Review for Murder Mystery Machine
Connections, connections, connections. That’s what Blazing Griffin’s third-person isometric police drama Murder Mystery Machine is all about. Largely eschewing conventional point-and-click gameplay, the focus here is on gathering evidence, clues and suppositions, and linking them red-thread-style to solve multiple crimes spread over eight cases. But the connections go beyond even that, as through the disparate investigations a broader tale of greed and corruption emerges. It’s a different approach to the mystery genre, and one that pays off handsomely.
Players take on the role of Cassandra Clarke, a recent police academy graduate who’s been assigned as a junior detective in the District Crime Agency. The gig sounds grand, but the DCA is a neglected branch of the force and housed in a barren basement room with only one other employee, the mostly forgotten Detective Nathaniel Huston. Nate is far from welcoming. In fact, he’s almost verbally abusive toward Cass during the pair’s first investigation together, being terse and condescending with her, constantly doubting her judgement, making snide remarks about her level of education and competence, getting her name wrong, and generally belittling her. This is made even more uncomfortable due to Nate being a white man and Cass a black woman.
At the end of the first case – the death of an up-and-coming governor candidate looking to unseat the incumbent – these disturbing dynamics abruptly change, fortunately for the better. Solving the crime vindicates Cass in Nate’s eyes, and the two go on to be proper partners from that point forward. The shift in Nate’s attitude happens a bit too abruptly – and isn’t the only one in the game – but at least the relationship between the two moves onto firmer ground so that the subsequent cases can be enjoyed on their own terms.
Murder Mystery Machine has been structured as a modern-day police procedural, with each of the eight cases being treated as a single episode. They all begin with the exact same introductory cutscene that depicts various crime scenes from across the entire game and red laser-like lines spreading out between them to form an intricate web of connections. Players will begin to uncover similar associations as they delve further into the story. Each mystery begins with the DCA being summoned to a crime scene; encompassing robbery, abuse, missing persons, street gang savagery, coverups, and homicide, there’s a lot of variety in the secrets that need to be uncovered.
At first, each case appears to be its own standalone investigation. However, as the overall plot unfolds over the course of fifteen-plus hours of gameplay, an interwoven tale about the dark secrets of the city begins to shed new light on earlier events, leading to Cass and Nate ultimately confronting the puppet master behind everything.
Individual mysteries are divided into five playable scenes, accessed in linear fashion, with each scene consisting of a single location to search. These locales are presented in an isometric view that can be zoomed in and out to a limited degree. They can also be rotated left or right in ninety-degree increments at the push of a button. This can be useful for revealing new hotspots in the environment, which are signified by small white circles superimposed above them. These appear automatically, regardless of where Cass is standing, until interacted with once, at which point the dot disappears (although the hotspot can still be retried). With no inventory of items or suite of varying actions as is typical in a classic point-and-clicker, the only thing that can be done with these hotspots is to click on them to gain valuable evidence and clues for the game’s mind map deduction boards.
It is these mind maps that form the core of the gameplay, toggled from the current game screen by clicking an on-screen button. As pieces of information relevant to a case are found, either by examining the environment or by talking to suspects, they are added as nodes on that area’s mind map. Each of these consists of a small icon representing a person, place, weapon, motive, or general note and a brief bit of text. Some of these start off related to one another, connected by grey lines. Players must then manually form additional links between the different elements by clicking first on one and then on another. A brief text alert appears when making a noteworthy association that indicates if more investigative avenues have become available in that location as a result.
If this notion of tying together nodes seems familiar, it may be because Blazing Griffin went on to utilize the same idea in Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot: The First Cases. While the mechanics of the two are largely similar, there are some notable differences in the details of their operation. Whether these variations are good or bad is up to personal opinion. I really enjoyed both but I found Mystery Murder Machine to present the more hardcore – and therefore more rewarding – experience.
One key difference is that here players are in control of the layout of the mind map nodes. An icon allows for switching between connection mode and organization mode. When in the latter, nodes can be clicked and then dragged to a different position on-screen. Right-clicking nodes allows for more than one to be selected, although I would have preferred the standard Windows method of clicking and dragging a binding box around all items to be moved. I would also have liked to see the two modes dispensed with entirely, as there’s no reason (at least on PC) why the two operations couldn’t be performed within one control set.
Moving nodes around is of great value, especially later in the game when the cases become more complex and the mind maps are more cluttered. It’s useful to move related or potentially related items together, and there's more opportunity for thinking through the case than the Poirot game, which does not allow nodes to be moved and instead places related ones in close proximity to one another to make it easier to link them.
Another important difference here is that the mind maps have one or more uber nodes to contend with. Within a given scene there are high-level objectives to achieve, such as determining where a crime took place, what weapon was used, and who might be a suspect. These are displayed down the right-hand side of the screen. The ultimate goal of any scene is to connect the correct matching elements to these nodes. For example, a location may provide several potential murder weapons, but the correct one must be deduced and then associated with the weapon node.
Once all of the uber objectives have been linked to a piece of evidence, the mind map can be submitted for evaluation. Here is where I felt this game surpasses Poirot’s. In that one, there are no uber nodes and mind maps are resolved when Poirot says they are, with one specific correct answer the game waits for you to find. Here you have no choice but to put thought into what answers you choose to submit. Get the answers correct and the game advances to the next scene. Get them wrong and you’ll have to review and adjust your links, although the detectives give no indication of which ones are incorrect.
If that’s all there were to it, it would differ little from its successor, but what makes this work better is that you are awarded a letter grade based on how well you did. The more wrong submissions you make, the lower your final score for the scene will be. Similarly, the more hints you use via the on-screen button, the lesser your grade. If there is someone in the room to ask new questions of, or some hotspot that hasn’t been interacted with, a hint will cause the camera to temporarily zoom in on the target to show that’s where you should divert your attention to next. If all room-based hints have been exhausted, clicking the button will temporarily highlight two currently unrelated nodes that can be connected on the mind map. It is entirely possible to do nothing but use hints to get through a crime scene, although that would really defeat the purpose.
The grading system goes farther still. While forming crucial connections will trigger an indication that there’s now more to uncover, lesser connections do not. These are for adding supporting evidence to help strengthen the conclusions drawn. For example, you will find a handgun as a murder weapon and relate it to the appropriate uber node, and that will be sufficient to pass the scene evaluation. However, if you optionally connect a shell casing from the crime scene that matches the caliber of the gun, then that piece of supporting evidence helps to achieve a higher final rating, taking what would otherwise be an A to an A+. Finding these secondary links offers a level of replayability for any scenes in which you don’t score a perfect grade. Getting an A+ rating on all scenes in all cases unlocks additional clothing for Cass and Nate beyond just their standard issue DCA gear.
Other outfits can also be unlocked by finding objects hidden throughout the game that have no bearing on the story. In one scene of each case, there will be a single interactive item that does not show a hotspot circle. However, the keen-eyed sleuth will notice a small sparkle that can be clicked to uncover the missing object for that case. Still more outfits are made available by using all the amenities in the DCA basement. As the game progresses and Cass and Nate close more and more cases, the barren concrete basement fills with souvenirs. The pair also add other things such as pizza, donuts, coffee, a sofa, and ultimately even a chair for Cass. At the same time, the walls become further adorned with photos of crime scenes, suspects, and evidence, all connected by red threads. It’s mostly for cosmetic effect, but it’s a nice touch and the clutter serves to humanize the two characters more.
In addition to Cass and Nate, Murder Mystery Machine features an impressive array of characters. There are no voice-overs, which is a shame, but on the plus side this allowed the developers to make the cast as expansive as they liked. There’s the bereaved widow Rosemary Daniels, who had grown distant from her husband; an abusive father named Marcus Lee, who works at a water treatment plant; arcade owner Jim Swain; video game developer Kevin Ngo; and newspaper editor Clancy Brown, who has a history with Nate – and this just scratches the surface. Each person has their own little individual backstory that ties to the broader narrative unfolding. These are explored by exhausting all the topics in dialog trees to gather the necessary details for the mind maps.
With no close-up portraits even during conversation, characters are depicted as 3D models whose forms have been stylized in a semi-cartoony way with disproportional limbs and facial features. It’s an odd juxtaposition against the moderately more realistic backgrounds, but it certainly gives the game a unique look. People shift about on their feet and make the occasional hand gesture, but visually the presentation is a largely static affair.
Environments are functional, displayed as boxes within which to conduct investigations but not really offering much else. The calls to the DCA take Cass and Nate to the homes of citizens from all strata of society, as well as bars, clubs, diners, hotels, parking lots, city parks, and Jim’s video arcade. There’s quite a number of places to visit, but none of them are particularly memorable. Early on, the cases sequentially move through unique locations, but as the different plot threads come together in the latter half of the game, many scenes get recycled with very few new locales to explore.
On the audio side things are even sparser, with just a single looping instrumental track for the entirety of the game that is suited to the methodical investigation of crime scenes. Despite its repetitiveness, it plays at a low enough volume that it never becomes annoying or intrusive. This gives way to a pulsing rhythm, almost like a heartbeat, when all the links to the uber nodes on a mind map have been formed, perhaps to amplify the tension of whether the links in a submission will be proven right or wrong.
There are a few scattered background effects, like Nate working at his typewriter or Cass operating a computer, but mostly sounds accompany actions or hotspots. Select a spot to walk to and the game plays a boop. Press the button to access the mind map and a click is heard, followed by the scribbling of a pencil. It’s a very austere experience overall, but the lack of distraction helped me focus more on puzzling out the connections that needed to be made between the increasing pieces of evidence.
As with most games these days, this one does not provide free-save ability, only a single progressive autosave. Ordinarily I’m very critical of this as a design choice. Where would we be if the developers of Microsoft Word had decreed that you could only ever save to a single file and it would only happen automatically once an hour? This, however, is the only time it has ever made sense to me not to allow manual saving. The strength of this game is requiring you to be sure of the facts you’re submitting for evaluation at the end of each scene. The ability to record your progress right before a submission in order to keep trying variations to improve your score would completely undermine that objective.
As a bonus for those who do want to improve their scores, after completing the entire game a free play mode is enabled in which any scene can be revisited and tried again. These are accessed from a computer in Cass and Nate’s basement office – the titular Murder Mystery Machine. Within the computer, mousing over individual scenes shows the previous score achieved, and any can be selected to replay. A typical room took me about half an hour to complete the first time through, although with prior familiarity this is greatly reduced for repeated plays.
Although its production values are more limited than Blazing Griffin’s later Poirot game, of the two I enjoyed Murder Mystery Machine more. Having to personally solve the who, what, where, when, and why of each crime raised the stakes and made me feel like I was conducting a real investigation instead of merely following a plot line. However, that’s very much a matter of individual preference. For those who like the reassurance of knowing they have the right answers, the more streamlined First Cases of Poirot might be more to your liking. But those open to the uncertainty and, yes, pressure of not knowing if their crime analysis submissions are correct will really appreciate the experience here, along with the story layers that peel back like an onion to reveal a broader narrative than is first hinted at. Set up in the vein of a television police procedural, Murder Mystery Machine ends with tantalizing hints for future cases for Cass and Nate, and I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed for a season two.