I love murder mysteries. All the twists, turns, and tensions of a great whodunit always make for captivating storytelling. And when it comes to writers of gripping crime fiction, none is more well known than Agatha Christie. The best-selling novelist of all time, Christie penned stories that have had readers on the edge of their seats for the better part of a century. There is surely no better source material, therefore, to use as the basis for a mystery adventure game. It’s for these reasons that I was very excited to play Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders this week, an adventure and investigation game developed by Artefact Studio and based on Christie’s novel of the same name.
The game turns out to be a very faithful adaptation of the original story. Belgian detective and crime-solving genius Hercule Poirot, who is perhaps only second to Sherlock Holmes in the ranking of fictional detectives, receives a letter from a self-assured psychopath, identifying themself only as ABC, who challenges Poirot to a game of wits by carrying out a series of systematic murders right under the detective’s nose. There seems to be no obvious link between the murders apart from how each victim’s surname, as well as the town in which they live, begins with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. The killer’s calling card is an ABC railway guide left open near each body (wiped clean of fingerprints, of course), leaving very little for the police to go on.
Developer Artefact Studio was evidently focused on telling the story, taking a more gentle approach that smoothly guides players through the events rather than challenge them with any complex gameplay. Once you enter each area, the gameplay takes form in what is essentially several smaller modes — including observation, thinking, and ‘little grey cell’ deducting — each revealing more clues to help with the investigation upon their completion. Some of these, such as when Poirot is observing a witness or a location, are immensely simple. Observation basically consists of moving your mouse around the screen until it highlights over something and then repeating this until you have found all the visual clues.
The ‘thinking’ puzzles are where I found the majority of The ABC Murders’ challenge to come from. These more traditional puzzles will all revolve around an object — such as a gramophone or a suitcase with a complex lock system —and will require you to either get it working or open it up to reveal some form of evidence. To do this, you will need to solve the object’s intricate mechanisms. I found these puzzles to be well designed and their difficulty level to be well balanced. None of them are too perplexing, but they demand an eye for detail, and a few had me stumped a couple of times. The problem with these puzzles is that they feel too unrelated to the actual mystery at hand. It feels odd that the hardest and most time-consuming challenges of the game aren’t directly tied to solving the main crime, which makes them feel like detours.
During the game, you will receive ego points, which are awarded by how much you act like Poirot. The ego points add a welcome layer of depth when questioning suspects as you will be rewarded more points if you choose a question that most closely resembles Poirot’s style of thinking, thus getting the most informative responses from your subject.
There is also the ‘little grey cells’ screen where you really get to see if your deduction skills match up to those of the moustached hero. This interface, which is based on how Poirot refers to his intellect in the books, is at the heart of The ABC Murders‘ investigative process. You will have to deduce motives, timeframes, and character profiles based on the evidence you have gathered. While these start off very straightforward at first, they soon get much trickier when the evidence starts piling up and there are several ways for it to be interpreted. It’s an effective way of illustrating the character’s mechanical mind and adds a feeling of exciting accomplishment when everything slowly starts fitting together.
There are extra features too, all of which are built to aid you in your deductions and to make it easier for you to keep track of the plot. These include a timeline that updates with all the confirmed actions of the murderer, and individual character bios of all victims, witnesses, and suspects (of which there are many). Another key feature is the reconstructions of each murder, which act as a summary of each crime scene where you gather everything you have found out to guide the unknown assassin through their horrific deed, confirming exactly how the murder was carried out. While they are essentially just a quick recap, I found the addition of these sequences to be a fun and satisfying way to end each chapter. After these reconstructions have been completed in the story, they then become available to view from the main menu, although I honestly never felt any real reason to revisit them after the initial viewing.
The way the game insists on holding your hand prevents you from ever feeling as though you’ve matched the wit and ingenuity of the protagonist you’re controlling. With the exception of some of the object puzzles, this experience doesn’t really allow you to become stuck. When inspecting the dead body of a victim or its surroundings, you are clearly told the specific number of clues you’ll need to find in the frame, so there is never the risk of missing something significant and suffering the consequences later on.
There isn’t a whole lot of adventuring either. The amount of explorable space at any one time is incredibly limited, further creating the impression that you are going on a guided tour of the book scene-by-scene. Any attempt to deviate from the linear path will result in a character interjecting a quick reminder of where you should be heading. There isn’t a whole lot wrong with this, though, as this is the same with a lot of modern point-and-click adventure games, where the focus remains on building a compelling narrative. It’s just a shame that in The ABC Murders case, the lower production values mean that the dramatic scenes don’t have the same craftsmanship as a release from, say, Telltale Games.
Unfortunately, the character animations are a bit too stiff and lifeless, which removes any human element from the interrogation scenes. I only ever knew that a character was deeply upset or that another was confident and relaxed because the game told me. I definitely couldn’t tell for myself with the characters’ overly-simplified facial expressions and movements. Some of the voice acting is a bit shaky, too. Poirot himself sounds fine, but a few of the supporting characters sounded awkward and unnatural. Because of all this, many of the cast feel bland and boring, and the tension of the mystery is somewhat diminished.
The game may seem too short for some players, as well. Personally, I completed it in around 7-8 hours, finishing the main story and unlocking most of the achievements, and I was by no means rushing. The developers have tried to add a bit of replay value with unlockable trophies, but these fail to spark any real interest in replaying the investigation as you will probably find that, due to them being so easy to obtain, you’ve inadvertently achieved all of the trophies the first time round. The very small number of them that I didn’t get on my initial playthrough made starting over seem hardly worth it.
Although it may be starting to sound like I didn’t enjoy the game, in actual fact, I did. Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders appealed to me as both a murder mystery fan and a puzzle game fan. It’s a decent adaptation of a strong story by Christie, and for that reason, it manages to work. That said, the relatively brief length makes it seem like it’s the first episode of a series rather than a standalone game. With this criticism, however, comes a compliment, because if Artefact Studio does decide to make future installments based on some of Poirot’s other escapades, I would be very much interested in playing them. I think that there is still the potential to make a great mystery game from Christie’s work, but for now, The ABC Murders is merely a good one.
This review was based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders will likely please fans of the prolific author's work with its accessibility and faithfulness to its source material. Just don't expect too much of a challenge in the gameplay department.