Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
First posted on 01 March 2009. Last updated on 14 August 2009.
Dame Agatha Christie is the world's foremost author of mystery novels. Her works have been translated into countless languages and continue to thrill millions of readers even today. Many of her books have been adapted for television, film, and now, thanks to developer AWE Productions, the computer screen. In fact, Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express is the second game in the Agatha Christie series created by the developer, after Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None. Both games have drawn praise from fans and critics. However, Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express is superior in many ways to the earlier title, particularly in terms of puzzles and characters. To put it simply, there are few games in recent memory that I have enjoyed as much as this game, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys adventure games.
Many gamers will likely already be familiar with the story in the famous novel (which, by the way, is bundled with the original retail version of the game) that serves as the basis for this game. The Orient Express is a luxury train used to transport passengers from Paris to Istanbul. The game is set just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the political tensions among the passengers (of mixed nationalities) is palpable throughout the novel and the game. An avalanche causes the train to stop in an isolated part of Yugoslavia, where it is effectively cut off from the rest of the world. As the title suggests, a passenger has been murdered on the train—but, unfortunately for the assailant, the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is onboard and soon becomes engrossed in solving the mystery. An interesting and perhaps unexpected twist in this game is that the player does not control Poirot, but rather Antoinette Marceau (a new character specifically created for this game), an employee of the train company. Poirot sprains his ankle and is unable to investigate the murder personally; therefore, he must rely on Antoinette to bring him information and help him sort out the mystery. In effect, Poirot ends up being a mentor, offering helpful advice to Antoinette as she helps to unravel the murder mystery on the world's most famous train.
Perhaps the more controversial aspect of this game concerns the ending and resolution of the murder. While I cannot go into specifics without ruining the game, I can mention that the game offers a third ending that does not exist in the novel. This may seem like a trivial enough matter, but I really wish game designer Lee Sheldon would leave the original stories alone. His attempts to alter the storyline always seem clumsy, and for good reason—Christie is a magnificently precise author whose stories are wonderfully intricate and detailed. No sentence or even single word is there without a specific reason. The innovations to Christie's original stories put forth by Sheldon are not always bad, but the worst of them seem ham-fisted. While the changes made in Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None are admittedly worse than in Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express, I still find myself wishing that the developer would just let these beautiful stories remain intact. Who really cares if the game ends the same way as the novel? The fun is getting there.
On a more positive note, there are plenty of well-developed characters in this game. The fellow passengers are quite diverse, ranging from an elderly princess to an Italian car salesman. Any of them (and also the other members of the train's staff) may be the murderer, and part of the challenge is to interview each suspect and analyze their stories for discrepancies. In addition to interrogating the suspects, Antoinette must also do plenty of other detective work, such as collecting fingerprints and searching the train (and surrounding area) for other clues. There are, of course, plenty of red herrings and suspicious events, but the game does a good job of keeping the player on task and the plot moving forward.
The puzzles in this game are smarter than in most other games, requiring careful deductive logic and analysis. The player will need to really think about the clues to determine the details of the murder. Of course, there are plenty of less sophisticated puzzles that must be solved; these are mostly of the find-the-item, use-the-item type. For instance, Antoinette must have snow shoes to walk on the snow, escape a hut, and fix a sabotaged shortwave radio. These puzzles are fairly straightforward, though the many items that end up the inventory can soon get intimidating. The most difficult puzzles (for example, the radio) are those involving inventory combination; only a specific combination will work, and the solutions are not always intuitive. Another aggravation is the need to constantly search each of the train's compartments to look for clues or needed items. This backtracking can get tedious, though I suppose it is a realistic portrayal of what an actual detective's work must be like. In any case, these are small problems that do not seriously detract from a fine game.
The game's finest qualities are the graphics and voice talent. The graphics do a wonderful job of simulating the atmosphere of the luxurious train, and nothing looks out of place. The characters are also animated well, with expressive faces and convincing body movements. However, the feature that draws the most attention is the stellar voice acting. David Suchet has been recruited as the voice of Poirot; fans of Christie may recognize Suchet's name from the British television crime drama Poirot. Although Suchet's performance is the most impressive, the rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Of course, the fine writing (much of it adapted from the novel) helps a great deal. There are also smaller aspects of the graphics that are easy to overlook, yet they play a large part in making the game more immersive. For instance, the game loading screens are animated with a small graphic of a train's rods moving back and forth. These small touches make the interface feel more coherent and aesthetically pleasing. I only wish more developers would follow the lead set by AWE Productions in ensuring that every component of the game, whether an elaborate cut-scene or a humble loading screen, all look nice and fit the overall theme.
Overall, Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express is a wonderful adventure game that does an excellent job of adapting the classic material to the video game medium. I have greatly enjoyed this game and am looking forward to the next title in the series. I also recommend anyone who enjoys this game to check out Broderbund's 1997 classic The Last Express. There is much in common between them, albeit some significant differences.