You're Victoria McPherson, a plucky FBI agent assigned to the case of your life: a grisly series of murders that's left a trail of five bodies, and scant clues to the killer's identity. The clock is running, as the sixth victim will probably materialize soon, but it's Christmastime and you've promised to cook Dad a batch of delicious gingerbread cookies. If you fail to decipher the cryptic recipe, not only will more people presumably die, but you'll be stuck in the kitchen for the rest of your life. Such are the existential quandaries posed by Still Life, a stylish investigative thriller that combines C.S.I.-style detective work with the advanced puzzle-solving of genre favorites like Myst and Riven. The puzzles vary in sophistication, acting as miniature firewalls between one point in the story and the next. Some are pertinent to the investigation, as when you collect evidence or prepare a fake ID so you can infiltrate an exclusive club, but others are just random busywork. If you can't figure out how to get your boss a cup of coffee, the case is stalled.
Meticulously composed and lighted–which in some respects means sacrificing playability for atmosphere–Still Life opens in contemporary Chicago, where Victoria examines the latest in a quintet of gruesomely eviscerated prostitutes. Flummoxed by the case, Victoria retreats to her father's house for Christmas and discovers a trunk containing old files belonging to her grandfather, Gus McPherson, a private eye who investigated a startlingly similar case in Prague 75 years earlier. Cutting between the two time periods, which dovetail elegantly in their parallel storylines, you play both Victoria and Gus as they poke around the moody urban landscapes and solve various brainteasers.
Beyond the gameplay: On the Xbox, the dialogue scenes let you pursue two different lines of conversation: The left trigger activates a business discussion, while the right trigger just stimulates a little idle chatter. The effect is a lot like Martin playing the My Dinner With Andre arcade game in The Simpsons, with its options for "trenchant insight," "bon mot," and "tell me more."
Worth playing for: The puzzles are varied and well-designed, in many cases just challenging enough to make completing them feel like an achievement. The best ones tend to have some practical application in the real detecting world, like examining murky crime-scene photographs to see what's missing from a scene, or learning how to pick a lock.
Frustration sets in when: Clearly, Still Life was meant to be played on a PC, where cubicle-dwellers can work on puzzles while the boss isn't looking and not worry about having to push through the game's sluggish navigation system. On the console, there's simply not enough to do with the controls, and the slow, grinding boredom of getting from place to place makes it hard to endure.
Final judgment: At a budget price, Still Life promises many hours (or, for the slow-witted, many years) of gameplay, but whether those are hours well spent is open to debate.