Publisheed by The Adventure Company
Developed by Lexis Numerique
TV journalist and documentarian Jack Lorski and his friend and associate Karen Gijman are missing. Sometime in January, while researching the mystery surrounding the 1976 murder of Karen’s father, they stopped responding to calls and vanished somewhere on the European continent. An individual claiming to be holding them captive who calls himself “The Phoenix” has sent a black CD-ROM to Jack’s employers, the SKL Network, along with a night-vision video of a terrified Karen being chased through a dark hallway. He demanded that the CD, his “Great Work”, be released to the general public or harm will come to Jack and Karen. In co-operation with The Adventure Company, SKL Networks has decided to release the CD, albeit encrypted so they may track who is accessing it. Any information you have to offer is greatly appreciated by the network and by Jack and Karen’s loved ones.
This is the setup for one of the most engaging and fascinating gaming products I’ve ever played. Taking the Blair Witch route of trying to keep everything as realistic as possible, the developers of Missing have created a pulse-pounding mystery thriller that draws you into the insane world of a serial killer.
Previously released in Europe as In Memoriam, Missing is a game that defies genres. I suppose it’s best called an adventure, but the method of gameplay hardly compares to the point-and-click key hunts that comprise most of that genre. This is a thinking gamer’s amusement park, requiring deduction, intuition, intelligence, knowledge, and finely-tuned research skills.
In Missing, you’re at the will and whim of The Phoenix as he leads you through the path of “Initiation” of his Great Work. This involves a combination of several different types of gameplay. The meat of the game involves the Internet. You’ll receive e-mails related to the game, and you must do a huge amount of Googling to find obscure information on topics ranging from alchemy to ancient Catholicism to Greek geography. Indeed, by the time you’re through, you could be what good old Forry Ackerman would call a “cunning linguist.” This could become tedious to some, but I never felt I was on an easter egg hunt, I was honestly researching and learning about the topics at hand as I went along. I frequently found myself reading past the answer, intrigued by the information I had found.
Some might remember EA’s failed Net thriller, Majestic, that used some of the same devices. Fear not, Missing doesn’t fall into any of the pits that well-intentioned failure was prone to. By keeping the action moving, the feeling is much more realistic than even the telephoned threats of Majestic. This is how the Internet and particularly the Web can and probably should be wrapped into PC gaming. It enhances the realism and depth of the gameplay, especially when the game doesn’t rely on 100% fraudulent websites. Indeed, some of the best information I found for solving some of the puzzles was on sites that were clearly not created by the game designers. I found myself in such diverse Web locales as an anarchist philosophy site, several term papers written by student in colleges around the world, and travel agency websites.
The Net research is broken up by puzzles built into the game’s Macromedia-based engine. These puzzles are of every variety imaginable, from word puzzles to simple arcade-style games. One modern take on Space Invaders is particularly maddening in the dexterity required to pass.
Yes, that’s something that must be said. The difficulty level here becomes staggering in places. Thankfully, various online allies you acquire chime in with hints when you need them, and even The Phoenix himself breaches his usual sadistic demeanor and gives you nudges along your path. These hints don’t help much with the action-based puzzles, however, so you can expect quite a bit of trial and error to get past certain steps. Since the game came out quite a while ago in Europe, extensive walkthroughs are available on the Internet, although I only found it necessary to consult them once or twice regarding the method of getting across an answer that I’d already found.
Past the sometimes-frustrating level of difficulty late in the game and a somewhat slow and lackluster climax, there really isn’t a single negative thing to say about Missing. The film clips are top-notch, absolutely convincing and shot on location throughout some of the most picturesque spots in Europe, they feature excellent performances and a compelling storyline that had me invested emotionally in these two intrepid researchers, more so than many feature films I’ve sat through. The design of the puzzles is innovative, with no two puzzles alike. The mythos and background built into the game is massive. If you take time, there is a ton of information here to study and learn at your own pace.
So what about the horror? Admittedly, the game is light in the creeps and chills once the initial video of Karen is shown. Like a good giallo, you’re given time to sink into the environs in what seems to be a simple exploration of a decades-old double murder over an ancient artifact of some kind. However, once Jack and Karen take onto the trail of the Phoenix, the bodies start to drop. As you are forced to go along his bloody trail, the depth of his madness becomes clearer. This isn’t the pants-wetting horror of a Fatal Frame, but rather the intense, psychological thrill of Se7en or Silence of the Lambs. I found myself completely wrapped up in the mystery as the chase intensified, my desk is literally covered in hastily scrawled research notes. The Phoenix drew me into his world and made me understand his motives and madness. As Jack and Karen close in on The Phoenix and their unavoidable final confrontation, the tension mounts along with the body count. I found myself rushing from puzzle to puzzle at an increased pace, desperate to see who The Phoenix is and what his twisted motives were.
This game is just something that must be played to be understood. It is massive in size. I finished it over a long weekend but I highly doubt you’d want to do the same. It was a marathon, and endurance test, and I can tell you that it required every ounce of mental and physical concentration to succeed in that amount of time. There is a ton of gameplay here that could easily be stretched out over weeks, and probably should be. To rush through this is a crime, there’s just so very much to see and learn.
The kicker? This would be considered a “value” title: the price tag is $19.99! Don’t be confused, this price point is not due to a lack of quality or depth.
You guys know I’m not afraid of setting my canines into the jugular of a badly done game. In fact, I was lamenting the fact that I hadn’t had a good horror game to review for some time in my last review. That said, you know I mean it when I say this game is a masterpiece. A piece of disturbing, immersive art that transcends the adventure genre and takes gaming someplace it just hasn’t been before. Only the frustrating nature of some of the puzzles and the somewhat slow way the finale rolls out is keeping me from giving this one the full rating, but don’t let that keep you from rolling into the EvilShop and grabbing a copy of this puppy immediately. Just remember: if you take a break from researching Mesopotamian religious texts to look out your window and notice a stranger pointing a video camera at you from the shadows of the street below…it’s only a game…it’s only a game…
4 1/2 out of 5