A Review of "Missing Since January"

Matt Barton's picture

Missing Since January: The SKL Network, the in-game homepage.Missing Since January: The SKL Network, the in-game homepage.Missing Since January (MSJ), re-released in 2004 by the Adventure Company, is an American re-release of a game called In Memoriam, developed by the French Lexis Numérique company and published by Ubisoft SA and Dreamcatcher Interactive in 2003. The big gimmick is what I might call a "virtual reality" setup--playing the game requires moving beyond the program itself and doing Google searches. Players will also periodically receive emails containing clues or information, some of which are vital. It's pretty easy to see the problems that could arise from this setup, but it works. Plus, considering the game is now selling for $10 in various retail bargain bins (I got mine at Best Buy), it's definitely worth checking out.

The story behind MSJ is reminiscent of films like Silence of the Lambs. Reporter Jack Lorski and his assistant (and love interest) Karen Gijman have "disappared without a trace." Evidence soon emerges that they've been abducted by a mysterious entity known only as "Phoenix," who decides to play a game with the police by sending the Jack's agency a clue-infested but encrypted CD-ROM. The agency (and apparently the police) have had little luck cracking the CD's secrets, so they have decided to release it to the public in the form of a game. The conceit is that as you play through the games on the CD-ROM, you are unlocking secrets that will be automatically transmitted to the agency. But it's not all one-way. The agency hooks you up with some partners of your own, who are also working on the investigation and will send you emails as they uncover things. Eventually, a story begins to emerge of a murdering cult of sun-worshippers. The threads mostly tie to Renaissance Hermeticism (with its emphasis on alchemy, numerology, and the occult), and a little-known figure named Giordano Bruno.

The plot is fairly involved, but it's not very integrated into the actual gameplay. Instead, most of the specially-constructed websites serve more to flesh out the story; players need only spot some numbers on an image or the like to get past the puzzle they're working on and move forward. However, such a cut-and-dry play style would cause players to miss out on the good stuff. It's obvious that Lexis Numerique worked long and hard on its websites and emails, and they're done well enough to warrant spending some time there. If you don't care about spoiling some of the game's secrets, you can check out this one and this one to get some idea of the work that went into this. You'll learn about Renaissance hermeticism, which I found really interesting. For what it's worth, you will be studying real historical figures like Tycho Brahe and some great facts about them.

The actual gameplay consists mostly of solving a series of self-contained puzzles and games on the CD-ROM. These range from simple arcade-style games, to logic puzzles, to typing in a number or phrase found on a website. Most of the arcade games are great fun, particularly for retrogamers. There are games here inspired by Pacman, Space Invaders, Thrust, and putt putt. While some of them are tough, I managed to get through them all and had a good time doing it! However, there is at least one of them that is simply too tough; it's tough to describe, but it involves typing letters to blow them around on the screen (in an effort to get the right letters into the right corners). It's a *(&*@, and it took my wife and I over an hour to beat. I'm still not sure how I managed to do it; luck, I guess. The logic puzzles are pretty straightforward for this type of game; some involve numbers, others arranging puzzle pieces. Again, most of these games are well-executed and fun for those who like this kind of thing (i.e., the kind of person who'd buy this game in the first place!)

The more innovative (but perhaps less fulfilling) puzzles are those involving Google searches or emails. While most games of this type (such as Nancy Drew: Danger on Deception Island) have a totally self-contained "internet", MSJ's developers actually created real websites for their game. As much as I like the innovation, it has its problems. One small problem is that doing the searches will often turn up walkthroughs that give away the puzzle. This is a pretty serious problem, but you can prevent it by simply typing -memoriam and -missing into your search fields. It's easy to forget to do this, though. A bigger problem is that it's tricky sometimes to find the right websites (i.e., the ones created by Lexis Numerique). Even with the right keywords, I found myself clicking through page after page of irrelevant info. I played long enough to realize that any of the "official" websites would have a similar-looking option to translate the page into four languages (English, French, Spanish, and Dutch). After making this discovery, it was easy enough to click through the various pages and find ones with relevant info.

Chnoumos Game: One of the many arcade style mini-gamesChnoumos Game: One of the many arcade style mini-gamesApparently, the game is smart enough to know when you're stuck on a puzzle and eventually send out emails from your partners with tips and sometimes even the full solution to a puzzle. This is a pretty nice feature, though sometimes it seems a bit contrived. Why would your partners only send you a clue to a puzzle they had solved rather than the solution? Perhaps a worse problem is that your partners won't respond to your own emails (they mostly bounce back). I realize how difficult this programming feat would be to pull off, but perhaps the system could simply send back pre-generated messages (I'm out of the office now) style? Perhaps these could be extended a bit to respond to certain keywords in emails...But, I digress.

The game's graphics are excellent, as is the voice acting and full motion videoclips. The videoclips are really well done and add greatly to the atmosphere and pacing of the game. Several of them reminded me of The Blair Witch Project. Likewise, the in-game FLASH animations are stylish and occasionally quite spooky. The music sets the mood perfectly, even if it does tend to get repetitive if you're stuck on one puzzle for too long. I would recommend that players invest in good mouse, though. Playing through some of the arcade screens with a touchpad would have been nearly impossible. The recommended CPU is a Pentium II @ 333 mhz, so even old rigs ought to run it just fine. My guess is that broadband would be better than dial-up, but if you're still using dial-up, I guess you've learned to live it!

To sum up, MSJ is a great game that well-deserved winning the 2004 Adventure Game of the Year award from Computer Gaming World. However, I'd recommend getting it sooner rather than later--there's no way of knowing how long the many websites or email server needed to beat the game will remain up, and a walkthrough just wouldn't cut it.