Mystery fans will have been keeping an eye on Hercule Poirot: The First Cases following the frightful crime scene that was The ABC Murders. The Belgian detective’s latest arrival on Switch is again courtesy of French publisher Microids, but the developer this time is Blazing Griffin, who have engaged with the Ardennian gumshoe in a very different way.
While Artefact Studio’s The ABC Murders sought to put you in the very shoes of the Northern European sleuth-hound, First Cases puts you in the shoes of, well, you, reading a Poirot novel. If you expect to be solving puzzles yourself – and neither Blazing Griffin nor Microids have done much to discourage that expectation – you will be twizzling your moustache in frustration before Chapter 2. Drop your presuppositions, however, and you will see an illuminating take on the visual novel that plays to the strengths of Agatha Christie’s timeless creation.
The First Cases tells a new Poirot story with all the well-loved tropes of upper-class intrigue, love affairs and feuds, and of course the slaughter of one feckless individual for the sake of our entertainment. You walk Poirot around with the thumbstick in a fixed-perspective 3D setting, examining scenes and talking to people to tease out the story fact-by-fact. This structure is supported by a second interface, the mind map, in which all your facts are organised and planned out on a logical diagram. The loop is walk/examine/talk to add facts to the map, then connect facts on the map to prompt Poirot’s deductions, opening more opportunities to explore the world.
This arrangement makes The First Cases play like a very interactive visual novel rather than an adventure game. Your progress is inevitable and not really down to your wits, but in exchange for ceding that agency, you are spared the adventure-game frustration of getting stuck on one obtuse puzzle for ages. The mind map gives you chance to demonstrate some understanding and logical thinking, but also prompts you both explicitly – with to-do lists and markers to show which connections you’ve already tried – and implicitly – with connections often clued by how neat the line would look on the map. We occasionally fell back on trial-and-error, but the game makes this very bearable, keeping its pages turning just as well as a good book.
This mapping of story details is beautifully suited to the classic detective genre, which is all about a clearly defined mystery and the steady supply of clues and red herrings to the reader. It’s easy to imagine Poirot using this diagrammatic exploration of the plot to sort his ideas and tie up loose ends – or to imagine Agatha Christie doing the same as she writes. It also serves those of us with more modern attention spans than Christie originally wrote for, by summarising what was pertinent in any conversation and adding it to the map. The classic denouement is subverted slightly when you already know what Poirot has worked out, but there’s a user-friendliness in telling the audience once, then telling them what they were told, and the pantomime of fingering the perpetrator is no less fun.
As wonderful as the possibilities are, it doesn’t all work perfectly. The mind map employs a system where a question mark indicates a fact that must be connected to something. That’s fine and helpful – essential to the great usability of the system – but it reads as if you need to actually answer the question that’s written. In fact, you need only find a relevant associated fact, which may not address the question at all. For example, early in the game you need to deduce that certain rooms are closed off because the staff are preparing for an event. Although you can see two locked doors, and are prompted with the question of why they are locked, you cannot connect them to the fact that the staff are busy until you have connected them to one another.
These trial-and-error click-fests are thrown into particularly cringy relief when Poirot finally connects muddy footprints with an adjacent muddy puddle and exclaims loudly to himself, “A moment of genius!” In effect, you need to learn how to read the language of the game, which doesn’t really match an intuitive, plain-English reading. Once you’re over that hurdle, it’s consistent, but it’s a real obstacle to onboarding players.
There are, unfortunately, more shortcomings. While the cast of characters have a suitably prominent place in the game’s interface (a separate tab alongside the mind map), in the game world they have no real existence except as golems to dispense dialogue, appearing and disappearing from the sets as the logic of the plot demands. They stand pointlessly in cavernous rooms, staring, swaying, until Poirot’s mere thoughts cause the world to transmogrify to its next state. Poirot’s “order and method” are present and correct, but the heart and soul are absent.
On there are plenty of positives. The visuals are attractive, if simple, on big and small screens. There’s some stuttering, but it’s infrequent and not too bothersome. Voice acting is extensive and entertaining, if not always intentionally; some of the accents in particular are irresistibly hammy. The mind map interface is smooth and satisfying and the overall feel of the game is like getting comfy with a mystery novel – perfect.
First Cases is a significant change of direction from The ABC Murders, Poirot’s last outing also published by Microids. Stepping comfortably into visual novel territory and casting aside the puzzling that would hold back narrative flow, your fantasy is one not of being Hercule Poirot but rather of enjoying a Poirot novel. The Switch let’s you indulge in that as you would a great book, whether in the wingback of your stately home’s library or, indeed, on the toilet of your bedsit. For storytelling, the game format is ideal – even ingenious. The trademark Christie web of connections between events, evidence and the psychology of the characters is planned out in front of your eyes – either to pore over on a diagram or to stroll through in the neatly presented settings. The game’s main limitations are the inanimate world and workaday writing that fail to lend the sparkle of life to a well-machined story. Nonetheless, while puzzle-loving gamers shouldn’t pick this one up, visual novel fans and Hercule-heads won’t be able to put it down.