Crime Stories Review

Crime Stories (originally published outside the United States as Martin Mystère: Operation Dorian Gray) is an adventure game based on a European comic strip starring the brilliant detective Martin Mystère. Called to investigate the murder of renowned scientist Professor Eulemberg, Martin is caught up in a story far stranger, and far more dangerous than any he has ever undertaken. Moving from busy New York to ancient Mayan ruins, Martin slowly begins to piece together the elements of a sinister plot that began hundreds of years before the professor's murder -- but which will directly challenge his very existence today.

Crime Stories is a third-person adventure game. Rather than looking through the eyes of the main character, the player's responsibility is to watch the scene from a distance, and manipulate the main character through the various scenes. And, as is so often the case in games of this kind, there are occasional difficulties with perspective, or scene layout, or even character movement. Trying to make the character move to one side of a room, for instance, may result in an unwanted change of camera view, or cause a momentary shift in perspective that requires a few seconds for the player to get re-oriented to the new viewpoint. And often a request for a short, simple movement would result in the character looking like a puzzled robot, as he moved one way, then another, then backed up, then turned around, then finally made it to the destination point -- always walking strictly along X-Y coordinates, of course! This third-person approach also provides no ability to "pan" a scene -- to look around in all directions, to take in a larger environment than what is shown on the screen at one time -- something I like to do. The viewpoint is limited to wherever the "camera" decides to place itself, based on the current coordinates of the main character. While the majority of the game is spent playing Martin, later in the game the player gets the opportunity to play other characters briefly, as well.

The graphics in Crime Stories are outstanding. Given that the entire game is distributed on a single CD-ROM, the extent and variety of scenes was quite good. Though the scenes are 2D, the highly colorful artwork is quite detailed. Most scenes (other than those in darker locations, or night scenes) are also high-contrast, increasing their brightness. (Examples can be seen in the sidebar.) While this level of color and contrast can, at times, lend an air of "cartoonishness" to the scenes, it is obvious that was the goal of the designers. The only drawback to the graphics was the somewhat stilted character animations -- often awkward, or looking like a Saturday-morning Pokemon cartoon.

And not only are the individual scenes crafted in great detail, but most scenes have many, many "hot spots" in them, allowing the gamer to explore thoroughly. Some may consider this a drawback, especially gamers who are used to "active objects" being actually useful -- and necessary -- items within the game itself. The vast majority of "active objects" in Crime Stories do not play any part in the game at all -- except to lengthen the process of exploration. More often than not, clicking on an "active" object simply brings up a text comment -- or, sometimes, an accompanying sound byte from Martin -- describing the object... and nothing more.

If the graphics were the highlight of the game, the soundtrack was not far behind. While I'm certain that the audio for the game was created by only a few individuals in a studio, there were many times that I paused my playing simply to listen to the music. I would swear that there was a full symphonic orchestra performing -- brass, strings, woodwinds, percussion... they could all be heard. And in every case, rather than being gratuitous, the music greatly augmented the mood of the particular moment. Kudos to the artists and musicians!

One of the more frustrating aspects of the game was the textual interface, including dialogues. All feedback to the user (e.g., information about objects or "hot spots" in the scene, thoughts going through Martin Mystère's mind, dialogues taking place with other characters) is printed at the bottom of the screen in the form of subtitles. There were two major problems with this implementation. The first is that the text was horribly translated/edited. There were countless typos, misspellings, and grammatical and punctuation mistakes that were unnecessarily distracting. Secondly, the text was sometimes accompanied by a parallel sound byte, but frequently was not. As a result, I found that I would sometimes anticipate listening (rather than reading), only to discover that this particular text had no accompanying sound byte, and had to be read. Unfortunately, the text was displayed a line at a time, and changed at a pace deemed appropriate by the game -- not by the player. As a result, I often missed several lines of text, not realizing that it was already there (and gone).

Another issue that made the reading of text even more of a problem is the fact that many of the scenes required some fairly extensive "pixel hunts". Partly due to the great detail of most scenes -- and partly due to the very small size of some of the carefully crafted "hot spots" -- it was easy to miss something important among the "clutter." But that was made even more difficult when my focus was constantly alternating between the minute details of the scene that I was moving my cursor over, and the single-line text box at the bottom (which was the only place to identify what was on the screen). For many of the simpler one- or two-word text bytes, it would have been much handier to have the words "pop up" at the location of the object itself -- where my focus was -- rather than always at the bottom of the screen.

The voice actors were all quite good, and the voices fit quite well with each character's personality. None seemed overly stereotyped, but still there was a wide variety of voicings. The only weakness was in the dialog itself. Often, "natural" pauses were inserted into lines of dialog -- "Um", "Er", "Well...", and so on. But combined with the problem of the text subtitles mentioned above, the addition of this unnecessary "filler" often made spoken lines seem interminably boring.

Most of the puzzles in Crime Stories are inventory-style puzzles -- locating objects necessary to complete a task (such as finding a key for a lock). There are only a very few logic-style puzzles, and they are quite straightforward. As a result, the game is not a "mind-bender", but really requires more careful exploration -- not unlike standard plodding detective work. There are many people to talk with, lots of information to discover as the twisted bits of the story begin to slowly unravel. The inventory is used extensively in the game, as Martin collects more and more objects; and, thankfully, he also carries a notebook in which he writes occasionally, providing clues for the player as to what to focus on next. Unfortunately, there could have been a bit more intuitiveness built into the game itself, in that regard, as there were often times when there simply was no clue as to what to do next, or where to go. Although the game takes place in 8 "Acts", it is not always clear when one "Act" is completed and it is time to move on (or, for that matter, how to move on).

Still, the story developed at a reasonable pace, and continued to build in a consistent manner, until about 80% of the way through the game. Then there was a slight turn of events that seemed (to me, anyway) to be a "bump in the road" -- a brief divergence from the story, resulting in more exploration and more tasks for Martin to accomplish, but many of which weren't directly related to anything that had happened so far. In a sense, it almost felt as though the developers had decided to artificially lengthen the game play time, and introduced some unnecessary (and unrelated) activities to do so.

Crime Stories has an internal limitation of 8 save game slots, which I found to be a bit meager. I tend to like to save my games frequently, so that I can return to a specific location, or just prior to trying some activity that could generate an undesirable turn-of-events in the flow of game play. I found that I had to overwrite previous game saves more often than I wanted, yet I was still able to get through the game without difficulty.

I did experience a couple of technical difficulties while playing the game. At one point, after I had moved from one scene to another, the "hot spots" on the new scene showed up exactly where they were on the previous scene; and I could not click on any "hot spots" that pertained to the new scene. Another time, I began getting what I can only describe as "interference" in the animations in one particular point of the game. Going to any other scene resulted in perfect performance; returning to the "problem" scene caused the graphical "interference" to resume. And still another time, a scene completely hung up; I could not click on anything, or move to any other location. In all cases, I was forced to quit the game, and restart it (hoping that I had a fairly recent game save, so as not to lose too much of what I'd already done).

The game has an ESRB rating of "T" (Teen) for blood, mild language, mild violence, sexual themes, and use of alcohol. However, most of it is peripheral to the main game play, and -- other than the murder itself -- is not the focus of the game.

In summary, Crime Stories provided a reasonable entertainment value. Being the kind of "logic-minded" gamer I am, I would have liked a few more "brain teaser" puzzles, rather than all of the inventory-based puzzles. But the experience of the artwork and music alone makes the game worth playing. I certainly enjoyed the game enough to feel that I can recommend it to a friend.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.