Agatha Christie was born in 1890, and by the time she died in 1976 she was the bestselling author of all time, with 66 novels to her name, and over 2 billion copies of her books sold. With this kind of pedigree, you'd think there would be adventure games galore adapting her stories. But this was not the case, with only one prior attempt until AWE Games released And Then There Were None in 2005. While that game provided a decent telling of Christie's story, the game suffered from a few key issues that kept it from being the game it should have been. And now, a year later, we have AWE's second attempt at bringing Agatha Christie's work to the computer screen with the release of Murder on the Orient Express.
Like many of the stories written by Christie, MOTOE starts off simple and then spirals into a series of twists and turns until you're left breathless at the end. With twelve passengers traveling aboard, including famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the Orient Express is en route to Paris when it's abruptly stopped by an avalanche that has blocked the track. The next morning one of the passengers is found dead, and everyone is a suspect. It's a classic premise, and anyone who's read the book (which is conveniently packaged with the game) knows that it ends with one of the best twist endings to ever occur in a mystery novel.
There are a few hurdles right from the start in trying to adapt such a well known story as an adventure game. First is the fact that anyone who has read the book already knows the ending to the story, as well as many of the clues along the way. In order to get around this, AWE and writer Lee Sheldon have worked in the book's original conclusion, but added yet another new surprise for those familiar with the story. They also changed up some of the clues along the way to keep suspense intact.
Another obstacle is the fact that Poirot is considered a mystery icon, along the lines of Sherlock Holmes, and having such a brilliant detective wandering around looking for clues and baffled by puzzles would not suit the character of the man who prefers to employ his "little grey cells". The developers decided to bypass this issue by creating a brand new playable character for the story. Antoinette Marceau is a train company employee and amateur detective, who has been assigned to accompany the great Poirot and attend to any needs that he has. During the avalanche, Poirot is injured, and so Antoinette must become his eyes and ears, helping him to solve the mystery. This is a great way to bring the player into the game without denigrating the character of Poirot, who becomes a sort of built-in hint system for the player.
I was a little disappointed when I first booted up the game and watched the opening cutscene. The graphics are nicely designed, but the compression used on the video causes the animation to look washed out and blocky. I had hoped that this was a one-time thing, but the movies continue to be noticeably pixelated throughout the story. And this is a shame, because the in-game graphics are absolutely wonderful.
The characters are some of the best that I've seen in recent adventure games. Each has a unique design, and the costumes are perfect for the timeframe of the game. There are some nice ambient touches to the characters as well, such as Antoinette shivering when she's cold, or folding her arms or brushing things off her clothes when she's just standing still waiting for you to decide what to do next. AWE has also done a great job with lighting the game, creating a very soft glow to the scenes, which gives a much more lifelike look to the characters. Some of the animation of the characters seems a little wooden at times, but this is a small thing that does little to detract from the game.
Background graphics are great as well. I was a little concerned at first, considering the fact that the entire game was going to take place on a small train. With such a confined area to traverse, in an environment that would naturally feature rooms that all look alike, how would the designers manage to keep things looking different and fresh as the game went along? Well, they managed admirably for the most part. The train setting is wonderfully decorated, and is exactly what you would imagine a luxury train from the time to look like. And in the introductory scenes before you board the Orient Express, and the rare times that you venture from the train after departure, you'll be treated to gorgeous stations and snowy wilderness, complete with snowfall and blizzards. Add to that the cinematic quality the game provides, with exterior shots peeking in on Antoinette updating Poirot, and movie-like camera changes during conversations, and you've got a visually impressive game on your hands.
There are some graphical weaknesses, though. The train, while nice looking, suffers from never having a lived-in look to it, and going into the dining room again and again, only to see characters still sitting in front of the same empty plates seems rather strange, and had a tendency to pull me out of the game. Granted, these are small things, but definitely detract from an otherwise great looking game.
Music in MOTOE fits the game perfectly, with a score that sounds like it belongs in a movie from the 1930s. It blends perfectly into the background of the game, coming to the forefront at key moments to draw your attention.
As mentioned earlier, the brilliant but eccentric Poirot is one of the most well known characters in mystery literature. And when it came time to bring his character to television in Agatha Christie's Poirot, the role was given to actor David Suchet. Over the next eight years, Suchet made the character his own, to the point that it seems an Agatha Christie mystery wouldn't be complete without his voice anymore. Luckily, Suchet reprises his role in the game, and it adds a wonderful sense of familiarity for anyone familiar with the series. The other voices are also very well done, with the exception of a few somewhat stereotypical accents, and all are well acted.Continued on the next page...