The odd combination of monks and murder has been a staple of whodunit fiction for decades, so the biggest mystery here is why somebody didn't come up with an adventure game like Murder in the Abbey (known in Europe as simply The Abbey) before now. Developer Crimson Cow delivers a solid take on the murderous monastery minigenre, too, thanks to a smart story and impressively painted scenery populated by cartoonish characters reminiscent of graphic novels. Unimaginative puzzles and some overwritten dialogue make your sleuthing tedious at times, although the adventure still delivers a gripping, sharp-looking trip back to the Middle Ages.
However, if you're looking for something with the faintest hint of originality, you might want to look elsewhere. This utter lack of imagination extends to the storyline, a good chunk of which has been rather liberally scarfed from The Name of the Rose. Here you play Brother Leonardo of Toledo, a monk sent to deliver his teenage sidekick Bruno to the Nuestra Senora de la Natividad Abbey for study with the resident monks. Unfortunately, dark, dastardly murder interferes with this kiddie drop-off. Someone tries to kill Leonardo and Bruno on their way into the monastery by rolling a boulder onto them, Wile E. Coyote-style, and the duo then discover that a monk has recently died in a mysterious fashion. Given that Leonardo is basically Sherlock Holmes with a tonsure, right down to his nearly supernatural powers of observation that let him figure out nearly everything about everybody from just the briefest glance, he sets out to solve the mystery of the murdered monk.
Gameplay is focused almost entirely on interrogating monks like the usual adventure-game gumshoe, as well as collecting useful objects. There are just a couple of set-piece logic puzzles in Murder in the Abbey, and these are basic brainteasers in which you slide tiles around to form a picture and click on faces on a bas-relief to open a secret door. Carrying conversations and picking up whatever isn't nailed down are the cornerstones of your investigations. Most of the riddles here are based on common sense, at any rate, which keeps the game out of need-a-walkthrough land. Considering that you don't have to worry about the absurd leaps of logic that are all too common to old-school adventure games, you need to concentrate on your surroundings and simply grab items that have a reasonably obvious purpose. So when a key falls out of a book, you know to scoop it up. Spot some gunpowder? Ditto. Run across an icon of the Virgin Mary? Pocket that, too.
After you've done all of your junk-collecting, all that's left is a straightforward assessment of your situation and experimenting with combinations of objects until you find out what works. It's all very formulaic, and your time will be filled up with old-fashioned "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" jobs and a ton of busywork in scrounging for items needed to push the plot forward. As an example, at one point early on in chapter one, you need a document translated. The monk who can do it is really busy, though, so he puts you off until next week, complaining that he is so backlogged that he hasn't been able to eat and is faint with hunger. So you trot off to the kitchen, where you recently chatted with a monk who is cooking up a delicious soup, and, well, the rest pretty much writes itself. Most puzzles are as elementary as adding two plus two, although some are a bit obtuse. Key plot points are occasionally buried in dense dialogue passages. Some tasks require such an incredible amount of busywork that it's easy to get lost in all of the annoying minutiae. For instance, making the sleeping potion is an amazingly long and dull procedure that was apparently included simply to lengthen the game. Regardless, veteran adventure gamers should be able to wrap up their role as medieval Kojak in no more than a couple of evenings of heavy play.
The look and sound of the game is more remarkable. Realistic characters and backdrops have been replaced with colorful, almost Disney-like animation and scenery. This gives the monastery and its denizens a lot of added character via the bulbous noses and exaggerated expressions common to kiddie comic books. At times this seems rather incongruous. Such a lighthearted atmosphere lends the game a "Richie Rich Goes to the Middle Ages" vibe that isn't exactly appropriate for a grim tale about murder and Satanism. Bruno's pop-eyed wonder is particularly off-putting here; he looks so innocent and cheerful that you think he must have been dropped in from a game about floating castles and elves. Nevertheless, such unique art makes the game stand out from the crowd, and you can't quibble with the beauty of the painted backgrounds, especially when outdoors at dawn. At least the voice acting perfectly fits the material. Roles are well spoken, with all actors possessing the clipped British accents that always make these period pieces seem more authentic. They also speak with just the right touches of gravitas and humor, which accentuates the forbidding monastery setting and builds an unsettling atmosphere in which it seems like everyone has something to hide.
Attitude and attractiveness are the two biggest characteristics of Murder in the Abbey. Although the pilfered plot won't win any points for creativity, the sensible puzzles and the cheerful charm of the presentation are enough to win you over.