With eighty crime novels and short story collections to her name, Agatha Christie has left a rich legacy of murder mysteries for would-be detectives. Not only have her stories resulted in billions of books sold, but many have been successfully adapted to film, television, and stage over the years. When it was first announced that The Adventure Company, AWE Games and writer Lee Sheldon were joining forces to bring And Then There Were None to the PC as the start of an ongoing adventure series, the fit seemed natural: classic whodunits from the Queen of Crime with the interactive medium to take players inside her mysteries for the first time.
While the results have been somewhat uneven so far, gamers can soon look forward to the third Christie game adaptation in three years. Following last year's Murder on the Orient Express comes the latest offering, Evil Under the Sun. I recently had the opportunity to play through the early stages of a beta version of the new game, and while much will be familiar to fans of the previous games, there are some notable changes this time around.
As many Christie fans will already know, Evil Under the Sun once again features the eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Unlike the last game, however, where Poirot had fallen and couldn't get up, largely reducing him to bit player and hint system, this time out he's front and center, allowing players to directly control him for the first time. Such a decision will come as welcome news for most, as a Poirot mystery spent controlling someone else is the sister-kisser of gameplay experiences: a pleasant enough activity, but flatlining on the thrill-o-meter. Still, it presented a challenge to the developers of how to justify the brilliant detective doing all the colossally stupid things players are likely to have him do. Let's face it, we may try tickling suspects with feathers or combining detergent in a glass of rum, but chances are that Poirot would not. How to bridge that gap, then?
The solution is rather clever, and likely suggested by the novel itself. While not a relevant character in the book, Poirot's friend Captain Hastings does make a short cameo, and it's this involvement that's expanded in the game. The entire plot is unveiled as a recounting of events after the fact. Hastings is eager to hear of Poirot's deadly adventure on Seadrift Island, so Poirot shares the various details of the story and challenges Hastings to guide him through the events with the clues provided. So while the player watches Poirot on screen, it is actually Hastings directing him through the investigation as he tries to follow in Poirot's footsteps retrospectively. If the player-as-Hastings-as-Poirot perspective sounds confusing, rest assured that it's easy to understand while playing. It may take a few moments to adjust, as you routinely hear two sets of narrative voices discussing "your" actions, but it also allows the developers to have some fun. Poirot is not above needling his friend for suggestions that don't befit a genius, so expect to be on the pointy end of some condescending barbs from time to time.
One of the highlights of Orient Express was the performance of David Suchet, star of numerous television adaptations and the definitive Poirot to many. So for those wondering if Suchet reprises the role here, there's some good news and some bad news. The latter should be fairly obvious, so no, Suchet's vocal talents are nowhere to be found in Evil Under the Sun. The good news, however, is that the "new" Poirot is every bit up to the challenge. The voice acting is solid all around, but none more noticeably than the quirky little detective. So weep for Suchet's absence if you must, but the believable performance in his stead will soon make you forget.
Other than a new voice actor and change of scenery, not much has changed from Orient Express on the audio or visual fronts. The game once again uses pleasant orchestral tracks periodically, along with fairly attractive pre-rendered backgrounds and 3D characters. The version I played seemed a bit light on animations and was missing most of its cinematics, though of course the latter will be addressed before the game releases. The other characters do have a tendency to remain bolted to one spot, which I'd like to see addressed, but since this was an issue in the previous two Agatha Christie games, perhaps we shouldn't count on a radical upgrade out of the blue.
Gameplay will consist of typically investigative things, whether questioning suspects, eavesdropping at doors, or scouring anywhere and everywhere for evidence, plus some not-so-typical activities like riding a sea tractor, searching for U-boats, and building bird blinds. Regardless of the activity, it will mainly occur in and around the beachfront Smuggler's Rest hotel and the quaint, picturesque village of Leathercombe. It's important to know how long it takes to get from one place on the island to another, so a stopwatch is included to let you time your travels. However, it's made patently obvious when and where to use it, and the act is fully automated, inexplicably removing a natural layer of interactivity.
The point-and-click interface relies on tried-and-true conventions to move players through the game. Without a stopwatch in his hand, Poirot proves a slow traveller (hey, he's an intellectual, not an athlete), so the automatic exit icons are important. You can, and at times must, combine inventory items, but gone is the rather cumbersome mix and match interface of the previous games. You'll also have a list of suspects, documents, and even maps to refer to, along with a tidy to-do list, though not all of these things were fully functional in the preview. When your little grey cells have run out of ideas, at any time you can switch back to the present (for them) day Poirot with Hastings, where you can get some help from the mysterious "finger of suspicion". This apparently mystical device will provide a tip on the best course of action for the particular character you're inquiring about. Solving the secret of this disembodied finger becomes a puzzle in and of itself, and Poirot doles out clues as you progress.
Perhaps the less said about an Agatha Christie plot the better, but the basic premise sees Poirot vacationing on a small English island during the second World War. Nearly deserted, as the Battle of Britain has forced most inhabitants to be evacuated, the island still has a few notable guests staying at the hotel. In particular, a former actress seems to be the center of an increasingly hostile circle of jealousy among those around her. Poirot's instinct warns him of danger, and there does indeed prove to be evil under the sun, as one of the guests is soon discovered dead. More than that I will not say, in part because more than that I did not see. In fact, I didn't even see all that. The game moves quite cautiously towards the inevitable murder, giving the early stages a rather unique tension. Because the crime has not yet been committed on screen, but events are being re-enacted after it has, Poirot already knows things that both the other guests and the player do not. It doesn't ultimately make any difference, as we already know a murder will happen (and if you didn't, now I've ruined it for you), but it's an interesting twist nonetheless.
[Note: the following contains no spoilers, but if you want to hear NOTHING about the ending, skip the next paragraph.]
As with the previous two Agatha Christie game adaptations, the developers have created an ending that differs from the book, so there will be intrigue and suspense enough even for those familiar with the novel. On the downside, Evil Under the Sun will be the first game to ship without a copy of the novel included, so you're on your own to discover Christie's original ending if the game is your first exposure to the story.
It's too soon for any conclusive opinions just yet, but most early signs are favourable for Evil Under the Sun to be the best of the three Agatha Christie games to date. Fans of the first two games should lap up everything the new game has to offer, and it's clear that the developers have taken previous feedback to heart in several key areas--none bigger than letting us play as the great detective himself. So if you've always wanted to climb into Hercule Poirot's patent-leather shoes, you won't have much longer to wait, as the game is scheduled to hit store shelves next month.