Murder in the Abbey

Posted by Joseph Howse.
First posted on 13 October 2008. Last updated on 16 August 2009.
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Murder in the Abbey
Leonardo and Bruno walk past the abbey's smithy.
Murder in the Abbey
Brother Arcadio, the elderly gardener, insists that Leonardo and Bruno can solve the mystery by just talking to a plant!
Murder in the Abbey
At the abbot's table, there is fresh pork tonight!
Murder in the Abbey
Brother Martin, the cook, teaches Bruno some prayers.
Murder in the Abbey
Since the lateral inventory panel is visible in widescreen mode only, the pull down screen is the default inventory interface.

Do you miss the days of every character in an adventure game having a huge, fully voiced script and a huge, animated, cartoon portrait? Current game developers, in some ways, appear to be content in scaling back from their most ambitious storytelling efforts of yesteryear.

A topnotch, new game that bucks this trend is Murder in the Abbey (originally titled The Abbey). Created by a small Spanish developer called Alcahofa Soft, Murder in the Abbey immerses its player in a deep and masterfully produced historical, cartoon mystery, which advances via clever dialogs and a consistently intuitive series of inventory puzzles. It is a beautiful adventure game with many delights and few frustrations.

In Murder in the Abbey, the player assumes the role of Leonardo de Toledo, an adventuresome monk who is renowned for his scholarship, travels, and shrewd grasp of logic and human nature. His constant companion is his noble born but dimwitted novice, Bruno, whom Leonardo is bringing to join a remote, mountaintop abbey called Nuestra Señora de la Natividad (Our Lady of the Nativity). Just before arriving in the middle of the night, both Leonardo and Bruno are nearly crushed by a falling boulder, pushed by a robed figure whom Leonardo sees running away. The following morning, Leonardo is unsurprised to hear of a recent, suspicious death in the abbey. The abbot, among other monks, seems eager for Leonardo to close the case with a blameless verdict: either this is a simple accident or this is the work of Satan incarnate. Bruno is scared. Leonardo is skeptical, and wary. This death turns out to be only the first sign of evil within Nuestra Señora de la Natividad's walls.

Judging from the in-game references to the "Emperor", the setting is apparently Spain sometime from 1519 to 1556, the reign of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. The name Nuestra Señora de la Natividad corresponds to multiple churches in Spain, yet the game's locale seems to be fictional, since its heraldry (on a red field, a gold eagle facing the viewer's left) has no historical basis as far as I can determine.

The character concepts, dialogs, and voices in this game are outstanding. No given personality is like any other—whether they are wry, klutzy, cranky, wily, dotty, spooked, fervent, or stern—and the contrasts contribute wonderfully to this game's comedy, mystery, and suspense. A mix of accents further differentiates the characters and is realistic too, given that medieval Europe's ecclesiastical orders have historically been international organizations. Almost every conversation tree offers the player multiple ways to phrase questions or responses. Though the choice of lines actually has no lasting impact on the game, it still gives the player plenty of input into role-playing Leonardo, and it is fun to test whether other characters react. At times, the game's script is not only colorful but also memorably wise in its insights into human nature. On examining a carving in the abbey's treasury, Leonardo muses, "A relief about sin in a hall filled with gold."

The game's charm also owes much to its partly cel-shaded graphics, produced from a combination of 3D renderings and hand drawings. Achieving a look that is both smooth and detailed, stylized and lifelike, this artistic technique is sure to set a high standard for future cartoon adventure games to follow. Moreover, the game's scenes are rich in historical detail, paying homage to the many mundane and luxurious objects found in a monastic, medieval community. Many scenes have multiple versions for different weather conditions and times of day. A large number of panoramic scrolling effects, smooth zooming effects, and animated lighting effects also contribute to making the backgrounds seem dynamic, even though only the characters are rendered in real-time 3D.

The characters' facial animations are also superbly done. Expressions are well matched to the mood of each dialog line, and characters retain expressions between lines, so that they realistically appear affected by the last word they have just said. There is no lip-synching, though this omission is an understandable tradeoff given the length of the script and the need for different language localizations of the game.

A wonderful ambient soundtrack further deepens the player's immersion in the game. The music gently combines string instruments, the organ, bells, and chanting to achieve subtle mixtures of moods: peace, comfort, mourning, pride, or an urgent sense of work to do and mysteries to solve. Background sound effects, such as birdsong or the blacksmith's hammering, fit seamlessly into the rhythm of the music. Few of the player's actions produce any additional sound, except for the leisurely clicking of Leonardo's sandals. This monk is certainly not noisy, and he does not normally rush!

Despite its many excellent production qualities, there are some signs that the game is being rushed to completion without adequate beta testing. There are bugs in the installer and glitches in the cut scenes. The game's installer opens so slowly that it may appear to have crashed. This issue is documented in the game's readme file, which recommends disabling User Account Control in Windows Vista and virus scanners running in resident memory in order to improve the installer's performance. During dialog scenes, the game occasionally plays the wrong voice clip, no voice clip, or no visuals of the speaking person (just the background instead). Some of the audiovisual glitches seem to be context sensitive: they may or may not happen, depending on the order in which the player completes tasks.

The game's interface is mostly intuitive, though it is geared for slow and deliberate gameplay rather than rapid and random trial and error. Text rollovers identify the names of hotspots. Left-clicking on any hotspot makes Leonardo comment on it, while right-clicking prompts some other kind of interaction, such picking up an item or examining it more closely. Many hotspots have no role in the game's solution but just enhance the sense of realism and serve as red herrings. An inventory menu can be pulled down from the top of the screen or, optionally, it can be anchored on the right-hand side of widescreen displays. (If you use the latter mode, called "lateral inventory", watch out for a glitch: the inventory icon for a particular key gets mostly covered up by the icon for a book. You need to click on the tip of the key to access it.) After any attempt to use an inventory item, even unsuccessfully, the item becomes inactive again, so to reuse the item the player must reach for the inventory menu again. This is an unusual and awkward implementation, which particularly hinders stuck players who may want to try numerous combinations of inventory objects and hotpots.

Fortunately, the game's inventory puzzles are sufficiently intuitive that the type of necessary item is rarely hard to guess. Finding such an item is more often the challenge, since the game's many scenes are filled with hotspots. A few of the searches devolve into unintuitive pixel hunts, particularly in a couple of cases where new hotspots appear for items that have been merely part of the background graphics since the start of the game. On the other hand, the game's dialogs prompt the player to revisit most scenes often enough that the player is likely to discover (and pick up) most inventory items haphazardly long before they become necessary for puzzles.

Dialog puzzles are the other major element of the gameplay. For the most part, it is obvious when the player must find and question other characters before the plot can advance. Ironically, it is the ever-present Bruno who becomes the least obvious character to question. Being the comically dim and shallow type, he never has anything insightful to say but will obey sternly worded commands under certain circumstances.

As enjoyable as the dialogs are, they are more linear than they initially seem. No matter whether the player chooses nasty or nice phrasing for Leonardo's questions, the gameplay advances the same way. Unlike other mystery games (such as AWE Productions' Agatha Christie series), Murder in the Abbey offers only a single possible ending and it contains no tricky dialog choices that enable the player (even temporarily) to announce the wrong solution to the mystery.

The game includes very few machine puzzles, combination locks or mini-games (just 3, by my count). However, the focus on inventory and dialog seems appropriate to the game's setting and the depth of its story. Overall, the game strikes an appealing balance between avoiding frustrating or slow puzzles, and nonetheless offering the brainwork and atmosphere of an investigation. The player may often recognize what the clues are but still may wonder where they lead.

Oddly, the advertisement on the game box proudly promises "40 hours of gameplay"; however, by my account, the actual length is about 20 hours only. The game manual that is included in the box offers instructions on the interface, bios of the characters, and several general tips on puzzle solving. There is a tip I find to be particularly helpful: "When nothing else seems to work ... chat with Bruno."

The game's moderate difficulty level, its charming storytelling, and the absence of any photorealistic violence make it as family friendly as possible without undermining this murder mystery's themes about the dark side of humanity and theology.

Murder in the Abbey's strengths are great enough to outweigh its few shortcomings. The game is much shorter than advertised, though it is still comparable in scale to other "full length" adventure games. There are bugs, but none are showstoppers. The inventory interface is unfriendly to trial and error. The script is more linear than it first appears to be, and it never truly calls on the player to select a theory to explain the mystery.

What Murder in the Abbey offers, however, is an exceptional production of an outstanding story, accompanied by fun, intuitive puzzles that seldom bog down the plot's progression. Those design aesthetics, I believe, are the classical elements that make for good adventure gaming. Really, if animated, interactive storytelling appeals to you, you cannot go wrong by choosing Murder in the Abbey.

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