The fiancé and I are massive Hercule Poirot fans. We've got all the David Suchet DVD box sets, and regularly snuggle up to watch the portly Belgian employ his little grey cells in the pursuit of MURDER! So, when news that one of author Agatha Christie's best-loved Poirot novels, The ABC Murders, was to be adapted to video game form on the DS, we celebrated by watching the TV version. Rock and roll, us.
The potential was clear: The ABC Murders would be, hopefully, the stunning Professor Layton dressed in new clothes (no doubt way too big to fit). Captain Hastings would replace that kid the Professor spends too much time with, 1930s London would replace the French(?) village St. Mystere as setting, and of course, the great Hercule Poirot himself would replace the top hat-wearing Professor.. Unfortunately what we've got is a game that's nowhere near as good as Layton. But it's not half bad.
Fans will be pleased to know that the game follows the novel's plot strictly. It begins with a letter, from the killer, being sent to Poirot. It is a taunt. The killer will murder someone, and challenges the famous sleuth to catch him. He poses a puzzle, the answer to which is the proposed date of the crime, and even gives a clue to the place, via an old ABC railway guide. This is the killer's trademark, hence his ABC moniker.
ABC goes on to kill again and again, each time progressing one letter down the alphabet. Someone with a surname beginning with B, in a place beginning with B. Then someone with a surname beginning with C, in a place beginning with C. Each time he leaves a copy of an ABC railway guide by the body. Each time he writes to Poirot mocking his inability to catch him. For Poirot this, as anyone familiar with his work knows, simply won't do.
The game can be played with the stylus only. There are three basic investigation techniques: the examine command lets you explore your current location by dragging the stylus over the scene; the question command lets you talk to people, the travel command lets you instantly travel to a destination, and the journal is home to Hastings' observations and Poirot's notes.
While the game sounds impressively freeform, it is in fact frustratingly linear. There are reams of text to read, and, while it's all well written and aptly styled, it's just not particularly fun. Stuff happens, still images of Poirot, Hastings, and the rest of the cast pop up on screen, and you read what they say.
The game tries to pull the wool over your eyes by casting an illusion of choice. But there is no choice. As Hastings, you're able to ask a number of questions, in whatever order you like, but they all result in the same progression of the story. This is probably the result of US developer Black Lantern Studios having to stick to the source material, but the shackles still hurt. At first you think, hey, this is pretty cool, I'm asking questions in whatever order I like, gathering information and what not, and getting on with the story. But then, after about half an hour of private investigation, you realise there's no real benefit to trying to play smart. You may as well just ask all the questions in the order they're presented and then select you're done when you've asked them all, because at the end of the day, the result will be the same.
Like Layton, ABC Murders splices the investigation with impromptu puzzle solving, including matching, multiple choice, time calculation puzzles, money puzzles, logic puzzles, riddle puzzles and travel puzzles. The puzzles themselves, while fitting, aren't up to much. This is not to say they're easy. On the contrary, some are surprisingly hard. Poirot might ask you to work out which route to your destination is quickest - one of those miles per hour conundrums I'm awful at. Or he might ask you to work out exactly when a murder took place, based on witness accounts. Or, a character might ask Poirot to prove his credentials by posing a beard-itcher - one of these in particular had the entire office scratching their head until Seb somehow cracked it.
The problem with the puzzles is they're just not special enough. They're the kind of conundrums you'd expect to see in a GCSE maths exam, not a video game. One of the reasons Professor Layton is held in such high regard is because its puzzles are so ingenious, and make great use of the touch screen/stylus controls. Some of them you'll never forget. The dour ABC Murders' puzzles are instantly forgettable.
Unless you're some kind of genius, many of the puzzles will be impossible to work out in your head. You need to write the clues down and go from there. But there's no notepad option in the game, one that would have allowed you to at least jot some information down. Because of this, ABC Murders is almost impossible to play on the move - a killer for a handheld game.
There's another problem: the examine command. Here, you're able to drag the stylus over the scene, whether it's Poirot's office or the scene of a crime, and expose helpful clues about the case. It's just that they're not helpful at all. They're pointless. There's a sort of side quest logic puzzle, called Poirot's Lost Puzzle, which involves finding scattered additional clues with the examine tool, but you're never motivated to uncover them. And you get little trivia facts about Agatha Christie and the ABC Murders, but again, they're mere side trinkets. Black Lantern missed a trick here. I know Poirot wasn't big on forensic analysis, but still, more could have been done.
Of course, the other issue for many will be that the mystery won't be much of a mystery at all, because, well, you'll know who the murderer is. This won't be the case for everyone, but for many it will be. This makes the "Accuse the Murderer!" ending a bit of a bust. Black Lantern clearly knew this would be the case, and so included a Free Story Mode, a "re-imagining" of the classic story, as an alternative. The characters are the same, but their motives and testimonies are changed, as is the murderer. It's a thoughtful, and welcome, addition.
To be completely fair to The ABC Murders, I took it home and spent an evening with the fiancé working through it. Her opinion: it's good, true to the novel and the TV show, but not as engaging as Professor Layton. This, I reckon, sums it up pretty well. Its flaws will only be forgiven by stringent Agatha Christie fans. Those looking for a game to kill the wait for the next Professor Layton, however, will be disappointed.