Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed)

When you think of full motion video (FMV) games, titles like Night Trap, Sewer Shark, and Mad Dog McCree come to mind, all relics of a bygone era when developers realized you could fit quite a bit of footage onto a CD-ROM. That magical era known as the ‘90s came to an end and with it experimentation with the FMV format. So when Sony announced the launch of Erica: An interactive Thriller at Gamescom, a brand new FMV game in 2019, it took everyone, including children of the Sega-CD era by surprise. But is this a brand new evolution in the cinematic storytelling genre, or is it just a big gimmick like the FMV games that came before it?

My Crazy Life

In Erica, you control the titular Erica, a girl whose father owns a mental asylum, and who was murdered mysteriously when she was young. Now, several years later, she starts receiving gifts of severed body parts and fresh corpses, and the only way to get to the bottom of it all is to live at that mental asylum and prove some of her deepest traumatic memories.

On the surface, Erica plays a lot like Telltale’s games, Life is Strange, and any other number of cinematic adventure games out there. Most of the gameplay involves exploring your surroundings, making dialogue decisions, and solving puzzles by putting together the evidence you unearth. There is also a focus on “choice matters” gameplay, as the game can unfold in many different ways and lead to many different endings based on what you do, what choices you pick, who you trust, etc.

Motioning video

Of course, we have all seen that before, so Erica introduces two new gimmicks to spice things up. The first is the FMV itself. Older FMV games had to make use of incredibly compressed video due to technological limitations. Even more recent FMV mobile games like Her Story purposefully make use of lower grade video.

That’s not the case with Erica. For all intents and purposes, Erica looks like a fully produced movie. Everything is very crisp and clear and it’s easy to forget that you are playing a game at points. While some of the special effects are noticeably low budget, in general this is the best looking FMV game ever made.

Actually, it would be a mistake to say the entire game was shot in FMV. Whenever you have to interact with the environment in some way the FMV footage is replaced with highly detailed photorealistic game engine graphics. The switch between the two formats is nearly imperceptible. You wouldn’t know the difference if it weren’t for the fact that the framerate in these portions suddenly jumps to 60FPS, a much smoother framerate than the cinematic 24FPS the FMV footage was shot at.

In control

The second big gimmick is the control scheme and honestly I think this is a more important twist than the FMV footage is. Erica is meant to be played on a smartphone or tablet. You can control it with the touchpad on the PS4 controller, but the experience isn’t nearly as good. It is kind of interesting that we are only seeing major use of the PS4 touch pad this late in the console’s lifetime, though.

To connect your smartphone or tablet, you first need to be on the same network as your PS4. If your PS4 isn’t connected to home network, you are out of luck. Then you have to download the “Eric for PS4” app from either the iOS or Google Play store. It’s actually a little annoying because (at least on Android) the game itself tells you the wrong app title, making it hard to find, but a small bit of searching will lead you in the right direction.

Once you get everything connected the entire surface of your smart device becomes your play area. In the most basic control scheme, dragging around your thumb on the play area shifts Erica’s focus around the environment, and you use this to move her around and look around the room.

You’ll also use this to choose dialogue options (or silence, silence is always an option) or, surprisingly, both at once. Yes, at times it seems as if Erica is giving you a dialogue option but you can just as easily find other options by exploring around the room instead of directly engaging with whoever is in front of you, and this always felt neat. It was like you were seeing something that the characters weren’t.

You’ll also often be asked to use the touch screen to interact with the environment. You’ll flick it up and down to flick a zippo lighter open and closed. You’ll use two fingers to mimic a “spreading open” motion to open windows. You’ll insert keys, solve puzzles, and wipe dust off surfaces to reveal clues. All of this is done with controls that are really second nature, but if you do get stuck the game will still give you prompts on both the TV screen and your phone screen. In fact, sometimes there isn’t even a “stuck” to get, as being unable to figure out something to do within a time limit just pushes the story forward as if Erica herself couldn’t figure out what to do either.

And that’s all there is to it, but that’s underselling Erica’s innovation. The ability to use an entire touch screen as a controller makes this sort of cinematic adventure gameplay more immersive. Tapping on the screen to play a piano, for example, isn’t really all that different from pressing a button to do the same thing, but there’s just a degree of verisimilitude that tapping on a screen gives you that using a controller doesn’t. This is exactly why you use few buttons while using a PS4 controller and instead rely mostly on the touch pad.

Erica also does away with quick time events, for the most part. There are times in which you’ll have to make snap judgement decisions under a strict time limit, but it very rarely tells you to “press X not to die.” Once again, this is a pretty nifty innovation as making decisions under time pressure will cause you to be more impulsive. Yes, Telltale and other cinematic adventure games did the same thing, but the time pressure they gave never felt real. Erica, on the other hand, really gives you a feeling of suspense and it might only be because you are seeing a real actor on screen.

Keeping pace

Erica isn’t perfect. The pacing suffers at points, ricocheting back and forth between long swaths of dialogue and sudden heavy thriller sequences at a moment’s notice. The actors did a pretty good job but at lot of the script has a hand-wavey “ask me what it means” tone to it which can get tiresome. There’s also not an obvious save/load system or really any menu that lets you see the paths you have taken. You just have to sit through this like an interactive movie.

But you know, it wasn’t that bad of a movie, especially with a few friends around. You can take turns passing around the tablet, controlling Erica, and forging your own thriller story, and that’s quite fun. This would probably be a movie that I’d watch on Netflix on a whim. It wouldn’t break the box office, but it’s certainly a curio-piece.

In the end Erica is far more than a few FMV gimmicks, it’s a great cinematic thriller that can hang with the likes of Life is Strange and others, with a neat control scheme to boot. It’s also a severely budget title, retailing for only $10, making it one of the best values on the PSN.