Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Release date: January 28, 2016
French publisher Microïds, perhaps best known for character-driven adventures such as Syberia and Still Life, has used its talents this time to conjure up a familiar face. Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders adapts the exploits of Hercule Poirot, Christie’s infamously eccentric Belgian sleuth known best for his adventures on the Orient Express and the Nile. The resulting game is slow and methodical, but ultimately a faithful portrayal of a much-beloved character.
Christie diehards will be familiar with the case behind The ABC Murders (it’s one of the more commonly adapted Poirot stories and has already been made as a movie and a radio drama), but for those gumshoes new to the streets: Hercule Poirot receives a mysterious letter in the mail one day from someone calling himself A.B.C., claiming he will commit a murder in the town of Andover a few days hence. Sure enough, a tobacco shop owner named Alice Ascher turns up dead and Poirot is called in to investigate the crime he should have seen coming. Readers of the book will find that the story sticks closely to Christie’s blueprints, which means that it’s filled with enough twists and turns to satisfy while creating an explanation that blooms naturally from the bedding of evidence we’re given. The plot is engaging and fair, a tricky combination in any mystery game.
Artefacts Studios' most successful accomplishment when creating The ABC Murders was in constructing the character of Hercule Poirot. His visual identity is spot-on—he is squat, heavily mustachioed and moves slowly, with purpose (it’s frustrating but fitting that whenever you double click to make Poirot run, he only begins striding with a brisker pace). The game, in turn, is slow and methodical — there are no chases or shootouts, and the biggest race against time involves departing to catch a train, which itself will take hours to trundle to the next English countryside.
Poirot’s idiosyncracies are pronounced in the way the player interacts with objects and characters in the game world. Whenever he converses with a suspect, words denoting the person’s mood —“sincere," “sarcastic,” “contemptuous”— appear behind his/her head, allowing the player to negotiate and goad and supplicate as necessary to get the desired information. Before speaking to someone, Poirot can “examine” that character and focus in on mannerisms, expressions, and body language to determine what the character might be thinking or feeling (one satisfying little touch: Poirot can read his right-hand man Arthur Hastings’ mood without needing to inspect him, a testament to their many years of close partnership). Everything about the design and the gameplay experience contributes to Poirot’s meticulous, eccentric character.
The puzzles in The ABC Murders come in two major styles: logical and spatial. The logical puzzles, which require the player to use information from the case to deduce answers to central questions about the crimes, are the most engaging. After searching an area or talking to a suspect, Poirot will often engage in “Little Grey Cells” mode (an allusion to the character’s term for his own remarkable brain) and be presented with a conundrum, such as “where was this character the night of the murder?” He will then have to sort through the mess of observation and testimony he’s collected and select the relevant pieces to arrive at the answer. I found this both a fun logical challenge and a smart way to be sure I understood all the plot developments as they happened.
The spatial puzzles consist of some object in a suspect’s home — a wardrobe, a jewelry box, a tabletop — being filled with elaborate secret panels, switches, codes, and buttons that need to be discovered by fiddly observation and activated properly to open the container. They're often fairly simple but add some variety, with the amusing side effect of suggesting a bygone era where even the poorest tobacconist or waitress can afford to own unique handcrafted boxes and cabinets to hide her paltry secrets. A few of the spatial challenges had me scratching my head, and one task in particular that involves comparing notes written by the killer has to be completed three separate times, which felt excessive; but overall, the puzzles are engaging, though not too challenging.
Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders is a charming and loyal depiction of Hercule Poirot, and fans will enjoy getting to step into the detective’s shoes. But after the 6-7 hours of gameplay (which some might find slight for the $30 price tag), I felt overwhelmingly that I had experienced Poirot Lite. You spend the game on tight rails, gently guided through deductions until you reach the well-constructed and logical solution. The experience reflects an instinct in modern media to tell the stories of geniuses by helping the audience to understand these great minds that capture our imaginations. The BBC TV show Sherlock, one of the most popular and well-received adaptations of a detective story in recent years, uses many of the same tactics. When Holmes’s eyes dart around a room, his observations float in the air, visible to the viewer, so that we understand his inferences and actions throughout the investigation. This is an idea totally divorced from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, wherein Holmes would keep his deductions to himself until he felt it was most advantageous to reveal them, to the general surprise of everyone present. Even his closest confidante, Watson, was often left guessing until the end what his partner was thinking. But as Poirot’s knowledge of the investigation in The ABC Murders advances, so does ours. We are always comfortably being pulled by the hand into the next deduction.
What makes characters such as Hercule Poirot so timeless and unforgettable is the fact that they are always ten steps ahead of us, seeing things we would never notice and connecting the dots long before the truth stares us in the face. This presents a challenge to game-makers — as we control these characters’ actions, do we need to understand their reasoning? Not necessarily — there have been other games that manage to involve players in the process of investigation while keeping them in the dark about the solution (for the most successful example in the past twenty years, check out Mythos Software’s DOS classic The Case of the Rose Tattoo). To capture the magic of these untouchable greats is to preserve the feeling of the stories that introduce them, where we could watch and admire the characters but never truly inhabit their psyches. They are remarkable precisely because they are unknowable .
+ Charming and accurate depiction of Hercule Poirot
+ Tight plot with an interesting and earned conclusion
+ Logical puzzles are fun and keep the player engaged in the case
- Slow pace
- Game keeps you on tight rails and can feel indulgently easy
- Fairly short (6-7 hours of gameplay) for the $30 price