Review: The Painscreek Killings

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Review copy provided by publisher

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I understand that actual detective work is an absurdly challenging and demanding process, which is why I appreciate games that abstract that down to clicking on the right thing in the right place. Not all games abstract the investigations that far, though, and The Painscreek Killings definitely sit much closer to the line than most. It’s one of those rare games that expects you to keep your own notes and draw your own conclusions, to such lengths that you have an in-game camera to take pictures of notes instead of simply having them logged. For fans who’ve dreamed of playing through an actual investigation this could easily be their moment, but for many it may prove too vast and ponderous to hold their attention.

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The sleepy town of Painscreek was rocked by the murder of Vivian Roberts back in 1995, an event that hastened the decline already in progress. Several more deaths followed, and those who remained packed up and left the place a monument to the terrible tragedies that stained it. The murder was never solved, and you’ve got it in your head that you can do what the police could not. Armed with a camera and notebook (hopefully a real one, too), your task is to comb the town for clues and unravel the dark secrets that precipitated Vivian’s demise. As you might expect, with a whole town to cover, those secrets become an impressive web of deceit and manipulation.

I hesitate to use the term open-world, but right from the start you have the run of Painscreek. A simple tutorial guides you through casing the sheriff’s office for clues and useful items, and then you’re loosed upon the town to air out its dirty laundry. And believe me, there’s plenty to find between the inn, the mansion, the hospital, the church, and all the smaller residences you eventually gain access to. In each of these places you’ll find notes, diaries, and keys that will lead you to new locations and revelations, eventually daisy-chaining all the way to the answers you seek.

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But if you’re going to follow that trail, you need to be paying attention. A LOT of attention. The Painscreek Killings has no objective tracking, doesn’t log small notes and memos for you, and only provides the simplest of maps if you can even find them. If you find a key there’s a good chance it won’t even be labeled, and if you find the lock it goes to you still have to use it directly from your inventory. You’ll find numeric codes in diaries with no explicit labels, and explanations to what those codes go to in entirely different diaries. And if you’re going to follow the tangled web of relationships between the residents, you might want to bust out the cork board and strings because you won’t be keeping it all straight in your head.

The key here is that you’re undertaking an actual investigation, spread across an entire town, and that’s going to take some real effort to track. The lack of in-game logging is almost an asset in this respect, because you really do have to dig deep and engage with the clues you uncover to stay on the killer’s trail. This is the kind of game where if you put it down for a weekend you might completely forget what you were doing, and it’s also the kind where if you lose the trail for even a moment, you might end up wandering the town for longer than you’d like. That’s the big barrier here, the effort involved in actually working through the game, because of how effectively it emulates an actual investigation.

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It’s the worth the effort, of course, if you’re of a mind to unravel a mystery all on your lonesome. The story is a compelling one, though admittedly less engaging as it’s entirely told through notes and diary snippets. The environs are bright and crisp for you to hunt through, with some genuinely beautiful scenery around the grander buildings. And don’t be surprised if there are some darker moments as well, ones that I doubt you’ll be expecting. At this point, the only question left is whether or not you’re the kind of person this sort of adventure appeals to. If you are, then there’s really no reason not to start your investigation today, because you’ve got a long and gratifying road ahead of you.

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