FMV makes a comeback.
Publisher: Wales Interactive
Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, iOS
Released: April 19, 2017
FMV games have a bit of a weird history. Using live action elements in one form or another had always been a part of gaming since the beginning, but at the dawn of the CD-ROM, the technological opportunities for video games exploded. Among the Live Action/3D hybrid hijinks that came with the times, the small niche genre of Full Motion Video games came into fruition that, by all intents and purposes, should have been a powerhouse in gaming. Being able to play a movie where the audience could choose the outcomes should have been easy money, and could have been if developers back then actually knew how to make movies. So when it came to FMV games, exactly zero of them were of any consistent quality. With shoddy camera work, hilarious dialogue and acting that ranged from the devs doing it themselves to “that guy” actors hamming it up, they were either relegated to cult-following so-bad-it’s-good territory like the Tex Murphy series or were literally painful to sit through like Phantasmagoria 2.
While live action FMV sequences were still used as cutscenes where Tim Curry could shout “SPACE!” at you in Command and Conquer 3 and it would be amazing, the age of the “cinematic” FMV game came to an end. This brings us to Late Shift, a game that longs for that niche appeal, while showing that you can indeed have a video game played like an interactive movie with actual production value.
Late Shift tells the story of Matt, a valet on his late shift getting caught up in a scheme to rob an auction house. Forced against his will to help steal an ancient bowl from the crime family that bought it, twists and complications forces Matt to make choices that’ll either save himself or get to the bottom of the conspiracy that surrounds the relic. It’s a pretty standard fish-out-of-water British robbery story filmed like a German crime drama, low angles in impeccably decorated European homes and moody gold lighting everywhere.
The story begins with rather ham-fistedly hammering into your head that yes, your choices absolutely matter with mathematician extraordinaire Matt’s narration going on about probabilities while reading a book about game theory, in case you didn’t catch the theme of the story the first time around.
The story of Late Shift is pretty straightforward and serviceable, though the “choices” format can lead to some weird lapses in character on Matt’s part. Matt is whisked away by a thief trying to steal a valet car where he is unwillingly recruited in an elaborate plot to rob an auction house, set to sell an ancient Chinese rice bowl. The bowl originally belonged to a long-standing Chinese crime family, and they plan to buy the bowl back into their possession while the crew of thieves’ plan to take it from them. During the robbery itself, you can get Matt to try and sabotage the whole affair at multiple points, but you can then decide to heel-turn and help and your captors won’t think twice about how you just tried to tell the security guard you were robbing the place.
There’s not much to say in describing Late Shift’s gameplay; it’s all a great big interactive heist/mystery thriller film, and you get to choose what your main character does at regular intervals. The variety of choices are actually quite impressive, allowing you to end up with one of seven endings with who knows how many choices you can make in the game’s ten to fourteen chapters, depending on your choices.
Being a game about choices, however, comparisons to games like Life is Strange and The Walking Dead are inevitably going to happen. When it comes to freedom of choice and those choices “meaning something”, Late Shift falls a little behind. Character inconsistencies is one thing, where the game kind of hopes you don’t notice Matt’s sudden turn from hapless nice guy to homicidal maniac depending on the choice you make. Another is the choice mechanic itself. When playing something like Walking Dead, you can opt out of a choice by not choosing an option and the story will continue with your silent diligence in mind. Late Shift, however, will pick the choice for you. It kind of takes away the feeling of freedom when the game can play itself, which in this case would make it a movie. It’s a small thing but it would have been interesting to watch Matt silently frown his way through his journey with a crime family on his tail. The Tchoi family are quite a menacing bunch, and it’s refreshing to see Chinese people portrayed as actual people. There are times when the family are a bit single-minded, but for the most part there’s not much to write home about.
The Late Shift brings what could have been for the FMV games of old; solid writing, not-awful acting, and stylish cinematography. Choices are not as robust as they could have been in comparison to the story-heavy games that have come before it, but it is still worth your time.
It’s a good experiment in what FMV games can be, and it can only go up from here.
Editor: Tristan Venables