Indigo Prophecy (Video Game)
Developed by Quantic Dream
Published by Atari
The problem with Indigo Prophecy is that it's one of those games that I want to love. I’ve been waiting for it a long time, and even went out of my way to import the uncut European version (which goes by the name Fahrenheit for those who didn’t know, there’s been some censoring of sex scenes in the US version). That most of the parts I was worried about have been carried off with style is to the game's credit, but that the biggest disappointment in the game is the story, means I’ll never be able to love Indigo Prophecy.
When you have a strong beginning, it’s always hard to over come that, and the beginning of Indigo Prophecy is as strong as they come. In a snowy New York city Lucas Cain sits in the bathroom stall of a diner carving symbols into his wrists with a steak knife, seemingly in a trance. Then, he walks out of the stall and murders a total stranger who was washing his hands.
With a flash, Lucas comes out of his trance and looks down horrified at the scene. He remembers seeing a cop eating dinner in the diner. He’s covered in blood, holding the murder weapon and looking down at the punctured corpse...and with that, it’s over to you the player to get him out of there. It’s brilliant, attention grabbing, and it makes you want to unravel the mystery, which sadly is where the game starts to come apart.
I’m going to roll out that classic John Carmack (of ID Software fame) quote again: "Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important." This is true for any other genre than the adventure game, which makes it a shame then that Indigo Prophecy is just that.
It's far from a normal adventure game though, ustilizing a unique control method that I’m sure other games will mimic, and putting you in control of a number of the main characters at different points of the narrative really works. You don’t just play Lucas Cain, but both the police officers who are trying to track the murder case in the diner. You get to care about all the characters, so when it comes to a situation where they’re conflicted, it can be difficult to choose what you want to do. You know how much this case is stressing Carla out, but then you believe Lucas is innocent and don’t want him to be caught...
The other issue I had with Indigo Prophecy is that it's short enough to make you want to play through it more than once. See, one of the big selling points of the game has been that you can make a difference in the story. Finishing the game once, you’ll see where your actions had an impact and want to go back and play the game differently to see how things turn out if you take the other options.
Which is where you’ll realise that you didn’t have as much choice as you thought you did. See, while your actions can cause a couple of characters to live or die, the impact of that on the plot is pretty much always zero. Basically it all boils down to a few separate cut scenes and an impact on your mental state.
Certain actions raise or lower the mental well being of the characters in the game. For example, if you take the time in the opening sequence to hide the body, mop up the blood, hide the knife and wash your hands, you’ll have calmed Lucas down enough for him to coolly pay the bill and waltz out the front door past the police office. If you don’t, and just run out the bathroom, he’ll panic on seeing the cop and run out the backdoor of the diner.
One gets him back to his apartment fairly calm, the other doesn’t. When the cops get there, you'll hear the story of Lucas leaving the way you had him do it, and you’ll find the crime scene the way he left it, but the end result is the same. Lucas was seen leaving the bathroom, and the evidence you collect points to him.
There's no branching to the main story, just some details that are either there or aren't. While there are multiple endings, only actions you take right near the very end impacts on them, and I’d be highly surprised if you didn’t get the "good" ending first time. That nearly everyone will get the same ending is a shame too, because your actions throughout the game could have been used to throw vastly different endings which would have been a great talking point.
The biggest disappointment comes when you find out what’s going on. It comes across as some awful mishmash of They Live, The Matrix, and Alone in the Dark (the film). It impacts backwards and undermines how good an air of mystery the game had up to that point.
That the game is still worth playing despite all I just said really shows how much of a missed opportunity Indigo Prophecy is. The gameplay is all solid.
You control your character with the left thumbstick, and perform context sensitive actions with the right thumbstick. The A button runs, and that’s it. So, as you approach an item, a number of gestures appear at the top of the screen, perform that simple gesture with the right thumbstick to perform the action. It's meant to make you feel more like you’re doing what the character is doing. I'm not so sure that it manages that, but it does work very well. It's immersive in that it's not counter intuitive. You're never looking down at the pad or fumbling for the right button.
In conversations you have a limited time to choose from a number of options described with one word clues. Examples are Truth, Lie, Joke and Dodge but there are others. These snap decisions, especially when you’re being interrogated, are fun and tense. You often haven’t got enough time to calmly read all the options and think about them, but it’s by design and again it works nicely.
Then, you have action sequences which are all essentially the same. Two circles appear on the screen signifying your left and right thumbsticks. They’re split into each of the four main directions and will flash colours to show you which direction you have to press on the joystick. While you do this, behind those circles an action sequence will unfold, and the directions you have to press usually synchronise with the actions that your character performs. They’re kinetic and well directed, and even though you’re essentially just doing the same thing each time, the diversity of the on screen action keeps them from feeling repetitive. Occasionally a meter appears, and this is when you know you have to hammer the shoulder buttons of the joypad alternately to run quickly, or lift something, basically to perform an exhausting action.
If you fail you lose a life and get to try over. The balance seemed fair enough, and I rarely struggled on normal difficulty. Personally, I had no difficulty following the action taking place behind the icons showing me which way I had to press the thumbsticks, but I have heard complaints from others that they couldn’t follow the action at all, which I can imagine would make the action moments feel even more abstract as there’d be no feeling of connection with the onscreen events. All I can say is it worked really well for me, but it mightn’t for you.
Occasionally, as Carla, you’ll be faced with sections where you have to control her breathing by rhythmically tapping the shoulder buttons alternately. Too fast and the meter veers to the left, too slow and it veers to the right. As you’re still in control of her during these moments, and trying to perform tasks, they can be quite trying, but only in the fun way. They’re probably the tensest moments of the game, and certainly my favourites coming away from it.
The only aspect of the gameplay that is notably worse than the rest are a couple stealth sections which become infuriating because the little map you are given, complete with people's line of sight is mostly just misleading. There’s only one way through, and if you deviate from that, even if you aren't in anyone's line of sight, you'll be spotted. It's a bit unfair and pointless, since the end result would have been the same. Fortunately they’re both short, and even forcing you to try them a number of times, neither should take more than half an hour.
The environments are all well rendered, as are the characters, but it’s nothing to blow your socks off. However, as far as adventure games go, there are few that come close to looking this good, so it is still commendable.
Sound and music are probably the game’s biggest strength. The voice acting is solid with only one intentionally comical exception (Gremlins...you’ll know what I mean if you play the game) but it’s the music that’s the true star. Hiring talented composer Angelo Badalamenti to do his first video game score really paid off, and I hope it won’t be his last.
As I said, the game is short. Maybe ten hours if you take your time. There is a degree of replay value in seeing how things play out differently, but since they don’t play out that differently there’s a degree of disappointment too.
The biggest shame is that for all its success with experimental gameplay ideas, the thing that should come as the biggest disappointment would be the story. I was really enjoying the game until the reveal, and then I just became more and more disinterested with it. I hope that it isn’t the last game to use these gameplay ideas. I hope they try and make something that genuinely branches next time, and I hope they don’t make it a sequel to this.
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