Thank goodness for Nintendo consoles making it easy for gamers to pick a range of moustachioed characters from various spheres of the employment world. If you fancy something a bit more cerebral than plumbing in your portable plaything you might want to check out Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders, in which you play the world’s only famous Belgian, Hercule Poirot.
Based on super crime-writer Agatha Christie’s book of the same name, ABC Murders centres around a mysterious killer who goads Poirot by committing murders of fiendish intricacy, in the hope of stumping the sleuth and winning the day. Of course, your role is to get to the bottom of the string of killings and identify the murderer, although interestingly you don’t play as Poirot himself, but rather his less well-known sidekick Captain Hastings. It makes very little difference to the gameplay who you control to be honest, and playing a side character still means Poirot makes more appearances than in a typical issue of the Radio Times.
The game progresses through a combination of dialogue and riddles, as you interrogate suspects and witnesses to piece together clues that will help you identify the killer. Those of you expecting a Phoenix Wright-style inquiry will be disappointed – there are no advantages to investigating crime scenes, save for collecting Agatha Christie trivia and clues towards a huge super puzzle at the game’s end. To its credit, ABC Murders plays less like the pulpy whodunit it easily could have been, starting slowly and requiring some solid hours of play before getting near the killer.
You’re likely to spend much of that play time scratching your head at one of the game’s riddles. Like the Professor Layton series before it, ABC Murders offers up a brainteaser every now and again to keep you on your toes and press on with the game, though they are much less frequent and certainly not in Layton-like abundance. There are different types of riddles, from logic puzzles to number conundrums, but certain types crop up more regularly than others, particularly travel and time puzzles. Often you’ll be asked to calculate which method of transport will reach your destination quickest, or discern the exact time the murder took place based on the statements from eye-witnesses. Answering these puzzles is usually a matter of writing on the touch screen – pleasingly rendered with paper and a nice wide pen stroke – with few puzzles offering multiple choice selections. Although the handwriting recognition is immaculate, sometimes there’s not enough direction given as to what form your answer should take or how it should be phrased, requiring some irritating repetition of various forms of your answer to get it right. For one puzzle, the answer is “TRADE”, but trying SWAP, SWITCH, EXCHANGE and other variants brings no results.
There’s no immediate penalty for getting a puzzle wrong, which at least limits the frustration on the aforementioned riddle, but it does mean that when a multiple choice question does appear you could just tap each answer and proceed with an absolute minimum of brain engagement. Then again, when you do find yourself up against a real noodle-melter you’ll find there’s no hints to be found at all – entering the wrong answer just returns you to the same screen after a slight telling-off, meaning you often get caught on a story-critical puzzle because there’s no way to back down or receive a clue.
When you do pass the puzzles and head into sections of dialogue, the game shows its strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. The dialogue is generally well written and gives personality to each character, from irritating waitresses to brooding suitors, creating a typically Agatha Christie group of misfits. Each character’s portrait appears on the top screen with their dialogue below, but there’s no different expressions for each emotion, giving them a stony-faced look whether discussing useless maids or the murder of loved ones. The game also repeats introductory dialogue every time you speak to a character without advancing the story, giving the impression of your characters having extreme short term memory loss when quizzing suspects at first. There’s also only one character on screen at a time too, meaning conversations take twice as long as they should whilst you wait for their portraits to swap in and out. For a game that obviously hinges on character and dialogue absorbing you, it’s disappointing to see it lags behind other titles on the system.
It’s a shame to have to highlight these issues as the game itself is decent. The puzzles may be standard fare but they’re certainly less incongruous than Layton’s – Poirot never says “I say, this death reminds me of a rather devious puzzle!” thank goodness – and the voice acting, although sparse, is clear and a notch above Nintendo’s cockney speech, with some atmospheric piano plinking away in the background during puzzles too.
Due to the source material, the plot is engaging enough to keep drawing you in just to see if you can crack it. It’s just a disappointment that so many elements required to make it a truly must-have game are missing – the lack of hints, penalties and slow dialogue sections limit this one to fans of Poirot, Agatha Christie and murder investigation games in general.