I have been a fan of the “full-motion video” game for a long time, stretching back all the way to unique arcade titles like the holographic Time Traveler and Dragon’s Lair. There wasn’t much gameplay to them, but they were different and interesting in a way that Pac Man and Bubble Bobble weren’t doing it for me then. Then came the 90s, and thanks to the magic of the 3DO and the Sega CD, there was a renaissance of particularly bad acting (but better playing) video games based around what in essence was watching a movie play out in front of you and making very slight controller movements. Looking back on them, the acting, stories, and tech is hard to watch today. Night Trap, anyone?
Erica launched literally out of nowhere this week from Sony’s presence at GamesCom, but unlike its Square Enix cousin from last year, the painful The Quiet Man (easily landing itself on what could be one of the worst games of this console generation), Erica is a compelling horror/mystery…even as I type that, it’s fairly difficult to put in a specific genre. Occult? Maybe there, yeah. Taking place in England, when Erica is a child, she comes home to find her father murdered with a bizarre ritualistic symbol emblazoned on his chest. Erica confronts the killer but never gets a good look at her. The story flashes forward and revolves around Erica as a mid-20s adult who is thrust into another murder investigation which ties into the death of her father. Without going into too much detail, as the game lives and dies on its story, you find yourself in the middle of a mystery to uncover that will lead to some pretty…bizarre…answers.
So Erica. The “game” itself is the equivalent of watching a choose-your-own-adventure novel from the 80s (boy, a lot of historical references here this review, eh?). There’s no real gameplay, no puzzles, you’re simply making decisions for the lead character (Erica, surprise) on how she reacts to the given situation. Do you confront the police sergeant or do you cooperate when he asks to see what you have in your hands? Do you open the door to your right or walk down the passage to your left? And while you could just use the controller to move a mouse cursor around, the developers at Flavourworks give you some unique options for control schemes for Erica. As Erica is on the PS4, they make use of the touchpad as a mouse cursor; simply move your finger on the pad and the cursor moves around the screen.
But wait, there’s more!
Flavourworks, not content having a controller with a touchpad as their main control scheme, developed a companion app where you can link your phone up with your PS4 and use your smart device screen as a touchpad. The app and game both tell you in multiple places that using your smart device is the BEST WAY TO PLAY ERICA PLEASE USE THE APP, DAMNIT. Slight problem: the app crashed my game five separate times during my first 90-minute playthrough. When I was using the controller for my second playthrough? No crashes. Oh, well, it was definitely the thought that counted here, and fortunately, as much as they try to make you use the phone or second screen app, there are no real benefits that you can’t get from the touchpad on the PS4 controller.
Acting in full-motion video games has gone up substantially from the 90s, and Erica is no different. The lead role is played by British actress Holly Earl, who had a spot on Doctor Who as well as some Oscar-nominated film work. Erica looks like she’s ready to burst into tears the entire game, which is fortunate, because the poor heroine is fairly put upon for the entire game, being bounced from one disastrous scenario to the next. The remainder of the acting cast is quite good, and if it weren’t for the game crashing on me regularly because of the second screen app, I would have been quite engaged with the story they are trying to tell.
Speaking of random crashes, remember when this generation of consoles came out and make a bunch of noise about being able to play the game while it is downloading and installing in the background? A lot of that promise just became, “You can sit on the start menu and wait for it to finish downloading”. Erica appears to be a 10GB game, allowing you to get started once it gets that 10GB done. But there’s no warning for you not to play it until it finishes downloading. About 20 minutes in, the game would crash to tell me that the scene I was on hadn’t downloaded yet and that the BEST experience was for me to wait until it finished downloading to play, then dump me out into the main menu. Only then did I realize Erica is actually a 40GB game. Between that happening a few times and the second screen app crashing the game on me, there was a lot of swearing by me last night trying to “enjoy” the game.
The problem with the story is that it suffers from what gamers have come to know as “Telltale Games Syndrome”. Before the studio’s ignoble closure earlier this year, Telltale Games prided themselves on their story-driven games like The Walking Dead and giving the player the ability to affect how the story played out based on your decisions. Do you save Julie or save Mike? Do you pick up the knife or do you run away? Do you go to the crime scene or do you stay put? That all sounded great on paper, but in the end, you would always get channeled into generally the same ending, maybe with a few lines of dialogue that have changed. So in Erica, when you are sitting and watching the clock expire on the time you have to decide your course of action, the problem becomes that by the end of the game, the outcome is generally the same. Erica has seven different endings you’ll have to play through multiple times (well, seven times, to be exact) to try all the different combinations of decisions, but the end really doesn’t change all that much, no matter who gets violently murdered along the way. I played through the game twice, approximately three hours worth of watching and selecting choices. I was genuinely surprised how differently each path would take you, but in the end, it’s the same 10-minute segment that is largely unavoidable, no matter which directions you take along the way.
After the credits rolled on my first playthrough, I immediately fired Erica up again. I was pleasantly surprised (primarily because I wasn’t getting interrupted with crashes every 15 minutes), but much like watching any murder mystery or psychological thriller again once you know what to look for, it’s neat to see where they pepper in little hints about what is going on behind the scenes. Some of the choices of dialogue, some of the quiet things in the background of a shot that you catch like, “Hey, was that…?”
The thing that takes the sting out of any kind of disappointment or pain of Erica is that it is $10. And for the experience I played through last night, the acting, the bizarre story that made me want to immediately play through it again and see what I missed the first time around, $10 is a steal. Erica isn’t going to be winning any game of the year awards, but given my love affair over the years with full-motion video games? I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Just don’t use the second screen app. Oh, and let it finish downloading before you play it.