Genre: Mystery Adventure
Release Date: November 2006
Note: Originally published 21 November 2006
Pity anyone foolish enough willing to adapt a timeless classic of Western literature into a play or movie, much less a computer game. It’s a double-edged sword in that if you adhere too closely to the source material, critics accost your adaptation as an unoriginal vision and if you deviate too far from the source material, you’ve committed literary blasphemy. So into which category does The Adventure Company’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express fall? Well, as Belgian super sleuth Hercule Poirot is not immediately available for consultation, it’s an investigation we’ll have to undertake on our own.
Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (aka Murder on the Calais Coach) was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 and the novel published in 1934. Her canon of work has sold well over one billion copies, been translated into over 100 languages and been adapted for television, radio, stage and even a Japanese anime series.
Murder on the Orient Express (MOTOE) is the third computer adaptation of a Dame Agatha story. The second, And Then There Were None, was published by the Adventure Company in 2005 and eighteen years ago in 1988, The Scoop – an early dos graphic adventure - was published by Spinnaker Software (previously known as Telarium), a company known for converting classic works of literature into interactive computer games. But this is all readily available information that can be Googled by any virtual detective with a quick mouse finger.
MOTOE is arguably Christie’s most well-known novel, mostly attributable to it’s now famous surprise ending. There is, though, a common misconception that the majority of people who will play the game will have also read the novel and though that may have been true ten or twenty years ago, it is also very possible that the game may introduce an entire new generation of people to the story. The novel is also included in the box with the game which begs that age old chicken-and-egg question, should one read the book first and then play the game or play the game and then read the book? We’ll attempt to be of assistance with that decision as we delve deeper into the mechanics of the game.
Take the Last Train to Istanbul and I’ll Meet You at the Station
Due to unforseen circumstances, Detective Hercule Poirot is an unexpected, last-second passenger aboard the famed Orient Express. Also aboard the train is an international assortment of passengers, one of whom – American millionaire Samuel Ratchett – frightened by death threats unsuccessfully propositions Poirot for protection. After the locomotive is brought to a standstill by a heavy snowfall, Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his compartment. It is the perfect example of a locked-room mystery. Or is it?
So the stage has been set and the players are in place. You must now use all of your grey cells to unravel the mystery of who killed Samul Ratchett and why. But prepare to encounter the first major deviation from the novel, for you will play not as Hercule Poirot, as he has been disabled by a sprained ankle caused by the train’s abrupt stop during the avalanche, but instead as Antoinette Marceaua, a new character created specifically for the computer game. Ah, already the blasphemy rears its ugly head, or does it?
Antoinette is actually a composite of two characters from the original novel: a French soldier who appears briefly at the beginning of the novel and, primarily, M. Bouc, an old friend of Poirot’s who is also the Director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. Twenty-six-year-old Antoinette is M. Bouc’s junior clerk and will serve as Poirot’s eyes and ears throughout the course of the investigation. Her thirst for true crime stories and her admiration of Poirot - not to mention the possibilty of her losing her job if the murderer is not apprehended – make her the logical choice. True to the period, she wears ankle-length dresses and is demur in her attitude and speech. As you lead Antoinette through the task of collecting evidence and interviewing suspects, she is often guided by the disembodied voice of Poirot. This WWPD system (What Would Poirot Do?) works well for the majority of the game as we overhear Poirot offering such advice as, “Ah, mademoiselle, do you think Poirot would find this important,” and so on. While I had no problem accepting that Antoinette heard Poirot in her head offering advice, there were moments when I questioned if he were clairavoyant as he offered advice on situations or clues of which he could not possibly have any beforehand knowledge. But what is most important thing here is: does the character of Antoinette work, is she believable? If not, then the entire game is derailed. We’ll reward Antoinette with a resounding thumbs up as not only does she work as a fully-fleshed out character, but is entirely imaginable as a character who could have been created by Dame Agatha herself.
As for Poirot, while he is somewhat relegated to second banana status, he is still a major player. Many of you are surely wondering why not just allow the gamer to play as Poirot? We applied the thumbscrews to producer Mike Adams who responded, “We didn’t want Poirot to be the player-character as it would kind of ruin his ability. He’s too much of a great sleuth to be bumbling across things and getting everything wrong.” So instead, Poirot was turned into a hint system, someone whom Antoinette can go to for advice – and it works wonderfully as we actually do feel as though Antoinette is a conduit to the superior intellect. To further sweeten the pot, after the case is solved, Poirot will grade Antoinette’s investigative efforts based on her dependence of Poirot as a hint system.
But just as important as Antoinette’s believability is our acceptance of Poirot, and all you need to know is that he is voiced by David Suchet, famed for his BBC television portrayal of Poirot. I bow to you sir. In over twenty years of gaming, never before have I been so enthralled with a character. Mr. Suchet’s voiceovers are so effortless and flawless that it puts the rest of the industry to shame. He has set new standards and unlike most name actors who just want to make a quick buck off the gaming industry, it’s apparent that much dedication and care was devoted to reading his lines.
As for the remaining characters – and there are twenty-five in total – they without fail remain faithful to their original descriptions. The multiple dialects and accents are all convincingly voiced and the lip-synching is spot on which is a major plus, especially as the majority of adventure games rely heavily on dialogue and MOTOE probably has more than any game you’ve ever played. Dialogue and subject matter remain appropriate to the period, so much so that when the American Mrs. Hubbard threatens to contact her lawyer over the train’s delay, it smacked more of an anachronism and stuck out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, there are also such gems as a character comparing her situation to being stuck inside a snow globe.
Graphics are head and shoulders above And Then There Were None. Character models that were a step belowMadame Tussuad’s Wax Museum are now, thanks to an increased graphics resolution, more expressive and lifelike. Eyes blink, mouths move and the fingers on hands are distinct. There are also small, but impressive touches such as Antoinette leaving footsteps in the snow that are then covered over by the unrelenting blizzard. It does appear that some of the graphics towards the end of the game suffer when compared to the rest of the game, but the overall effect is that of a faithful recreation of the period and a train that oozes elegance.
Though our character has unlimited freedom in regards to movement, the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped on a train is nicely recreated in no small measure thanks to the cinematic effect of constantly shifting camera angles. Writer/designer Lee Sheldon has used his television experience to good effect as long shots, overhead views and close-ups are all expertly employed to create drama in usually static situations, such as the simple act of speaking to another character or just walking through the train. Cut-scenes – and shame on you if you skip them – are extremely cinematic and serve to provide drama rather than advance the story. Instead, story progression is triggered through your discoveries and investigations.
The Midnight Train to Istanbul
Contrary to what you may remember, MOTOE does not entirely take place on the Orient Express and in fact it is not until the end of the second chapter that Poirot actually boards the train. The game likewise begins outside the train, but I only mention this because during the course of the game there is another major deviation from the book as Antoinette can eventually exit the train during the course of her investigation. As to where she goes and what she uncovers, that is for you to discover when you play the game, but while it in no way alters the original story, it does play a major role in the new ending which we will discuss later.
The puzzles are not difficult, but neither are they ridiculously easy (In the interest of fairness, I must confess that I reread the book immediately before playing the game and this may have made some of the puzzles seem easier than they actually are). Almost all are inventory-based, though there are some mini games that will have you reconstructing torn letters or cracking a safe. Hot spots are easily identifiable as this game is not about annoying pixel searching, but rather deciphering how to interpret the evidence. Constant interrogation and interviews are a must, especially once you uncover new clues as characters will travel between cars or return to their compartments (though we never see them actually do so). Most important of all, though, is that the puzzles are always logical and contextual. For example, early in And Then There Were None, there is a scene in which the protagonist must search the guest’s rooms while they are dining. While the game allows him to ‘borrow’ letters and personal belongings from their rooms, it will not allow him to open and search their suitcases as they might notice something is missing. Not only totally illogical, but also not true to the spirit of the game or novel. In MOTOE we have a scene in which Antoinette listens at the door of each guest’s room in an attempt to overhear private conversations. At the end of the corridor sits the conductor, blissfully oblivious to Antoinette’s surreptitious activities. Or is he? Again, I’ll not spoil it for you, but the situation is wonderfully handled and totally in accord with the tone of the game.
As the list of evidence and interviews grows quite large, a Calais Coach Manuscript provides a helpful list of who occupies what cabin, personal bios and other useful information. Inventory items can and should be inspected more closely with the magnifying glass and can also be combined to form new items. There is, though, one huge oversight that is detrimental to solving some of the puzzles. There are numerous actions in the game that are automatic such as opening doors and other such mundane activities. But there are also occasions – and one in particular that led to hours of frustration on my part – where a character will request a specific object. If you have the object in your inventory, he takes it automatically. But he then asks for another object – without specifically identifying it – and though I had it in my inventory, what had previously been an automatic action, had now become a manual action as I had to literally offer him the item. Instead, not being aware that the rules of the game had suddenly changed, I spent over an hour searching for an item that was already in my inventory. Similar examples occur regularly throughout the game, though never as frustrating as that first time. For example, Antoinette will automatically don her winter coat when she exits the train, but you must manually equip her with her snowshoes to walk across the snow. This is very shoddy programming that mars an otherwise well-constructed game.
Usually, the only forbidden subject in any review is to discuss a game’s ending, but we intend to break that rule and hopefully, not provide any spoilers. But, if you are not aware of the game’s famous conclusion, then you may want to skip to the final analysis. You’ve been warned!
C’mon Baby, Do the Locomotion
So you’ve collected all of the evidence and interviewed all of the suspects. What is left but to accuse and apprehend the murderer? But strangely, instead of enjoying the ending I found myself mildly disappointed as I wanted to - much like a game of Clue – be offered the opportunity to accuse a suspect based on the evidence, even if it were the wrong suspect, but instead felt as though I were being led by the nose to the finish line as my only option was to provide the correct responses to a list of questions presented by Poirot. It seemed very unsatisfying and anti-climatic. I no longer felt as if I were actively solving the mystery but had become an observer instead.
The original novel also offers two solutions and the game has seen fit to add a third. While the extra ending is sensible and a natural extension of the story, I don’t see that it was necessary. Those who have read the book are playing the game for the experience of being actively involved in a book they already know and love; for those who have not read the book, well, the extra ending won’t really mean much. Lastly, I would have loved to view a cut-scene of the actual murder occurring as, for me, that has always been my most lasting image from the 1974 movie version of the book.
Final analysis: if you have read the book, you should still enjoy the game and appreciate both the faithfulness to its source material and the liberties taken with the material. If the game is your first exposure to MOTOE, then it is most likely inevitable that you will then want to read the book. Personally, I had never read a Christie novel until viewing the film version of Murder on the Orient Express and that led to my reading every Hercule Poirot novel I could get my hands on. How ironic and wonderful would it be if a computer game were to inspire a lifelong interest in Agatha Christie’s works among a new generation of readers, and where better to begin than with a game that, even with it’s faults, is still the best adventure game of 2006.
Final Grade: A-