When a mystery story has been told millions of times before, how can it still be a mystery? This is the challenge faced by anyone adapting Agatha Christie’s phenomenally widely-read 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express. And just in case anyone missed out on the book, decades of film adaptations have also solved the case again and again. This is the challenge taken on by Microids Studio Lyon, as the team packs our bags and stows us away on the legendary locomotive, playing the role of celebrated detective Hercule Poirot.
Murder on the Orient Express, like the novel, begins in Istanbul, in the grand Tokatlian Hotel. Several of the story’s ensemble cast are introduced in quick succession. Details are kept light and the player is tested on a few key facts about each character to reinforce the basics of who’s who. Since the complex relationships and interactions of figures from different backgrounds are a hallmark of Christie’s mysteries, it’s essential the characters are internalised. Microids, having opted for rote drilling of name, nationality, occupation, and age, have not found the most elegant solution, but it will at least be effective for newcomers while keeping things moving for those already familiar. The game trades the 1930s setting of the novel for the modern day, and with 2023 being the 140th anniversary of the Orient Express itself, there is a perfect excuse for Poirot and his crew of soon-to-be suspects to be stepping aboard.
Although Microids published the last two Agatha Christie games – Hercule Poirot: The First Cases and Hercule Poirot: The London Case – this is the first to be developed internally, and it plays rather differently from those others. Action takes place in third person, with an over-the-shoulder perspective and standard controls for camera and movement. Playing as Hercule – and sometimes as a new character, Joanna Locke, who we’ll come to in a moment – you must explore environments, checking out a light sprinkling of clearly-marked hotspots, talking to characters and solving puzzles.
A mind map system, adapted from previous Poirot games, smartly collects all the threads of the investigation and shows how they relate to one another. On the map are coloured circles: green represents items that have been completed; blue, those to do; grey, facts that you have ascertained; orange, interactive tests of understanding; and purple, the very interesting “intuitions”, which invite you to make a decision about what is happening in the case, without requiring you to be correct or even indicating whether you are. The mind map system makes it clear both what task you are to do next and what line of investigation led you to it, keeping momentum up and ensuring you don’t get stuck – which would be especially frustrating if you already know how the story is supposed to go.
And talking of how the story is supposed to go, the major update here is the addition of Joanna Locke, an American police officer who has stowed away on the train. While it might sound heretical to throw another character into such a famously intricate mix, it’s done cleverly, finding a niche in the story that is free to explore in detail without trampling the overarching narrative. This niche also gives opportunity for large parts of the game to take place in a range of locations away from the train. Since the confined compartments of the Express can make camerawork fiddly at times, it’s a welcome break. Playing as Locke, the intrepid investigator navigating tense situations and interrogating suspects, balances the extremely relaxed, low-friction experience of Poiroting away with your fancy moustache on.
All the action is conveyed by a distinctive visual style. Performance is adequate for a slow-paced game – not exceptionally fluid, but not getting in the way of enjoyment – while the fidelity of characters and environments is often impressive. Everything can feel a little plastic-like, especially on the train, but it works with the highly stylised characters to give a gently cartoonish impression, which sits well with the lighthearted feel of the game. Smooth sax accompanies Hercule’s strolling up and down the lounge car, while vaguely mysterious piano gives a low-energy backing to puzzle-solving. Voice acting is mostly enjoyable, although there are one or two quite egregious accents in the mix that did make us wince. Dialogue is not skippable on first hearing, so you’re along for the ride on that one.
The mood of the game is leisurely: it plays smoothly and it’s mostly easy on the eye and ear. It’s a great way to wander through the mystery of Murder on the Orient Express and have a bit of new content at the same time. Locke taking some more dramatic scenes frees up Poirot to be the comic relief – not unfittingly for the detective who, after all, is a bit of an oddball.
However, it doesn’t always feel like a Poirot game. As in the earlier Microids-published The ABC Murders, some of the puzzles here are simply beneath someone of Poirot’s stature. It’s maybe conceivable that the world’s greatest detective would apply his little grey cells to help tessellate oddly shaped boxes into a fridge (actually, a good visual gag comes of that one), and perhaps you can imagine that he might suddenly do a jigsaw, or simply recognise a raspberry (both real puzzles), but some challenges are excruciatingly contrived. At one point, a pastry chef’s career and whole life will be ruined unless Poirot can move four stacked boxes from one side of the train to the other, via an intermediate position, moving the boxes one at a time and never placing a larger box on top of a smaller one. Quite apart from the big yawn at encountering such an old cliché of a puzzle, it’s hard to picture Poirot lugging cargo, even in this game’s rather strapping incarnation.
Elsewhere, there are some original and fun puzzles – especially in the Joanna Locke segments. Paying close attention to collected objects, using your ears as well as your eyes, and having to think logically through changing 3D spaces all make for some satisfying and memorable set pieces.
Murder on the Orient Express is impressive in its ability to breathe new life into a well-trodden story. Microids Studio Lyon has found a cute gap in the story to slide in its new character, Locke, without her getting in the way. Her tense and serious segments free up Poirot for a bit of comic relief, and the whole game sits with a relaxed atmosphere and pleasant presentation. Puzzles are mixed, but there are enough good ones to drive another enjoyable trip through Agatha Christie’s classic story of mystery, justice, and moral ambiguity.