative suggestions to you or conversing with you while traveling between locations. There are also quite a few conversations between Burton and other characters. Filming is done using varied camera angles and atmospheric lightening in slightly subdued colors that fit well to the gritty tone of the series. The game is grim only to a point, though. The presentation stays away from showcasing violence in any direct manner, managing to avoid this even in the finale when it does not shy away from showing bits of flashbacks on how the perpetrators have committed their crimes.
The story in the first episode deals with a kidnapping of 2 young children of a large company's wealthy chairman. The investigation uncovers a ransom note pasted from cutout letters, phone calls from the kidnapper, and other usual signs of a hastily planned kidnapping. However, the Birchermann family's misfortune is far from being just a simple play of chance, and the plot presents many twists and turns. You can explore locations ranging from the children's bedroom to an abandoned factory to a bomb shelter. There is also some pressure put on you to move the investigation forward quickly, especially when the children's lives are revealed to be in serious danger because of to their abductor's carelessness. The mystery is well written and intriguing to the very end, though it is a bit short and may be not as captivating emotionally as it can be without you being distracted by the constant, methodic forensic work. In a welcome feature to add to the game's interactivity, the interrogation scenes near the end can play out in 2 different ways depending on your choice that you communicate to Burton.
The cast most capably brings to life the interesting characters in the story, gradually drawing out the complex psychology of the key players as well as revealing some of their distinctive traits which are often sharply commented on by Burton. As for Burton (played by actor Julian Temple), his character shows great potential, with strong intensity and Philip Marlowe like mannerism when conversing with the suspects.
Your role in the investigation begins with a detailed search of the crime scenes (new crime scenes are revealed gradually). Basically, you walk around with a camera and photograph specific objects as a means to either identify them or collect them for further analysis (such as dusting for fingerprints). There are plenty of objects to find, including many that are useless or simply red herrings. You have some amount of freedom in deciding the order by which the evidence is gathered, yet Burton will often make suggestions on what lead is of immediate value at the moment. You can even obtain the same clues from different objects or miss out on some of the less important clues.
Exploration of the crime scenes is also the most difficult and time-consuming part of the gameplay. It is assisted by a hint button which, when activated, makes an icon appear in your field of view to direct you to the next piece of important evidence in the current location. This is a welcome feature, especially when there is some considerable pixel hunting late in the game when you must find pieces of a torn audio tape. The fact that this help feature is optional makes it a shame that similar help feature is obligatory during sorting and linking of the evidence in the evidence folder. This is the part of the gameplay that is dearest to the heart of adventure game fans, since it most closely resembles the genre's traditional paradigm of puzzle solving and connecting ideas. It is even equipped with an elegant inventory like interface that splits up the clues and evidence into relevant and interconnected categories. Unfortunately, all the connections between the items that you are required to make are automatically highlighted at the moment an item is selected, so that you miss out entirely the challenge of figuring them out by yourself.
A key to acquiring less apparent clues is to analyze samples of trace evidence found on the tagged objects. Through various mini-games, you can, for example, identify a trace element by properly heating a compound in a probe or conduct a DNA analysis by separating DNA strands on a microscope slide. The gameplay in these mini-games is more targeted towards casual gamers than adventure gamers. Unsurprisingly, the same action must be repeated in much the exact same way for each of the many samples you will collect. This ultimately makes the forensic activities to be the least interesting portion of the game, especially because of the repetitive nature of the process (even though they mirror the repetitive nature of forensic investigation in real life). There is a particular mini-game which I find particularly annoying and mundane: spinning a centrifuge by making rapid circular motions with the mouse. It is too simple to be treated as a game of skill, serving only to pad out the playtime rather than bringing in any challenge or sense of fun. Overall, I prefer the option to disable some of the mini-games to speed up the flow of the game.
A DVD-ROM version of the game is released by MumboJumbo in 2009. It includes a free bonus episode, Casebook Episode 0: The Missing Urn. The game is otherwise identical to the original.
Casebook Episode 1: Kidnapped is a very interesting production. The game provides a worthwhile experience even only for the technological innovation it brings. However, while the technical novelty and the cinematic quality of the production may make up for the repetitive and mundane mini-games, it cannot be denied that, for the majority of adventure game fans, the game is a bit lacking in its gameplay, especially with the overbearing help feature in a vital puzzle solving section. Also, the game offers no manual save option, though you always continue from where you have left off.
Despite these faults, I can say that Casebook is shaping up to become among the most unique and rich episodic adventure game series from an indie developer. If future episodes can address some of the game's current shortcomings and further expand the game's core features, the series may succeed in delivering the full interactive experience that it has promised.