The term "cinematic gameplay" gets tossed around an awful lot these days. And it's often tossed around by game makers who simply throw in a few letterboxed cutscenes and minimalist heads-up displays and then just call it a day. Developer Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy is a game that actually gives cinematic gameplay some context, as well as some real heartfelt meaning. More movie with an interactive progression than video game pretending to be a movie, Indigo Prophecy eschews practically any modern gameplay convention in favor of a significantly more subtle mechanical interface. You take part in every action in Indigo Prophecy--from the biggest fight sequence, to the most minor of day-to-day tasks--and you do it all with simple movements of the analog sticks on your controller, or with some quick button presses that are more akin to a rhythm game than a typical third-person adventure. But where Indigo Prophecy truly shines is in its story, which is a deep, captivating, and sometimes disturbing tale of one average man's journey to solve a murder that he himself committed.
Is Lucas Kane a murderer? Or just an unwitting pawn? It's up to you to figure it out in Indigo Prophecy.
The average man in question is Lucas Kane, a handsome but worn gentleman who lives his life as any IT professional in the great city of New York would. Kane's life takes a decidedly dark turn one night, however, when he decides to visit a local diner. In the very opening scene of the game we find Lucas sitting in a bathroom stall, convulsing and carving bizarre symbols into his forearms. An unlucky schmo happens into the bathroom during this period, and Lucas, seemingly unable to control his actions, attacks him, stabbing him multiple times. Moments after the killing, Lucas returns to his senses, only to be equal parts horrified and stupefied by his actions. From here you take control of Lucas, and it's up to you to get him the hell out of there.
This opening sequence gives you an excellent glimpse into how thoroughly intertwined Indigo Prophecy's plot and gameplay are. Presented with a corpse, a murder weapon, and one of NYPD's finest sitting out in the restaurant, it's up to you to decide how to proceed. Should you take the time to hide the body, ditch the weapon, clean yourself up, and try to casually make your way out of there? Or will you simply make a run for it as quickly as possible? You can do any or all of these things, and the outcomes will vary from a very quick game over screen to you getting Kane the hell out of Dodge. And first and foremost, that's what Indigo Prophecy is about: choice. Every decision made and every question asked takes the story in a slightly different direction. Of course, in most cases these changes are merely cosmetic, simply letting the core scene play out marginally differently while ultimately pushing you toward the same goal. But in more than a few cases, your choices will drastically change the flow of the story.
And what incredible directions they can be. It is with no amount of exaggeration that we state Indigo Prophecy features one of the best stories so far this year, as well as a remarkable amount of character depth. The game is like an unholy mixing of The X-Files, The Dead Zone and CSI, with sprinklings of The Matrix and Shenmue thrown in for good measure. But the incredible thing is that it never flies off the rails, no matter how ambitious its intentions are. The story dives into some truly morbid territory, with its ritualistic killings, deeply troubled protagonist, and downright intriguing backstory. We won't give any of the main plot points away, but needless to say, there's an awful lot more to Lucas Kane's plight than mere loss of mental and bodily control, including a series of past, similar murders and a mysterious cold front that's literally burying the city in snow.
You won't just experience Lucas Kane's story, either. Early on you'll be introduced to two other main characters, Detectives Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles. The detectives are the ones assigned to the murder Kane commits, and right from the start we get to know these characters just about as intimately as we do Kane. Carla professes herself to be the obsessive type, transfixing herself on any case that comes her way. Tyler's more the streetwise type--the cop you'd expect to see shaking down narcotics informants and busting up gangs during the day, while clubbing it up at night. Carla and Tyler are both playable throughout the story, and it makes for an interesting scenario. While Kane is clearly not culpable for his wrongdoings, here you are playing two law enforcement officers on the opposite side of the law from this accused murderer, with no understanding of the circumstances beyond the fact that one man killed another. In effect, you're helping two sides that are both intentionally and unintentionally working against each other.
Other characters are introduced into the fold, like Lucas' ex-girlfriend, Tyler's current girlfriend, and Lucas' priest-brother Markus (who is also periodically playable)--not to mention the villains behind all this. And even though the main three characters are really where the game devotes its focus, it doesn't leave the other ones underdeveloped. Lucas, for instance, goes to his brother not long after the murder in search of guidance. Markus shows a great deal of conflict during this scene. He loves his brother, but he can't begin to believe his incredible story. He wants to help but is also bound by his faith and his perception of reality. The game doesn't treat the terrible crime that Lucas has committed ambiguously, nor do the characters within it. Though some are willing to help, effectively Lucas is a man without a country.
All in all, this is a sharply written game with a lot of depth. With that said, it does have its problems. Namely, the later portions of the game take some sizable leaps, both in logic and coherency. There's a big chunk where it seems like the developer went from point A to point C without writing in a convincing point B. Getting into too many details beyond this would give too much away, but it basically boils down to key characters being too willing to simply dive headfirst into seemingly unbelievable situations, despite appearing much more cautious and intelligent earlier on. There are also elements that feel out of place, especially early on. Tyler's main storyline seems to act more as comic relief than anything else, and when he's not making wisecracks while on the investigation, he's investing time in his relationship or playing basketball against coworkers. In fact, the early goings of the game center a bit too heavily around mundane tasks in general. So basically, the story needed about 45 minutes cut from the first act, and it needed about 90 minutes more added to the last one.
It also bears mentioning that at times the branching paths of the story sometimes lead to problematic conclusions...especially in the end. There are three different endings to the game, and the big final conflict can either be pretty damned good or pretty lackluster, depending on how you end up there and how you play it. In fact, you actually get the best, most dramatic final battle if you intentionally lose during certain portions. Fortunately, once you've beaten the game, you can go back and select any of the game's 40-some-odd chapters to replay them however you like, ensuring you won't miss out on the best story paths and endings. That's good, because the first play-through is unlikely to yield more than eight to 10 hours of gameplay. But there are enough different options to squeeze at least a few more hours out of the game beyond that.
Apart from a few annoying story contrivances, this is one of the best game plots to come along in a good long while.
It's unfortunate the story takes these uneven turns, because it really is incredibly good overall. It's got far more emotional impact, drama, and character development than what's often required of a video game these days, and even with its rough spots, it has more than enough fantastic moments to keep you engaged as you play it.
Yes, believe it or not, you do actually play Indigo Prophecy. The reason we've talked up the plot so much is because your enjoyment of the game will hinge very largely on how into the story you get. The actual game portion of Indigo Prophecy doesn't really require an awful lot of skill on your part, save for certain sequences. Instead, it asks you to simply explore and engage the many environments, characters, and tasks before you by using simple, unobtrusive control mechanics that place you right in the thick of the scene--without relying on generic "action" buttons or heavy shooting sequences.
For the most part you'll be moving your characters around in the third person, like you would in a typical non-point-and-click adventure game. When in an environment, you'll frequently be invited to either look for hot areas that can be examined more closely or look for objects that can be picked up or used. The interesting thing about Indigo Prophecy's methodology with this style of gameplay is that all your actions are mapped to the analog sticks. You move around with the left, and whenever you encounter a door you can open, a mirror you can look into, an object you can pick up, or anything of that nature, you'll see an icon at the top of the screen that shows you a directional pattern in which the right analog stick must be moved. Press forward to open that door or up and then around 90 degrees to take a drink from a coffee cup, and so on and so forth. It's an odd concept to get used to at first, but it becomes second nature as the game goes on.