Review for Adventures of Isabelle Fine: Murder on Rails
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Detective stories have provided ample adventure game fare over the years, so it’s always interesting to see one try – and succeed at – something new when conducting investigations. Secret Forest Games’ Adventures of Isabelle Fine: Murder on Rails does exactly that. With a 2D grid-based presentation reminiscent of older RPGs and a visual style evocative of the 1920s and ‘30s, the experience mashes together Orient Express-inspired mysteries with aliens from other dimensions. Unfortunately, the latter definitely takes away from the former, and then fails to ultimately resolve the most important questions. For now.
Though the game headlines only one character in its title, it really centers around two protagonists. Isabelle “Izzy” Fine resembles a floating pale blue spirit or virtual character, who reveals that despite her ethereal appearance she is some manner of biological lifeform, although the details of this are never explored. Her companion, and the player character the vast majority of the time, is a man named Conway. At least, he’s a man on this particular case. It’s not made entirely clear what Conway really is, as he apparently assumes different forms when he and Isabelle are sent through time and space to investigate crimes around the universe. Isabelle is bound to Conway in some manner, such that he is the only one that can see her. Who sent the pair, how they got into this line of work, and what initially brought them to the Trans Euro train the “Reliant” is never fully established.
For their latest assignment they’ve been sent onto the train to investigate an imminent murder that they are unable to prevent. In short order the victim turns up dead in the cabin of one Mrs. Heart, but the new widow claims to have no knowledge of what happened. In order to look into the manner, Conway pretends to be an inspector from Scotland Yard and Isabelle conjures appropriate identification for him out of the ether, which lands...in the toilet. This game has a weird obsession with urinals throughout, which tends to grate from time to time.
Fortunately, most of the banter between Isabelle and Conway stays away from indoor plumbing and is legitimately interesting, sometimes humorous, and occasionally even poignantly emotional. While the characters initially give the impression of being exasperated with each other, plot developments later reveal a deep and abiding affection. The relationship between these two gives the story an emotional depth that is used to good effect when both Isabelle and Conway are threatened at different times.
Once Conway is able to establish his credentials, the investigation proper begins. In the first of ten chapters, Izzy and Conway are limited to the train car in which the murder occurred and have a handful of suspects they can talk to, including the elderly white-moustached Conductor Jones, the learned and refined Doctor Marsh, and Mrs. Heart herself. It’s in these dealings that Adventures of Isabelle Fine most distinguishes itself.
Conway can interrogate suspects as per usual for detective games through linear conversations, with no dialog options to be found. However, choices do come into play where Isabelle is concerned. She has the ability to perform a body hack to transfer Conway’s consciousness into another person. Encounter a foreign soldier who’s not forthcoming? Switch Conway to the Conductor, an old war vet with whom the soldier feels at ease commiserating with. By assuming the identities of different characters, it’s possible to get recalcitrant people to open up and reveal what they know. (During these transferences, Conway’s body is left just standing around, waiting for his essence to return.)
Solving the murder in chapter one gives a small taste of further such investigations that occur later in the game, such as intervening in a fraud scam and stopping another potential homicide before it happens. I really got into the whole body hacking concept. Mechanically it’s quite similar to selecting different options in a dialog tree, but in its implementation it’s a fun and different way to approach interrogations. Conway even talks like the people whose bodies he’s inhabiting, which provides some nice variation from his normal polite, straight-laced approach.
There are over twenty others aboard the train and interacting with them is a joy in its own right, but there are also a couple of relatively simple puzzles built into the character interactions. In one instance, the correct sequence of body hacks is needed to allow Conway to talk to a specific woman uninterrupted. There’s a good selection of people on board, including a few soldiers, some high society socialites, royalty in disguise, everyday vacationers, a criminal traveling incognito, and the serving staff. With plotting spouses, scheming servants, and thieves offering professional courtesies to investigators (don’t arrest me and I won’t steal from anyone, honest!), there is quite a lot of intrigue happening aboard this train. Digging into these various human threads is highly entertaining and is easily the best part of the whole experience.
Sadly, as the game proceeds it increasingly abandons the body hacking and interviewing elements, along with their corresponding human subplots, until they drop out altogether by the end of the sixth chapter. In their place, more and more emphasis is put on recurring mini-games. The appearance of these activities coincides with complications that arise when the Carrion show up. This group of glowing, red-hooded spirits that only Conway and Isabelle can see start distorting reality and become both the primary threat and main focus of what devolves into a rather dull, un-fleshed-out main storyline.
The Carrion are elusive beings, so at times one of them will hide within an object in a room. This object must be clicked on, which will cause the Carrion to move to another object, and so on until the Carrion’s energy finally dissipates and it vanishes permanently. In an early variation of this game of hide-and-seek, the Carrion’s glowing red eyes appear briefly over the object that it’s inhabiting. Later in the game, however, the eyes don’t appear at all but Isabelle calls out descriptive words like “life” for potted plant or “reflection” for mirror to indicate which objects must be selected. Failing to click the correct object causes the sequence to start again from the beginning, though with the Carrion’s locations randomized to different spots.
Another challenge places Conway on a metaphysical plane with various stone pathways aligned in a grid-like fashion. Carrions patrol back and forth but there are typically several copies of Isabelle, which Conway can push around to block the Carrions. The goal here is to clear a safe path for Conway past his adversaries to get to the exit. This sometimes requires fine timing to make a run for the exit at the opportune moment – although this, as with all interactions in the game, is performed with a simple mouse-click. Again, failing to succeed causes the whole sequence to start over, but here the pattern remains the same.
One final example, while certainly not the last type of mini-game encountered, involves Conway being deposited in a void in space. Isabelle then gives explicit directions on how to move from Conway’s position to a floating exit. For instance, she may give a repeating pattern of rights, lefts, ups, and downs, or else norths, easts, wests, and souths, her clues getting more abstract as you progress. Following these instructions, you will have to walk across an invisible path to reach the exit. This can get quite convoluted, with some paths requiring in excess of fifty moves! Failing to follow the path exactly causes Conway to vanish into the abyss to reappear at the starting point. Fortunately the path remains the same, so with a bit of patience and note-taking these challenges aren’t too hard to navigate, just long.
It’s with these mini-games that the first adventure of Isabelle Fine runs into the most trouble. After the initial murder investigation is over, new mini-games are introduced every chapter, with each chapter tending to focus on just one type. Consequently, when the invisible space pathways are introduced, you’ll find yourself doing that same task half a dozen times or more before moving onto the next chapter. The mini-games are interesting and well thought-out on first blush, with a good deal of variety to distinguish them from the others. However, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of variety because any given mini-game is rehashed over and over and over again, rather than being interspersed with other types of activities. As a result, I found myself repeatedly thinking, “Okay, I’ve got the point. Can we move on, please?”
All of this repetition does have a purpose, as they’re intended to thoroughly train players for when they return in slightly more complex forms near the end of the game as the story heads towards the big climax. By this point Murder on Rails has completely abandoned the human characters and their subplots on board the train in favour of focusing solely on the Carrion. In this run-up to the final showdown there’s nothing new introduced, just the same mini-games repeated again and again. Of course, to reach them one last time you first have to endure – dun-dun-DUN – The Maze!
Chapter eight is a maze. That’s all it is. Time and space have been completely distorted by the Carrion as they try to stop Isabelle and Conway from getting to their extraction point at the rear of the train. To accomplish this, they have arranged all the doors to fold back on themselves. Exit at the rear of one train car and you’ll find yourself entering through a cabin door of another. To escape you will have to successfully navigate the maze, which is problematic to say the least. Each train car has a forward door, a rear door, and four cabin doors to choose from. Only one of these exits will take you to the next part of the maze. Failing to choose the right one will return you to Conway’s cabin to start all over again, although at least the correct pathway remains the same. There was no indication that I could find some clever way through the labyrinth. This was solely trial and a lot of error.
“Aha,” you object, “I’ll just save the game every time I get a door correct.” Nope! The game does not allow free saves. Not only that, its autosave feature does not give any on-screen indication of having occurred (the whole “do not turn off your computer while this symbol is displayed” deal). The only times I could be consistently sure that a checkpoint had been reached was immediately after starting a new chapter. So if you need a break, you’ll either have to wait until finishing the current chapter or risk losing an uncertain amount of progress.
I would be remiss in moving on from the subject of mini-games without at least touching upon the finale itself. One more mini-game occurs here, for which all your previous practice will not have prepared you in any way: a boss fight. In fact, a boss fight conducted in multiple stages where timing is critical as you attempt to bypass the creature’s ever-revolving lines of defense and striking it via the lone pathway available. This is followed by waves of staggered Carrion coming at you, requiring you to quickly click Izzy into different lanes to avoid being hit. These two parts of the fight alternate half a dozen times. Make a mistake at any point and you will lose ground and have to regain it by evading additional attacks. As with the rest of the mini-games, the number of repetitions here goes on far longer than it should, becoming frustrating and dull just when the game should be its most exciting.
I wish I could say the denouement makes putting up with the last few chapters worth the aggravation. Some stories offer up a nice conclusion while teasing at the possibility of future installments still to come. Adventures of Isabelle Fine is not one of those stories. While I can’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, I can say that every important question I had about the main storyline – the human subplots all being abandoned much earlier in my five-hour play time – were left unresolved. The fates of the characters are up in the air, and then the game concludes with a message stating: “Isabelle Fine will return…2020.” There is no resolution here and I walked away feeling rather let down.
Visually the game features a mish-mash of styles that don’t quite work together. Both the interior and exterior of the Reliant are depicted in a rough, sketchy, somewhat pen-and-ink style, often surrounded by large black borders depending on the size of the current room. With generally muted colours, it feels like a train from the early half of the twentieth century, depicted in an art style from the same period. Objects placed within this environment such as chairs, tables, sinks, books and fruit are represented either in a similar style or else more vibrantly coloured with aliased black borders that put me in mind of old Windows 3.1 icons.
The various characters are given two types of illustrations, one for their sprites and another for their dialog portraits. For the room models, spiritual characters like Isabelle and the Carrion glow and have an almost cartoon-like quality. Humans have blocks of colour with very little detail, as if they were pasted together from shapes cut out of construction paper, resulting in a very pleasing style. Regardless of species, they do tend to be more vivid than the train itself, standing out from the backgrounds smartly. Animation is minimal throughout, consisting almost exclusively of limited frames of people walking as they otherwise slide across the screen.
The portraits are more hit-or-miss than their in-game counterparts. For Isabelle and the Carrion, larger versions of their sprites are used, while the human characters have been further delineated with inked outlines and additional facial features, with mixed results. Characters such as the Conductor and Mrs. Heart fare quite well with the added detail, where others like the movie star Matilda Valentine, the soldier Sergeant Johns, and even Conway himself, to an extent, look incomplete or oddly proportioned. Initially I found the various visual styles distracting, but by the end of the first chapter I’d gotten used to it. Interestingly, some of the more glaring differences only appeared post-launch, as the developer introduced a bolder art style for certain elements than the more subdued original design.
I have a high tolerance for bad voice work in games. It’s interesting then that in a game with no actual voices, I found myself hunting for the mute option inside of five minutes of playing. Dialog is presented as white text at the bottom of the screen, accompanied by Charlie Brown-esque “mwah-mwah-mwah” mumbles for each character to give a sense of what they sound like. I found these sounds so grating that I had to turn them off. This was controlled by a menu option labeled “Sound Effects”, which probably means that I missed out on other ambient effects as well. Given how distracting the voice effects were to me, that seemed a fair sacrifice.
Subtitles use the RPG-style approach of displaying one character at a time instead of all at once. Fortunately the reveal speed is very zippy and I never found myself waiting for lines to finish being typed to read them. The dialog is also complemented by a close-up static portrait in one corner of the screen. It’s a nice touch, although I would have preferred various coloured text be used for different characters to help further distinguish who was talking. What they have to say is often entertaining, moving, or at the very least informative. A fair number of typos have found their way into the script, though, which had a tendency to bounce me out of the story whenever I encountered them.
Even with the voices / sound effects turned off, I still had musical accompaniment throughout the game. The background tunes all fit nicely with the implied time period for the train. While it doesn’t quite sound like live orchestration, the semi-classical tunes do a good job matching the events transpiring on-screen, growing more tense when the Carrion are up to their nefarious deeds and more laid back when doing general investigation.
Adventures of Isabelle Fine: Murder on Rails has a lot of good elements. Certainly its most impressive are the interesting characters, engaging dialog, and most especially its body hacking approach to interviews. Even the mini-games that form the bulk of the gameplay in the second half are varied and at least initially rather fun to play. However, the constant repetition of these activities before moving onto something else quickly becomes wearisome, tainting the experience of later chapters. The abandonment of the human characters and their subplots in favour of the underdeveloped and unresolved Carrion storyline is not so much aggravating as disappointing, particularly as it brings such a radical change of gameplay as well. With the promise of another installment coming in 2020, Isabelle and Conway’s adventure could yet become something special in the detective genre with the right balance of mystery and sci-fi elements. As it stands, however, with such tedious repetition and a lack of resolution it’s hard to provide a ringing endorsement of this first outing on its own.