Missing: Since January is the latest game from The Adventure Company, and it’s a difficult game to review. On the one hand, Missing has an intriguing premise, and the developer tried to do some new and different things. That’s good for all games, but it’s especially good for adventures, since adventures haven’t changed a whole lot in the last ten years. But then, on the other hand, I disliked playing Missing so much that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, and that, of course, is bad. Combined, the good parts and bad parts mean I’m going to give Missing somewhere near an average score, and that means the score isn’t going to tell you if you’re going to like it. You’re going to have to keep reading to find that out.
The background story for Missing goes something like this. In 1975, a guy filming his family’s vacation in Greece accidentally films a murder and, as a result, gets himself killed as well. Now, almost 30 years later, a journalist for the SKL Network named Jack Lorski finds the film and figures out who the two murder victims were. Then he tracks down the daughter of the deceased cameraman, and, with her help, starts to uncover a plot that links the 1975 murders to some more recent murders. Of course, Jack and the daughter, Karen, go missing, and that’s where you come in. Somebody calling himself the Phoenix sends the SKL Network a cryptic CD indicating that he knows where Jack and Karen are, and the SKL Network decides to distribute the CD with the hope that somebody out there can decipher the Phoenix’s machinations. The Phoenix’s CD is one of the CD’s you get with the game, and so Jack and Karen’s fate, not to mention the solving of a few murders, is up to you.
The developer, Lexis Numérique, goes out of its way to keep things “real” in a Blair Witch Project sort of way. As you try and track down Jack and Karen’s research and movements, you’ll go to real web sites, and you’ll receive real mail from (fake) people who are also examining the CD. It’s just that this sort of realism comes with a price. For example, when you receive mail, you won’t get any friendly tags in the subject line, and so strange people will send you mail with topics like “Important” and “Statement.” I’m not sure how much junk mail other people get, but I get a lot, and those are the types of messages I delete out of hand. Supposedly, you’ll receive over 50 e-mail messages from the game (which is bad all by itself since who wants to keep that many messages around?), so good luck not accidentally deleting a bunch of them.
The other problem with the realism is finding the web sites necessary for your investigation. There’s a search engine at the SKL Network’s web site that the game encourages you to use, but it’s just a Google engine. That means you have to search for exactly what the game wants you to search for, or you’re in trouble. For example, one early puzzle tasks you with discovering the name of the Greek island where the 1975 murders took place. So the first thing I did was search for “greek island,” only to find that Google has 2.5 million web sites that match that phrase. So I picked one and discovered that there are 1400 Greek islands (which was news to me), meaning that I couldn’t just guess my way through the puzzle. It turns out you have to analyze a film to find a word, and then do a search on the word. A lot of the puzzles work like that, where you have to figure out the exact word or name to search for, but even if you work it out you’re going to get a lot of garbage when you search, including finding a lot of forums and walkthroughs for the game (so much for realism). Amazingly, I didn’t stumble upon any porn sites during my searches, but give them time.
So while using real mail and real web sites sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, I think trying it out was a good idea. Where Missing falls apart is in the puzzles, which I’ll charitably call “goofy java games.” These games make me think Missing was originally intended as a web-based adventure, and while some of them are fine and are related to the plot (like when you have to figure the name of the Greek island), a bunch of others are just inane. At one point I had to play miniature golf. At another I had to entice a cockroach to run on a treadmill. I mean, huh? What kind of weird stuff is this? Worse, while the games start out easy enough, later they get so convoluted that I had to check a walkthrough for every other one. The puzzles morph from tedious to annoying to frustrating, and at no point are they fun.
And that’s too bad because after every couple puzzles, you get to see a snippet of Jack’s video diary. The scenes are well acted, and they’re intriguing. You’ll learn that the first murder victim was a dealer in rare books, and that everything might be tied to an ancient cult -- or perhaps not so ancient given the recent murders. If there’s any reason to play the game it’s to see how the storyline works out, and how you might be able to save Jack and Karen at the same time. It’s just that the puzzles killed whatever enthusiasm I had for the game. With better puzzles, Missing might have been a fun adventure to play. But as it is now, it’s a game to skip.