It's summer in Sweden, but Carol Reed has no time for holidays. The crime rate rises in proportion with the temperature, and the private detective can't afford to go away as a client will surely show up soon. Barely has she considered this notion in Blue Madonna’s introduction when the phone rings. Christina Falk, a local artist, thinks she is being followed and asks Carol to meet her the next day in the Art Museum, where an exhibit of her paintings is opening soon. Carol agrees, but when she goes there the next morning she is greeted by a museum official claiming the artist killed herself the evening before. But how can it be suicide if Christina wanted to hire her? Carol naturally has to investigate what really happened, and her latest case offers another intriguing mystery and some nice scenery to explore along the way.
Blue Madonna is the seventh game in the series of first-person adventures about an English girl who has taken over a friend’s detective agency in Sweden. There is no need to have played any of the earlier episodes, as each is self-contained, and this game begins with a short optional tutorial that explains how to look around and pick up, combine and use objects. For returning players, the game mechanics are still the same: a slideshow point-and-click control scheme with arrows to show where you can go and contextual icons to highlight what you can interact with. If you have played one or more of the previous games, or pretty much any other first-person adventure, you will feel right at home.
When Carol learns Christina is dead, she visits Christina's home and art studio to see if she can find anything that would explain how and why she died. Was Christina really being followed, or was she just paranoid? Soon she is traveling all over Norrköping to visit places Christina had gone and speak with people who knew her to gather information. It seems Christina was fascinated by a legend about a local nun who supposedly stashed away some priceless church icons just before the monastery where she lived was raided. Christina believed these icons were still buried somewhere near Norrköping and was investigating the legend in depth. Carol, in turn, follows Christina's trail to find out what the artist discovered, and if there may be a link with her untimely death. The story that unfolds isn’t overly tense, but you'll definitely want to know what happened to Christina and discover who might have wanted to harm her. The more you learn about her research, bit by bit you’ll come to understand why she felt the need to hide certain events from her past.
The people you meet are an interesting mix of recurring characters such as Stina (who has a new occupation in each game and is now a tobacconist), the ever-present janitor and Carol’s boyfriend Jonas, plus a few new ones like the shifty-looking Michael Lombard, who became an artist after his wife died in a car accident, and Christina's ex Gerard. All conversations are fully voiced in English (albeit with a Swedish accent in some cases) and optionally subtitled. The voice actors sound convincing and fit the characters appropriately. The rest of the soundscape consists of subtle, atmospheric music that matches the mood of the locations very well, and convincing ambient sounds such as pigeons cooing, bats flapping and a brook flowing.
Just like the earlier games, Blue Madonna is full of fascinating locations in and around the developer's hometown, including some unusual rock formations called rauks, the ruins of a monastery, an old mine, a church and a museum, as well as several private dwellings. It feels a bit voyeuristic to visit other people's bathrooms and attics, but you're used to that if you’ve played other Carol Reed mysteries. Over the years, background images have become less and less altered by the watercolour effect the Nyqvists (MDNA Games) originally added to their photographs, to the point where it is now barely visible, leaving the gorgeous Swedish landscapes to be enjoyed to the fullest. Of course, there are also less beautiful sights to be seen in abandoned, pigeon excrement-covered factories and garage boxes full of unwanted household stuff.
Most locations are easily navigable, consisting of a few screens logically connected to each other. You can look in all four cardinal directions and travel from node to node by clicking on any arrows that appear when you move the cursor around the screen. Some locations like the old factory are a bit of a maze, however, as passages seen from one direction don't particularly resemble the way they look from the other end, making it very easy to get lost. This can cause you to overlook crucial clues that are needed to progress and create a bit of unnecessary backtracking when you are just looking for an exit. It's a pity you can't access the quick-travel map from anywhere in the game. There is usually only one screen in each main location that lets you access it, and you'll need to walk all the way back to where you entered to travel to a different one.
You’ll soon learn that Christina liked to build puzzle boxes to help hide her secrets, and these represent a fair number of the challenges you'll encounter. Fortunately, she also left clues about how to open them in various places. Solving these boxes provides you with keys for locked doors, newspaper articles that reveal bits of plot or the address of a new location that will automatically open up on your map. There is one musical puzzle where the objective is to match several tones with an electrical tuning fork, but this task can be simplified if you are tone deaf. Besides the boxes, other puzzles involve retrieving items for people or combining objects from inventory.
Most of the puzzles are straightforward and logical, as Carol is not the type to think of far-fetched constructions. This makes them a bit on the easy side, and there aren't all that many to be found, as the game focuses more on exploration and discovering the story. Since Carol usually takes a note of important clues, which then end up in your inventory to inspect whenever you like, there is hardly any need to take notes during the game, though you may still prefer to have a notebook handy to write down the exact locations of puzzle boxes you've yet to solve, doors to open or objects you can’t interact with yet and need to return to later. There are more than twenty different locations to travel to all told, so it can be hard to keep track of what's where.
It is almost always clear what Carol should be doing or investigating at any given time, but if you do get stuck you can rely on the excellent hint system. At the top of the screen a notebook can be selected, showing Carol's current objective. If that isn't enough, clicking it will reveal one or more hints about how to accomplish that goal. The hints are usually just right to get you going again, but can occasionally be too revealing (simply giving you the answer to a puzzle instead of a general indication of what to do) or too vague (telling you to get an object from a general location where you already know you saw it, but can't remember exactly where).
A few things have improved since Black Circle, but these are just small changes like a new dialogue icon (from an admittedly out-of-place 'hand' icon to a more suitable 'talking head' icon). The time it takes to save the game has also decreased noticeably. A number of obvious and more obscure references to adventure games and developers are strewn throughout the game, such as the names under newspaper articles or on vehicle license plates (J Jensen, Roberta Williams) and boxes of adventure games can be seen in computer rooms, which is a nice touch for those who pay attention to detail.
As the seventh installment in the series, Blue Madonna - A Carol Reed Mystery delivers exactly what series fans have come to expect: the chance to explore more beautiful scenery while solving an interesting mystery in the process. It should take around eight hours to complete and it’s very similar in quality to the last few games, so if you played those and enjoyed them, you won’t be disappointed here. Its slideshow format will not appeal to everyone, and the puzzles may be too easy for veteran adventure gamers, but if you enjoy relaxed investigations without any pressure and learning about other cultures while you’re at it, you’ll find just what you’re looking for here.