Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun Review
AWE Games -- creators of two previous games based on Agatha Christie novels (And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express) -- have released the third game in this mystery/adventure series, Evil Under the Sun. The Agatha Christie novel of the same name was originally published in 1941, and worked its story around the most crucial theme of the day -- the outbreak of World War II, and England becoming embroiled in a war with Germany. The game begins as Hercule Poirot and his companion, Captain Hastings, are relaxing in Poirot's office. Poirot offers Hastings a challenge: to see if he can solve a mystery that he -- Poirot -- has only recently successfully solved, and to do it in the comfort of Poirot's office. Poirot will help by laying the background for the story, and Hastings may ask any questions he likes. With the stage set, the game then returns to a point a few months earlier -- but with Hastings guiding the character of Poirot.
As the mystery begins, we encounter the intrepid Belgian detective Hercule Poirot enjoying a bit of a seaside holiday. However, that holiday is soon to be interrupted by murder. As may be expected, we have all of the makings of a classic Christie murder mystery: a large cast of characters (all of whom, it appears, have something to hide; and any of whom could be the murderer); a seemingly impossible situation, where everyone concerned has a viable alibi; and a story that, as it unravels, brings together the overlapping lives of all of the characters in a way that shows that they are not all the complete strangers to each other that we originally were led to believe.
As with the first two games, one of the first things that is noticeable is the artwork. A resort on a small island off the coast of England is the setting for the majority of the game. Each scene is rendered in exquisite detail. Both indoor and outdoor scenes convey the attention to detail that make the game a pleasure to play, and very lifelike. All of the characters are carefully rendered in 3D, with very fluid movements, expressions, voicings, and even mannerisms. The voicings are done reasonably well, although one or two approach being caricatured. A minor disappointment is that David Suchet -- the actor who plays Poirot on British television, and who voiced the character of Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express -- was not able to reprise that role for Evil, due to a scheduling conflict. Yet the actor who replaced him did an excellent job of mimicking the same voice and personality that Suchet does so well. Most of the other character personalities are believable, also.
The game uses a standard point-and-click interface, with transitions from one fixed scene to another (but without any in-scene panning). Video cut-scenes are interspersed regularly throughout the game, acting not only as bridges between sections of the game, but also providing critical clues to the unfolding of the mystery. One thing that would have enhanced this portion of the game would have been the ability either to replay these video scenes, or to refer to a "conversation log" to re-read what had been said in earlier cut-scenes. Without reloading an earlier game save, there was no way to review any of the dialogues that took place (or the information presented therein) in these video snippets.
Thankfully, Poirot does keep a journal, containing important documents, information gathered about the various suspects, and -- most importantly of all -- a kind of "To Do" list, itemizing the next few things that need to be addressed in the game. While these latter are intended as hints to the user, they are often either far too general, patently obvious, or simply unclear. In addition to Poirot's journal, Evil also contains a built-in hint system, cleverly integrated into the game itself. At any point, the player may leave the "story" of the murder, and return to Poirot's office, where he and Hastings are reviewing the mystery. On his desk, Poirot has a mystical device called the "Finger of Suspicion." Hastings may ask the device questions, and a seemingly "floating finger" will provide a generic answer, in much the same manner as the classic "Magic 8-Ball."
The game is not a difficult one. There is essentially no "learning curve" at all; players can just dive right in. And there is a lot of repetitive activity -- as is the case with so many similar mysteries (e.g., the ever-popular Nancy Drew series) -- which makes it easy to learn and play, although it can also get a bit tedious after a while.
For myself, I believe that Evil is a better game than the first two. While there is no one single thing to point to that supports that feeling, it's more of a general air that all of the pieces of the game -- the story, the graphics, the game play, the characters, the challenges -- come together as a well-oiled machine. The word "satisfying" comes to mind. And there is more to do in Evil. Poirot is not confined to a few train cars, as in Murder on the Orient Express. And though Evil and And Then There Were None share a theme of murder committed on a small island within a small group of individuals, there is still more to explore, more places to go (including frequent trips to the mainland), and more diversions in Evil. Then, too, there is the format of "retelling a story" (i.e., the interaction between Poirot and Hastings) as the game continually returns to the two of them in "real time," for a discussion of what is happening in the story. Bottom line: it was simply more fun, more entertaining, more interesting than the first two games.
From a puzzle standpoint, there are very few specific logic puzzles. There are, however, many inventory-style puzzles, where objects interact with other objects, or items need to be located and used to solve minor hurdles (such as finding the key to open a locked door). And there are even a few times when items need to be combined together to create something else entirely different from the original objects.
Despite the improved game play in Evil, there is still a lot of "talk to everyone; check through all of the rooms; check all sites on the island; rinse; repeat." Due to the linearity of the game, there are many times when there is no apparent activity to perform; at these times I could do nothing, it seemed, to progress the game. It was obvious that there was one -- and only one -- small, trivial task that was expected to be performed, and until it was, nothing else was going to happen. Characters either refused to talk, or they disappeared completely. Sometimes, that "trivial task" was as minor as picking up an item that had been overlooked previously; and suddenly, the game would proceed on its own. But that one small item was not always intuitively obvious, which resulted in "going the rounds" once again, to see what might have been overlooked.
As in the case with the first two games in the series, the story line in Evil has been modified from the original book. (One difference from the first two games is that each of those games included a paperback copy of the original Agatha Christie novel in the game box. For whatever reason, AWE chose not to do so with Evil.) The ending, in particular, is completely new. Those who have read my previous reviews know that I have a difficult time accepting supposed "improvements" to something that is already a classic -- like an editor re-writing the ending of "Ol' Yeller," for example. With that aside, however, the story is done quite well -- developed, as it is, in the traditional "Christie style" of unfolding ever so slowly, allowing the observer to see only little bits and pieces at a time, until the eventual denouement when everything is made clear.
There were some questionable elements within the story. For example, was drug smuggling really prevalent in that remote area of England in 1940? Were plastic bags, as depicted in the game, available in that time period? Or were these anachronisms that were overlooked by the developers?
There were a few things in the game that initially "gave promise" -- but then fizzled. For example, a door that had been locked since the beginning of the game was finally opened near the end... but essentially contributed nothing at all to the story. And one or two other themes never really fit into the story; the potential was there for them to have led to much more -- but they were never fully explored.
The game length seems to be just right for the level of story involved. Players should expect at least 20 hours of game play (and possibly more, if they get hung up on any of the "triggers" described earlier). As before, the "T" (Teen) rating is primarily due to the murder theme. There is nothing else in Evil that would, in my opinion, preclude it from being a "family game."
A game that is built on the foundation laid by one of the best mystery writers of all time already has a lot going for it. The addition of the visuals, the audio track, and the player interaction -- plus the outstandingly detailed artwork -- make Evil another winner for AWE Games.
-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.