Beyond the Realm of the Living
The question of where one goes when they die and what happens after this life is over is one that has probably crossed the minds of just about everyone at one point or another. It’s certainly an interesting concept to explore in a video game, and in a point-and-click adventure game no less. Next Life gives an unusual treatment of the subject which is integrated into a standard adventure game format that’s lengthy, plodding, and sometimes irksome. The game’s few high points are knocked down a notch or two by numerous gameplay issues, yet it has its redeeming qualities. Next Life will put you through your paces and then some. If you’re hardcore about your adventure games, then you might just love the punishment.
As one might expect in a game that touches on the afterlife, Next Life kicks off with a death. While on a carelessly high-speed trek in his SUV, Adam Raichl careens head-on into a tanker truck and meets his end in a fiery explosion. It’s no surprise when he’s more than a little baffled upon waking up in a dingy metal hut on a strange island populated with an odd bunch of even weirder inhabitants from around the globe (and different time periods) who’ve found themselves in a similar unfortunate position. Some on the island have given up hope and resigned themselves to their new existence. Others are convinced they’ll be saved.
Raichl sets out to uncover the mysteries of why they’re there, starting with the bell tower on the far cliff which curiously sets everyone to into a deep slumber when it rings three times each day. People are plagued with vivid nightmares, and in stark contrast they wake up each morning in their huts with a fresh bottle of water and a package of cookies. The metal huts are identical except for the fact each is numbered. There’s plenty of weird vibes to go around, and the overall atmosphere is bleak and depressing. Just when the story starts to resemble something you might find in an episode of Lost, the plot takes a few even more bizarre turns.
At first there’s little to do on the island other than meeting the other folks stranded there and getting up to speed on what little they know about what’s happening. Using the mouse, you’ll guide Raichl around to speak with the inhabitants, examine terrain and item location hotspots, and gather sticks and stones for later use. Eventually you’ll gain access to other areas, locate new items, meet additional characters, and come across increasingly difficult puzzles. Additionally, a handful of interactive nightmare sequences change up the pace and scenery, and players will find themselves in some pretty interesting situations. Unfortunately, the bad dreams also throw players against some pretty tough logic puzzles which can grind the fun to a standstill until you beat them. Aside from feeling completely random and out-of-place at times, these timed puzzles often require an unforgiving amount of precision and manual dexterity. To make matters worse, players are given little explanation of what actually must be done when encountering these stumbling blocks, both in terms of controls and objectives. Fortunately, you have numerous chances to attempt them, and patience will pay off.
Collecting items, combining them to make new things, and using them to progress are staples of any good adventure game. Next Life utilizes these tried-and-true mechanics, but the way they’re implemented is often counter-intuitive, and it hampers smooth and steady progress. Sometimes you may gather all the necessary items together and correctly deduce what must be done with them only to be unable to do anything until you’ve spoken with a particular character. In other instances you’ll strain your brain to try to concoct crazy theories as to what completely un-obvious combination of devices must be matched and used on some other combination of seemingly un-related objects. There are times when the solutions are quite clever, and players will feel good about arriving at the necessary conclusions without the aid of online assistance (if they have the patience). All too often it’s simply just too easy to overlook one or two minor details and then be stuck running around aimlessly for hours trying to find out what you missed. This problem is amplified greatly by the fact most hot spots are very small and hard to find. Your cursor will change to indicate the ability to interact with an object or move to a different location, but it’s often difficult to tell due to the fact the most of the cursor symbols are hard to tell apart from one another. Even if you manage to find the way forward unhindered, the game still forces you to do a tedious amount of backing-and-forth errand running. Adventure game veterans may have come to accept some of the above criticisms as a standard component of the genre, in which case they might very well be bolstered by the prospect of a greater challenge.
The high-quality graphics are easily one of the game’s strongest areas. The visuals in Next Life are outstanding regardless of whether you’re up close and personal with a character or off exploring the different interactive environments. The static backgrounds are beautiful, and the character models are some of the most detailed and realistic to appear in an adventure title yet. There is also a subtle visual touch which really improves island exploration significantly.
As the game progresses early on you’ll walk through many of the same locations, but each day the camera angles will change slightly from one area to the next. It offers a new perspective and allows you to interact with different objects you may not have noticed before. When it actually comes to physically moving Raichl around, things aren’t quite as pretty. His movements are unexpectedly stiff, robotic, and painfully slow. Moving from one location to another can be sped up slightly by double clicking the mouse, but interacting with objects often requires him to casually stroll over to the hotspot, stop, turn in place, bend down, grab the item, and get back up. It’s far from fluid, and it can seem like forever before the process is complete.
One important quirk about Next Life involves the dialogue. The voice over work is a bit awkward, but the variety of different accents is entertaining. There are never too many dull moments in terms of dialogue since the game does manage to do a good job of wrapping players in the mystery of the story and conversations yield clues to what’s happening. The subtitles, however, don’t always match up with what’s coming out of your PC speakers. In fact, it’s clear the audio has been cleaned up by the censors, but they missed many of the more “colorful” comments which were left untouched in the subtitles. It’s mostly pretty humorous, but some players may find it offensive.
The many small issues do add up over time, but ultimately Next Life is not a bad adventure title. It does what any solid game in the genre should by immersing players in a deeply interactive and fantastic story environment. It also creates a strong sense of intrigue which will draw you forward through the plot of the game. The problem is there are frequent moments were players may wish to keep moving ahead to find out what happens next, yet they’ll be impeded by a number of unintentionally frustrating obstacles in the gameplay. With the patience to overcome these impediments it’s possible to persevere in your quest and have fun in the process.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
Highly realistic and detailed graphics make the visual end of Next Life a real treat. 2.8 Control
Controls are simple, but sluggish movement, poor hotspot detection, and brutally frustrating logic mini-games drag things down. 3.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Lots of interesting accents. Voice acting is slightly off. 3.2 Play Value
The game is interesting and lengthy, but it will take some series resolve to make it to the end. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.