Adventure Gamers Awards
When it comes to literature there are certain names that everyone, bibliophile or not, instantly knows. Mark Twain, Stephen King, Charles Dickens, and most certainly Agatha Christie. With over two billion copies of her books sold, not to mention the endless television shows and movie adaptations of her works over the years, she has become synonymous with the mystery genre.
The one medium that has eluded her until recently is the computer game. That is, until 2005 when AWE Games released their adaptation of her novel And Then There Were None. The game had some non-story related issues, but overall was a decent first effort. AWE then made some improvements in 2006 with the release of Murder on the Orient Express. The game suffered from a convoluted interface and lots of backtracking that had a tendency to drag down the experience, but it was a definite step up for the team. And now in 2007 we have Evil Under the Sun, which improves on some aspects of the series, but manages to have as many setbacks as it does gains, in some fairly significant areas.
Our story begins with World War II in full swing. Hercule Poirot and his assistant Hastings are in the detective's office, waiting for air raid sirens to go off and bombs to drop. As they wait, Poirot discusses his latest case with Hastings, which occurred while on vacation at a seaside resort, where Poirot was called upon by the other guests to solve several mysteries, all of which tied together and culminated in the murder of a famous actress. Of course, since it's a murder mystery, everyone has a motive to untangle. It's an interesting story, and has all of the backstabbing deceit, intertwined personal histories, and twists and turns that are hallmarks of Christie's work. But to make sure that people familiar with the book are as entertained as everyone else, writer Lee Sheldon has once again changed elements of the story to keep everyone on their toes.
One interesting characteristic of Murder on the Orient Express was the change of main character from Poirot to a train company employee-turned-neophyte detective, attempting to solve a murder while an injured Poirot aided her from the sidelines. In this way, AWE was able to avoid the brilliant character of Poirot stumbling around a murder scene trying numerous things in order to get a clue. With someone else sleuthing, Poirot's reputation was allowed to stay intact. It was an interesting way to get around the problem and it worked well. Evil Under the Sun attempts to recreate this, with a twist, but this time it works with much less satisfactory results.
Rather than merely regale Hastings with his exploits, Poirot decides to take things one step further. He retells the story in such detail that Hastings feels like he was there, allowing him to guide Poirot with suggestions to solve the mystery for himself, though it's Poirot we see on screen carrying out the investigation. This is an interesting way to handle the story, and it could have been done very well, but it just doesn't make as much sense this time around.
For starters, there is an inconsistency with how much Hastings has control over the story. At one point Hastings begins to talk golf with one of the characters, only to be told by Poirot that since he himself knows nothing about golf, the conversation should not be taking place. But a short time later Poirot must build a bird blind for one of the residents of the hotel in order to move the story forward. Poirot knows nothing about bird blinds, but since Hastings does, you are able to build it. How did Poirot solve the mystery himself if he didn't know how to build the blind in the first place?
This seems like a small thing, but as you work your way through the story and it keeps happening, it begins to nag at you. If Poirot is retelling the story, then Hastings should be able to make guesses at where it is going, but should not be changing the flow of the story as a whole. And by the end of the game, this drags down what could have been an otherwise great tale.
With that being said, I did like the interplay between the two characters. Listening to Hastings as he tries to work through the mystery only to be rebuffed by Poirot for doing things that he would never do was charming and quite funny at times, such as Poirot scolding Hastings for being a little too flirty with a suspect when Poirot would never do such a thing. Still, whatever benefit there is from the exchanges between the two is undermined by the narrative inconsistencies, which occur too often to overlook.
One of the best features of Orient Express was the graphics, and for the most part Evil Under the Sun doesn't disappoint in this area. I was concerned at first, as the blocky, pixellated cutscenes from the earlier games have returned, but once you are in the game things are much better. The first thing I noticed once the game started was that the excellent character graphics are back. Poirot looks as wonderful as before, and the other characters, while less detailed, still have a great period look to them that fits the story and its tone perfectly. And while there are still some instances of stiff acting, it is not as pronounced this time around.
The environments are nicely detailed, although the inside of the hotel is a little on the sterile side for my tastes. There are some nice touches that you'll notice as you go through the game, however, such as a small bump in a rug, which drove me nuts as I kept coming back to it, assuming it had to be a clue. Outside the hotel we're treated not only to the seaside coast, but also a tiny village where some of your adventure will take place, and AWE did a great job of getting the look and feel of a small resort town. When you first start the game, you may feel a little lost navigating the sprawling locations, but the visual landmarks quickly provide a sense of direction, which to me is a sign of good design. And if you've got the video card for it, turning on all of the environmental graphic options makes for a much prettier and more dynamic game.
The only real issue that I had visually is that the world seems very deserted. Granted, Poirot is staying at a resort in wartime and many of the guests have supposedly checked out, but Poirot's discretionary "removal" of non-essential characters from his story so that Hasting can concentrate on real suspects makes for a game that comes across as very empty. In total you’ll interact with as many as twenty characters, but from day to day you won't see many of them, even though the locations are limited. This in turn oversimplifies the game because the only people you need to interact with at any given time are the people you'll encounter as you’re moving through the screens. There’s no idle conversation or red herrings here -- find the person, talk to them, move the game forward.
Character voices are good across the board, without the random bad accents one usually finds in a game of this nature. In the last game the character of Poirot was voiced by actor David Suchet, well known for playing the detective in movies and television adapatations. In Evil Under the Sun, Suchet is replaced by actor Kevin Delaney, and while he is no Suchet, he does a great job portraying Poirot. There's not much to say about the music, unfortunately. While it is a good soundtrack, much of the game is played without any music at all, with the score being used mainly when your attention is needed for something. Most of the time I went long stretches without even thinking about it.
Navigation in Evil Under the Sun could not be simpler. Click on a location and Poirot will walk there. Double click on the edge of the screen and Poirot will immediately go to the next screen, which is a real timesaver when backtracking for important clues, which you will find yourself spending endless amounts of time doing over the course of the game.
One of the most aggravating issues with the previous game was the menu interface, which was used for everything from reading notes to combining objects to taking fingerprints, none of it user-friendly. Evil Under the Sun has simplified things greatly, streamlining the interface to only its essentials. Item combination is a simple drag and drop affair now, and notes and clues are much easier to navigate and read.
Also changed this time around is the hint system. In Murder on the Orient Express, if you became stuck you could go and ask Poirot for help and he would supposedly point you in the right direction -- although in my experience he never really did more than toss a general observation my way. For Evil Under the Sun, Poirot shows Hastings a handy gadget that he calls the Finger of Suspicion, which is exactly what it sounds like. When Hastings gets stuck he can click a button that will return him straight to Poirot's office. Once there he can place a suspect's name on a tray, and the finger will point him (literally) in the right direction. And aside from merely giving you hints, Poirot also throws in a little side mystery wherein you try to determine how the finger works. This is a fun way to integrate the hint system without dragging you out of the story to use it, and it's a nice touch.
Since Poirot's last adventure, the gameplay has been changed quite a bit, with less of the random combining of odd objects to move the story forward, and a removal of the fingerprint mechanism that frustrated a lot of players. Unfortunately, this has been replaced with eavesdropping and more fetch quests, along with a significant drop in difficulty.
The game is split into eight acts, taking place over a series of days. Each act will require you to solve specific quests and gain certain clues before moving on. The problem is that the tasks you are given are hardly difficult, but require huge amounts of backtracking to accomplish, and the clues that you must acquire are sometimes incredibly vague. Because of this the game is essentially played as follows: at the beginning of each act you will go to each and every game screen to see if a character has moved. If so, they most likely have a task for you or a new clue. Once this is done you go back to the hotel, try every door on the inside and outside to see if a locked door is now unlocked, and then eavesdrop on each and every door from the inside and outside to make sure that you don't miss a conversation. Honestly, the most difficulty I had playing the game was when I ran around for an hour because I was missing a clue, only to find out that I had eavesdropped on every room but one, which immediately moved me to the next act.
Even a lowered difficulty wouldn't be that big of a deal -- sometimes I want a game so hard that my head hurts, and sometimes it's nice to relax with something simpler. But when challenge is replaced by backtracking busywork, it becomes very tedious very quickly, especially considering the game's 8 to 10 hour length.
I haven't read the original novel the game was based on, but once you strip out the Hastings narrative device, the actual storyline is a good one, and I will definitely be tracking down a copy of the book. But as for the game, it's a hard recommendation to make. It's too easy and too tedious for seasoned adventure gamers, but I'm afraid that the large amount of backtracking will put off novice gamers as well. Which is a shame, given the game's graphics and voice work, and the obvious appeal of one of Christie's great mysteries. As with the previous games in the series, however, Evil Under the Sun once again proves to be a case of a good story put off by poor game design, and what should be a thrilling story turned into too much tedium.