Review: The Trace21 Apr 2015 0
I’m sure a few will remember the 1993 pretender to the Police Quest throne, Blue Force. It was a beveled take on the complex underbelly of Sierra’s serve and protect series, dispensing an easy-going tale of one rookie cop-turned-PI and his quest to solve his father’s murder. In these earnest pre-Wire days, the game lacked any sort of serration, but entertained in an easy-going Walker: Texas Ranger kind of way, minus the roundhouses and Stetson Diamond Jims. That’s where I find myself with Relentless Software’s The Trace. It’s a clean, crisp, well-mannered crime-scene investigation game that does what it sets out to do, but could be so much more with a little HBO attitude.
The Trace has players rooting about in three distinct locales, piecing together the events and evidence that led to whoever is very much dead within. Featuring an elegant and intuitive control method, the invisible Inspector Sam Pearce scoots around the levels in a similar fashion to Myst, tapping in the direction or upon the area you’d like to go to or view. Deeper scrutiny comes from dragging and twisting elements, such as pulling open a drawer to rifle through papers or find an item, to unscrewing vents or sawing through chains. Coming off the somewhat awkward back of a spit-shined David Cage effort, The Trace feels far more natural in conveying the pedestrian motions of turning a place upside down.
Each piece of evidence observed or found slots into an analysis list, where collected notes and detritus are slotted together in order to solve incremental parts of the events that unfolded. Minor combinations feed into hubs, which then trigger a crime scene recreation video. The flashy CG domain of David Caruso and company this ain't, but as far as motivation goes, seeing segments of the recreated scene with all the prowess of network television true crime is satisfying. As the camera pans around the immobile actors, some caught in moments of violence, it lends far more gravitas to what is ostensibly combining things found in an environment and deducing what fits. Sure, you could level the same argument against any other adventure game that features an inventory, but there's very little true puzzle-solving here to bolster collecting things and playing mix-n-match. The event cutscenes help to obfuscate how thin The Trace is beyond its strengths as a detective-themed Myst-like. This is not a slight against the technology or interface, but a comment on utilisation.
Environments are crisp and detailed. Each are finely furnished and littered with enough decor and detritus to go beyond merely boxes with clues. Given the anchored peering afforded by the control scheme, casting an eye from more than a single static point gives a good sense not only of location, but of player physicality. Sure, you don't see shoes or manipulating hands, but the level of interaction and shifting of the player gaze does far more in its austerity than the grandiose control pedantry of Heavy Rain or, indeed, Fahrenheit.
But where The Trace falters is in the complete lack of grit and crunch to each scene, emphasised by the absence of character interaction beyond your dispatch contact. The locations are unsettling in their dislocation to the outside world. No hissing of a static-ridden TV, no real sounds of suburbia or industry to hum beyond the immediate surroundings. These are locations lost in time, vacuum-sealed crime scenes where you feel like the last detective on Earth and, ending notwithstanding, perennially late to halt the body count. A beat cop meeting you at the door, lifting the tape and telling you 'she's all yours' would e have gone a long way. Even the buzz and crackle of a police radio from time to time or the ominous dual-colour sweep of police cruiser lights flashing through the window. There's simply not enough fluff in these prim and orderly murder scenes. Each piece of evidence or item seems far too conveniently placed. Maybe I'm searching for Wallander in place of Heartbeat.
Despite being Dial M for Model Home Murder, where there's no handbook to forensic preservation or need for personnel beyond lonely ranging profilers, I had a good time with The Trace. It's an honest, solid formula. I look forward to any expansion to the series, hopefully with a smidgen more complexity to solving the events at hand. Crib more from the adventure set, less from the hidden object games, and you'd have a compelling affair. Right now, The Trace forms a decent jumping-off point for iteration on deeper, darker and hopefully more obscure scenarios. Even if this is meant for a quick slice of pocket-sleuthing, the structure is perfect for heavier subjects and more layered investigation.
Despite being a tad beige and not hugely ambitious, The Trace is a palatable concoction of hidden object and traditional first-person adventure gaming. Worth trampling a crime scene for, if only to see where the series will go.
Played on an iPhone 5s.