Casebook Episode II: The Watcher

Genre:   Adventure - casual

Developer:   Aero Cinematic Games

Publisher:   Big Fish and Aero Cinematic Games  

Released:  March 2009

Evidence List



by Becky


Full Motion Video -- at one point, it was the wave of the future in games. According to Wikipedia, between 1992 and 1995, 62 video games using Full Motion Video (FMV) were released. But by the end of the 90s, developers had nearly abandoned the medium.

Looking back, FMV partly stumbled due to its impracticality – the expense of hiring actors (not just their voices), for instance, and the inconvenience of swapping multiple CDs before the advent of DVDs. Then there were the technical issues. The panning in Byzantine: The Betrayal that felt like moving through melted wax. The blurry background graphics in Dark Side of the Moon. The sluggish pointer in Star Trek: Borg that took several seconds to register interactions.

I loved those FMV games, though. They had an authenticity and gritty ambiance that has never been replicated using rendered scenes and animated characters. So, at the end of 2008, I was excited to learn that a new series of FMV mystery adventures had surfaced. This episodic series, called Casebook, is set in New Zealand. It features an appealingly intense police detective, James Burton, and manages to overcome most of the problems endemic to the earlier experiments with FMV. Episode I: Kidnapped was released in December, followed three months later by Episode II: The Watcher.

A Mad, Mad World

The Watcher opens with Detective Burton investigating a suicide at Skylark Apartments, a former psychiatric hospital. Judging from the current tenants, Skylark hasn’t changed its status much. The occupants include a blowsy, redheaded landlady, a young man with an anxious expression and a mannequin companion, and a middle-aged woman with a cat fetish. Your role? Detective Burton’s new junior partner, of course, whose job is to search the apartments and analyze any evidence found there.

More Inner Demons, Please

As for Detective Burton himself -- he’s played by actor Julian Temple, who excels at the “dedicated police officer with inner demons” manner. The detective is handsome, with close-cropped hair, a hint of a beard, high cheekbones and piercing eyes. Outwardly, he’s a cool customer, even when confronted with the crime-related horrors that are inevitably uncovered. But somehow he manages to get across what he’s really feeling to you, his partner. When he contacts you on the phone his voice takes on a husky quality that’s friendly, yet professional. He’s definitely a charismatic presence as the mystery unfolds.

The storyline in The Watcher is partly revealed through cutscenes, conversations with Detective Burton, and his interviews with witnesses (these occur periodically throughout the game as you investigate the apartment complex). Subtitles are available and I found them essential, especially during interviews when some of the witnesses don’t speak with perfect clarity.

The plot also advances as you analyze the data, and as you receive reports from Pete the lab technician, the only “regular guy” in the game. Pete is cheerful and competent and gives a much needed sense of normalcy to the sometimes weird business of police investigation. Witnesses and suspects in the game are well played by the actors -- with the exception of the landlady, who seems too hard-boiled to be true. The video recordings by the suicide victim as he struggles with his sanity are particularly affecting. I wanted to reach in through the screen and rescue him.

You’re on Candid Camera

The game takes you through a series of rooms in the apartment building, all of which you can move through smoothly. Exploration of the environments takes place in first person perspective, with 360 degree panning available. The panning motion is quick and fluid. The graphics are slightly blurry while you are moving, then sharpen when you stop. Each location is rich in detail. While standing and panning, you can distinguish small items and intricate shapes and read titles of books on the shelves. If you fail to locate all the evidence on your own, The Watcher has a hint feature that zeros in on what you’ve missed. It also has brief on-screen instructions at the beginning of the game to get you acquainted with the interface and procedures.

Once you’ve explored the rooms visually, you get down to the police work. Using a high-tech camera, you again pan around to locate items of interest, which are highlighted by red lines. If you are too far away for a good shot, the game tells you, and you can zoom in for a better view. You snap away, storing up to eight shots. Then it’s off to the crime scene van, where you analyze the evidence using the computer. Nearly all the interaction with the gameworld takes place through the camera or through the computer (with one intriguing exception where you communicate with Burton by moving the mouse to signify “yes” or “no”). All interactions use the game’s responsive point-and-click interface.

Having the crime scene van parked nearby is a welcome innovation in this type of game. I much prefer it to the procedure in (for instance) the Law & Order games, where you repeatedly revisit police headquarters, the medical examiner’s office, and the crime lab. In The Watcher, lab results are available instantly. Okay, that’s not terribly realistic, but it sure beats wandering around the gameworld killing time while the lab technician sprite goes through the motions of examining the fingernail clippings you just submitted.

While in the crime scene van, you’ll also perform several tests on the evidence yourself. Some of the lab tests are unusually easy, requiring just a move or a click of the mouse. For others, you position a slider until an image and/or sound becomes clearer. These are a bit more difficult and more fun. One oddity – items “picked up” from the crime scene are registered as photographs. So when you work at the computer, it appears as though you are testing the image rather than the item itself. Other challenges provide variety, including deciphering a code. My favorite (though slightly gruesome) challenge was the dummy trajectory simulator.

I think The Watcher would have been an even better game if the puzzle challenges had been a bit more formidable. However, this is an early episode, and I suspect that the designers will gradually increase the difficulty level as the series continues.

Background music plays only briefly in this game. There’s cool jazz with a “noir” element at the main menu screen, and you’ll hear tinny elevator music when you travel between floors. Music adds subtle texture or – in a couple of instances -- dramatic emphasis to the cutscenes. The locations have ambient sounds, and time spent at the crime van computer features unusually creative sound effects as you work with the evidence.

Executive Functions

A casebook in the van lets you keep track of objectives and replay certain interviews. It also contains file folders that organize various locations and aspects of the case. You place photographs of reports and evidence in the casebook.

A chain-link icon is visible on some of the photographs and documents, meaning that they can be linked to other evidence or photos. Finding the link is easy – you just keep clicking on everything with a chain-link icon and eventually you are bound to find the match. If the match is in a separate folder, simply click to pick up the item and the matched item automatically pops out of the separate folder.

At first I thought this made the linking challenge too easy. But as the case developed, I realized that, with so much evidence to manage, the automatic linkages provide an excellent way to review how disparate bits of evidence begin to hang together to form an overall picture of the crime.

We’ve Got Issues

The only glitches I experienced with The Watcher were two screen freezes that I could overcome with ctrl-alt-delete. Both times the game autosaved right before the problem occurred.

Which brings me to my chief quibble with this game – the autosave feature. You can’t save your game when you would like to. The game continually autosaves. After the game ends, you can’t go back into the gameworld at all, but must start a new game. Personally, I like to go back and re-examine locations at various stages, listen to dialogs and watch cutscenes again -- particularly with a plot-heavy mystery game like this one. I can replay, but that’s pretty time-consuming. I estimate that the game took me about seven hours to complete.

A Developing Relationship

Where The Watcher shines is in its story, characters and realism – a portrayal of a believable world. The game makes it easy to form relationships with the main characters – something that is rare in gaming. Episode II finishes the story on one level, but on another level, it’s clear that there’s more work for Detective Burton if justice is to triumph. I’m looking forward to Episode III.

Quick List for Casebook Episode II: The Watcher

An entertaining second episode in a new Full Motion Video (FMV) detective mystery series which introduces Detective James Burton. A well plotted story set in a former mental institution that’s now a low-rent apartment building. First person perspective, point-and-click interface.

The FMV medium, plus the dialogs and cutscenes, creates a sense of immersion and empathy with the characters that is rarely achieved in games. Some excellent acting. The game touches on mature themes, making it inappropriate for young children.

Most interaction within the game takes place through observing the surroundings, snapping crime scene photos, and working with the evidence on the computer in the crime scene van.

Puzzles are in the “Easy” category. No sliders, no mazes, no sound-based puzzles, no need to distinguish colors, no timed puzzles. A good hint system. I’m hoping that later episodes will contain somewhat more challenging puzzles.

No problems with installation. The screen froze twice. The autosave system is restrictive.

Casebook Episode II: The Watcher is aimed at mystery aficionados, fans of FMV, gamers who enjoyed the Law & Order and CSI games, and anyone who might be curious about Detective Burton’s star potential. Is he – or isn’t he -- the real deal?

Final Grade: B+

Casebook Episode II: The Watcher can be purchased via download at the Aero Cinematic Games website here.

My Computer Specs:

Windows XP Professional

Pentium 2.80 GHz

2046 MB RAM

Direct X 9.0c

512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GTX

SB X-Fi Audio

March, 2009

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