I had no idea what to expect from The Shivah when I loaded it up. I’d read the blurb and knew it was about a Rabbi and had a plot revolving around the Jewish faith but I was fairly ignorant as to what the story would be like. And actually I would recommend this as the best way of approaching the game. The joy in playing The Shivah comes from finding out things for yourself. Even the term “shivah” was something I wasn’t familiar with but it becomes clear when the story begins.
You play as Rabbi Russell Stone and the game starts with him giving a sermon in his near empty synagogue. His lamenting reflection of “why bad things happen to good people” without any answers explains why the synagogue is practically empty (the only attendee has fallen asleep). Here is a man who is losing the grip on his faith and what it really means to be Jewish.
After cutting the sermon short, Rabbi Stone receives a visit from a detective who begins to question him about a former member of his congregation, Jack Lauder. After a while, it transpires that Lauder has left Rabbi Stone a good deal of money, more than enough to pay off his mounting debts and see the synagogue into a good place for a while. However we can glean from the dialogue that Rabbi Stone and Jack Lauder didn’t part on the best of terms, the reason remains unknown until later in the game, and Lauder has not died of natural causes. In fact he’s been murdered and the Rabbi is a suspect. Unwilling to accept the money without a reason and hoping to clear his name, Rabbi Stone begins his own investigation.
It may seem an odd premise for a game, and I suppose it is, but it works surprisingly well. The Shivah is a point and click adventure but there is no moving objects onto other objects to make things happen. It is a murder mystery and the key to unravelling the case is in the dialogue. You can interact with your environment but the number of items in your inventory will be minimal. Generally, when it comes to dialogue, there are three choices – the good response, the bad response and the rabbinical response, which becomes important in the later stages of the game.
Most of the legwork is done mentally and you have to put the pieces together without hints or objectives. This isn’t as frustrating as it could have been however; the conclusion is usually fairly obvious and there are no obscure answers. As you progress through the game, you will find clues which will appear in your menu; you can place them on top of one another to reveal deductions, as well as using them to further question other characters. This is a neat touch and one I have seen before in Face Noir though it is much better utilised here.
The questions that will be thrown up during the short game (maximum play time is two hours) are thought-provoking and it is nice to see that not everything has an easy answer. Even the antagonist has their reasons and Stone himself is not a flawless character. This makes everything more interesting and the story will stay with you long after the game is finished.
The Kosher Edition I played has been updated from the original 2006 version, which was created as an entry for the monthly Adventure Game Studio 5th Anniversary Competition and then fleshed out before being released as a game. The hand painted art style is very effective at conveying the dreary New York atmosphere and lofty Manhattan skyline. It may seem old fashioned in comparison to newer games but the retro style complements the themes of The Shivah nicely. The character portraits that appear in dialogue are especially well done and will please any pixel art fan no end.
Music has also been updated from the original and it takes on a jazzy mournful sound, further enhancing the atmosphere. The game really feels like a detective noir, much more so than other games I have played recently in this genre. The voice acting is excellent as well, helped along by a great script, and each character has their own identity. If you listen past the end credits you will be treated to some outtakes by the cast. The game never takes itself too seriously; in fact it starts with a joke before the start screen even loads up. This means that the heavy questions encountered in the course of the game are balanced out and it never feels too consumed by its own existence. There is also an option to listen to commentary by the developer Dave Gilbert but I would recommend playing through the story normally first.
With three different endings and a very short play time, it is likely you will want to replay the game and try different dialogue options to see how things turn out. It may not be to everyone’s tastes but I found this to be a thoughtful well-crafted game. The plot isn’t perfect (the big reveal at the end is a bit predictable) but The Shivah shouldn’t be written off by any means. After all it’s the journey you take and the revelations you may experience that will define the game for you.
The Shivah tries to do something different and for the most part it succeeds. It doesn’t look like much but it is well worth a play through and the DVD-style extras of the Kosher Edition mean it is a worthwhile investment.
MLG Rating: 7/10 Format: PC Release Date: 22/11/13
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of The Shivah Kosher Edition for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of a week on a PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.