Despite some minor bumps along the way, Murder on the Orient Express is a fast-paced thriller that you'll want to follow all the way to the end of the line.
Hercule Poirot has boarded the luxurious Orient Express train bound for Paris. However, not long after departing Istanbul, the train gets stuck in a snowstorm and, as if that wasn't enough, the enigmatic businessman Ratchett is found murdered. As the passenger list turns out to be full of suspects, the Belgian master detective has his work cut out for him in keeping track of what turns out to be a complicated and far-reaching conspiracy.
If you've read Agatha Christie's original 1934 murder mystery or seen any of the countless film adaptations, you know what you're getting into with Microids' adventure game Murder on the Orient Express. What it all ends with is a surprise though. The developer Microids Lyon has chosen to expand, continue and in some ways modernise the classic crime story, that is now set in the year 2023. It's a decision that improves the experience in every way, whether you're familiar with the original or not.
The biggest addition to the original script comes in the form of the American detective Joanna Locke. Several chapters follow her investigation of the family tragedy that underpins the dramatic events on the train. With their harsh, true crime-inspired atmosphere, Locke's chapters provide a nice contrast to Poirot's more comfortable whodunnit. At the same time, they also allow you to escape the five cramped train compartments of the Orient Express, whose monotony could have posed a problem in the approximately ten hour game.
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In addition to the expanded backstory, we also get a couple of brand new closing chapters where Locke and Poirot must work together to explore a new twist to one of the most famous endings in crime history. The story contains few dramatic set pieces and does not deal with contemporary political or philosophical issues. Still, Murder on the Orient Express is up there with the best game narratives of the year, as being able to knit so many threads together into a sharp straitjacket of a narrative - without a single notable plot hole - is nothing short of impressive. However, there are some issues with the game's pacing that drag the experience down a bit, and several of the characters could use a little more depth.
Now, Murder on the Orient Express wouldn't be the first game in recent times that manages to juggle an intriguing narrative but drops the ball when it comes to gameplay. Fortunately, that's not the case here. Microids Lyon follows the trend of many recent detective games that ditch the point-and-click formula of yesteryear and does away with an overflowing item inventory filled with all sorts of bits and bobs. Instead, you must keep track of and connect a series of mental clues - a task that quickly becomes difficult as Poirot is spun into a tightly woven web of red herrings and conflicting alibis.
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Fortunately, the game keeps track of all information and tasks in a mind map that seems inspired by Frogwares' newer Sherlock Holmes games. However, you don't have to connect the dots yourself. Instead, you'll sometimes have to assist Poirot by answering relatively simple questions about the case, checking an alibi or recreating a sequence of events. Where most other games let you step into the shoes of the protagonist, this feels more like you're following in the footsteps of Poirot, whose thinking is always a step or two ahead.
This may sound like a criticism, and, to some extent, it is, as the puzzles often becomes too monotonous or trivial. But the manageable difficulty level turns the game into a digital page-turner that's hard to put down. You're never stuck for long, and while the puzzles don't put your grey matter to work, they do keep you on your toes, letting you keep up with the famous detective. It's too bad then that the developer- just as the story picks up the pace - pulls the emergency brake and out of the blue introduces some very difficult puzzles that slow down your progress. Overall, the difficulty curve is simply too uneven.
It doesn't take Poirot's keen eye to see where Murder on the Orient Express falls a little short. The graphical style is decent, but aside from the vivid faces that achieves a happy medium between realism and a comic book inspired style, the level of detail is a bit lacking, as evidenced by the pixelated screensaver that whizzes by the windows of the Orient Express. The soundtrack is quite good, with strong performances from the two main characters in particular, and acceptable voice acting from the rest. And while the music could do with a little more variety, it always supports the mood effectively.
While the game's (arguably limited) budget sometimes shines through the presentation, so does the developer's love of the source material. The game fully captures Poirot's likeable, almost comically confident demeanour, and his well-trimmed moustache often takes centre stage - you can even find golden moustaches in each chapter that act as collectibles. There are also plenty of references to Christie's novels, the crime genre and other games, and there is even a funny sequence that pokes fun at way too helpful sidekicks.
It almost goes without saying that Murder on the Orient Express went under the radar for most people when it was released in the busy month of October. But if you have a penchant for crime novels or detective games, this is a game you can't afford to miss. Dim the lights, make a cup of tea and embark on a deadly but unforgettable journey with Poirot.
7 / 10
Engaging and surprising story. Simple and smooth gameplay. Atmospheric soundtrack. Love for the source material shines through.
Graphically a bit underwhelming. Slightly uneven pacing. Too much fluctuation in difficulty.