Poor Hercule Poirot. Not only is he always mistaken for a Frenchman, but in the collective mind of popculture, he will always remain second choice after Sherlock Holmes. It may actually be deserved, seeing that he was indeed created as a Holmes-imitation (or homage?). Then again, after appearing in so many popular stories, you could think he should have emancipated himself by now. Talking about popular stories,arguably is his signature investigation. The confined setting of the stranded train on which a murder occurs and the following interview marathon can be seen as seminal motifs of the classic mystery genre as a whole. It is also incredibly hard to transform this into an entertaining game.
In this attempt, poor Poirot takes the backseat in the investigation (or does he?). As established in many Holmesian computer games (Infocom's, Sherlock Holmes: Another Bow…), the great detective himself does not actually carry out the investigation. Rather, the player is put into the shoes of a character introduced just for game. Antoinette Marceau, employee of the train company, acts as eyes, ears, legs and hands of the immortal mastermind when American millionaire (and scumbag) Ratchett is murdered. The excuse being that Poirot has sprained his ankle and is therefore confined to his bed.
Which, honestly, makes little sense. If you remember, about 95% of Poirot's investigation in the book consists of questioning suspects, which he really could do lying down as well. The extrinsic reason usually cited for such a design decision remains valid, however: playing a genius detective puts a huge burden on the player; either he makes the protagonist look stupid by not performing well enough or the protagonist will more or less draw conclusions on his own, leaving the player behind. The spinout of the the investigative work into another character, on the other hand, comes with another big burden, which we will get back to later.
To the game's credit, it does try to give the player something to do beyond the endless questioning of suspects. Unfortunately, not everything is really related to typical investigation activities. In fact, the game starts out in quite a weak way: in an attempt to make initial contact with Poirot on the Istanbul market, Antoinette has to chase him screen after screen, each one containing a path blocked by two people asking for a specific object to let her pass. One after another, the same boring errand again and again. Later, Antoinette even has to repair the train's heat pipe, even though an engineer is on board who doubtlessly would be much better suited for the task! This leaves the aftertaste of stretching the game needlessly.
The part of gameplay actually revolving around detective work roughly falls into three categories. The smallest one is overhearing clues in conversations of others. Since the game does not play out in real time – for better or worse – this is a fairly simple affair, as there is no opportunity to miss anything important. Second, there is searching all compartments. Repeatedly. When in doubt, search all compartments. Not exactly thrilling when you've already rummaged through all suitcases to go back to the same places to also check all the shoes and yet another time to dust for fingerprints (comically, after touching the very same objects a couple of times). Third, there is indeed the questioning of suspects. For which the game does not have any gameplay idea other than going through pseudo-multiple-choice lists which can and have to be exhaustively covered in any case. So they may as well have been non-interactive.
It does not help motivation that the game strictly prescribes the order of the different activities. There is no way to question a couple of people while also dusting for fingerprints. No, first try to spy on everybody's conversations, then search all the luggage, then check all the shoes etc. So you are always stuck in one of these “phases” of doing the same thing all over again before moving on to the next.
Lacking a playable implementation of deduction, the protagonist, Poirot (with whom the protagonist confers regularly) and also other characters take unfortunate leaps in their logic. Untimely revelations and confessions occur too often. Statements are sometimes made in the wrong order. The protagonist, or rather player character, suddenly has knowledge which a player without previous knowledge of the solution (if one such exists) could not possibly have in-game. Typical issues of the mystery genre when taking a naive approach putting it into an interactive format.
Formally, the game offers two difficulty levels. In the easier one, Poirot promises to offer additional guidance where to investigate next. Really, this does not make the game easier or harder. Rather, it simply makes the game last longer or be over more quickly. That is because there is really no challenge in the game other than exhaustively looking in every corner, clicking everywhere and exhausting all conversation options with everybody. Doing that, the game then solves itself. Appropriately, Poirot's advice usually comes down to “you have not yet found all clues in the compartments” (how does he know that, by the way?), sometimes in more targeted variants (“question this particular person”).
Wait, really no challenge? That's not quite true. There is a handful of actual puzzles. First, there is the obvious one of decyphering the burnt letter as described in the book, which is translated literally and which Poirot will also be happy to spell out for players who cannot quite remember how it is done. It's a good puzzle, but it's too well known to really get enthusiasm up. The originality of the rest is probably best illustrated by the inclusion of a literal puzzle box which needs to be opened. Bleh!
It should be clear by now thatsimply lacks any gameplay ideas to make it really interesting on playability side. The protagonist is in the story, but it really progresses without her and therefore, by proxy, without the player. That in a story which the player will very likely already be familiar with. The attempt to balance this out is probably the inclusion of a light variation in the plot. Though this is really not a change, but rather an add-on on top and the less said about this cheesy deus-ex-machina moment at the very end, the better.
Storytelling techniques are also not particularly strong. The failures in the translation of the plot into interactive format (“revelations in the wrong order”, “conclusions drawn before all pieces of evidence have been gathered”) have already been covered. On top of that, after the initial scene in Istanbul, pacing is thrown off by an endless expository cutscene. In the later game, similar scenes occur effectively again. Even though they are then formally interactive, the player is only offered a “continue” button, sometimes disguised as the only hotspot in the picture.
Finally, to come back to the relation of Poirot and the player (respectively the player's in-game stand-in), the game ends on an extremely anticlimactic note: after Antoinette did all the legwork, it is Poirot himself who finally sweeps in to take all the credit by presenting the solution (or rather solutions, true to the book, plus the one fact which… no, let's not talk about it). Antoinette, with her the player, is relegated to repeat some clues, show some pieces of evidence on cue. Once again, it is only pseudo-interactive, as the player can exhaust all multiple choice options (including the wrong ones) without any negative consequence.
What saves the game somewhat is nevertheless one thing which has already been briefly mentioned on the side. Which avid reader wouldn't want to be in this classic story? Even if not as much of an actor, being a spectator also counts. Sure, graphically, the game has its problems. The rendered graphics look fairly cold and lifeless; characters move stiffly as if this came from the 1990s (the early days of this technology); viewed from above, Poirot's severed torso seems to be hovering above his bed. Nevertheless, the set design is good. The game gets the luxurious, but nevertheless cramped feeling of the train itself and the desolate, endless, snowy wasteland all around (where Antoinette has to travel occasionally as well) across quite well. In many ways, it is in fact the train which is the star.
Character designs have obviously been inspired by the 1974 Sidney Lumet film, meaning you more or less get to see a middle-aged Sean Connery as the strict and somewhat grumpy military man, the pastiche of a young Michael York as the burgeoise eastern European diplomat and so on. Voices have largely been selected to imitate those of the respective actors as well. All save for Poirot himself, who is voiced by David Suchet, who has portrayed the great detective on film and on TV more often than anyone else. Getting over the fact that two native French speakers (Poirot and Antoinette) converse in English even when nobody else is in the room, voice acting and direction is a big asset for the game's atmosphere.
As a player, the rather lazy translation into this rather different medium without accounting for those differences can be seen as rather frustrating. Then again, at least this design avoids any real roadblocks to the success of the patient player. So even though it may not feel entirely satisfying to finish Murder on the Orient Express, the journey there isn't entirely unpleasant due to production values ranging from acceptable to good. As a self-appointed historian, I cannot help it but point out that The Last Express did much better on all counts ten years before already: the game looks better, sounds better and certainly plays better than. The very story from which it has been so clearly inspired. That should be a lesson for game-makers as well as for us as their audience.