Agatha Christie's mystery novels remain popular to this day, thanks to their skillful and compact blend of British sensibilities and tight plot. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the late author's most recognizable title, so its transition to an adventure game was a certainty in light of last year's adventure adaptation of another of the author's works, And Then There Were None. Yet it's hard to say what audience AWE Games was seeking with this adaptation. Christie purists will undoubtedly be annoyed with the story's liberties, not to mention the tacked-on "heartwarming" ending. Adventure gamers may enjoy some rewarding puzzles but will be annoyed by multiple plot gaps. If nothing else, at least it nails the proper atmosphere, thanks to a largely solid voice cast with character actor David Suchet leading the way as Hercule Poirot.
Murder on the Orient Express is a typical point-and-click adventure game, dropping you in the shoes of train company employee Antoinette Marceau. It seems Antoinette is an amateur detective, so she eagerly takes the lead as Poirot's eyes and ears after he is injured when the train is overtaken by a surprise avalanche. Of course, the train isn't the only victim: One of the passengers is stabbed to death in his sleeping quarters. From there, you question the suspects, search for clues, and tap Poirot's "little grey cells" for a recap of everything you have learned.
Christie's novel ended with one of the finer surprise twists of her illustrious career, and fortunately, the game doesn't fiddle too much with the basic plot. Obviously, concessions were made, but unlike in And Then There Were None, the famed conclusion isn't completely replaced. However, it's extended to make room for a second melodramatic plot twist that detracts from the original ending. If you're familiar with the novel you'll welcome the surprise, but you can't help but wish the drama was reserved for the novel's original finale. The new addition was meant to be touching but is just manipulative and contrived, completely missing the spirit of the book.
Other original touches would have been better left out. There is a significant plot twist towards the end of the second act that sets up the additional ending, but it's barely even mentioned before the final scene. Other story issues just reek of poor design. At one point, you mention to the barman that the chef was temperamental that day, before you actually speak to the chef to discover that tidbit. In another, you question a porter about his lateness before the engineer tells you it was even an issue. These and other moments make it obvious the game wasn't prepared for you to carry out tasks outside of a specific order. They also make you feel disconnected from the story, which is already coldly crammed with a ton of clues and plot threads to sort through.
But first you have to uncover all that evidence. You'll interrogate a healthy list of suspects, including a count and countess, a princess, a typewriter-ribbon salesman, an American grandmother, and plenty more. There is a lot of dialogue to wade through, particularly in the game's central act, and thankfully the voice cast is excellent. There are a few suspect accents, but the actors do a fine job of bringing life to a large group of characters that have relatively little to work with.
It's a good thing, because Murder on the Orient Express requires a whole lot of repetitive questioning and backtracking that's emphasized by the confined setting. For instance, you'll spend a good chunk of time collecting passports. It feels like pointless busywork, since you have to question every passenger and crew member and then explore every sleeping quarter, when only one or two of the passports do anything to advance the plot. Then, you have to get fingerprint samples from everyone. Then, you have to compare every pair of shoes to the footprints outside the dead man's room. It requires trudging from one end of the train to the other, so the game not only has you repeat the same task ad nauseam, but also rarely changes the scenery. The excursions into a chilly forest and the opening scenes in the station are your only respite.
Some of the more traditional puzzle elements are easier to swallow. One puzzle has you pouring cake batter into the snow to take a cast of a footprint; in another, you must find a pipe to fix the broken heat ducts. Brainteasers like these fit reasonably well into the story and aren't insanely difficult. Some later puzzles, like one in which you craft a makeshift telegraph machine, demand a lot of inventory combining but are still reasonably satisfying to solve.
But if fiddling with your collection leads to gratifying puzzles, the inventory interface itself is a big cause for frustration. To merge items, you must choose them from your inventory list and add them to a separate combining interface. Why not just let the player combine them in the list like every other adventure game? Needing two tabs is a headache, because you have to keep clicking back and forth between them. In one instance, you must lift fingerprints by combining three items--two of which are always the same--over and over. Each time you lift one set, the items you need to take the next prints are removed from the combining interface, and you have to add them again. It's yet another instance of the game giving you worthless tasks that detract from the game and pad its length.
Murder on the Orient Express is not a technical powerhouse, but it gets the mood just right. The room interiors are nicely designed, and details like lavishly decorated dining tables are quite attractive. However, character models are very stiff and lack facial expressiveness. While more and more adventure games feature moving elements in the environments, there are few to speak of here, so the train feels more confined as a result. The cutscenes are nice to look at, but they're too pixelated due to the poor video compression. The mysterious atmosphere is further accentuated by a generic but nicely understated musical score and a good voice cast.
Unfortunately, its prim pedigree can't elevate Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express to anything more than another mediocre adventure. Longtime adventure enthusiasts may still enjoy the mysterious milieu and some agreeable puzzles, even amid the mind-numbing backtracking and endless collecting. But if you play adventure games for the story, you're better off reading the enclosed copy of the original novel and skipping the game.