October 25, 2007
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This famous Charles Dickens quote from A Tale of Two Cities perfectly describes today’s state of adventure games. A time when the genre is alive and kicking in terms of quantity but walking wounded in terms of quality. Oversimplification, total linearity, durations that rival baking a cake, 3D obsessions (“make sure it’s 3D and nothing else matters”) not to mention… shudder… hybridization are some of the plagues that are most prominent these days, when our beloved genre seems to be facing the danger of becoming a genre for casual, fast, mass consumption. But the battle is still raging, with developers like Atropos, Nucleosys and Pendulo - to name a few - who put adventuring quality über alles keeping true adventurers in the best of times. And, from out of nowhere, rises Momentum DMT to show the way with one of the most brilliant adventure games to have ever graced the genre’s entire history. So gather round lovers of the adventure. And you too disillusioned Longest Journey fans who were expecting one of the greatest adventure sagas ever created only to be slapped in the face with Dreamfall’s console-oriented hybrids. You also need to come hither and listen while I tell you a story of adventure gaming magnificence.
Imagine a world of peace, of prosperity, a world with no crime, no illness, no famine, no suffering. What price would you be willing to pay in order to live in such an immaculate world? Would you be willing to give away all kinds of feelings an emotions in exchange of a world that works purely on cold selfishness, greed and consumerism and where you are judged solely by your Human Development Index – a number that goes up the more you accumulate and consume? A world where there is no such thing as privacy and where you are obliged to always be connected to a global network where your activities can always be monitored? A world where your kids will not be raised by you, but by special child development centers that specialize in teaching them how to be perfectly trained, for the Union’s standards, citizens? And a world where you won’t ever fall in love but rather seek as many casual sex encounters as possible? If the answer to all the above is “yes”, then you will fit right in The World Union.
It is the year 2047 and the world has been divided into four parts. The largest part, the World Union (WU), is the union of all current westernized countries, such as the USA, Europe, Japan and a few others, and is the absolute super power. The history behind the creation of the WU is explained in the game, in a very elaborate way, starting with real history of our times and blending it with fictional (but not too unlikely to happen) history between now and 2047. I found very impressive the details into which the developers went to in order to present the WU, not just in terms of its history, but also its social and political status and its laws – there’s even a very detailed Bill of Rights! While you’re making your first baby steps into the game you can’t help but admire the dedication of the developers to present the gamer with a top quality product down to its last detail.
Apart from the WU, the other 3 parts of the world consist of the areas controlled by the WU, the Rogue States and the Unexploitable areas. The Rogue States’ situation is more or less the way the world is now, which is a complete contrast to the way of the WU. There is constantly a huge amount of Rogue Staters that want to immigrate to the prosperous land of the WU, and for them there are Immigration Academies located in the border branches of the Global Peace and Security Network (GPSN), which is something like the WU police. Now you are called upon to live the life of a GPSN officer Phoenix Wallis, who is stationed in the GPSN branch of Adrianopolis, right at the border with the Rogue State of Russia. Phoenix is a young, ambitious woman, very dedicated to her work and to the WU system, but who also is a little old-fashioned in certain ways and deviates slightly from the purely cold ways of the WU, a trait that makes her more human and more likeable, but also a little naive. Oh, and if you are wondering why I said “live the life” and not “play as” or something similar, just keep reading and you will understand – and no, this is not going to be a Sims clone.
The game opens with a bizarre intro, showing some sort of gathering of a group of kids and a older man telling them about the end of our sun, and, of course, Earth, coming a lot sooner that originally estimated and what needs to be done to prevent this. Suddenly he is interrupted and is called away, which is where the intro cuts into the graduation of the latest class of immigrants, where he is shown as head of the ceremony. Those two seemingly entirely unrelated events may or may not be linked together, and it is up to you whether you will be able to discover the "if" and "how". During the graduation we are introduced to Phoenix as the officer who is in charge of immigrants’ security interviews. Following the ceremony Phoenix finds herself in her office, and that’s where Culpa Innata begins.
The story, inspired by Turkish writer Alev Alatli’s Schrodinger's Cat, is one of the strongest points of the game, and one of the finest stories I’ve come across in my adventure gaming years. Cyberpunk fans, sci-fi fantasy aficionados and murder/investigative mystery buffs will find heaven in Culpa Innata’s storyline. A recent immigrant from Russia, named Vassily Bogdanov, is found murdered during a trip to Odessa, Russia. The news come as a shock to the GPSN branch of Adrianopolis, city of Boganov’s residence, since this is the first murder case of a WU citizen to be recorded in years. Phoenix will be summoned to investigate this murder, accompanied by Julio, an obnoxious, but thankfully of lower rank, GPSN officer. But what seemed to be a plain investigation will unfold to something a lot deeper than that and Phoenix will find herself right in the middle of the WU’s worst criminal activities. And to top all that, during her investigation she will realize that not everything is as it seems, for something beyond her wildest imaginations is happening… Underground… Something a lot bigger than her current assignment. A mystery that will begin unraveling, unsettling Phoenix’s perfect WU world and bound to change her life forever.
Culpa Innata is played in full 3D 3rd person point ’n’ click fashion. Controls are pretty simple. Left click to walk (double click to run) or perform the action indicated by the current state of the cursor, e.g. look, talk, take, and right click to open Phoenix’s PA. What is a PA? PA stands for Personal Assistant, and is a device that gets strapped around one’s ear and every WU citizen is required to wear one, even during sleep. Through the PA important functions are performed, like making calls, receiving messages and accessing the inventory, the map of Adrianopolis and Phoenix’s diary, where she will note down the most important events of the day and is a good place to check out if you get stuck. Also save/load/quit functions are performed through the PA. But Phoenix will start the game naked. Now, now male JA readers, keep your pants on. I didn’t mean that literally, but rather in a WU sense of the word, since the PA is the most absolutely necessary piece of “clothing” a citizen can wear and Phoenix has misplaced hers and will have to find it first, before doing anything else.
As soon as the PA is found Phoenix can start her investigation. The game starts on Day 1 and days and time progress, but not in real time. There is nothing crucially time related though, and if there is an event that is scheduled to happen on a certain time that is obligatory to attend, you will automatically be transferred to it. So no need to worry about time. The major purpose of time is that there are certain places or events that are only accessible during certain hours, e.g. work hours for businesses, evening or night for clubs etc. Also there is a point system where you are graded at the end of the game, and the game-time it takes to finish may affect it, but trust me, there is no need to worry about that during your first play. There is so much to do and see, that time should be entirely ignored. Culpa Innata is one of the longest games on the market since I can’t even remember when, and its non-linear structure ensures that not only will you not be required to play like a robot, following predetermined by the developer steps (did I just describe 99% of today’s adventures?) but also that, no matter how careful and methodical you are, you will not be able to take everything that the game has to offer with just 1 play. So, wait until your 3rd or 4th play to hunt down a better score, since even during 2nd play you will still be discovering lots of new things!
In the puzzle department Culpa Innata truly excels. Just like with the story, its puzzles are among the highest standards I’ve seen in the recent history of adventure games. Forget the simplicity you’ve been so used to recently. Forget the games where the toughest puzzle is “A locked door… Oooh I got a key too.” Culpa Innata means serious business and will shift your brain and adventuring skills to top gear. But don’t be intimidated thinking all you’ll be doing is solving impossible puzzle after impossible puzzle. The puzzles are evenly spread out throughout the game and the difficulty level is very well balanced, ranging from a few piece of cake puzzles all the way to… one of the hardest and most complex puzzles I’ve ever faced in my life! Along with “Le Serpent Rouge” from Gabriel Knight 3, I hold this puzzle as one of my all time favorites. And I will humbly admit that I had to use a little “nudge” to solve it and I will take my feathered King Graham hat off to anyone who solves it on their own.
The puzzles can be divided into 3 main categories: inventory, logical and dialog. Inventory puzzles are pretty easy on average, and they are only of the use-item-on-screen kind – no combining items that is. Also, if you are a bit adverse to huge inventories, rest assured that it will never become the size of, say, Discworld. But be aware that inventory items may appear without you picking up anything. For example, if somebody uploads something to your PA, it’s most likely that it will show as an inventory item, but if you are not aware of this you may miss it, since the inventory screen only shows 8 items at a time. Logical puzzles are varied in complexity and difficulty and can also be divided into 2 sub-categories: puzzles solved on Phoenix’s office computer and, well, everything else. On her computer, Phoenix can analyze images, audio, text, compare, decrypt, reconstruct and more. Overall I found all logical puzzles very satisfying – fair, challenging and smart. I do have a couple of small gripes though. There was one puzzle that did not make much sense, but I solved it with the good ol’ trial & error method without ever understanding the logic behind it. There is also a puzzle for which the most important clue you need in order to solve it and actually know what you did lies not in the game itself but in a very popular movie from the 80s! I didn’t have any trouble with that puzzle as I happen to have seen that movie and it’s very possible that you have too, but if you haven’t then you can only solve this puzzle by trial and error. So, if you haven’t seen War Games, go ahead and watch it asap – and it’s a damn good movie to boot!
As this is an investigation, the dialog puzzles occupy most of the gameplay. There is a lot of dialog. No, let me rephrase that. There is A LOT of dialog. This is an investigation don’t forget, and Phoenix’s main job is to question suspects, potential witnesses and people that were related in any way to the victim. There are dozens of characters to talk to and dialog is essential to gather clues as well open new locations or find out about people’s personalities and lives. The way this is done though is where Culpa Innata is truly exceptional. You do not get a predetermined dialog tree, where you start clicking all the options in order from top to bottom until you’re done. You get different options that have different levels of relevancy, and from each option you can lead the conversation to different branches. There are options that are completely irrelevant and can be omitted or asked just for the fun of it. But there’s a catch. According to the GPSN rules of conduct, a GPSN officer cannot take up much of any citizen’s time, because that hinders their productivity. So each day, a person cannot be questioned but for a brief amount of time, and if Phoenix loses her focus and stirs the conversation wrongly, she’ll have to come back again some other day. The way you go about it is definitely up to you. If you hate lots of yapping, then you need to keep the conversation to the point, which will make this kind of puzzle even harder. But if you like finding out about the characters’ lives, ideas, opinions and personalities there’s plenty to talk about. One thing is for certain. Each time you replay the game, you will be discovering something new. Also it is very important for Phoenix to approach people in a manner that will encourage them to respond. For example, making a casual approach may work a lot better than a stern approach for a certain character, but not for another. The way you judge your approach as well as the relevancy of your questions may affect your final score. Like I said earlier about the time though, you should not worry about that during your first couple of plays and try to experience as much as possible.
Apart from people related to her investigation, there are plenty of other characters that make an appearance. First and foremost are Phoenix’s boss, Dagmar Morssen, and her best friend, Sandra Pescara. Sandra is pretty much a one track mind and is all gossip and sex talk, but may help Phoenix out at certain points, and is the only one that you can talk to as much as you want, using all dialog options without having to stop and continue another day. Chief Dagmar is the one that Phoenix reports to, but her time is not to be wasted. Therefore, what you report to her needs to be filtered so that she’s not bothered by unimportant facts. Also, chief Dagmar is the one to ask for questioning or search warrants for people who are not very cooperative, but, once again, making the correct choices and not wasting the chief’s time requesting unnecessary or unsubstantiated warrants may make a difference in your final score. As a matter of fact, a certain choice towards the end of the game can actually make a big difference for Phoenix’s career! Other characters include stores and businesses not directly related to the case, Phoenix’s boyfriend (yes she has a boyfriend, I told you she’s old fashioned!) and also a non-interactive cameo appearance of JA’s KAOS tourney winner SuperEdy, practicing his chat up skills on Sandra during a session of night clubbing! Finally, there is a pretty funny spoof of a very well known sitcom from the late 80s/early 90s somewhere in the game. If you’ve ever watched the show you’ll recognize it immediately, otherwise you may be wondering what the hell that was all about! Which show am I talking about? Let’s just say it involves shoes!
Like I mentioned earlier, Culpa Innata is very non-linear and very open. First of all, Phoenix can go about her main investigation following several different routes. This alone adds a lot to replayability value. There are characters that you may not see one time but “unlock” the next. You can even finish the game without even experiencing the underground side-story, but if you do that then not only will you have missed a great part of the game’s universe, but also several experiences will seem completely unrelated and confusing – not to mention you will be wondering “what’s all that stuff about that people are discussing on the JA Forum?” I strongly advise you to take your time, explore everything, look at everything (sometimes looking more than once will result in different feedback) and talk to everyone. You will certainly be rewarded. Despite this non-linearity though, there are events that need to be triggered for the game to progress, so if you are ever stuck, you’re not at a dead-end nor did you encounter a nasty bug. You have just missed something!
Now remember when I said in the beginning that you will “live the life” of Phoenix Wallis? Well, that is exactly what you can do. During the time that Phoenix is not busy with her case, you can have her watch her favorite TV (or, better, holovision) show, gossip about everyone and everything over a cup of coffee with Sandra, wear different clothes, go to the gym, have a makeover, or, at a certain point only, buy new clothes. Also, during work hours, she may be filing her daily reports, talk to the office building caretaker or interview new immigrants. Some of those are obligatory and the game will lead you to them, but others, like going to the gym or changing clothes and styles, are up to you. Of course, because of the non-linear nature of the game and the way the dialog system works, you may reach strong peaks, where you will be swamped with new things to do and not know what to do first, or low bottoms, where your options may only be to revisit some contacts or work out. Oh, and don’t forget to take Phoenix out for a walk! You may have a map in your PA, which can be used to teleport from location to location, but don’t rely solely on it since you never know what you may find during a good, refreshing walk!
It is common knowledge that technology and adventures have not generally gone hand in hand throughout history, especially during the most recent years. It was left to other genres to follow closely all the technological advances, and there is nothing wrong with that of course, since adventures are nothing about the graphics. Culpa Innata though does care about this aspect too. I need to mention the music first and foremost since it is absolutely superb. I said in my review of Pathologic that if there’s one game that requires a soundtrack, that was it, but Culpa Innata comes very close. Excluding a couple of instances that were a bit sub-par, everything else is second to none. The majority of the tracks consist of beautifully atmospheric dark pieces, with hints of electronica that would often make me stop playing for a bit, lay back and enjoy. There are of course a few tracks that, although perfect for the location they’re playing, wouldn’t be able to be heard standalone. The music overall boosts the atmosphere of the game to incredible heights and does wonders for the immersion. On the other hand, the speech is not on the same levels, but rather of mediocre quality. You won’t get the horrors of Mustavio from Keepsake, but you won’t get anything special either. Phoenix’s voice is by far the best, followed by Dagmar’s and Hamilton’s, head of the GPSN. A couple of others just stand out and that is pretty much it. The biggest problem of the speech is that the reading of the lines is several times done with pauses that do not actually fit what is being said and also there is some effort to do accents that doesn’t work out too good. Finally, the few sound effects are functional, except for Phoenix’s footsteps, who sounds like she’s wearing a nice traditional pair of clogs – but then again, that might be what the latest trend is in the WU!
In the visual department, Culpa Innata scores quite high. Being a 2D and 2.5D lover, I usually find 3D games to look fake and uninteresting, but I really liked the way this game looked. The development team has done a great job, not only with the details but also with the magnificent selection of colors. Warm, soothing pastel tones dominate, with bright and colorful as well as dark and moody extremes, according to the nature of the area, creating a beautiful and very believable atmosphere. And the game has one more card up its sleeve, and that is Momentum’s patented 3D face animations. The characters not only feature close to perfect lip-syncing, but their faces are very life-like. Their eyes widen when they are surprised, their eyebrows frown showing anger or disbelief, they smile, they blink and pretty much everything else equally to what a real human being would do. The rest of their bodies’ animations are slightly inferior to the facial animations, but still of higher quality than the majority of full 3D adventures. If your average thought of 3D implementation in adventures is characters having spasms or doing Jedi tricks picking up items from far away then you are absolutely right, but mistaken in this case.
Overall I cannot find any significant flaws in Culpa Innata. But since I’m bound by contract that if I write an absolutely gushing review without at least a little nitpicking Randy will pay me a visit in leather underwear holding a wet paddle, there are a couple of minor blemishes in what otherwise is the perfect ensemble that could be mentioned. I have already mentioned the lower speech quality and the issues with two certain puzzles. I discovered one bug where on a certain screen Phoenix will walk/run backwards. Turns out that bug does not appear on all machines, so I was the lucky one I guess. There is also a small bug that can affect the scoring system. Finally there are a couple of continuity errors, which do not take away any of the experience, but can be noticeable – if you run into them that is. Momentum has already released a patch, which also makes a couple of improvements, and can be downloaded from Strategy First. I suggest you download it before finishing the game, so that you are ensured your score will be the correct one. The patch does not invalidate saves, so no worries if you start the game without it.
And, of course, if you hate dialog then the amount may feel like an avalanche falling down on you. The difficulty of the game may overwhelm novice adventure gamers or casual gamers, but I suggest you hang in there! This could be a great experience for you puzzle-wise, and if you’re only playing for the story just visit the Hints & Tips section of the JA Forums, and everything will be fixed. Finally, one thing that for me was the biggest problem is that there is no way to pause during cutscenes and dialogs. And there are instances where you have dialog after cutscene after dialog that last for quite some time and any interruption can be devastating when it comes to following the story as well as for the immersion – especially if your attention span is pretty fragile like mine! Keep that in mind and take all phones off the hook, cancel all appointments, lock up everyone within a 2-mile radius around you in a dungeon and order the pizza early before starting playing!
I have been playing adventure games non-stop since 1988 and I have played a good 3-digit number of them. Good, bad, short, long, exciting, boring, puzzle-heavy, inventory-heavy – you name it. I never expected that in 2007 I would be playing an adventure game that will shoot right into my personal top 5 of all time and that I will have already played it 3 times - and will certainly not stop there! Yes it is that good – certainly the best adventure game released this side of the millennium. The story, the atmosphere, the characters, the puzzles, everything mentioned in the book “Recipe for the Perfect Adventure” is there, garnished with brilliant 3D visuals and a superb soundtrack. What more do you want? Yes, I understand that the game may not appeal much to lone adventurers who are after quiet explorations with no other living being in sight, but you can’t please everybody, can you?
Now, you may have wondered while reading the first paragraph of this review why I mentioned The Longest Journey. That is because I was among the people expecting a wonderful adventure game saga but sadly saw it deteriorate to a casual console-oriented hybrid. Culpa Innata rekindled this expectation, and with the ending of the game leaving questions unanswered in an X-Files kinda way and doors open to sequel(s), I am dreaming of more and can barely hold myself from peeing in my pants with anticipation. This is the saga we’ve been waiting for. Thank you Momentum.
Final Grade: A+