by Paul Cockeram
It's impossible to say exactly what Alfred Hitchcock would have thought of The Final Cut. Would he have seen it as a fitting tribute to his extensive oeuvre of legendary psychological thrillers, or something closer to an awkwardly executed, derivative scrap of superficial entertainment? Probably a little of each. The Final Cut succeeds in treading some interesting ground in the growing field of media that bridges video games and cinema, but it ultimately works as little more than another puzzle-laden adventure game for the Myst set that's augmented by some Hitchcockian turns of the screw.
You play Joseph Shamley, a man burdened by haunting memories of the mysterious deaths of his parents in a car crash. But fortune hasn't completely abandoned Joseph-he is gifted with psychic powers that allow him extrasensory insight into the history of an object. These powers have helped Joseph become a successful private detective; moreover, they've attracted the attention of millionaire eccentric and Hitchcock afficionado Robert Marvin-Butler, who interrupts Joseph's weekend getaway with a difficult case. It seems that Robert was filming a psychological thriller a la Alfred Hitchcock when his entire cast and crew mysteriously disappeared. You must discover what happened to the missing people, as well as unravel the mysteries surrounding Robert's shady business dealings and his mute niece cum love interest Alicia. While the tangled plot sometimes borders on being contrived and overly complicated, it manages to stop just short of the edge, providing a mystery intriguing enough to keep player interest yet manageable enough to solve.
Each clue is locked inside a puzzle, and, unfortunately, The Final Cut doesn't manage to overcome the single biggest flaw of video game puzzles: their limited solutions. Human beings are highly adaptive creatures blessed with ingenuity; when we're confronted with a puzzle, we can not only solve it but also discover many different solutions. However, video game puzzles typically have just one solution, and solving the puzzle quickly turns into guessing what the game designers had in mind when they designed it. For my money, that's an unnecessarily limiting and sometimes frustrating way to play a game. But the success of adventure games proves there are plenty of people who are entertained by solving video game puzzles, and fans of the genre will find most of TFC's puzzles challenging, and probably fun.
TFC's player interface is surprisingly fluid, allowing game play not to interfere with the puzzles. Only once did the interface make a puzzle more difficult to solve than it should have been. Detective Shamley's palm-pilotesque pocket organizer serves as notebook, inventory list, game map, and command console, and is accessible by right-clicking the mouse. Shamley is driven primarily by keyboard controls via arrow keys and space bar, and the mouse is only used when examining something up close. Shamley can run and jump, and while he's less responsive and has a bigger turning radius than a Honda Civic, Shamley is never called upon to leap flaming lava pits or dance around razor pendulums, which makes his awkward handling a minor nuisance instead of a hair-clenching hate-generator.
Unfortunately, the graphics render Shamley, Alicia, and the other players into blocky, flat-faced, ham-fisted models lumpier than an early Laura Croft. The environment, on the other hand, ranges from adequately rendered to beautiful, and Shamley's psychic flashes appear as cut scenes of footage from Hitchcock films that look as good as VHS. Overall the graphics are passable, though they won't win any awards. The voice acting is quite good. Apart from a slightly maddening Myna bird, none of the voices are nerve-shredding, and most impart emotion or nuance that the lines alone do not. However, in a bid to ally the game more closely to the films that inspired it, TFC is rendered from a jumpy third-person point of view that doesn't necessarily follow Detective Shamley. The result is an occasional long shot that makes it difficult to see the environment in Shamley's immediate vicinity, or a closeup that cuts him from the picture altogether. Moving to a different location usually corrects the problem.
In addition to the awkward, sometimes bumbling camera work, TFC is still fairly buggy. I lost access to my pocket organizer for minutes at a time in places where that shouldn't have happened, I had to solve some puzzles twice because the solution didn't take the first time, and some players report dead ends if they save and quit between particular tasks. Moreover, walkthroughs are already available on the internet, and many players will likely find themselves consulting one at least once, as it's sometimes unclear where Shamley should continue his investigation. As with any adventure game, players should make it a point to search every inch of the environment, because missing a key card in an early room can mean a lot of frustrated head-scratching in later acts. This close scrutiny means as much as twenty or more hours of game play, though highly experienced players might solve everything in half that time.
Fans of adventure and puzzle games will certainly enjoy TFC, and the Hitchcock-obsessed will appreciate the game's many references to the master of psychological thrillers. A broad knowledge of Hitchcock's work will actually help players solve many of the game's puzzles. But newcomers to the genre should be wary until they're more experienced with the strategies particular to solving video game puzzles. Ultimately, the key to this game is patience. If you're not the calm type, you should just rent Rear Window, or Psycho, or The Birds. But if you're a patient gamer with a knack for thinking inside the game designers' box; if you love Hitchcock and are hungry for a way to put your Hitchcock trivia to use; and if you love a good mystery with plenty of corpses, go ahead and pick up TFC-it's sure to give you a few good evenings.
Paul Cockeram (06/28/2002)