The iPhone platform, with its emphasis on simple and low-priced games that can be played in a more casual manner, seems like an avenue that does not lend itself to grand ambition by developers. Unlike the console handhelds, an iPhone/iPod Touch game often feels like a "dip your toe in" effort that usually displays the value of its miniscule price tag. Turning that notion on its head, Korean start-up developer 4:33 arrives on the iOS scene with their debut adventure, The Secret of Chateau de Moreau, a murder mystery with a heavy puzzle element, a huge cast of characters, a unique and sometimes bizarre story, a fair share of flaws--and a heaping helping of giant storytelling ambition.
The story begins by showing an apparent murder by poisoning, and then transitions to introduce the main character, Antoine Moreau, a young man summoned home from boarding school. Antoine returns to the family's chateau (a mansion that doubles as an upscale hotel) and finds that not only has his father, the Count Moreau, been murdered, but he himself is the primary suspect. The goal then becomes to prove your innocence and discover the identity of the true murderer. There are plenty of potential suspects--among those you'll interact with are your three brothers and two sisters, as well as a chateau staff that includes the butler, the assistant butleress, the chef, the bartender, the maid, and the maintenance man. If that seems too simple, there will be multiple guests and friends of your late father who become a key part of the story as well. In true classic murder mystery style, everyone has secrets, and everyone's opinion about you changes over time.
The story unfolds over five chapters, representing five days leading up to the Count's annual dinner party where all staff, guests, and family will gather together. Each day you wander the chateau and grounds to discover that your father has outfitted his mansion with all kinds of bizarre puzzles, codes, and secrets, all of which will eventually uncover the pieces of the mystery that disclose the culprit. Sort of. After all clues for the day are found, you gather for dinner with your family and reveal the secrets of the day while trying to dodge their suspicions and accusations.
If you're a long-time Nintendo DS adventure player, you'll recognize a number of elements that Chateau de Moreau borrows from other beloved games. The numerous puzzles tend to draw inspiration from Professor Layton, with a dash of touch-screen mechanics thrown in (though the game doesn't make use of advanced iOS functions like motion sensitivity). The day-end dinner party scenes are directly inspired by Phoenix Wright's courtroom scenes, as they involve showing the right inventory item, identifying the correct clue that you've learned that day, and avoiding the wrong accusation in order to get through the dinner amidst a family group that is sure you're the killer, making it to the next day without being arrested. The overall storytelling vibe and simplified art style, though, will surely bring familiarity to fans of Hotel Dusk, which is probably the most direct "If you like ________" comparison.
Though puzzles are of the Layton-inspired variety, they lean to the lighter side. There are quite a few code and combination puzzles that rely on your ability to observe detail, but usually that detail is pretty blatant and often found on an item in the same room. There’s a nifty weight-balance chessboard puzzle and some others that involve assembling shapes, but the majority of challenges are very simple inventory combination and background searching, and paying attention to the text and the very direct clues you encounter will get you what you need.
The interface has you guide Antoine, in a top-down view, around the chateau by dragging your finger in front of him on a simple floorplan, until you enter a room that is not locked. That room may or may not have a person in it to ask about any of the current "open clues" you are investigating, or it may have some areas to be searched and puzzles to be solved. It's a very simple and very clean interface that requires no significant learning curve. The only frustration with navigation is a disease that has plagued many such games--occasionally you can find yourself without a direct idea of what to do next, leaving you wandering the chateau grounds looking for the next "trigger event" that you wouldn't have found if not for dumb luck.
All of this takes place in a remarkably substantial game. My playing time was approximately nine hours, which should be a fair representation, and that's only the first playthrough. Why would you want to play through again? Because the game has a total of forty endings, and indicates your "progress" by showing how many of those endings you've discovered. Thirty-eight of those are either deaths (there is a murderer trying to stop you, after all) or arrests after making the wrong moves during dinner. Expect to finish the game having found 10-15 of them, and then you can decide how badly you want to be a completionist. It brought back happy memories of when I used to "death test" my Space Quest games as a kid, but I'm not sure many will quite have the stomach to find all 38 deaths. Ending #39 is the "normal ending", which is a strange and dark conclusion with a startling implication, and a dramatic sense of unfulfillment. Ending #40, or so I'm told by walkthroughs, is the "true ending". In the interest of full disclosure, I could not determine how to acquire this ending, but it seems to necessitate almost a full second play-through. Even worse, it does not appear to be any more fulfilling based on what I've read, just substantially more confusing.
Indeed, the story of Chateau de Moreau is an entertaining and ambitious one, but one that ultimately caves in under its own weight. By the end of the fifth day, there are so many characters and so many secrets, and then another massive layer of mystery that is added by the discovery of a huge basement area of the chateau, that it's just a bit much--to say nothing of the fact that the ending is strange, ambiguous, and too wrapped up in its own fiction with government conspiracies, secret societies, etc., in a way that makes the final murderer reveal quite anticlimactic (deliberately so, it appears). However, it's hard not to really enjoy the time spent playing through the story. The characters all have unique backstories and specific motivations, and the slow revelation of their secrets and their past is quite entertaining for anyone who is a sucker for the murder mystery genre. The pacing is generally excellent, always keeping multiple open clues and driving you toward the next discovery. Unfortunately, you must also be prepared to tolerate a very poor English translation and some humorous grammar mistakes at the most intense story development points.
I've barely spent a moment discussing the technical aspects of the game, and that's because the developer apparently felt the same way. Other than some very detailed and attractive character portraits, all done in a heavily anime-influenced style, the game's graphics are nothing to speak of. Backgrounds are simple and plain with not much color, and the floorplan used for navigation couldn't be more basic. This is all much better than the music, which is really awful, mostly consisting of unpleasant short loops of odd jazz piano--which, even worse, is not looped correctly, thus interrupting the storytelling with the sound equivalent of a CD skipping every fifteen seconds. There is no voice acting, and though the sound effects are decent there is nothing remarkable. This is an ideal iOS game to play in front of the TV, sans headphones.
I also need to address a growing trend that I'm rather uncomfortable with. The game provides two inventory items that are useful: the Water of Blessing, which identifies items in a room that you have not interacted with yet; and the Time Potion, which you can use if a dinner party ends poorly to take you directly back to the beginning of the party. The Time Potions wouldn't be necessary at all if the game offered more than four save slots, but they can be convenient if you've just lost a great deal of progress (there is no such option for deaths that take place during a day, some of which are complete surprises and rather unfair). There are a few Time Potions and Waters of Blessing to be found as you explore, but why bother to look for them when you can just buy them in-game with real money! I loathe this trend of allowing a gamer to spend money above and beyond the game price to provide just such a crutch. If I can buy 999 Waters of Blessing at the menu screen, why bother actually searching any room like an actual adventure player? I'll just walk into every room and use one and save myself the time. Suffice to say, I don't think most will need this feature, but beyond that I would encourage you not to support this type of nonsense.
The Secret of Chateau de Moreau is a really fun, and genuinely compelling, murder mystery that feels like a combination of many other games’ elements, as well as a modern successor to classics like The Colonel's Bequest. I had a great time playing through it and trying to figure out what was going on. I would be prepared to give it a higher score, but it's hard to finish a game like this after so much playing time and still be unable to explain most of what just happened. There's little question, though, that this is the most enjoyable original iOS adventure I have played yet, and I applaud the developers for throwing so much storytelling ambition into a game that sells for an extremely reasonable cost at the App Store. With that price point, I would easily call it a must-purchase for adventure fans with an iOS platform. I would only add this request: If you ever figure out what in the world was going on, please let me know.