Art of Murder: FBI Confidential

Posted by Igor Hardy.
First posted on 20 June 2008. Last updated on 30 August 2013.
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Art of Murder: FBI Confidential
The FBI headquarters is the place which Nicole will visit most often during her murder investigation.
Art of Murder: FBI Confidential
The Archeological Museum has a very impressive looking orangery inside it.
Art of Murder: FBI Confidential
Nicole walks down a rundown alley in New York.
Art of Murder: FBI Confidential
Nicole meets John Tatum, a bum with surprisingly sophisticated tastes.
Art of Murder: FBI Confidential
Nicole gauges the gorgeous sights from above a gorge.

This game is part of the Ultimate Crime Thriller Collection re-released in 2010 by City Interactive.

Ultimate Crime Thriller Collection

The compilation includes 3 games in the Ultimate Crime Thriller Collection series previously released separately in 2008-2010:

Art of Murder: FBI Confidential

Art of Murder: Hunt for the Puppeteer

Art of Murder: Cards of Destiny

It is always interesting to see seasoned game developers venturing into territories they have not tried before. Such is the case with the designers of Art of Murder: FBI Confidential—a group of Polish game developers from the now defunct studio Detalion, whose past credits include the visually surreal sci-fi and fantasy adventure games Reah: Face the Unknown and Schizm: Mysterious Journey. In early 2007, Detalion has ceased operation, but most members of the team have since returned under the rapidly growing developer and publisher City Interactive. This time, they have chosen to go for a more realistic setting for the gameplay and a mix of thriller and mystery for the story.

Thriller and mystery have always been popular subgenres for adventure games. Ritual killings, grand conspiracies, and bizarre investigations of detectives hot on the trail seem to always draw in an established audience, even if it is getting proportionally more difficult to offer fresh ideas. So, taking into account the expectations of longtime mystery buffs, the pressure is high on a new offering of this kind.

The cinematic introduction starts in with 2 FBI agents—a young female detective named Nicole Bonnet and her more seasoned partner—in mid of an unspecified investigation at a rundown building in New York. The surroundings are filled with dirt and decay. A mangy, crumbling toilet plays the role of the special agents' operations room—certainly an imaginative and offbeat idea. The plot quickly turns dramatic, however. In less than a minute, the male agent's whimsy ends in his tragic death, and after a short and fruitless chase, the young agent, deeply shaken by the killing, starts to cower at the dirty walls. All this adds up into a truly Hitchcockian beginning.

As the actual game begins, the player takes control of Nicole. Back at the FBI headquarters, Nicole's boss is quick to force on her a different assignment, for which she will team up with another veteran agent Nick Romsky. This will not be easy, as Nick is almost never present at the headquarters and rarely seen by anybody face to face. He prefers to work alone, in his own shadowy ways. Together, they are to investigate a string of serial killings of wealthy New Yorkers with a possible ritualistic element—in all cases, the victims' hearts have been cut out. Still, there is a strong suspicion that this may just be a red herring to take away attention from the perpetuator's true motives. For the most part, the investigation will center around the city of New York, from wealthy villas to a classy university library to the trashy city alleys where gangsters hide out. The story also boasts a strong archeological angle that starts with a search for the exact type of dagger used in the killings. Finally, as the plot thickens, Nicole leaves New York to visit more exotic locales of the kind that Indiana Jones would feel right at home.

The plot in Art of Murder: FBI Confidential is definitely intriguing all the way through. The story does not give away what it is really about for a long time and has various unexpected twists and turns. It also does not leave any loose ends as unfortunately sometimes happens in a murder mystery. Despite the gruesome premise of the murders and some lingering dark atmosphere, the game does not wallow in brutal images or excessive gore. There are not many deaths later in the game, and Nicole's life is rarely threatened, even though she is unafraid of getting herself into trouble when needed. As such, the story often plays out more like an Agatha Christie who-done-it mystery than a killer-on-the-loose thriller movie. Also, Nicole's dialogs and comments do not shy away from large doses of wit and humor. Her character works well to become the player's companion in the game. However, at times the heroine is seen acting too cool and collected, even in tense situations. The player's attachment to her character may have benefited if the game is to include more glimpses into her life beyond the work with the FBI—indeed, her resume included in the game manual makes for an intriguing side story.

Although more photorealistic in its presentation, pre-rendered graphics with a fixed perspective are growing progressively out of fashion in favor of real-time 3D graphics. Fortunately, this style has not become a dead art yet. The pre-rendered backgrounds in this game are the best of the breed, with every nook and cranny nearly giving an impression of tangibility. The richly animated lights, animals, and machines help to bring each scene to life. The 3D character models, unfortunately, do not. While decent looking, their animations are sparse. Even seeing a character walk on screen is a rare event. Thankfully, at least Nicole does not have any problem with mobility. Some characters occasionally gesture during speech, but such animations are too few and too awkward to change the overall impression. By contrast, in the cut scenes, the characters are properly animated.

The instrumental musical score in the game is mostly location dependent. The tune changes accordingly in order to enhance the suspense in a tense setting, to add an esoteric depth to a seemingly casual location, or to give vibes of an ancient, exotic culture when visiting a foreign land. I especially like how there are subtle touches of a chorus in the background of some themes.

The English localization of Art of Murder: FBI Confidential is far from perfect. The voice actors are convincing in their roles and usually make up for the occasional unnaturalness of the translated dialog. There are, however, moments where it feels like important bits of a conversation or the original meaning of some descriptions have been lost in the translation. For example, at a point far in the game, the heroine alludes laconically to smears of blood left somewhere on the roof. Only the most imaginative player will connect this part of dialog to an event in the game's introductory cut scene. This connection will become apparent only later in the game.

The interface in this game is very simple. When hovering over a hotspot, the context sensitive cursor shows a small symbol of an eye (examine), a hand (use/take), or both at once to indicate the available actions which the player can choose by clicking the left or right mouse button appropriately. This system proves to be misleading sometimes, however: clicking over many objects provokes no actions or comments from the heroine, even when the symbols suggest otherwise. It is a shame, since most of Nicole's comments are well written and the game may feel richer if more of them have been included. There is also an unfortunate tendency for Nicole to have less and less interesting comments to say about the objects in her surroundings the further the game progresses.

Throughout the game, Nicole moves about New York visiting and revisiting many times various places connected to the case. However, the order in which she follows her investigation is strictly determined by the story development. The player cannot drive to anywhere except to the specific location where Nicole knows she is the most urgently needed. Actually, being limited in exploration to a single building or neighborhood at a time can be a blessing sometimes. This allows the player to better focus on analyzing every possible idea, including those that are not so obvious at first, when it is known for certain that the player has not forgotten about doing something in some other locations.

To ease up the challenge of scene exploration, the game includes a magnifying glass icon which the player can press to instantly highlight all the hotspots on screen. This is a highly helpful feature. Experienced gamers may have wanted it to be optional. However, quite a few hotspots in the game are so small that they are almost undiscoverable without using it. The game may do better if, at the least, it offers hints in the descriptions of larger hotspots that there are also tiny but important hotspots nearby.

Probably not wanting to discourage any gamer with lesser patience for puzzles, the design team has employed various ways to limit the player's inventory to a bare minimum. Items in the inventory that are already used by Nicole which have no further use disappear immediately from her possessions, and objects cannot be taken from a scene until the player reaches a relevant part of the game. For example, at the beginning of the game, the player may be surprised by the fact that Nicole is unable to take any of the special equipments from the FBI headquarters simply because Nicole says that she does not want to do so. Later on, however, the heroine is embarrassed by the fact she is found unprepared for a particular situation and vocally expresses a decision to take everything with her from now on. The game may have been more consistent if her initial behavior has been dictated by a similarly expressed reasoning as to why she does not want to take any of the items in question. Unfortunately, such inconsistency persists throughout the game, and the situations grow more and more unbelievable when the game does not properly explain Nicole's temporary disinterest in some objects or clues. Even worse is the fact that a certain item of importance is in Nicole's possession all the time but it does not show up in the inventory at all. That object is eventually revealed on a special occasion, causing confusion as to where it has come from originally.

The game's level of difficulty progresses in a gradual pace. The player is started with some simple fetching quests, but slowly the player is asked to pay more and more attention to the circumstances and consequences of actions taken to find the solutions. A number of puzzles are well known clich├ęs but are well adapted in the game and used in unexpected ways. Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle of the game, the player is again presented with a few mundane fetch quests, possibly to pad out the otherwise short and straightforward gameplay in these segments.

The game has a confusing tendency, at some points, to pull the player by the hand with overbearing indications as to what to do next, while moments later it stumps the player with a different puzzle that is made unreasonably difficult because of a lack of any clear direction. Often, the game does not tell the player anything about what may be missing in order to accomplish the current task. Rather, Nicole simply returns unhelpful retorts such as "That was stupid" or "Not the right combination" to actions that may be tied to the final solution to a puzzle. For instance, the player must combine several items which is only doable under some special circumstances; trying to combine them "in the air" gives the random "That doesn't work" messages. In some parts of the game, no direction is given at all, even if the imminent goals are not clear to the player. This results in a few rare instances that can unfairly stump even an experienced adventure game player.

The game also experiences a number of technical issues, even on a computer that exceeds by far the system requirements. Firstly, there are visible slowdowns whenever there are more characters appearing on screen than just Nicole. Secondly, saving and loading times are strangely long, especially when compared to the minimal loading times to change locations. Lastly, many of the cut scenes have very choppy playback.

Overall, Art of Murder: FBI Confidential is an aptly entertaining game. While the game encompasses elements of a murder investigation that is in style of CSI, in actuality it plays more like a pulp adventure in the vein of Broken Sword. For storytelling, it takes advantage of a popular subgenre and its established mechanics and fully delivers in the end what it promises. However, the gameplay is partly marred by bad programming and design flaws with largely unsuccessful attempts to offer a more player friendly interaction. Probably, the game may have done better if more time has been given in the development to polish up the rough edges. Still, notwithstanding some technical and logistical glitches, Art of Murder: FBI Confidential is a fun game that tells an engaging story about murder, corruption, and archeology. It constitutes a dozen or so hours of solid adventuring.

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