Overall Score 95%
Casebook: Episode I - Kidnapped
Morning in the Birchermann household brings a terrible shock. The Birchermann children are gone - vanished in the night - and a ransom note is left behind. Detective Burton is on the case, along with his newest partner - you. While Burton asks the questions, you're the one on the crime scene, hunting down those tiny clues that will identify who took the children and track down where they have been taken.
The obvious clues when you step into the childrens' bedroom are already marked by the scene of crime officer. The ransom note is the first of these (worth checking for fingerprints, perhaps) and there are some muddy footprints by the window. A birdcage has been smashed - the abductor was careless - and there are rope fibres on the beds. Perhaps there are prints on the window or other surfaces around the room? And what about DNA evidence?
Take out your camera and photograph anything you think relevant. Back in the van, you can upload your photographs to the computer and have forensic expert Pete analyse them in the lab. Your camera only holds eight pictures at a time, so you may need to make a number of trips. A lot of the "evidence" will be useless (Pete throws out these pictures with many scornful comments) but some of it will be vital - even innocuous items can contain DNA evidence, fingerprints or more.
Burton knocks on the door of the forensics van. He's got shoes, fingerprints and DNA samples from the rest of the household ("exemplars" is the technical term) to check against the evidence and rule out any traces of the family. The children are missing, so we have no exemplars for them, but you might find some DNA and fingerprints in their room to check against. Link clues together in the case file to make connections and uncover new leads. As you discover things, Burton will take statements, conduct interviews and so on, and together you'll unlock new crime scenes. Can you track down the children before it's too late?
Thus starts Casebook, an episodic hidden object game that's quite arresting. The major differences here are that you're doing something real police forces do all the time - and that there are plenty of objects to find. It's just that most of them are irrelevent, and the really relevent stuff is not always obvious. It's not all photography, though. You'll also be dusting for prints, analysing chemicals, separating DNA strands, identifying boot prints and all sorts of forensic stuff back in the van. These "minigames" (they are rather simple to be considered games in themselves) add variety and depth to the game. I felt I was actually doing more than just collecting things for the real experts to work on.
Casebook is an amazing visual experience. Gameplay is interspersed with film clips featuring real actors, and the crime scenes themselves are incredibly detailed. A process called areography creates photorealistic scenes that you can actually walk around and examine. I've never given a full 100% score for a category before, but these graphics blew me away, even if things can blur somewhat when you get too close. Sound too is top notch, with crisp and clear dialogue (Pete and Burton call you with any information while you're investigating) and well pitched sound effects. Crime scenes can be eerily quiet with no background music to intrude - just the sound of your footsteps and the whirring of your camera. There are sound effects for your work in the lab as well. I did occasionally feel the balance was a little off with the background music on a couple of the film clips but this is a minor gripe. You also need to play with the sound on as there is no option for subtitles.
This is a pretty easy game to play. Controls are virtually entirely mouse, with several keyboard shortcuts. Instructions are clear and help is always available, potential evidence is clearly marked when you get the camera out and there's no actual time limit or penalty for identifying the wrong evidence. Making mistakes is not fatal - you can always go back to take more photographs. If you get stuck, you have your "intuition" - it won't tell you what you're looking for, but it'll point you in the right direction. This can be a great help if you're not sure what to do next. You can play several profiles at the same time and the game saves automatically.
I did have some technical issues, however. Casebook crashed on my Vista laptop several times, though the automatic save meant this was usually merely annoying (I had some difficulty closing it when it did this, but that's Vista being awkward). One time, however, it crashed just after a film clip that should have then provided me with crucial evidence. Without this evidence, I was left wandering an empty crime scene with no way to unlock the next and had to restart the case. Hopefully these issues are my laptop's fault and not the game's - everything is so professionally put together elsewhere that I doubt such a serious crash bug could be common. The main technical aspect of concern is sheer size - the download file is somewhat daunting. This may be a reason to ditch dialup and get broadband!
My main dismay with Casebook is that I solved the case within a matter of several hours of determined effort - I found it hard to stop! There isn't a vast amount of replay value - the evidence is the same each time - though there are points when Burton asks your advice on how to conduct interviews. I could happily play through again to see what the other choices do! And there's good news - episode two is under development. The trailer I saw when I finished the first episode looks very impressive and I'd be very happy to help Detective Burton crack another case.
Keywords: casebook: episode i - kidnapped review, areo - cinematic games reviews, areo - cinematic games games, casebook: episode i - kidnapped scores, pc game reviews, indie game reviews, independent gaming.