The Colour of Murder: A Carol Reed Mystery
First posted on 10 May 2009. Last updated on 15 May 2014.
The Colour of Murder: A Carol Reed Mystery is the fifth game in the Carol Reed mystery series. Given my lack of familiarity with previous games in the series, I felt assured initially by the developer's website that there would be no loss of enjoyment in this sequel if I had not played any of the previous titles. What I took this claim to mean was that I would be quickly brought up to speed on who Carol Reed was and the world around her. After hours of playing the game, I learned that Carol Reed is a young Englishwoman who lives in Sweden, has a best friend named Stina, and likes to solve mysteries. Beyond these factoids, however, I knew little about her, as the game revealed so little about her character that I wondered why the designers had even chosen to give you a character to play at all. Rather, the focus of the game's design is on exploration and immersion, but this seems to come at the expense of an interesting story and relatable characters. While such a focus may be appropriate for other adventure games that rely almost solely on solitary exploration, it falls flat on a game such as this title in which mystery, plot, and characters are absolutely essential.
The story of the game takes place in Sweden during midsummer. Carol thinks she is going to have an easy, relaxing season until someone named Willy asks her to look for his missing son. It is never clear from the story whether Willy is Carol's neighbor or her friend or maybe her groundskeeper. Artfully revealing absolutely nothing of his relationship with Carol or why he trusts her so much, Willy goes on to explain that he has found a letter at his son's apartment with the name of a man who has been murdered in an alley from the week before. Carol's investigations into the victim's history and connections lead her all over the city and surrounding countryside. Predictably, his murder is far more involved and complex than the simple alley killing it initially seems to be.
The visual production values of the game are excellent. The graphics are all rendered photographs, resulting in an explorable world that feels very much real. The views take up the entire screen and hide the inventory bar, which adds to the immersion. Doing any activity from walking around a park area outside to exploring an office and rummaging through desk drawers has a genuine feel. This feeling, however, fades whenever Carol engages another character in conversation. There is no movie or animation playback in the game, so conversations are done with static photos of actors doing different expressions for different lines. This tends to make the dialogs feel a bit off, and it is made worse by the voice acting, which feels flat. Everyone in the game, from the murdered man's girlfriend, to Willy, to Carol herself seem completely disinterested in what goes on in the conversations. Carol does not even bother voicing her own lines in most of the dialogs. I do not expect every character interaction in a game to be complex and layered, but I can honestly state that not a single emotion gets expressed by any character in spoken dialog for the entirety of the game. Even the crazy janitor who tells Carol about his dream featuring a plastic and meat combination called pleat comes across just as dry and lifeless as the rest of the cast.
While the use of photographs instead of graphics gives the game a more realistic feel, there are drawbacks to this choice as well. Many of the photos have vast amounts of objects in them, making it confusing as to what is relevant or worth investigating. Many times I have found myself passing the cursor over a cluttered desk or a bookshelf thinking that there must be some objects worthwhile to be gathered, only to find that none of the papers or books are relevant to the plot and can be examined. In all fairness, the game tries to make most of the important items and papers stand out a little bit in order to catch your attention. The gigantic scope of the areas also adds to the difficulty in finding the objects you need. Perhaps because it is easier to take photographs to use as assets for the game, the designers have crammed view after view into each area. On the positive side, this makes the areas feel more realistic and add to the immersive quality of the exploration. On the negative side, this infrequently makes such an exploration a cumbersome process. For example, at a certain point you need to find a flower in an industrial park. The flower can only be seen and picked at a specific angle of a specific spot. When the area is as huge as the industrial park, where each and every spot has at least 4 views, finding the flower becomes more of a chore than a puzzle.
The puzzles in this game are fairly typical of the genre. Most of them involve finding objects, combining them, and then using them creatively. Most of the challenge, however, seems to be focused on finding the objects themselves rather than on figuring out how to use them. For example, when Carol is confronted by some rusty machinery, the only challenge is not guessing which object is required but finding that object among the game's many vistas. This is not to say there are not more complex puzzles (there are), but they occur far less than the puzzles that simply require you to hunt for the obvious objects. Moreover, for a detective herself, Carol seems to have a tenuous grasp of logic. At a particular point, Carol is asked to find some red wildflowers. When she goes to her allotment to look for some, she says firmly that she cannot pick any of the flowers on her allotment because they are not wild. Imagine, therefore, my bewilderment when her solution to obtaining red wildflowers turns out to be to picking white flowers and then coloring them red! At another point, Carol has 2 of 3 parts of a lock combination. Getting the last part requires a ridiculously long chain of tasks, but you are never informed of the nature of the tasks and as to why Carol refuses to just guess the remaining combination. The lock can easily be opened in 7 tries or less if she is allowed to guess. Carol also seems to miss other obvious solutions. It makes little sense when Carol complains that she cannot reach an object on top of a tall refrigerator, all the while standing only a few feet away from some sturdy kitchen chairs. Instead, Carol must explore an inordinately large attic area to find a stepladder to reach the top of the refrigerator. It is frustrating to play a game feeling that an obstacle can be easily overcome if only the avatar acts more like you (the player), and it is doubly annoying when the solution is such that it requires the most basic of logic that the designers somehow have missed.
The game has a built-in hint system which allows you to, with the click of a button, get a list of areas where Carol has to take action next. Another click will reveal more specifically what she needs to accomplish there. In other games, it is a helpful but optional feature for frustrated players. In this game, by contrast, it is an absolutely essential inclusion. The game neglects to take locations off your travel map even when they will never need to be visited again. As a result, by the end of the game there are no less than 20 areas to where you can travel. If you are stuck or simply cannot remember where you need to use the object which you have just found, it is a chore needing to revisit all these locations to experiment. Fortunately, if you happen to miss an object somewhere along the way, the hint system can help you by revealing the general area in where the item lies. Because many of the locations that Carol explores are huge, this significantly cuts down on what may very easily be hours of tedious backtracking and pixel hunting. Yet, as helpful as the inclusion of this is, a better design move is to simply cut down on the locations that Carol can visit at any given time and to better streamline the puzzles. Most of the objects you need to solve puzzles are found miles away from where the puzzles take place. It is easy to find an oil can and not remember just which of the many locations has the rusty machinery you now need to lubricate. While the hint system helps relieve the frustration of these moments, it still feels like you are looking up the answer, which takes away from the satisfaction of solving the puzzle (not that there is all that much satisfaction in figuring out that oil lubricates rusty metal).
The only aspect of this game for which I have no complaints is the music. It is simple, but evocative, and provides a beautiful background to the exploration. Indeed, what the game does truly well is to create a relaxing and beautiful world to explore. To be able to leisurely stroll through the parks and city streets of a beautiful city in Sweden adds much to the experience. Sadly, while creating an immersive and vibrant world to explore can make a good adventure game great, it cannot make a bad adventure game good.
The Colour of Murder: A Carol Reed Mystery is a murder mystery where the suspects and even the detective are so insipid and devoid of interest that, when the murderer is finally revealed, you may find yourself completely disinterested. Despite the game's title, the color of murder is never revealed (even when metaphorically speaking). If the gameplay is any indication, I hesitantly guess that murder is a shade of light brown—simple, bland, and somehow boring, no matter how short or long a time you spend looking at it.