Agatha Christie: The A.B.C. Murders review

Agatha Christie: The A.B.C. Murders
Agatha Christie: The A.B.C. Murders
The Good:
  • Two storylines, so if you've read the book, you can still be surprised by the ending
  • Fans of Agatha Christie may enjoy the "hidden" facts about the author
The Bad:
  • Tedious math problems and riddles comprise most of the gameplay
  • Wonky game logic and save system may force you to replay whole sections
  • No exploration, clue finding, or deduction to speak of
Our Verdict: Die-hard Agatha Christie fans and those who enjoy doing math for fun might find The A.B.C. Murders tolerable. Everyone else probably won't.
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First published in 1936, The A.B.C. Murders was the seventeenth novel from prolific mystery writer Agatha Christie. It's now become the seventh Agatha Christie video game to be released in recent years, and the first to appear exclusively on the Nintendo DS. While Dame Agatha's mysteries would seem ideal for adventure game adaptation--and the first three released by The Adventure Company did indeed follow this format--more recently, casual games based on Christie's work have entered the mix, making it hard to know where this newest game would fall.

Now that I've played it, I can definitively say that The A.B.C. Murders is not a traditional adventure game like And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, nor is it a hidden object game like Death on the Nile or Peril at End House. I can't, however, definitively say what it is. On the surface, it appears to have all of the dialogue, puzzles, and exploration you'd expect in an adventure game, but in reality it's more like an interactive novel interspersed with math problems.

Yes, I said math problems. In fact, playing this game is kind of like spending an afternoon slogging through homework.

I haven't read the novel, but from what I can tell, the game's plot follows it faithfully. It opens with Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot receiving an anonymous letter that hints at a crime soon to take place in Andover and is signed, simply, "A.B.C." When word comes that a newsstand owner, Alice Ascher, has been murdered, Poirot and his companion Hastings travel to Andover to investigate. Then another letter arrives, followed by another murder--this time, a woman named Betty Bernard, in Bexhill. And so on, until the serial killer is caught.

Though the mystery plot is ripe with atmospheric possibility, the game's artwork and soundtrack are nothing special. The 2D characters are drawn in a tame, vaguely cartoony style with slight facial animations during dialogue. Poirot bears a passing resemblance to David Suchet, who played the character in a number of films, and the other characters and locations are also passably drawn; none are terrible, but none really stand out as masterpieces, either. The music alternates between a few different themes, all of them evoking a similar "something terrible is going to happen" feeling that soon becomes repetitive.

The game has very occasional voice acting--usually just a brief line of welcome or farewell as a character enters a scene or "I think I've got your answer!" when solving a riddle. In general, this struck me as unnecessary and in many cases annoying, since a character's greeting is often in direct conflict with the on-screen text. (For example, Hastings greets Scotland Yard's Inspector Japp with, "Hello, old chum," but the subtitle reads, "How have you been, Japp?") This makes the spoken dialogue seem slapped on.

Like many DS games, The A.B.C. Murders is a sort of first-person / third-person hybrid, with character portraits appearing during dialogue and a first-person perspective used while investigating locations. However, it's not exactly clear which character you're supposed to be. At times it appears to be Hastings, which would make sense since he narrates the novel, but when solving some of the riddles you seem to be the mouthpiece for Poirot himself. This uncertainty left me feeling like more of an observer than an active participant--as if I was reading about the characters instead of assuming the role of one.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter who you are, because interaction is extremely limited. The vast majority of the game is spent reading the dialogue of Poirot, Hastings, and the witnesses and suspects involved in the case. You do get to ask some questions, but these are painfully straightforward. No dialogue puzzles here, just a checklist you need to run down before moving on. In fact, usually you can proceed without bothering to ask any of the questions, making the Q&A seem rather pointless. From a solving-the-mystery standpoint, it's good to know what these people have to say, but because the game didn't make me feel actively involved in the investigation, the long dialogues ended up boring me. Since this is how most of the story is revealed, it's unfortunate that the conversations are so uninteresting.

One of the game's big missed opportunities is its utter lack of exploration. If I'm investigating a murder, I expect to be able to comb the murder scene for clues, like in a Phoenix Wright or CSI game. In The A.B.C. Murders, though you do have the opportunity to look at environments, all you'll find there are factoids about Agatha Christie and "lost clues" relating to a bonus puzzle in the game's Extras section. These tidbits are clearly marked with icons of pens and bowler hats, so there's no challenge in finding them. By dragging the stylus around the screen, it is possible to discover hidden hotspots, but these only provide useless information about the location. (For example: "A plain-looking table, looks to be rarely used." If it's so trivial, why is it a hotspot?) Only once did I pick up a piece of evidence--it's front and center in one of the first scenes, impossible to miss--and conveniently, if you somehow do miss it, the game goes on as normal, with characters referring to it as if you'd found it.

Reading, question-asking, and "exploring" aside, almost all of the relevant gameplay in The A.B.C. Murders involves solving math problems. I characterize these puzzles as "relevant" because you need to complete them in order to progress, not because they actually have anything to do with the storyline. In most cases, they're only tangentially related to the plot or not related at all. Characters love making Poirot prove he's who he says he is by guessing their age or solving some other logic conundrum. Once or twice, okay, but it gets tiresome when no one will talk to you until you've jumped through these hoops--especially when you can't figure out the solution. "Ha ha," the game seems to be taunting, "you're not as smart as the great Poirot!" (I have to admit, I was sadly amused when a lazy attempt to guess an answer resulted in thirty or more, "That's not right, try again" responses before I finally happened on the solution and the character exclaimed, "Correct! You truly are Hercule Poirot!")

Along with proving you're Poirot by answering riddles, the other challenges fall into four distinct categories:

  • • Solve a word problem to figure out which train or route Poirot and Hastings should take to arrive quickest at their destination.
  • • Solve a logic problem to pinpoint the exact time of the murder, based on the disjointed observations of several witnesses.
  • • Guess which date the next murder will occur or the street number of a house by filling in the blank in a sequence of numbers.
  • • Unscramble the letters of a word a character can't remember, or guess a missing word based on the context.

That's it. Every puzzle follows some variation of these categories. And none of them really have any bearing on the investigation. You're not piecing together what happened, like a detective would, but completing busywork that's standing in the way of the story. Even the puzzles that seem like they should be related end up having no relevance--you're forced to pinpoint what time the murder occurred down to the minute, yet this precise time doesn't provide any additional information about the killer and is never mentioned again during the investigation. Not long after starting the game, I was already dreading these interludes. It didn't help that most of them are math problems, which I simply don't find to be fun. If the puzzles were more varied, or at least seemed to have a point, I could have coped, but being confronted with the same thing over and over was too much.

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