Based on the novel of the same name, Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express brings players into the mystery as an Orient Express employee named Antoinette. During the train ride, a murder occurs and then an avalanche blocks the train's path -- leaving it immobile in the middle of Europe. Antoinette's mission to solve the crime is aided by the legendary detective, Hercule Poirot, who although is injured and bed-ridden throughout the game, can still offer hints and tips to stumped players. David Suchet, an actor who portrays Poirot in the A&E television series, lends his voice to the game as the dedicated detective. Gamers navigate Antoinette through three different environments: the train, the area around the avalanche, and a train station in Istanbul. Players must interact with over 20 different characters and collect clues that help the protagonist solve the crime.
If you've heard of at least one of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels, chances are it'll be Murder on the Orient Express. Makes sense, then, that The Adventure Company decided to choose this title as the next installment in their ongoing Poirot game adaptations. With such a popular story, and thus a wealth of content possibilities for the game, you'd think that the final product would be genuinely entertaining, but unfortunately what's been churned out will be hard-pressed to satisfy even the series' most die-hard fans.
Murder on the Orient Express plays like a generic point and click adventure, with mouse clicks dictating the movements of the main character, Antoinette Marceau, who happens to be a rather upper-class female member of the train company that runs the Orient Express in this case. Yes, it's unfortunate that no direct control of Poirot himself has been implemented, something sure to cause at least some disappointment to fans expecting to step right into the shoes of the little Belgian chap.
However, there is some method to the developer's madness, as this particular sidestep from the novel's narrative allows for a greater believability of the game's events, with the player's learning curve being reflected in the similarly amateurish actions of Antoinette herself. Even so, there's still plenty of interaction with Poirot, who acts as your guide and mentor throughout the investigation. David Suchet lends his voice talent to the character and does an excellent job of it too, accurately recreating his loveable twisting of the English language and his fascination with the "little grey cells".
Surprisingly, the rest of the cast do a satisfactory job too, with the majority of the spoken dialogue sounding fairly natural and unforced, save perhaps for some of Miss Marceau's crazy accentuations.
Voice acting aside though, it soon becomes apparent that the game has one major problem - it's all set on one train. Yes, the developers obviously tried to get around this sad fact by adding a few little side-areas, such as the starting marketplace and another train station, as well as a snow-covered mountainside, but these only take up a relatively short amount of playtime. When it comes down to it, you're stuck on a (admittedly very opulent) train for several hours with a varied group of equally weird people, such as a governess working in Baghdad and a British army officer returning from India. Now, perhaps in real life, on a real train journey, talking to such an eclectic bunch would be an interesting way to pass the time, but games are meant to provide fun and enjoyment first and foremost, and speaking to fake people on a fake train is nothing more than a vocal chore. Some would argue that it's a vital part of the proceedings to get to know your suspects as deeply as possible, and to a point this is completely true, but then perhaps that's also an argument as to why making Poirot mysteries into adventure games isn't such a good idea in the first place.
Things start to get a bit more interesting when the actual murder occurs, with the change in atmosphere blatantly apparent in both the music and people's behavior, but all too soon the game falls back into a monotonous grind as you go around talking to the same people; asking them all the same questions, nabbing everyone's passports, taking everyone's fingerprints and generally getting rather bored. What's worse is the fact that sometimes people have the habit of mentioning things that haven't actually happened yet, causing a fair amount of confusion and raising some questions about the integrity of the game's programming, leading to a feeling that the developers only took into account one order of doing things and hoping no one decided to do anything differently. One saving grace is the unobtrusive presence of Poirot, resting in his room after handily injuring his ankle. Even though he leaves you to solve much of the mystery for him, you're free to visit him whenever you need a hand with something or a few hints to guide you along, though the amount of help you actually get is cleverly controlled in the form of a challenge he proposes. There's nothing actually stopping you from getting him to tell you what to do, but the sense of satisfaction you get from figuring something out on your own is a big enough deterrent in most cases.
Luckily, you'll find the odd puzzle filtered out from the monotony of constant questioning, and for the most part they're not too bad. Throughout the game you'll find yourself trying to construct a makeshift contraption to heat a scrap of paper to make the ink on it readable, searching for a replacement pipe to fix the heating system in the train to stop everyone freezing to death and piecing together a ripped up letter, among others, all of which provide an enjoyable distraction that helps the adventure flow more smoothly.
The menu interface, on the other hand, could have seen better days. Every item you collect is displayed in the main inventory section, and each can be examined more closely to search for extra clues, something which works well enough. However, sometimes the need to combine items arises, and this is done on a different menu. Each individual item needs to be dragged into a separate box before all the items can be combined at once, a process which is fairly long-winded and could have easily been implemented in the main inventory section to make things much simpler. At least a 'quick shortcut' system has been included to allow for fast travel between different train carriages, something which saves a good deal of time during the constant backtracking.
Visually AWE has done a decent, if unspectacular job, with a believable reconstruction of the Orient Express, and fairly human-looking people to inhabit it. At no point does anything stand out as being exceptional, but collectively the locations turn what is a rather confined and relatively small game world into an interesting place to be, and the soundtrack successfully complements the story's events with some enjoyable, if slightly limited, compositions. In fact, these are the game's best aspects, and their inclusion turns what would have been a complete bore into a much more tolerable adventure.
So there we have it. Murder on the Orient Express is certainly competent and has some nice touches, as well as decent voice acting and a fleshed-out playing environment, that all add up to create a realistic and believable setting which stays pretty true to the original book, save for its own few liberties. However, the very nature of the story does not lend itself well to adventure games in general, hence the monotony of the questioning and a general lack of variety throughout, and as such the final product is more a pain than a Poirot. Competent, but doesn't lend itself well to the genre.
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