Murder on the Orient Express Review

Murder on the Orient Express is the second in a series of mystery/adventure games from AWE Games, based on the stories of the most outstanding mystery writer of all time -- Dame Agatha Christie. Following on the heels of the highly-successful And Then There Were None (ATTWN), Murder on the Orient Express (MotOE) is an adventure game adaptation of the Christie novel of the same name.

Fans of Christie's mysteries will know that MotOE takes place aboard that famous, lavish train at a time when train travel across Europe was something enjoyed primarily by the upper class. In this particular instance, the Orient Express -- on its way from Istanbul to Paris -- is stranded in the Yugoslavian mountains by an avalanche. At the same time, one of the passengers is found to have been murdered. Fortunately, the great detective Hercule Poirot -- a fixture in some of Christie's most famous stories -- is aboard the train, and sets himself to the task of discovering the murderer. In the game, you play an assistant to Poirot, and do all of the standard "legwork" -- from talking to all of the other characters aboard the train, to looking for clues, to using "the little grey cells" (as Poirot would always say) in an attempt to determine what happened.

While the artwork in the first game (And Then There Were None) was already of excellent caliber, MotOE raises the bar even further. The scenery is rendered in great detail, and the characters -- of which there are many -- have been designed equally well. Their animations are quite good, and it is obvious from the start that extensive attention was given to lip-synching each of the characters with the lines they deliver.

It would be remiss to overlook the contribution by Streko Graphics, developers of the adventure game Aura: Fate of the Ages, and the soon-to-be-released The Sacred Rings. Streko was responsible for all of the full-motion video in MotOE -- and that was no small project. Distributed on 2 CD-ROMs, MotOE requires almost 1.5GB of hard disk space, and much of that is given to the animations, cut-scenes, and other FMV intertwined with the game. (In more than one case, for example, there are scenes that "play out" in excess of 10 minutes, with little or no user interaction.) As with ATTWN, a paperback copy of the original Agatha Christie novel is included with the MotOE distribution. (It is left to the gamer to decide whether to read the novel before or after playing the game!)

In both games, the basic concept of game play focuses on doing fundamental detective work. MotOE has even more characters to interact with than ATTWN -- almost 20, by my count. And a good part of the game is spent in conversation with each of these characters. Conversations are held in a fairly traditional way -- with potential topics of conversation being presented to the player at the bottom of the screen. Clicking on any of the topics directs the course of the conversation -- and, indeed, often results in further topics of conversation with the same individual. Kudos to AWE Games for doing an outstanding job on the voice characterizations. While some may seem just borderline stereotypical, they all truly do reflect the characters they are representing -- to the point, in fact, that the voicing for Poirot himself was done by David Suchet, who plays Poirot on British television.

Navigation throughout the game is simple and intuitive, using a point-and-click interface with an intelligent cursor indicating directions of movement, objects with which to interact, and bridges to successive scenes. The few puzzles encountered in MotOE are inventory puzzles -- locating objects to use on, or with, other objects to achieve some goal (such as unlocking a door or fixing a broken radio). Most are fairly trivial, and only require finding the necessary object. Some, however, do require a bit more creativity. Not all are intuitive, though; and some are downright counterintuitive. There are very few clues, or pointers, to the solutions, with the exception of a few notes kept in Poirot's "notebook," which can be referenced at any time during the game.

There are some basic differences between the two games, and I use the contrast between them to illustrate what I felt were shortcomings in MotOE. The story behind ATTWN has no single crime, no single detective hunting for clues. It is an on-going thread, and the story continues to build throughout the entire original book. This, I felt, lent itself quite well to the format of an adventure game, with the player doing extensive exploration, and new things happening all the time. The story behind MotOE, on the other hand, begins with a single crime -- the murder of one of the travelers aboard the train -- and the remaining story (and game) consists of talking with the characters on the train, looking for clues, and doing some very fundamental detective work.

When translated to an adventure game format, the result was that the early part of the game did, indeed, present a bit of innovative exploration (principally aboard the train), and some novel interaction with the other characters. But it quickly got into a very repetitive cycle of talk-to-everyone, examine-every-room-on-the-train, pick-up-everything-that's-not-nailed-down, and then return-to-Poirot-and-fill-him-in-on-your-findings. (In a slight diversion from the original story, Poirot does not do any investigating in the game. He is confined to his quarters, and you -- playing a new character, not part of the original Christie novel -- do all of the investigating.) He then typically makes a few observations, and the process starts all over -- beginning with talking to every one of the characters again, examining every location aboard the train, finding any new items that weren't there before, and summarizing everything for Poirot.

As a result, I did not feel the same tension, or story development, that existed in the first game. But I don't attribute that lack entirely to the developers of the game; MotOE simply isn't the best choice of plot to translate into an adventure game, for the reasons mentioned. There were, however, other basic issues that were the sole responsibility of the developers -- and which, I believe, affected the outcome of the game. Both games began fairly true to the original Christie novels. And in both cases, a "twist" was added at the end, which was not in the original story. Now, I tend to be a bit of a purist in cases like this; I find it difficult to imagine improving on one of the greatest writers of all time. (Only Shakespeare and the Bible have outsold Agatha Christie.)

MotOE, however, featured more than a minor "twist" at the end; in fact, beginning about halfway through the game, there are minor diversions from the original story; and the further that the game developed, the less like the original it was. Early in the game, conversations between the characters are literally taken word-for-word from the novel; by the end of the game, even the most basic developments are new, and contrived out of whole cloth. New characters appear, new locations are created, and the plot begins to stray fairly radically. As a result, anyone familiar with the original story will likely be very disappointed in the latter portions of the game. In fact, I'm a bit surprised that the estate of Dame Agatha allowed the use of her name in the title, given how widely the game varied from the novel toward the end. (Imagine, if you will, an editor deciding, "In Julius Caesar, let's change it a bit. We'll have Cleopatra poison Caesar, instead of Brutus and his cronies murdering him on the way to the Forum." It just doesn't fly.)

The game's departure from the original story also causes problems on a basic gaemplay level. Namely, in the interest of coming up with a new ending to the story, the developers turned the game into little more than an animated story, with occasional interaction by the user. Free exploration diminished; the tasks became tedious and repetitious; and (most critically) any interaction on the part of the player was reduced to pixel hunts or other remote activities, as game play became extremely linear. Things had to be done "just so" before anything new would happen. Toward the end of the game, I reached a point where I had done everything I knew to do; I had collected everything I knew to collect; I had talked with everyone I knew to talk with; yet I could not continue. I resorted to online forums -- only to find many others in my same predicament. I fell back on walkthroughs, but they still couldn't get me any further. In the end, I only got "unstuck" by means of one single trivial counterintuitive almost-accidental action, which then "cascaded" me into the end game.

But the biggest problem, in my case, was the technical difficulties I encountered. When I first started playing the game, I had few, if any, problems. The system I played on far exceeded even the highest recommendations by the game developers. And the only thing I noticed initially was an extraordinary amount of CPU usage starting up the game, transitioning between major scenes, and shutting down the game. However, as I progressed through the story, I began having system lock-ups, where the game would completely crash. And it would do so in such a way that I frequently could not get back to my Windows desktop, but had to reboot the entire system! And the longer I played, the worse the situation became, with the crashes coming at more and more frequent intervals. (At one point, I began saving my gme every 5-10 minutes, just so I didn't have to redo as much after the next inevitable crash.) I was never able to determine the cause of the problem, nor eliminate the crashes.

Another technical problem occurred in quite a few of the video cut scenes in the game. Even using the most up-to-date hardware and software drivers, many of the full-screen videos would be covered in small rectangles, partially obliterating the image on screen. I was not able to resolve this problem either, nor anticipate exactly when it might occur.

The game is reasonably long, and should provide over 25 hours of game play. Unfortunately, a great deal of that is due to the repetitive (and sometimes downright boring) "investigation" techniques mentioned above. The "T" (Teen) rating results predominantly from the theme of the murder, and its follow-up. However, I would rate this as a very "mild T".

Murder on the Orient Express is built on a rock-solid foundation of one of the best mystery stories of all time. As an adventure game, however, it lacks any singularity, and relies heavily on repetitive and tedious activities that do not provide sufficient challenge for the avid puzzle adventurer. The artwork is executed in wonderful detail, but it is insufficient to counterbalance an otherwise lackluster game.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.