I have a couple of particularly vivid early memories when it comes to gaming. The first is playing Jetpac on a ZX Spectrum, in all its 8-colour glory, followed swiftly by The Secret of Monkey Island on the Amiga. While Jetpac went on to mutate into the modern platformer, the adventure games pioneered by LucasArts died a rather nasty death during the 90s – about the same time that roaring around zombie-infested corridors with improbably sized guns became fashionable. A coincidence? Probably not.
Many critics have heralded Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy in the USA – perhaps the word Fahrenheit is now too associated with Michael Moore) as a return to the glory days of the point-and-click adventure game, and they have a point. Whether the game can stand proudly alongside the likes of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango is debateable, though.
The game gets off to a good start with slick presentation and a strong visual design landing you straight into a blizzard-covered New York that hides a sense of unease and foreboding in every alleyway, unfolding the mysterious tale of unintended murderer Lucas Kane and the pursuing police detective Carla Valenti. The graphics are hindered rather drastically by the developer’s cross-platform ambitions, with the visuals unfortunately held back by the ageing PS2’s capabitities. The style, motion captured animation and general cinematography overcome the technical limitations in most cases, but one can’t help but wonder how much more immersive the game would have been given the latest Unreal or Source engines. Sound benefits from a highly capable cast of voice actors that easily sidestep the usual banality of video game dialogue delivery and the music is beautifully crafted by none other than Angelo Badalamenti, renowned film composer and long-time collaborator with David Lynch.
Fahrenheit is clearly aiming for a cinematic feel, emphasising the contribution of writer/director David Cage, who even shows up in person at the start, in a clear attempt to encourage some kind of game-related auteur theory. It will strike some as overly pompous but the team at Quantic Dream are clearly proud of their work and wish it to be judged against the cream of the movie and literature arenas, rather than that of the gaming world, which Cage seems to look down upon with quite some derision, both in interviews and the game manual.
For much of the game, they get away with it, delivering a hugely captivating story that practically chains you to the game, constantly succumbing to the ‘just one more scene’ urge. The storytelling is strong and uses every device in the book, from flashbacks to split-screen and even switching the focus between the perspectives of the murderer and the cops at frequent intervals. What could be a horrible narrative malfunction holds together remarkably well, making only a few mis-steps along the way – until the ending, that is: more on that in a moment.
Actors on a stage
Gameplay itself derives from guiding the characters through each ‘scene’, performing various actions based on ‘hotspots’ around the room. Walk to the sink, for example, and you might be able to turn on a tap, look at yourself in the mirror and wash your face, all accomplished by moving the mouse (or console analogue stick) in a particular direction. It soon feels natural and largely invisible, helping to make the world feel grounded and real. This is aided by the scene construction and writing that will see you indulging in a normal conversation over a glass of wine with a friend as often as sifting through garbage bins and searching public toilets for evidence. The general feel is of an updated point-and-click interface, with more direct control of the player character and less pixel hunting.
More controversial are the action sequences, which utilise a flashing light system to indicate in which direction to move the controls. While the intention is clearly to make the player feel more connected with the mental state and physical exertion of the character, in practice it can feel very arbitrary and distracts from the frequently astounding animation going on in the background. It isn’t as awful as some would have it, but I doubt it’s going to win many outright fans either.
Dropping the ball
For most of the game the intriguing interface, convincing characters and superb storyline had Fahrenheit pegged as a clear and present classic, bar the occasional silly interactive sex scene (curiously pandering precisely to the demographic and industry immaturity that Cage claims to be fighting against). Unfortunately, it all falls apart rather spectacularly in the climax, with story threads colliding ungracefully and unconvincingly, characters making abrupt shifts of personality that make no sense and clichéd conspiracy theories coming out the wazoo. In most games this would probably be the norm, of course, but Fahrenheit spoils the player with its artistic intentions, claims at narrative maturity and careful character study in the first half of the story, meaning that the overblown finale sticks out rather incongruously.
For its first two acts Fahrenheit verges on a flawed masterpiece that is worth sampling by anybody that fondly remembers the glory days of Guybrush Threepwood or fancies taking a break from the latest first person shooter. The conclusion is disappointing, but worth suffering simply to savour the rest. More to the point, Fahrenheit tries to do something a little different in a frequently stagnant medium and for that alone it should be commended.
Verdict: A brave attempt to resurrect a gone-but-not-forgotten genre with frustratingly mixed results. Here’s hoping that Cage and his team will be able to perfect their ideas next time round. 85%
Review by Simon 'Tarn' Jones