In the right hands, the Clue franchise should translate into a fun, engaging computer adventure. The original board game is a campy send-up of the genteel whodunit formula of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. It has stuffy Brits with silly names like Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum. The setting is a lush '30s-style mansion containing an arsenal of lethal knickknacks like a dagger, a wrench, and a noose. And the game's mildly subversive subtext seems to be that any one of the elite, cultured cast could be a murderer.
Don't expect any of the board game's promising elements to get much play in Clue Chronicles: Fatal Illusion, which is the first episode in a lower-priced series of introductory adventure mysteries from Hasbro Interactive. The game's execution is as boring as its characters. You are a private investigator who has been invited to a New Year's 1939 party by the dotty millionaire Ian Masque. En route to his creepy mansion aboard a yacht, you and the other invitees witness Masque's apparent murder by a booby-trapped artifact. The game's afoot. You do the usual adventuring thing - gather objects, question the other guests, and solve a series of familiar mechanical puzzles (crack a combination lock, find the missing gears, etc.). Once at the mansion itself, you help each of the other characters resolve riddles Masque has left behind and so gather together a series of missing jewels.
All of the game mechanics are competent and pitched to a novice adventurer, as are the straightforward puzzle solutions. From a first-person view, you move from point to point through prerendered period sets, questioning each guest via a pop-up memo pad of subjects. The scenery design is sparse, and the cutscenes lack any cinematic flair. An inventory of gathered objects also glides up from below. A visual catalog of suspects offers a bit of background and reminds you of each guest's possible motive in offing Ian Masque. The hint system is especially good, in that it lets you access up to three hints of decreasing obscurity at a given juncture in the game. At the very least, Fatal Illusion serves as a fair introduction to the adventure/puzzle style of play.
Unfortunately, the game never goes beyond the very least it can do. At heart, it doesn't seem to understand the art of the whodunit. The mystery genre is all about character and motive, hidden desire, and personal secrets, which turn out to be the least compelling parts of the game. The usual suspects are here: a swarthy magician, a playboy, a pair of femmes fatales, a society matron, et. al. But the scripting, voice acting and graphics of the characters are all as wooden as an oak. Interviewing these stiffs is like trying to converse with exhibits at a wax museum. Their background stories are too shallow to be engaging, and they generally spend a lot of time pointing fingers at one another. How could a scriptwriter not have a little fun with the likes of Colonel Mustard or Professor Plumb? Worse yet, the game really isn't about deduction at all. Solving a series of mechanical puzzles rather than unraveling the riddle of human motivation or eliminating suspects advances the action. And the puzzles themselves are rudimentary - you just piece together a half dozen pieces of torn instructions or jiggle a few switches until the thingamabob powers up for you.
In fairness to the game's meager ambitions, Fatal Illusion is priced for and pitched to the very casual gaming crowd. If you've played more than one or two adventure games in your time, the difficulty and brevity of Fatal Illusion will be disappointing, as it takes less than six hours to win for even an average player. When it hits the $15 bargain bin (next week sometime), it will make a fair gift for mom and dad or perhaps the neighbors, who just got their first PC. The initial mystery - Who poisoned Ian Masque's puzzle box? - and its surprise conclusion make the game a mild diversion, even if the rest of the journey feels decidedly unmysterious. Nevertheless, and to their credit, the designers integrate the puzzles into the setting and plot more effectively than some more ambitious adventures.
But even as an introductory adventure game, Fatal Illusion will make most gamers wince because of its low production values and unimaginative design. Games like it should be putting more effort into weaving an engaging story by adding some suspense and complex characters to the puzzles, because those are the dramatic criteria most new gamers bring to the experience from other areas of entertainment. The real mystery behind Fatal Illusion is why the designers didn't let themselves have more fun with the opportunity to make a Clue game. Why reduce such promising characters into Colonel Bland and Professor Pallid? Why not bring the deduction-oriented gameplay of the board game somehow into the adventure? Whodunit? The real question is whoblewit?