Next Life Review

Czech company Future Games -- creators of the highly acclaimed The Black Mirror, as well as the challenging NiBiRu -- have released their newest PC adventure game offering, Next Life. Subtitled Reprobates, this new game follows in the rather dark genre established by the first two games. Beginning, strangely enough, with a fatal car crash involving the main character, Adam, the story continues as Adam awakens in a strange place, on an island with a number of other individuals who also appear to have experienced fatal tragedies. No one understands where they are, or why they are there. Upon closer scrutiny, Adam is convinced that there is something insidious going on. And as he explores the small island, engages in conversations with the other characters -- some who disappear without any warning, and other new ones who show up seemingly out of nowhere -- and even experiences a confusion of disturbing dreams, Adam is determined to untangle the mystery of this Next Life.

As with The Black Mirror and NiBiRu, the structure and format of Next Life is a point-and-click adventure game, focusing mostly on inventory style puzzles, although several logic puzzles also present themselves in the course of the game. While the story has no relationship to either of the other games, there is a similar quality of artwork, character design and animation, and overall "look and feel". The game installs from 3 CD-ROMs; the discs are not needed once the game has been installed, however.

The primary focus of Next Life is clearly the story. Beginning as suddenly as it does, there is automatically an intense desire to find out what happened to Adam, and gain more insight into what is going on. The game is played in the third person, using the mouse to move Adam around and interact with the other characters. Naturally, there is a great degree of conversation, most of which is vital to the story, and required for the game to progress. As with most adventures where the story plays a critical role in the game, there is also a certain amount of linearity to the game play, requiring things to be done in a specific order. Not the least of these is the passing of days as game play continues. And while there is ample opportunity to explore the entire island where Adam and his compatriots have been relocated, the activity is not quite as random as some other adventure games.

One of the drawbacks to this approach is that many things simply cannot be done until certain "triggers" have taken place. This might mean, for example, that an item that Adam has passed many times and was unable to interact with before might, at a point later in the game, be of critical importance. Similarly, characters who had nothing to say to Adam at one point might provide key information when spoken to later. The result is that the game requires a lot of "retrying" things -- basically, talking to everyone in the game, then going and doing something, then talking to everyone in the game again, in case they had additional information. In the same manner, locations must be visited and revisited, in case something has changed since the last time they were seen. Given this requirement, I would have appreciated a few more intuitive clues as to "what to do next" at various points in the game. Too often, I found that I had no idea whatsoever of what the game was expecting next; yet it was obvious that only one single thing would allow me to progress, and nothing else was going to happen until I found out what that one thing was. This introduced an element of tedium into the game that could have been circumvented with more intuitive conversations, or other information that led the player along a bit better.

The overall implementation of the game is done quite well. The story maintains a good deal of suspense; and the various characters are portrayed as a well-rounded group of individuals from all walks of life, various nationalities, differing time periods, and multiple languages. (All speak English, but several of the foreigners have heavy accents. Thankfully, none are stereotyped to the point of being annoying; in fact, all of the voicings are done quite believably.)

One of the first things that will be noticed when playing Next Life is the artwork. The game begins with a well-done video cut-scene, and then transitions to a well-rendered 3D environment, with well-animated characters. (The only fault in the animation may be the mouth movements; they are minimal, and no one will be tempted to try and lip-read any of these characters.)

Interestingly for a story that is based on the somewhat dark theme of death and the afterlife, most of the game takes place in bright sunny daylight. This only adds to the rich, vibrant colors, the high contrasts, and the excellent artwork. The limiting factor here is that as Adam woke up from each dream and a new day began, he was still on the same, small island, with very little to see or do. The game helps compensate for this by providing different camera angles of all scenes when moving from one day to another, but doesn't offset the tedium of revisiting the same locations over and over.

One of the game options provides subtitles as the characters speak. I found this to be a two-edged sword. It clearly makes it easy to understand dialogue with even the heaviest accent. However, I found myself reading the subtitles at all times, and not just when I was having difficulty hearing words -- thereby occasionally missing out on some of the great visuals in the game.

Movement between scenes of the game is through a transition from one scene to the next. Frequently, a single scene can have multiple entrances/exits, thereby providing numerous paths to follow. The game interface provides a "hot key" that will show all available exits from the current location.

Most scenes contain minor animations -- water flowing, birds flying, leaves waving in the breeze -- which add a touch of realism to an already well-crafted environment. And the ambient sounds are of the best quality, as might be expected from a Future Games offering.

As already mentioned, most of the puzzles are inventory style puzzles -- e.g., finding something to use to leverage a locked door open. Throughout the game, when Adam falls asleep (something that, oddly, seems to happen every time a bell located on a nearby abandoned church rings three times), he has a strange dream. It is typically in these dreams that he encounters a few well-designed logic puzzles. And these puzzles are not the only difference between when Adam is awake and when he is asleep. During the day, most things appear fairly normal -- other than the fact that none of the characters has any idea of where they are, or why they're there. But in their sleep, they all seem to have unusual -- and often disturbing -- dreams. And while the days are bright and sunny, the dreams are often dark, drab, and gloomy -- even haunting at times.

The inventory is simple and intuitive to use. Rarely do any of the inventory puzzles present a challenge in terms of knowing what to do -- although, at times, the bigger question is where to find some specific item.

One minor annoyance to game play was a carryover from the earlier Future Games offerings. Saved games are displayed in FIFO (first in-first out) order. Thus, new saved games are always added at the end of all existing saves. But when loading a save, only a few thumbnails are visible at one time, beginning with the first. Thus, finding the most recent saved game required extensive scrolling to reach the end of the list. I save quite often -- often 40 or 50 times, by the time I've finished playing a game. Even halfway to that point, it became quite tedious to scroll through saves to the end, simply to select the latest (and, in all likelihood, the desired) one.

I did have one problem that I was not able to resolve, and that was that the game crashed frequently. In every case, I got the same error message -- generic text about a corrupted DLL file related to the game executable, but without sufficiently specific information to follow up on the cause of the problem. Each time it would happen, I was unable to restart the game without rebooting. As a result, I spent a lot of time waiting for my system to recycle each time this would happen.

Overall, I found the game to be quite entertaining, partly due to the uniqueness of the story, and largely due to the wonderful artwork and environment created by the developers. There may be a few scenes, and topics, that are not suitable for young gamers, hence the Teen rating. But Next Life provided many hours of enjoyment, and continued Future Games' good reputation.

-- Frank Nicodem