Few corpses have ever been as healthy as the adventure genre.
Whole generations of gaming journalists have shoveled dirt into its grave, every major publisher has shown repeatedly that its interest in the genre is marginal at best, few titles ever break even, and yet every year sees a few new, lovingly polished grandchildren of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The situation is somewhat akin to that of the western RPG, ca. 1997 - before Fallout and Baldur's Gate hit and began an era that makes every contemporary gamer go misty-eyed.
Opening a review for a new game with such a preface gives rise to certain expectations, and indeed, this seems to be one of Fahrenheit's outstanding qualities. Appearing out of nowhere, the game known as Indigo Prophecy in Northern America made a huge splash all across the gaming press during the last month. Previews described it as the great hope of the adventure, nay, the whole of the story-based genres, subsequent reviews spoke of "a piece of art"; even usually highly skeptical mainstream press, such as the German 'Spiegel' (the biggest European news magazine) described it as a "a bold new direction in video games". David Cage, Quantic Dream's co-founder and Fahrenheit's writer/director, does not stand back. In his introduction printed in the manual, he speaks about the challenge of finding video gaming's own 'language', bemoans the contemporary industry's fixation on action over emotion, and describes his new game as "prove that it is possible to create an interactive gaming experience not focused on battling monsters in dark corridors or shooting crates to get ammo." It's also rumored to clean your dishes.
So what is this fabled new kind of game? An adventure halfway between Grim Fandango and Max Payne, really: Following the time-tested theme of the Small Guy Out Of His Depth, Fahrenheit tells the story of Lucas Kane ("The Likable Dork"), who unwittingly commits a murder while caught in an occult-seeming trance. When he snaps out of it, it becomes your task to first get him away from the crime scene, a New Yorker diner's restroom. Then, and here's where it gets interesting, you get to investigate the location in the roles of police officers Carla Valenti ("The Tough-As-Nails-Cop"), and Tyler Miles ("The Black Guy"). Large portions of the rest of the story unfold as a game of cat and mouse between Lucas, the police, and the shadowy powers that are truly responsible for the crime.
The game pits you against yourself, which is intriguing since Fahrenheit, while bound to a comparably linear plot, opens the details of its progression to your decisions. The amount of traces you leave at the crime scene has an impact on the progress of the cops - and since you control them, as well, you are not nearly as tempted to go back and 'fix' every little blunder as usual in such games. It's usual for a reviewer to add that such limited non-linearity adds replay value, but seeing that I at least never really deviate from my chosen path no matter how often I play, I'll refrain from that claim. Also, this interactivity later allows you to unknowingly skip scenes that introduce key elements of the plot, which can unfortunately lead to some confusion.
Fahrenheit is subdivided into 44 chapters, each of which is bound to a specific locale and features both scripted cinematic sequences and comparably free moments. During these, you make the mentioned decisions based on a mouse-gesture interaction system. Compared to the classical adventure, Fahrenheit mainly lacks two things: A 'serious' inventory system, and inane combination puzzles. Gone are the can openers used to get into time capsules. Gone the hamsters to be microwaved so your character can achieve invisibility. Gone the crowbars carried around half the globe only to be used as step-ladders over scottish castlewalls. Fahrenheit's challenges are refreshingly sane: You are put into a scene, introduced to its details, and tasked with finding a way through.
Whenever you encounter a situation in which the character could conceivably fail (such as a fight, keeping one's calm during an autopsy, or lifting heavy objects), one of a number of reaction tests appears. The most usual two are a kind of doubled, time-limited version of Hasbro's Simon, and a simple 'fill the meter' button-masher. As trite as this looks on paper, the tests are well integrated into the pacing of their scenes and manage to maintain one's immersion while giving an impression of participation even during over-the-top scripted action sequences. Some of the minor 'mini games', such as the times where you have to keep claustrophobic Carla Valenti's breathing steady in literal tight spots, manage to convey the atmosphere of the situation so well as to be described as strokes of genius.
Furthermore, each character has a meter indicating their current mental stability. Unsettling experiences such as nagging co-workers, trouble in the relationship, or the unintentional murder of a complete stranger deduct from the meter and turn the character's disposition stepwise from neutral to suicidal. Likewise, positive experiences - from a toilet break, over sex to a breakthrough in the investigations - increase one's stability. In terms of gameplay, this means that you are forced to let the characters perform everyday actions like drinking water or kissing the girlfriend on the way out if you don't want them to become depressive during a night at the office. What sounds like a chore actually adds a lot of believability to the game; that your character feels relieved after having taken a leak simply seems authentic.
Sadly, Fahrenheit blunders in two significantly more mundane gameplay areas: Its camera controls and dialog system. The latter uses the mentioned mouse-gesture interface, but is timed and only uses single words to denote its options, which turns many of the more complicated conversations into hectic guesswork. The camera controls are often downright unresponsive, which, coupled with the regularly problematic preset camera positions, means that it can be easier to pass one of the intricate action sequences than to navigate Fahrenheit's world.
Said world is presented in PS2-quality graphics with an art direction that aims just a little above the stereotypical: The diner Lucas commits his murder in seems to channel the spirit of James Dean. Tyler Miles lives in an apartment with psychedelic wallpaper, talks like a castrated Chris Rock and has funk music playing wherever he goes. Lucas, who's advertised as IT expert, could just as well start a career as underwear model, and Carla's chest continues the proud tradition of Lara Croft's two spine snappers. Fahrenheit doesn't try to give an authentic impression of New York, but rather a facsimile of what we see on TV, which is further emphasized by the picture-in-picture and slow-mo cinematography it employs regularly. This tendency for the overwrought continues in the writing: Lines such as "My story is the one where an ordinary guy has something extraordinary happen to him." pepper the script.
Despite this thoroughly mixed quality of Fahrenheit's ingredients, the whole can at times be absolutely engrossing. The characters might be stereotypes, their lines might be slightly over the top, but their situations are well enough presented and sufficiently grounded in ordinary life to take them serious. You empathize with Lucas' confusion and anger after the murder, root for Carla's stubborn push towards truth, and are interested when Tyler and his girlfriend get into a row over his job. This is not in the least due to the steadily above-average voice acting. While none of the voices shines in particular, they all do a more than decent job in conveying their characters. Here as elsewhere, Fahrenheit feels like a high-quality TV series. David Cage does in so far fulfill what he set out to: His game proves that emotional attachment can carry a game, that it is possible to create a strong plot in a computer game. I went through six of the eight hours of my first playthrough in one sitting, a feat last achieved with Deus Ex.
Those last two hours of gameplay did then unfortunately not hold up.
Ah, who am I kidding? When I got back after a short food break, I suspected that some sort of Gaming Gremlin had had its way with my CD while I was gone. Without spoiling the details of the plot, the hunt between Lucas and the cops collapses about three fourths into the game, the setting turns from clichéd to surreal, any kind of real-life character grounding gets swept away, only to be replaced by new age mumbo-jumbo, and I was left curled into fetal position, whimpering "But I don't want to save the world again!"
Fahrenheit seems to choke on its own premise. Here is a game built from the ground around its story - and then, the story doesn't hold up. What is left is an interesting experiment easily worth a weekend's rent, a few hopes for a revitalization of the adventure genre, and a financial success that makes this seem just a little more likely than usual. Nice try, Mr. Cage.