Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun
First posted on 28 February 2008. Last updated on 07 September 2009.
Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun is a third person point-and-click adventure game based on the novel of the same name. It is the third title in the officially licensed Agatha Christie series from The Adventure Company by game designer Lee Sheldon. This time, the storyline involves the retelling of a murder case by Hercule Poirot to his friend Arthur Hastings on the killing of a stage star named Arlena Stuart and how he has solved the case by interviewing suspects and searching for clues at Seadrift Island where the murder has taken place.
Setup for the game is straightforward. The game installs easily and completely so that no disc swapping is necessary during play. Launching Disc 1 brings up the Program Menu with the option to install or uninstall the game. Once installation begins, selected screenshots from the game are flashed on screen, accompanied by a melodic soundtrack. When ready, the game prompts the player for Disc 2 and then Disc 3 to complete the installation. A progress bar monitors the overall status of the install process. After the player clicks on the menu to finish the install, the game will load automatically.
On first run, a credit screen is presented identifying the publisher and the developer. On subsequent runs, the same screen is shown but with an additional logo (of a bird) to symbolize Agatha Christie. From the Main Menu, the player can select Play Game, Load Game, Options, Credits, or Exit. Selecting Play Game will launch the game. The game begins with an opening cut scene in London and a dialog between Poirot and Hastings about the murder case. The graphics in the cut scenes are sharp and the characters are skilfully animated with perfect lip-synch. The evolving dialog sets the backdrops for the story and introduces the player to a novel hint device called the Finger of Suspicion. Throughout the game, Poirot will instruct Hastings via a series of clues on how the Finger of Suspicion actually works. In turn, the player plays the part of Hastings guiding Poirot (as a game to let Hastings solve the case for himself as if he is Poirot) to solve the murder and complete other side quests. This is admittedly an unusual gameplay concept, but it is a concept that works surprisingly well in this game.
Over the course of the game, Poirot will narrate 3 stories (mostly through cinematic cut scenes) over a series of 8 acts outlining events which he will refer to during the game and use to help solve the crime that he is investigating. Poirot's first instruction to Hastings (in actuality, the player) is to explore his office. A context sensitive cursor helps to guide the exploration. The cursor changes to an Eye when an item can be examined, a Hand when an item can be collected, a Cog Wheel when an item can be manipulated, a Door where an entrance or exit exists, and a Mouth when a character can speak. In addition, an in-game taskbar can be triggered to appear on screen any time during play. The taskbar includes a Menu icon to access the in-game menu, a Character icon to access hints, an Inventory icon to access the brief case, a Journal icon to access the notebook, and a Stopwatch icon for timing distances. Poirot also tells Hastings that help is always available in his office if he gets stuck during his investigation.
Once the introductory dialog is finished, the first act will load up. As the player waits, Poirot is seen moving very smartly across the screen, each footstep hitting precisely in time with the sound effect. Thereafter, the game starts for the player for real. Gameplay consists of exploring thoroughly each scene for items to collect, examining them in the inventory, and combining them whenever possible. Each character met by the player must be questioned to exhaustion, and the gamer needs to pay complete attention the whole time so as not to miss a clue. The game can be saved at any time to an unlimited number of save slots. Frequent saving is advised so to catch any missed dialog. When Poirot examines the register in the vestibule, a list of suspects will appear in the notebook. Additional suspects will then be added to the notebook as Poirot meets them over the course of his investigation. There is no option to "jump" instantly to different scenes where the player wants to travel. All the time, the player must wait for Poirot to walk across the screen. However, double clicking will hasten Poirot's steps to the edge of the scene. Pressing ESC during play takes the player back to the in-game menu where the player can select Resume, Save Game, Load Game, Options, or Main Menu (the latter is used to exit the game). Each selection is accompanied with an audible click for feedback. The game package contains an illustrated instruction manual that includes not only full gameplay instructions but also background information on Agatha Christie to introduce any novice gamer who may not be familiar with the series.
The puzzles in this game are of the traditional types typically seen in adventure games, all of which are fairly straightforward. The puzzles are well integrated and their solutions are vital to the progression of the main story. Gameplay is largely nonlinear in that tasks that appear in the notebook can be completed in any order, but the game will not move proceed forward until enough information has been gathered by the player for the next act to commence. At any time, the player can click on the Character icon to return to Poirot's office to obtain a hint or to consult the Finger of Suspicion for the next required action.
Despite the innovative gameplay concept, pacing of the game often falls too slowly. This is because every time a new item is collected, the player must guide Poirot to revisit each game scene to see if the other characters are now waiting to be questioned or if additional items have now appeared. The player has no simple way of knowing when and where the next suspect will be waiting or the next item will be needed. Such frequent backtracking is tedious to the extreme. In situations where no characters is willing to talk and the Finger of Suspicion offers no help, the player must resort to pixel hunting for what is likely a missed item that has halted the game.
The graphics in this game are excellent. Outlines of buildings are sharply drawn and defined; scenes from the mainland are a beautiful array of color and texture. Leaves sway in the breeze, clouds scud across the sky, and waves lap at the beach. Background sounds play along in keeping with the scene, with melodic music appears only when appropriate. All the characters in the game are rendered to great details. Facial features are realistic and almost of photo quality with frowning brows, raised eyebrows, and blinking eyes. The game stays true to the historical theme of the 1940s with 1 glaring exception: Poirot buys a book in the library for 50 pence (a very careless mistake on the part of the developer)!
There are no stressful timed sequences or gratuitous violence in this game. The biggest thrill comes when the Cog Wheel icon appears. Although the main quest of the game is to solve the murder case, the game also includes several side quests for Poirot to complete. These extra missions offer a sense of quick achievements to the player in what is sometimes a rather tedious game. All the subplots link back to the main story and provide additional historical details. Fans of Agatha Christie who are familiar with the TV series adaptation starring David Suchet as Poirot will recognize that it is not his voice in the game playing the role of Poirot (instead, the role is now played by actor Kevin Delany). This is the same for the voice of Hastings, a role originally played by Hugh Fraser on TV. While it is hard to dissociate these characters from their iconic voices when playing the game, the new voices for Poirot and Hastings are competently done and easy on the ears. The other supporting characters are also well voiced, with tones suiting the various ages of the suspects.
Though it is not a fault of this game, the player will find little replay value from it. There are no fiendish or dastard puzzles to be repeated for the sheer pleasure of beating them again, and there are no missed clues or hidden items to be look for again on a second playing. Once the mystery is solved, the game is essentially finished. The player is offered several choices to pick the murderer as Poirot and Hastings discuss the case. However, even a wrong decision by the player is not a problem, as Poirot will gently admonish Hastings and give the player another opportunity to select another until the correct choice is made. While any gamer with a keen interest in solving crime mystery will find this game rewarding, the causal gamer may rapidly become disillusioned with the emphasis on backtracking and pixel hunting in this game. During the concluding minutes of the game, Hastings will finally solve the mystery of how the Finger of Suspicion works. Yet, in the end, this exercise somehow feels to be totally pointless and exists to simply pad out the ending. The closing cut scene consists of stirring words about a country at war and how the way of life will change forever, with Big Ben being swept with searchlights that signals the beginning of the London Blitz in World War II. The game credits then comes on, ending with an attractive montage to conclude what is admittedly a curiously unusual game.