Review: Murder on the Orient Express (PC)

Murder on the Orient Express
Publisher: Dreamcatcher
Developer: Awe Games
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 11/22/2006

Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most famous murder mysteries ever written and is arguably Dame Agatha Christie’s most famous work. It features her most famous character Hercule Poirot, a stout Belgian detective with a well maintained mustache. After And Then There Were None was announced as a video game, there was little doubt that MotOE was next. It’s been made into films and single handedly lifted the Orient Express into pop culture forever.

The most interesting aspect I learned about this game during production was that David Suchet would be voicing Poirot. Now for those of you unaware of this actor, he is as synonymous with Poirot as Christopher Reeve is with Superman. Suchet has played Poirot for 15 years straight, starting first in 1989 on PBS’s MYSTERY! series and going until this year when A&E unexpectedly and dramatically pulled funding for the BBC’s Poirot series, with 12 Poirot adventures left to film. Needless to say this has left long time Suchet, Christie, and Poirot fans pretty upset as the show was quite popular. I guess A&E needed more money for their usual high class intellectual fare like Dog, the Bounty Hunter. Ah for the days when A&E was one of the elitist channels, no? This is especially unfortunate as one of the tales that Suchet never got to do was Murder on the Orient Express. This means this video game is the only way to see, er, HEAR Suchet’s Poirot is his most famous case. If you’re a fan of the series, I’d suggest writing, emailing, or calling A&E and asking them to restore funding for the show as the BBC can’t do it alone.

The final extra provided by Dreamcatcher for this game was an unabridged copy of the original Christie novel. I can’t tell you how great an idea this is, and I wish more gaming companies would do this. This is one of the most influential and famous books ever written, and this insert ensures a lot of gamers who have never picked up a Christie novel will be hooked on her writing. C’est Magnifique Dreamcatcher. They also did this with And Then there Were None. This act alone deserves high praise as I’d like to think of gamers restoring their reputation as intelligentsia rather than the “OMG! Sony RULZ! I’m so 133T! ROTFLAMO!” the audience has degenerated into.

Now that we’ve got the token “Save Poirot!” speech out of the way by a guy who hasn’t watched TV since he moved from England (IRONY!), it’s time to look at Murder on the Orient Express and see if as good a game as it is a book.

Let’s Review

1. Story

The plot of the Orient Express is classic. Poirot boards a train known as the Orient Express from Istanbul heading towards London. On board a man named Ratchet stops Poirot and tells him he has an enemy that is trying to kill him. Ratchet asks Poirot to protect him. Poirot refuses, feeling that there is something evil and inhuman about Ratchet. The next day, there is an avalanche blocking the trains progress and during the night, Ratchet was murdered. Everyone on board becomes a suspect as Poirot attempts to solve the murder before the plow removes the snow blocking the tracks, as well as before the Yugoslavian police become involved. The ending is one of the most complex and bizarre in murder mystery fiction, but it’s well done and no matter how good of a mystery reader you are, you never quite guess the truth your first time reading the novel.

The game, like any adaption of classical literature has changed aspects of the plot, but left the fundamentals the same. The game introduces a new character, Antoinette Marceau for you to play as and interact with all the characters from the novel. One could quibble that introducing her changes the little things like who is roomed with who and the placement of people on the Orient Express int he game from where they were in the book, and I’m sure that hardcore fans will do just that, but these little tweaks didn’t bother me at all.

What did bother me was that Antoinette becomes the main character and that Poirot is regulated to an advisory role and spends 95% of the game in his private room nursing an injured ankle. I thought this was both disappointing and lame. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have been playing as Poirot himself, gathering the clues, interrogating the passengers for information and putting things together. it would have worked just fine int he context of the game and it really deflated my enjoyment of the game to see Suchet’s Poirot reduced to basically comic relief and hint giver on how to proceed. It would be like playing say, a Spiderman video game and going through the whole thing as Flash Thompson. I can understand why they added a new character for And Then There Were None, because you had to to make the game playable, but here? There was no need. it just came out insipid for me.

The other big big BIG change was the tweaking of one character’s background in order to create a new ending to the game that differs greatly from the book. Now, the original endings of the book and the solution(s) to the crime are brought up and given screen time to, but then out of nowhere comes a bizarre shock twist ending that was no doubt to give the readers of the Novel a surprise. The problem is the ending is so contrived and cheesy that it made me roll my eyes with its “happy good time hug and dance jamboree.” The original ending is dramatic and unique enough that it could have been left alone. This new ending made for the game left me as cold as having to watch Poirot sit on the sidelines.

Murder on the Orient Express had a great deal of promise. It’s one of the most famous and loved novels ever. The was no need to tweak it or make the changes they did, as each major change to the story rather ruined it for me. Still, I’ve read the book two or three times in my life and so I’m almost certainly biased against the changes because they’re not what I remember or expected. For people that have never read the book, they won’t mind at all and will probably enjoy the changes because they’re going in on a clean slate. I do recommend reading the book first, as you’ll be amazed with how well Awe did with transcribing the dialogue and that several puzzles in the game come directly from the book instead of being tacked on.

In all, regardless of whether you’ve read the book or not, the game’s plot is well done and deserving of praise. If you have read the book however, you’ll find that due to some character changes and the distinct lack of Poirot doing well, anything of substance, will drag down the perceived quality of the title. It’ll still be good, but it won’t be able to measure up to the timelessness of the novel.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

I wasn’t too impressed with the visuals here. Adventure games, due to the low calibur nature of the engines for these games, tend to have mind blowing graphics. Here though, not so much. The game is decent looking, but a lot of the character models are very plain and almost robotic. The worst example of this is Antoinette herself,t he character you are playing as. She almost always has a glassy robotic stare and jerky movements. Most of the character models look like they were designed back in 1999-2000. Everything looks and feels dated visually and the game’s characters just looked and felt off to me. It was as if the game was performed by a cast of marionettes.

Even the backgrounds, which as almost always highly detailed in Adventure games, are rather drab and nondescript here. The whole game came off very blase to me visually, and I was very disappointed that 1930’s Eurasia wasn’t better represented to the player here.

This isn’t to say that the game is ugly or poorly done graphics-wise. It’s just exceedingly mediocre. After playing through Tunguska a little bit ago, the difference in graphics quality between these two Adventure games is highly apparent.

Totally average visuals. A disappointment here.

Graphics Rating: 5/10

3. Sound

The voice acting of Orient Express is by far its strongest point. I’ve already pointed out that Suchet is playing Poirot once again, and he does a magnificent job here as always. The rest of the cast is unknown to me, but they did an excellent job as well.

Generally you will see me bitch about games with an international cast of characters and how the voice actors will all sound American. Not so here. Every character here has an accent and speech pattern similar to what would actually find in their country of choice. Mario-esque Itallian accent? Check. Russian accent? Check. British accents? Check. French accents? Again, check. They’re not perfect accents, but they are passable and it really helped to recapture my attention by seeing the wide range of voices the game had to offer and how well these actors portrayed their characters from the novel. It was as good as some of the Poirot TV episodes so tres bien to the cast for really doing an A+ job here.

There isn’t much in the way of music here, which is common with Adventure games. There’s music at the beginning and end of the game, as well as music when you boot the game up or let the credits roll. The music is forgettable due to how little one will hear it whilst playing, but when it is there, it does fit the mood of the game rather well.

Highest possible rating here and I could live with this cast doing an actual “Made for TV” version of the story. Just please nix the new ending if it happens, okay?

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Thank whatever deity you worship for the set of train cars that appear at the top of the screen. This cuts down on about half of the repetitive walking you’ll have to do in this game. These cars will transport you instantly to the actual car you want to go to instead of forcing you to click click click your way through many screens to get there. The problem with the cars though is that for a good part of the game you’ll have to pull down suitcases from the luggage racks in each room and the luggage is always at the top of your screen, which sometimes brings up the train cars that allow you to move. Precise button placement is needed otherwise you’ll find yourself someplace far from where you want to be. This was annoying as hell the first two times I accidentally did this. I never let it happen a third time though.

Even with the train car option, there’s still a lot of mindless repetition here. Some gamers will most likely loathe having to be in the same five train cars for 7-8 hours with no new graphics or characters. Remember though, this game takes place solely on a train trapped by an avalanche. You have to expect this going in.

I also wasn’t a fan of the point and click interface here. Again, I’m probably spoiled by Tunguska which had a built in fail safe against the most annoying aspect of adventure games: trying to find the exact right spot to click on the screen in order for something to happen. I found that is some of the more detailed puzzles, I would have the right part and be clicking on the right object, but the game would tell me, “non.” when if I moved my mouse a fraction of a centimeter over, it would take the part and allow me to proceed. If this was a more action based game, we’d say the collision detection is slightly off here and tend to annoy the player.

For the most part though, the controls of the game are as solid as any adventure game. You’ll only be using the mouse for all actions. You’ll be clicking on items to pick them up or use them, clicking on people to talk to them, and so on. Most of the controls are easy to pick up and highly intuitive.

The problem is simply the gameplay. I realize Awe tried to recreate the flow of the book, but it just didn’t come out right in the end. This is similar to another Dreamcatcher published title called, Necronomicon. It looked like a Lovecraft story, it played out like a Lovecraft story, it even FELT like a Lovecraft story, but in the end the latter is what killed the game. What worked in a book created a plodding, boring, “GET ON WITH IT!” feeling as your character spent 9/10th of the game reading. This same effect happens here in Orient Express. Poirot will say “Go investigate!” You’ll walk up and down all the cars, gathering clues and information from passengers. You’ll report back to Poirot and then he’ll tell you to do it all over again. This will happen roughly a dozen times and the game is over. That’s right. It is a repeating loop. Worse, if you miss even a single clue in the section of the plot, you can’t advance. Due to the weirdness and lack of logic with some of the puzzles and items to gather, you may find yourself backtracking repeatedly to find a single clue you missed, only to have it turn out to be something already in your possession that you just didn’t use the freaking magnifying glass on to pick up a clue.

In other words, Controls were good, but had some issues with being a little too precise with item handling, but the gameplay sucked a lot of the fun out for me, and I’m a big Adventure game fan. If it was too repetitive for me, I worry how other more casual gamers will react to the game.

Control & Gameplay: 5/10

5. Replayability

Sadly, like most Adventure games, there is none. Everything is rigidly linear with no room for the slightest deviation. Once you beat the game, there’s no reason at all to go back to it unless you really enjoyed the story. Generally most “play it through once and you’re done” style games get a three from me here, because the plots of most adventure games are pretty enjoyable. Here though you have the opportunity to read the novel, and at only 322 pages, the novel should take as long if not less than the game and you’ll get more detail and story that way. Honestly, there’s no reason to play the game at all once you’ve beaten it because you can always turn to the novel or watch an episode of Poirot if you really want to see Suchet at his finest.

If you could rent PC games, I’d suggest it. But for $29.99 and you can get the better version of the story for oh, $2-5 from a book store, I think you know what way I’d want you to go.

Replayability Rating: 1/10

6. Balance

Generally adventure games are chock full of puzzles designed to test your brain power. Here, however, there are only three such puzzles in the entire game. One is easy, one is easy to gather the parts but the game implies you just need to gather the parts and not put them together so you’re a little stumped when you have everything and Poirot is like “You don’t have everything.” The final puzzle involves fixing a ham radio using some very out of the box and slightly illogical methods to achieve. The rest of the game suffers from the same fatal flaw as Necronomicon which I mentioned earlier in this review. Instead of reading tons of stuff, you’re just rummaging through other people’s belongings and constantly talking, talking, talking.

You’re not so much playing this game as you are chatting with characters and waiting for when Poirot will allow you to move on to something else. That something else of course will be more chatting and suitcase looting, but hey! It’s still a slight deviation.

The game’s not hard at all, as the only thing that can block you is missing an item that you need to pick up to proceed. The puzzles aren’t hard either. Just remember that if you get stuck, it’s almost certain you have the right parts, you’re just not clicking in the exact right spot.

Balance Rating: 5/10

7. Originality

Most of the game is ripped directly from the book. The characters are (mostly) the same. A huge chunk of the dialogue is verbatim from the novel. The game is a pretty faithful adaptation to Christie’s most famous work. It’s also a paint by numbers Adventure game with no real innovation to the genre. There are some changes to the plot for Originality’s sake, but I’m not a fan of most of the changes. Still, they did give me pause as I ran through my memory trying to recall if these things actually happened in the book or not. It is nice that the game tried to give readers of the novel something new. I can’t deny that.

There’s nothing that’s going to blow a gamer away here. Some of the gameplay is a step back from other Dreamcatcher releases, and the new bits will more than likely annoying those familiar with the book and mean nothing to people who are new to this story. In all, this is a very by the book game, and it shows.

Originality Rating: 3/10

8. Appeal Factor

I know at least one person is buying this game for a parent because said relative is a big Agatha Christie fan. This game is going to bring in a lot of her readers who haven’t played video games very much, if at all. Those readers will find an easy to handle control system, a familiar and enjoyable plot with some new twists, and they might become converts to Adventure gaming. That’s wonderful and I really hope this scenario plays out over and over again. To Christie fans who are long time gamers, this will likely be a game they find mediocre at best and even somewhat trite. Adventure game mainstays will probably be split with how they view this game as well. It’s decently done, but it offers no real puzzles and too much of the game is talking and little else.

It’ll be interesting to see how the game is taken to by Christie fans, Adventure games, and reviewers in general. It’s almost guaranteed that sites like Just Adventure and Game Boomers will give the game a high score, as they tend to do that with EVERY Adventure game, while Gamespot will probably give the game a 3-5, as they also tend to do that with EVERY Adventure game. No genre divides the American Gaming media review score wise as the Adventure genre does. If the thought of an Agatha Christie video game interests you, then by all means pick it up!

Appeal Factor Rating: 5/10

9. Addictiveness

I have to admit, reviewing this game was less of a chore for me than playing through it. That sounds awful, but it’s the truth. I generally enjoy Adventures for the brain teasers. There weren’t many in here. I love most Adventure game stories. I really didn’t like the changes here to the story. Adventure games usually wow me with their background graphics and cut scenes. here I was disappointed with both. I loathed having to look through every room in every car of the train over and over again in an attempt to find some minuscule object I missed on my last walkthrough. I just felt it was too plodding and boring for my tastes. Remember, I generally love mystery games, but this game felt like I was clicking my mouse button and little else. I was pretty excited for this game in concept, but after having played through it, I think Christie’s legacy will be served much better by doing some original story for Poirot rather than a straight up adaptation of one of her works.

Addictiveness Rating: 3/10

10. Miscellaneous

I won’t lie. I’m giving bonus points for the inclusion of the book and because this is probably the last time I’ll get to hear Suchet reprise his role of everyone’s favorite Belgian. However when the two nicest things I can say about a game is that it comes with a free book and that they got the best voice actor they possible could for a single role, that’s not much of a thumbs up for a game, now is it?

It’s not that this game is bad. It’s just that there are so many better Adventure games that came out this year that really make Orient Express pale by comparison. Scratches, Barrow Hill, Secret Files; Tunguska, Pathologic, and others are worth your dollar far more than this game. This game does very little wrong, but there’s so little it does right, or even enjoyable, than I can’t recommend it at all.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

The Scores
Story: 7/10
Graphics: 5/10
Sound: 10/10
Control & Gameplay: 5/10
Replayability: 1/10
Balance: 5/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 3/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 5/10
Total Score 49/100
Final Score: 5.0 (Mediocre)

Short Attention Span Summary
If you’re a big fan of Agatha Christie’s novels and/or characters, you’ll probably get some enjoyment out of this title. However, I have a feeling it will be the people completely ignorant of her works that enjoy this game far more as they’ll be going in blind to the characters and plot of the game. For me as both a long time gamer and Poirot fan, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the end result. It just wasn’t a game that clicked with me for several reasons. Still, it may very well be David Suchet’s last time in the role of Hercule Poirot, and for a select group of people, that’s reason enough to buy this game.