The 90s is the new 80s. Apparently enough time has passed that the decade can be seen distant and exotic. It’s the year 1999 when a young female journalist named Janet is sent to a small town of Painscreek to investigate an unsolved murder. Four years earlier Vivian Roberts was murdered but her killer was never caught. Now, if Janet happens to find new evidence in this case, she’ll get a whole front page for unmasking the killer!
The Painscreek Killings is a first-person detective adventure which has an ambitious goal. There’s no narrative to lead the way. Instead, the town of Painscreek is a semi-open world where the player is supposedly free to explore the case at their own direction and pace. Janet snoops about public places and private homes in search of documents and the tiniest of details to build a picture of the grim events that took place in the now abandoned town. The digital camera will store an infinite number of pictures so it’s best to make it a habit to photograph anything which seems worthy of notice, because the in-game journal won’t record everything. Besides, you need that killer photo (pun intended) for the front page. The investigation can be halted any time by returning to your car and choosing the murderer and the murder weapon from possible choices. The only way to get the true ending is to get it all correct.
For a while, it’s exciting to piece together people’s lives from newspaper clippings, diaries, and random notes. But then, the problems start to pile up. For starters, the game is really slow-paced. It doesn’t help that there are severe technical problems hampering the investigation. The frame-rate can drop to a crawl on a PC easily capable of running more graphically complex games. Switching off several graphical enhancements didn't have much effect on the poor performance. The Unity-powered engine is clearly not optimized as the visuals aren’t particularly spectacular to begin with. The town, its surroundings, and the sets are adequate at best. I was almost ready to give up the game when I reached the mansion and the frame rate was reduced to still screens. I bit my lip and eventually managed to judder my way inside and back out.
The free will in investigating turns out to be an illusion. The gameplay narrows down to finding one key after another to unlock the many locked doors. Semi-open world or not, Painscreek is really linear at heart. The progress can be entirely halted if you haven’t found that exact key you realize you need, and you might not even know why. In those instances, it’s back to comb the previously visited places to find what you missed earlier (probably a tiny detail you didn’t even know was significant because the graphics don't make anything particularly stand out). Sometimes, to interact with objects you need to be in the exact right position; so it’s easy to miss things of note.
The problem solving won’t win any prizes either. You’d really think you could pry a jammed drawer open with a sturdy kitchen knife laying on a nearby nightstand, but no. You need that exact tool from an exact toolbox, found exactly from one place in the whole town, needing that exact key to get in, needing not-so-exact information why some person was in a possession of that key to that exact place. At worst, the whole process Is a lucky draw.
It’s a commendable effort to make a mystery-solving adventure without narrative structure but the game simply lacks pizzazz for anyone but the keenest investigators. Even I, who utterly love detective stories and games, was often frustrated by how little the game is willing to help the players wanting to solve its case. The Painscreek Killings has an exciting murder mystery hidden somewhere but it’s buried under all the extra baggage of technical issues and awkward game design.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.