Casebook: Episode 1 - Kidnapped


Genre:   Adventure - casual

Developer:   Aero Cinematic Games

Publisher:   Big Fish and Aero Cinematic Games

Released:  December 2008

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by flotsam


Detective James Burton is no Tex Murphy, but give him some time and he might be. The first of at least four planned episodes, Kidnapped is an ambitious project which needs some work, and which is a little too “casual” for me, but which warrants further watching.

Fans of Tex will be aware that he was brought to life through Full Motion Video (FMV), which is quite literally a cinematic gaming world. Filmed with “real life” actors in real environments, it provides an experience which is part game, part interactive movie. Kidnapped uses what the website calls “aerograph technology” to bring locations in the New Zealand town of Dunedin to your screen as the backdrop for a case concerning the kidnapping of two small children.

I have to say, I have always been a fan of FMV games. I like the realism, and it is especially suited to the crime genre. There is a little of the noir in Kidnapped, including the persona of Detective Burton. One character even smokes!

Ups and downs

A plus is that you actually get to explore and move through each of the crime scenes. Some FMV games provide cinematic cutscenes, but your exploration is either limited to searching a static screen, or the game world is not FMV but is rendered and presented in some other way. Here, though, you search and explore a real environment, and whilst they are only single rooms, walking through a real world location adds to the feeling of being there.

A minus is that it is an interminably slow process, taking forever to get from one side of a room to the other. It’s a good thing they were only single rooms; even so, I resorted to exiting the room via the map and immediately re-entering the room just to get back to the other side. I can be impatient, but this is really, really slow, and is one of the things that requires some work.

Another is the way in which the forensic examination is handled, and this is where the game became too mundane for my tastes. Having searched a crime scene and taken photos of likely evidence, you return to the crime van to upload your images and commence a detailed forensic examination of what you have found. However, this merely involves a series of repetitious little mini-games which you can’t fail in any way (at least not that I could tell). Separating a sample might involve spinning a centrifuge – just move the mouse in little circles till it’s done. Identifying DNA means separating the strands in the material – just keep clicking the mouse to puff the strands apart. There are two or three more such games, each very easy and all of them repeated quite a few times.

I would have liked more challenge in this aspect of the game. There are certain procedures you can perform when testing an item – dusting for fingerprints, taking a swab, using a special light to reveal certain types of residue. Here, the game automatically cycles through all of them until one works, and you can’t help but find what you are supposed to find. Why not let you choose what to try, and why not let a less-than-thorough search fail to reveal what is there to find? It would not only have added some control over the game, but provided a more realistic forensic based challenge.

It is possible to photograph items or evidence that are not relevant, but these are simply ditched automatically at the analysis stage. Also, it appears that if you are taking too many photos of the wrong things, a little pop-up window suggests that you might like to try pressing the “intuition” button (the “I” key) in order to reveal the next relevant clue. Whilst the “I” key is a good way to get a hint if stuck, I would have preferred the game to let me accumulate all the items (including the many wrong items), and then allow me to try and deduce what was and wasn’t relevant, based on my tests and examinations.

Finally, you have to match the evidence (e.g., match the muddy footprint with the appropriate shoe) and link it to the persons involved in order to track down the kidnapper. Relevant photos are placed in your casebook, and those that can be linked are marked with a symbol. Clicking on them will automatically highlight the only other possible evidence it can be linked with, irrespective of what you have found. Decision making doesn’t really come into it -- just keep linking until the symbol disappears, and you will eventually find your culprit.

More ups

This sounds like a lot of grumbles, and overall it probably is, but all the elements of a rather good game are present. I think it needs to lead you far less by the nose, and allow you to make errors, decide for yourself how what you discover fits together, and make you work to discover the key evidence and how it identifies the perpetrator. In short, it needs to be more like an adventure game!

The strong points of Kidnapped though are very good. I have mentioned the FMV and the actors are generally quite good, especially Detective Burton. An FMV game can fall flat on its face if the actors can’t….well, act, but that isn’t the case here. Only one actor came across as strained, and that was likely a product of the character he was playing.

The plot too is well written, and at various times there are a number of people who are the obvious villain. Cutscenes punctuate your investigation, and whilst not shot in black and white, the muted colours help to give it that noir tinge I mentioned earlier. I have never been to Dunedin, but the contrast between the privileged money background of the children and their father and the grimy settings of the crimes scenes is portrayed well.

You play as Detective Burton’s partner, helping with the forensic side of the investigation. He will talk to you and confide in you, and will ask for your advice in interviews as to whether to go the hard man or be a little more subtle. Rather niftily, you just shake or nod your mouse, and you can then watch through the interview window as he follows your decision. 

Within the FMV environments you have full 360 degree panning, and whilst movement through the rooms causes a lack of focus, once still, the detail is sharp and clear, making searching for even the smallest items possible. All searching is done through the lens of your camera, and items capable of being photographed are identified with a red border. You can zoom in and out to get good pictures, and you will need to, as not being close enough, or even too close, will prevent a photo being taken. Indeed, items that might otherwise be photographed will not even be identified as such if you are standing too far away. So you are encouraged to move around the rooms to ensure you have found what is there to be found.

Up again

I liked too that within some of the cutscenes, you could to a limited degree look around whilst the scene was playing. You might be sitting in the passenger seat of the van as it drives along, with Detective Burton talking to you, and you can turn and look out the windscreen or stay looking at him. Even in the static environment of the evidence van, where everything you do involves sitting at the computer, you can pan all the way around for no other reason than to look at the van. It’s a feature that helps add to the realism. 

It’s a first person perspective, and you can use the mouse or the keyboard for most things. Right click brings up the camera, and the space bar brings up a journal which records the current objectives as espoused by Detective Burton, as well as a synopsis of the various interviews he has conducted. It is also where you will find your map, which jumps you to different scenes as they become available. Unfortunately, once you have finished in one you never need to go back, and the next one doesn’t become available until you have finished, so the map is a little unnecessary (except for crossing rooms of course!). The need to go back and revisit earlier scenes, to look for things that perhaps you didn’t know were important the first time around, is something else I would like to see down the track. 

Finally, the ambient sound is sparing but as it should be, although the footsteps when you cross a room are few and far between, and therefore too haphazard to be realistic.

All up I think the game shows a lot of promise. It’s well put together, and compared to some other recent games I have reviewed, shows how well even a very limited array of “puzzles” can be presented to good effect. I for one hope it’s toughened up in future episodes, and really allowed to shine.

Kidnapped is a difficult game to rate, and depends a lot on what you are comparing it against. As an interactive movie, the simplicity of the mini-games allows it to keep moving along, and the real strengths get to unfold virtually unimpeded. As an adventure game, it lacks challenge and therefore a little depth, but makes up for it somewhat with a well written story, good production, and good to excellent characters. As a casual game, it easily out performs the limited array of such games I have played, but according to some knowledgeable players I consulted it doesn’t really fit the casual game genre. However, it includes elements similar to the ones I have played, but wraps it in a package far more enticing than those I have seen.

So perhaps watch the trailer and if it appeals, then you can play and decide for yourself!


Casebook: Episode 1 - Kidnapped can be purchased via download at the Casebook website

December 2008

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