The last effort to translate Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders to a video game format – the 2009 Nintendo DS exclusive – was hardly what one would call a runaway success. It was surprising that an interactive adaptation of the Hercule Poirot classic could fail so badly since the murder mystery format lends itself so well to the adventure genre. So for 2016, Microïds and Artefacts Studio have teamed up to take an entirely new stab at the investigation, and to a certain extent have succeeded. It doesn’t sound nearly as good as it looks, but by taking hints from recent Sherlock Holmes titles, the new game is a pleasing adventure that blends puzzles with investigation and storytelling in a fluid, if a tad easy, manner.
The A.B.C. Murders is one of Poirot’s most famous cases, often aped in any number of serial killer movies. Rather than the single-murder-in-a-country-house which was Christie’s usual template, this story features several murders across Britain all undertaken by a sinister criminal who taunts the detective with mysterious letters signed only by the letters A.B.C. The game’s story kicks off after the first of these letters arrives at Poirot’s residence, hinting at a murder in Andover.
What’s immediately striking is the appealing cel-shaded graphics; the character models are fully animated and exist in a 3D setting, but have been given a 2D look. The fixed camera gives a nice parallax effect on scenes where there’s a small rotation of the point of view, in particular a clifftop setting where the close-up bushes move in relation to the distant sea shore. The Art Deco colour palette adds a lovely vibrancy and most locations are alive with action, from circling seabirds and other small critters, to traffic on the roads and passers-by. Care has gone into the character animations, as they move fluidly with no floating, and Poirot interacts with his environment naturally. It all adds up to a slick visual presentation that isn’t often seen in the more casual-friendly end of the adventure genre.
The locations are variations on the quaint British theme, so we’re treated to a quaint British cobblestoned town centre, a quaint British seaside, a quaint British country house and plenty of quaint British shops, houses and hotels. It’s fully in keeping with what one would expect from a Poirot game, but all rendered with a gorgeous ‘living, breathing’ painting aesthetic.
Getting used to the controls doesn’t require any sleuth work. This is a third-person adventure game so you move by clicking the left mouse button to walk and interact with hotspots that appear around the environment. Characters you can speak with either change the cursor to a dialogue box or a pair of spectacles if there are observations available. You play as Poirot throughout the game, with the investigation taking several different forms: you make keen observations of suspects you meet, pick through crime scenes, piece together deductions and reconstruct events. These happen at different points along the way as distinct tasks. For example, at the beginning all you have to go on is the letter you’ve received, meaning you’d better investigate the crime scene. Events take place in a linear fashion, so you can’t overtake yourself or create strange gaps in logic.
The first type of activity you come across upon arriving in Andover is headlined as an ‘observation’. You walk to Inspector Japp and after a brief introduction the cursor changes to a circle and the number of observations you can make appears on the left-hand side. Sweeping the cursor over Japp highlights several things that stand out to Poirot. As you get close to something important, the circle turns a darker shade and Poirot’s inner monologue tells you what he’s gleaned from his analysis. In this instance, there are three such observations, all telling Poirot that Japp overconfidently thinks he’s solved the case already. The mechanism is similar to the recent Sherlock Holmes games, but in this game it doesn’t change Poirot’s line of questioning, it simply adds a little extra colour to the proceedings.
Conversation is limited to a few choices at certain junctures, one of which is typical Poirot, the others less so – except it’s not often clear which is which. This is presumably included to give you the illusion of choice in how Poirot acts, but unfortunately all it does is create some oddly stilted and tonally disjointed discussions. One minute the character you’re speaking to may be cooperative and relaxed, and then, after you pick something you thought was a good response, will suddenly start yelling before calmly returning back to their previous demeanour to bring the conversation back on track. This isn’t a branching Telltale-style game, so all these incorrect responses do is mark you down in what the game calls ‘ego points’, i.e. a score based on how ‘Poirovian’ you’ve been during the course of the game. Given that many players, like me, likely won’t care about this arbitrary score, it seems a shame that the developers felt the need to include it, to the detriment of the game.
Continuing your early investigation, you move to the crime scene itself. Interacting here changes the viewpoint to a close-up of the corpse sprawled on a shop floor. Again the total number of observations available is listed on the side, except this time you simply have to click on the areas where the cursor changes. Most hotspots simply elicit Poirot’s thoughts; others either become a new inventory item or a deduction clue. Some, however, require further inspection, allowing you to move the object around in 3D until Poirot spots something remarkable.Continued on the next page...