Written by  :  Ola Sverre Bauge (241)
Written on  :  Nov 11, 2004
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars

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Now this is really something.

The Good

Glancing at Private Eye, you might mistake it for yet another half-hearted postcard murder-mystery. But give it fifteen minutes, and you'll find that in this case appearances do deceive - Private Eye might have elements of the postcard game, including glaring branching points, but it miraculously transcends its genre and becomes a one-of-a-kind.

It's unusual in being an almost 1:1 adaption of a book, and unique in managing to pull it off. The book in question is Raymond Chandler's Little Sister, which means that, yes, you play Philip Marlowe. It also means the game places itself in a fairly small, high place with long drops on all sides.

Looking at the graphics, you could be forgiven for thinking it never stood a chance: Low-budget 1997-vintage pre-rendering mixed with slightly odd cel animation was never a lovable style. It's saved by not forcing you to watch any painfully slow transition sequences, instead moving swiftly from e.g. closed to open drawer. If only more 90's game designers understood that no one is interested in looking at a door opening... but I digress.

This game hinges on the dialogue; and since that's from a bona fide Marlowe novel, graphical blemishes are easily forgotten. The voice actor for Marlowe doesn't do an all-out Bogart impression, merely settles into the same general category of world-weary, dry sarcasm coming out of a throat ravaged by bourbon and cigarettes. Personally, I don't at all mind spending four straight hours in its company, especially not when it's accompanied by cool jazz.

The other characters are brought to life competently; while the cel animation doesn't allow the full subtlety of film noir, it does the job of making the characters memorable, supported by the well-cast voices.

What works really well is the connections between characters. I found myself truly thinking like a detective, considering motives and hidden links, more than in any other game. Here, you really feel that people are your business, not item collection and combination. Of course, this unmaterialistic attitude can backfire in a lack of concrete reference points, which is why the game comes with built-in hints in the form of a whiskey bottle in Marlowe's desk: drinking makes him go into full-on hardboiled internal-dialogue mode.

The period jazz is skillfully applied as background music; turning on the radio to listen in on the boys in blue will also give you authentic radio spots and hit singles from the time.

The Bad

Five hours is about as long as it'll take you to finish the game. For replay value, or if you've read the book, you can choose an alternate story that has some of the characters' motives and guilt shuffled about. But just these initial four hours absolutely makes it worth picking out of a bargain bin, because this is the closest I've seen to a good interactive movie - this is basically what Under a Killing Moon tried, and failed, to be.

The emptiness often felt towards the end of adventure games is alleviated by a number of places you access by breaking and entering, giving you a sharp time limit before the police come knocking. This maintains the illusion that there are always more stones to turn, but can be a bit annoying for not giving you time to think.

Private Eye works at reducing the inventory fetishism in adventure games: This spells trouble for cleptomanic adventurers who instinctively clean out a murder scene, only to find that the police scowl at them for keeping a murder weapon in their cupboard. Ehem.

The Bottom Line

This is the closest we've got to an interactive movie that actually works. Interestingly, it has a marked radio drama flavor to it, is based closely on a book, and looks none the worse for it - in fact, I'd say Private Eye is a convincing argument for the commercial adventure game to turn into the interactive radio play.