The term "cinematic gameplay" gets tossed around an awful lot these days. And it's often tossed around by game makers who simply throw in a few letterboxed cutscenes and minimalist heads-up displays and then just call it a day. Developer Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy is a game that actually gives cinematic gameplay some context, as well as some real heartfelt meaning. More movie with an interactive progression than video game pretending to be a movie, Indigo Prophecy eschews practically any modern gameplay convention in favor of a significantly more subtle mechanical interface. You take part in every action in Indigo Prophecy--from the biggest fight sequence, to the most minor of day-to-day tasks--and you do it all with simple movements of the analog sticks on your controller, or with some quick button presses that are more akin to a rhythm game than a typical third-person adventure. But where Indigo Prophecy truly shines is in its story, which is a deep, captivating, and sometimes disturbing tale of one average man's journey to solve a murder that he himself committed.
The average man in question is Lucas Kane, a handsome but worn gentleman who lives his life as any IT professional in the great city of New York would. Kane's life takes a decidedly dark turn one night, however, when he decides to visit a local diner. In the very opening scene of the game we find Lucas sitting in a bathroom stall, convulsing and carving bizarre symbols into his forearms. An unlucky schmo happens into the bathroom during this period, and Lucas, seemingly unable to control his actions, attacks him, stabbing him multiple times. Moments after the killing, Lucas returns to his senses, only to be equal parts horrified and stupefied by his actions. From here you take control of Lucas, and it's up to you to get him the hell out of there.
This opening sequence gives you an excellent glimpse into how thoroughly intertwined Indigo Prophecy's plot and gameplay are. Presented with a corpse, a murder weapon, and one of NYPD's finest sitting out in the restaurant, it's up to you to decide how to proceed. Should you take the time to hide the body, ditch the weapon, clean yourself up, and try to casually make your way out of there? Or will you simply make a run for it as quickly as possible? You can do any or all of these things, and the outcomes will vary from a very quick game over screen to you getting Kane the hell out of Dodge. And first and foremost, that's what Indigo Prophecy is about: choice. Every decision made and every question asked takes the story in a slightly different direction. Of course, in most cases these changes are merely cosmetic, simply letting the core scene play out marginally differently while ultimately pushing you toward the same goal. But in more than a few cases, your choices will drastically change the flow of the story.
And what incredible directions they can be. It is with no amount of exaggeration that we state Indigo Prophecy features one of the best stories so far this year, as well as a remarkable amount of character depth. The game is like an unholy mixing of The X-Files, The Dead Zone and CSI, with sprinklings of The Matrix and Shenmue thrown in for good measure. But the incredible thing is that it never flies off the rails, no matter how ambitious its intentions are. The story dives into some truly morbid territory, with its ritualistic killings, deeply troubled protagonist, and downright intriguing backstory. We won't give any of the main plot points away, but needless to say, there's an awful lot more to Lucas Kane's plight than mere loss of mental and bodily control, including a series of past, similar murders and a mysterious cold front that's literally burying the city in snow.
You won't just experience Lucas Kane's story, either. Early on you'll be introduced to two other main characters, Detectives Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles. The detectives are the ones assigned to the murder Kane commits, and right from the start we get to know these characters just about as intimately as we do Kane. Carla professes herself to be the obsessive type, transfixing herself on any case that comes her way. Tyler's more the streetwise type--the cop you'd expect to see shaking down narcotics informants and busting up gangs during the day, while clubbing it up at night. Carla and Tyler are both playable throughout the story, and it makes for an interesting scenario. While Kane is clearly not culpable for his wrongdoings, here you are playing two law enforcement officers on the opposite side of the law from this accused murderer, with no understanding of the circumstances beyond the fact that one man killed another. In effect, you're helping two sides that are both intentionally and unintentionally working against each other.
Other characters are introduced into the fold, like Lucas' ex-girlfriend, Tyler's current girlfriend, and Lucas' priest-brother Markus (who is also periodically playable)--not to mention the villains behind all this. And even though the main three characters are really where the game devotes its focus, it doesn't leave the other ones underdeveloped. Lucas, for instance, goes to his brother not long after the murder in search of guidance. Markus shows a great deal of conflict during this scene. He loves his brother, but he can't begin to believe his incredible story. He wants to help but is also bound by his faith and his perception of reality. The game doesn't treat the terrible crime that Lucas has committed ambiguously, nor do the characters within it. Though some are willing to help, effectively Lucas is a man without a country.
All in all, this is a sharply written game with a lot of depth. With that said, it does have its problems. Namely, the later portions of the game take some sizable leaps, both in logic and coherency. There's a big chunk where it seems like the developer went from point A to point C without writing in a convincing point B. Getting into too many details beyond this would give too much away, but it basically boils down to key characters being too willing to simply dive headfirst into seemingly unbelievable situations, despite appearing much more cautious and intelligent earlier on. There are also elements that feel out of place, especially early on. Tyler's main storyline seems to act more as comic relief than anything else, and when he's not making wisecracks while on the investigation, he's investing time in his relationship or playing basketball against coworkers. In fact, the early goings of the game center a bit too heavily around mundane tasks in general. So basically, the story needed about 45 minutes cut from the first act, and it needed about 90 minutes more added to the last one.
It also bears mentioning that at times the branching paths of the story sometimes lead to problematic conclusions...especially in the end. There are three different endings to the game, and the big final conflict can either be pretty damned good or pretty lackluster, depending on how you end up there and how you play it. In fact, you actually get the best, most dramatic final battle if you intentionally lose during certain portions. Fortunately, once you've beaten the game, you can go back and select any of the game's 40-some-odd chapters to replay them however you like, ensuring you won't miss out on the best story paths and endings. That's good, because the first play-through is unlikely to yield more than eight to 10 hours of gameplay. But there are enough different options to squeeze at least a few more hours out of the game beyond that.
It's unfortunate the story takes these uneven turns, because it really is incredibly good overall. It's got far more emotional impact, drama, and character development than what's often required of a video game these days, and even with its rough spots, it has more than enough fantastic moments to keep you engaged as you play it.
Yes, believe it or not, you do actually play Indigo Prophecy. The reason we've talked up the plot so much is because your enjoyment of the game will hinge very largely on how into the story you get. The actual game portion of Indigo Prophecy doesn't really require an awful lot of skill on your part, save for certain sequences. Instead, it asks you to simply explore and engage the many environments, characters, and tasks before you by using simple, unobtrusive control mechanics that place you right in the thick of the scene--without relying on generic "action" buttons or heavy shooting sequences.
For the most part you'll be moving your characters around in the third person, like you would in a typical non-point-and-click adventure game. When in an environment, you'll frequently be invited to either look for hot areas that can be examined more closely or look for objects that can be picked up or used. The interesting thing about Indigo Prophecy's methodology with this style of gameplay is that all your actions are mapped to the analog sticks. You move around with the left, and whenever you encounter a door you can open, a mirror you can look into, an object you can pick up, or anything of that nature, you'll see an icon at the top of the screen that shows you a directional pattern in which the right analog stick must be moved. Press forward to open that door or up and then around 90 degrees to take a drink from a coffee cup, and so on and so forth. It's an odd concept to get used to at first, but it becomes second nature as the game goes on.
This same method is used for the conversational portions of the game, too. You're often presented with multiple dialogue choices during any situation. A small bar quickly diminishes as time progresses, limiting the amount of time you have to make a specific choice. Simple inquisitions often give you the opportunity to eventually get the majority of questions asked over time, so the time limit merely impacts the ordering of said questions. However, when playing as Lucas you'll often have to make more-important choices with your questions and responses, as bad choices can often have negative impact, and in some cases they may make those you're talking to suspicious.
However, Lucas does have an advantage in many of these situations. See, Lucas is a bit on the psychic side. How he comes to be this way we'll leave up to you to find out, but with this ability Lucas can concentrate and hear what the person he's talking to is thinking about. Concentration actually becomes a minigame in and of itself via two colored circles that appear onscreen. Like a somewhat bastardized version of the game of Simon, the colors will light up, and it's up to you to press the left and right analog sticks in the corresponding directions that match the colors. Do so correctly and you'll be rewarded. Fail and, well, you can guess what happens. These rhythm-based minigames come during other sequences as well. Many of the most-action-oriented fight scenes and escape scenes place the progression of the action entirely within the scope of how well you handle these little rhythm games. Believe it or not, it works. Even though all you're doing is rhythmically hitting these timed lights, you do it in such timing that it feels like you're actually in control of the scene. Plus, because of the way the lights are positioned onscreen, you never feel like you're missing the action because you're forced to concentrate on the lights. They blend together--and well at that.
The other rhythmic minigame in Indigo Prophecy is actually more of a button masher. To simulate strenuous activity, the game will often challenge you to mash the right and left trigger buttons as fast as you can, and you must sustain this for sometimes lengthy periods. In some ways, this approaches the level of ingenuity demonstrated in the other minigame, as you'll often be doing this during particularly stressful times--like, say, when you're pulling someone up who is dangling from a ledge or when you're running as fast as you can while a helicopter's chasing you. Unfortunately, it does wear on the fingers quite a bit, and there are times when the game puts too many of these minigames in succession. Still, it's a neat idea.
Apart from these minigames and analog-based movements, there isn't an awful lot to keep track of in Indigo Prophecy beyond your character's basic sanity. Every playable character is given a meter that dictates his or her current mental state. Events that bring relief or catharsis often add to this meter, whereas depressing, problematic events will detract from it. Just to give you an idea of how morbid this game can be, the very top of the meter peaks out at "neutral," and it bottoms out at "wrecked." Happiness, as you can see, is seemingly an impossibility for many of these characters. Anyway, as neat of a concept as this is, it doesn't actually seem to have a tangible effect on a character's behavior within the game. If the meter drops to zero, then the game ends, and you have to start over from the last checkpoint. But that's about it. Some of the actions that boost and drop your meter are also a bit dubious. Many of these tie in to the colored-light minigame, and they'll pop up at occasionally weird times. Why, exactly, does reaching out to shake someone's hand cost you sanity if you fail the minigame? And why does there need to be a minigame there, anyway?
The thing about all these gameplay mechanics is that none of them are what you could exactly call difficult. Even if you turn the difficulty to the hardest setting, anybody with reasonable experience in rhythm games shouldn't have a tough time nailing down the faster flashes of the lights. But really, Indigo Prophecy isn't a game that has to be hard to be enjoyable, and it would probably come across as a lot more frustrating than fun, otherwise. In fact, the few areas where it flirts with more-traditional gameplay aspects, like standard adventure game puzzles and a couple of stealth sequences, are probably the least engaging portions of the game. They aren't bad by any means, but they feel a bit tacked on in the context of a game that often goes directly out of its way to keep you glued to its plot and less focused on the controller in your hand. These crazy analog stick movements and rhythmic minigames simply have a natural feel to them that you just wouldn't expect. And that's what makes them so great overall.
Graphically, Indigo Prophecy ain't exactly a looker. Though all the animations in the game are motion-captured, there are more than a few instances where it seems like characters will just kind of throw their arms around and jerk their bodies around in ways that aren't quite natural. Some of the more-choreographed action sequences, however, look awesome. So at its worst, the animation is merely hit-or-miss. The character models range from nicely detailed to just plain ugly at times. Lucas, Carla, and even Markus are decidedly lifelike in design, whereas characters like Tyler, his girlfriend, and some of the other fringe characters look mildly mutated. Between the two console games, the Xbox is definitely the better looking of the two. Both retain what look like pretty much the same textures and designs, but the frame rate is significantly more jumpy on the PS2, and everything has a much grainier look on that version as well.
The thing of it is, though, is that the game's art style really makes up for many of its technical limitations. It's kind of weird, stylistically, as the vision of New York created in this game strikes as a decidedly European perception of the American city. It isn't that it gets anything specifically wrong, but it does, at times, feel like a European work of fiction set in America--which makes sense, since developer Quantic Dream is based in Europe. Anyway, the point is, this game has atmosphere to spare, and through its use of environmental design and camera work, it does a wonderful job of creating feelings of dread and tension. The game often employs a split-screen camera view, showing an oncoming threat in one area and your character in another. In that first scene, once you're out of the diner, the cop gets up to go to the bathroom. On one screen, you see him walking slowly to the can, about to discover both the blood on the floor and the hidden body (provided you went that route), while you're outside in a snowstorm, desperately searching for a way to get out of there as quickly as possible. It's really effective camera work.
Sadly, the main in-game camera isn't nearly as good. Though you have multiple camera options, they're all variations on a basic cinematic camera, and it's one that has a bad tendency to get hung up on walls and objects at inopportune times. In tight spaces, it's especially difficult to get it to move back into a usable spot once it's out of whack. If nothing else, the in-game camera does usually do a good job of framing solidly dramatic shots. It just needs some significantly better movement functionality on the gameplay side.
Audio is where Indigo Prophecy really shows its quality. This story wouldn't be worth a damn if the voice acting didn't do its job, and in most every respect it does. The actor playing Lucas Kane nails the part cold. He delivers the lines with just the right tone of confused despair and never comes across as anything but genuine. All the other main characters do excellent jobs, too. Carla transcends the archetypal role of the "hot, smart female cop" and makes it into something more believable, and even the villains, despite their seemingly predictable intentions, come across as legitimately evil. Tyler is the only main character who seems cheesy at all, but that's more a failing of the writing than the actor portraying him, as he sells the character about as well as could be hoped for. It also doesn't help that the soundtrack has a weird habit of chiming in with some generic funk music when he arrives on the scene. There are times when it makes contextual sense in the game, and there are times when it just strikes you as being forced. Those few forced bits are really the only complaints that can be lodged against the soundtrack, however. The game combines licensed music with an original score in ways that make perfect sense. The licensed music ranges from decent alternative rock to even-more-decent down-tempo grooves, and the score, created by Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive composer Angelo Badalamenti, presents brilliantly melancholy tones from a minimalist string set. Aurally, the game gets its sound effects down pat, with every effect coming across naturally and appropriately to set the mood and vibe just right.
When all is said and done, Indigo Prophecy is the kind of game that will inspire lots of conversation among those who play it. And it won't necessarily take place because of any particularly insidious subtext or brilliant revelations, but just because (like any movie worth its salt) the game leaves a lasting impression. Sure, it's got the underpinnings of a typical adventure game, but the way in which it weaves its inspired gameplay mechanics into the fabric of its tale is really something. Not everyone is going to love the way in which this game plays, but anybody with a love for good storytelling and the adventure genre will find Indigo Prophecy to be an original and enlightening experience.