Hidden object game with mature themes suffers from poor localization and abrupt ending
Reading the Dead puts you in the position of primary investigator in a series of sadistic murders. As former FBI agent Sarah Carter, you set out to catch the perpetrator of these brutal crimes and on the way discover you have a psychic link with his victims. Finding yourself unexpectedly gifted with the ability to relive the victims’ final moments, you must use all your investigative expertise to bring their murderer to justice. While this plot line is really interesting and is offered up in a surprisingly gritty and mature way, the game as a whole fails due to an abrupt and unsatisfactory end.
Gamers who love the Art of Murder adventure series will no doubt be immediately drawn to Reading the Dead for several reasons. Both concern the tracking and apprehension of wily and formidable serial killers and both feature a beautiful, dark-haired heroine. The star of Reading the Dead, Sarah Carter, could with her pretty face, crisp white shirt and stubborn self-sufficiency, easily be Nicole Bonnet’s (the heroine of the Art of Murder games) little sister. Both of them are committed—some might even say obsessed—with their work and both find themselves relentlessly taunted by a violent psychopath. These similarities however, are all on the surface.
To begin with, compared to Nicole, Sarah Carter is a deeply troubled woman. She’s haunted by the murder of her mother and resents her former police detective father for not having caught her mother’s killer. It’s obvious too that she doesn’t trust her colleagues to properly run an investigation and that she became an FBI profiler in order to find the killer herself. All in all, Sarah’s one tough customer whose attitude often puts her on thin ice with her coworkers and with her police chief boss. When she begins to have visions during the investigation, the chief is convinced she’s losing it and orders her to go see a psychiatrist.
Aside from its unromantic, real-world context and serious themes, Reading the Dead offers some interesting takes on familiar hidden object mechanics. Most of the hidden object scenes are crime scenes and are entirely composed of photographic elements. They encompass a much wider viewpoint than usual and in general, you’ll play through each one three times. The first time you mark items as evidence, the second time you photograph them and the third time, you gather things up to take back to the precinct. Back at the office, you sort through and analyze everything you’ve gathered by sending it to the lab, dusting it for fingerprints or testing it for blood.
Some of the hiddden object play takes place in the recent past, within the psychic visions Sarah experiences upon touching a dead body. When this happens, you first have to solve an image-assembly puzzle and then play through a vision of the past that gives Sarah additional insight into the crime scenes and the murderer’s motives. These are the most interesting bits of the game, even with the sometimes frustrating prospect of getting through the more obscure hidden object portions. Your three-hint button repeatedly recharges and there’s no penalty for clicking too often. You’ll find just how much of a blessing both of these are, considering how hard it can be to find what you’re looking for.
The idea of the broader viewpoint and photographic objects works within the game’s concept, but in terms of hidden object gameplay, it’s a problem. Items are frequently tiny and impossible to see so you have to click like mad in order to find them. Sure, you can hint-button your way through every scene, but where’s the fun in that?
Another issue with Reading the Dead is its translation, which is really, really bad. The game is made by a German development team and every conversational exchange sounds like it was run through an online auto-translator. This makes for some weird, confusing dialog and the corner-cutting is further evident in the utter lack of voice acting. This lack of voice as well as the game’s too-few sound effects and too-quiet music score make it feel oddly silent. None of this is a plus, but what ultimately sends the game spiraling downward is the decision by the developers to end it on a completely unfair cliffhanger. Even a game that has a feeling of “to be continued” should feel like a complete chapter within itself, but apparently the Deck13 team didn’t get that memo. As such, you’re playing along, really starting to get into the plot twists and then without warning the credits roll and you’re like, “What just happened?”
It’s too bad that Reading the Dead does this to itself and to us. Despite substandard translation and unfinished-feeling audio, the story of Sarah Carter’s psychological demons and the cunning killer dogging her steps is easily compelling enough to make us ignore the game’s smaller issues. For whatever baffling reason, after pulling us in the game shuts the door in our faces; it stops without resolving anything, and leaves us feeling disappointed and ripped off. Very likely Deck13 has plans to release a sequel to Reading the Dead, but after making such a grievous error that leaves such a bad taste in the players’ mouths, it’s unlikely too many of them will ever play it.