When it comes to murder mysteries situated in religious environments, novelists have managed to create many complex tales over the years, with G.K. Chesterton responsible for the Father Brown mystery series, Charles Merrill Smith creating Rev. Randollph, and the likes of Agatha Christie periodically returning to the setting of country parishes as the scene of a crime, with the local vicar often under the collar of suspicion. Yet monasteries and murders is a subject matter that has rarely been tackled within the confines of an adventure game, so it is refreshing to come across Murder in the Abbey, a whodunit set in a medieval Spanish monastery. But while the intriguing storyline and interesting cast of characters capably carry on the fine tradition of religious murder mysteries, a few key issues prevent the game from reaching its full potential.
Bearing many similarities to another book, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, this third-person adventure focuses on the investigation of Brother Leonardo of Toledo, who must unravel the mystery of some strange happenings in the remote monastery's library. But first he needs to safely get there. Leonardo and his young protégé Bruno have embarked an a long journey to the Nuestra Señora de la Natividad Abbey to study with the order of Monks, and before they even arrive, a mysterious figure emerges from the shadows and pushes a boulder into their path, narrowly missing the pair. It is clear something sinister is afoot, made all the more apparent by the Abbot's subsequent request to investigate the death of gatekeeper Brother Anselmo, followed by strict instructions not to ever enter the library. With mysterious lights appearing in the library at night, fellow monks being uncooperative during inquiries and more murders taking place as the adventure progresses, are these tragedies the result of foul play or something demonic at work? That is one of many questions that players will need to answer.
Despite its dramatic introduction and ominous premise, the pace of the storyline is quite slow, almost akin to that of a plodding drama. Fortunately, there is enough intrigue in the goings-on of the monastery to maintain interest to the end, and in some ways the slower pace actually works in the game's favour, allowing players to thoroughly investigate without ever feeling rushed. Other than its religious setting, Murder in the Abbey plays out as a conventional detective adventure in most ways, and while the feeling of suspense is limited, the plot twists can be unpredictable and prevent the journey from becoming tedious.
Due to the investigative nature of the game, the bulk of your efforts involves talking to the residents of the monastery, gathering clues and then using these to progress. The monastery itself is not that big, with only a small range of locations available such as a hospital, stables, wine cellar, cemetery, and of course the infamous library, but the game does a good job of opening up and closing areas gradually throughout so that it never feels too repetitive. A map is readily available, so it is possible to move directly between locations, which is something of a godsend given how slowly Leonardo walks around.
Taking place entirely within the confines of the monastery, there isn’t much variety in the scenery, but it’s all presented in an art style that’s certainly nice to look at. The visuals really stand out from most games, with a hand-painted cartoon look with lots of detail in backgrounds. Some of the facial movements are impressive and the use of lighting and shadows is good, giving the place a real sense of depth. Night scenes are particularly noteworthy, as they’re both well drawn and inject a tangible sense of menace in the air. Still, as nice as the graphics are, there are times when the cartoony style seems to conflict with the subject matter being explored, downplaying the seriousness of murder and religious rituals, making it something of an odd stylistic choice.
The cinematic introduction itself is particularly stunning, which really made me eager to play the game right from the outset. However, the animated cutscenes are not always so well executed, looking ropey and less professional due to the drop in quality. Close-ups of characters are also hit and miss; at times they look the part but at others seem garish and out of place, feeling like they are stuck onto the backgrounds rather than being part of the environment.
There is very little music to speak of, but when the orchestral score does play, it suits the environment well. As you might expect while wandering around the monastery, the soundtrack at times is choral, with distinctly religious undertones. From subtle chanting in certain scenes of the storyline, the music swells during dramatic events, becoming faster paced and evoking a sense of danger. Voice acting is also generally well done, effectively bringing the characters to life and adding an almost quaint feel to the game. There is one glaring exception to this high standard, but more on that shortly.Continued on the next page...