Casebook: Episode III - Snake In The Grass
Six months have passed since the events of the last episode of Casebook ("The Watcher"). Six months in which Detective Burton has been following the movements of Marlon Hapman, the one that got away. The department think he's obsessed, and they may well be right.
You've been called to a crime scene in the sleepy town of Garden, where a brutal murder has taken place in the local chapel. Ordinarily this would be a local matter, but Burton has taken a special interest - because Hapman is living in Garden now. Someone else has confessed to the crime and his prints and DNA are all over the scene, so it seems an open and shut case, but Burton thinks otherwise. This isn't a normal investigation - you have no jurisdiction, your presence is entirely unofficial and Burton is supposedly on vacation. Has Burton's obsession run out of control? Or is he right?
For those of you who don't already know Casebook, your best bet would be to start with Episode I and go from there (or at the very least play through Episode II). However, this is a full game in its own right as well as an ongoing story, and a swift recap of the previous episode appears at the start of this one for the benefit of complete newcomers. The previous episodes have been reviewed on Bytten before but, in a nutshell, Casebook puts you in the role of a forensic investigator, searching crime scenes for evidence and photographing anything you think relevant. Photos are taken to the crime lab, where you can sort out what is actual evidence and link it together. Burton offers advice on what to look for, interviews suspects and generally investigates the case while you provide him with the evidence and the leads. It plays somewhat like a hidden object game, and something like an interactive movie.
Episode III is much like its predecessors in style with a few minor changes. The most obvious of these is the absence of Pete, the sarcastic Scot in the lab, who has apparently been promoted. In his place is Dr Anja Nilsson - she's helping with the lab work because she owes Burton a favour, but her input is likewise strictly off the record. Other changes include new portraits for characters as they speak to you in the main game. Largely, however, things remain much the same - why try to fix something that works so well?
Graphics feature some all new locations, all new faces and thus some all new actors. Performances are generally good, though can occasionally seem a little forced. Graphics are the major selling point for this game and the FMV sequences are excellent, though as ever the high point is the rendering of the crime scenes themselves. A vast amount of detail is held within a small location that you can actually walk around and look at. The photorealism can get a little choppy if you zoom in too far but it is a rare game that sees the developers creating an entirely new technology for its content. One minor change here is in the photographs that you take - the first episode of Casebook used the actual images you captured with the camera, making some of them rather a blurry mess, but now the results shown on the lab computer are more standardised.
Sound is also excellent. The gentle background sounds as you work, the clomp of your footprints on the floor, the whirring of the camera... sound effects are subtle and add a wealth to the atmosphere. Playing with the sound off loses a lot of the immersion. If you must play without sound, however, or you simply find the speech hard to follow, the subtitles option is still present and very welcome. Here I've discovered a slight fault - sometimes longer dialogue sees the subtitles missing a word or two off the end due to a lack of space. I also had a weird moment in Hapman's shed where Burton spoke to me about flowers simultaneously in English and (I think) Spanish - a minor bug to be squashed, methinks! Video clips are accompanied by character speech and background noise as appropriate and, while there is little music in Casebook, when it appears it too remains subtle and atmospheric.
It is hard to go wrong while playing Casebook. Tutorial messages appear when you start your first sweep (and can be cancelled if they annoy) but don't impede the gameplay. Controls are simple - move with the mouse, walk with the keyboard or the left mouse button, use your camera with the right mouse button. Zoom in and out with the scroll wheel or keyboard. It is possible to play entirely without the keyboard if you so choose, and keyboard users can move with either the arrow keys or the commonly used WASD keys. There is no time limit and no penalty for photographing the wrong thing - just upload the pictures in the crime van, then come back and take more. Items worth photographing are highlighted in boxes, so you aren't wasting shots on empty air, and if you get stuck you can use your "intuition" to point you towards the next item. Games are saved automatically and you can have several profiles if other members of your family are playing their own games.
My biggest complaint about Casebook is that it doesn't last long enough. There may potentially be several hours of play in any one episode but they are not heavily replayable - you can advise Burton on his interview approaches, for instance, but they don't change the outcome of the actual case. There is some replay possibility in seeing what the other method is like but otherwise it is much like watching a favourite film again - the plot is still the same, even if you can vary how quickly it develops. This is, however, something of a limitation of the game's genre rather than specific to Casebook, and I cannot penalise the game heavily for it. The only other issue I had was rather simpler - the download was enormous! If you don't have reliable broadband, this could be tricky to order online.
I am a big fan of the Casebook series, and I'm always thrilled to learn of new episodes. They demonstrate an unusual and very valuable trait - independent games that are heavy on content and atmosphere. Few developers are willing or able to invest so much of their resources on this level of graphical output, so Casebook stands out as something different on the video footage alone - but I'm surprised more reviewers don't comment on the use of "areography", the rendering of the crime scenes as searchable locations. The commitment and attention to detail shown by the developers is commendable and I wish them great success. Besides anything else, I'm already eager for Episode IV!
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