Ah, the never ending banks of the Mississippi! It brings to mind those wonderful Agatha Christie stories where murder and style go hand and hand. Anyone who relishes her masterpieces, such as Murder on the Orient Express, Ten Little Indians and especially Death on the Nile will feel right at home in this 1987 game by Activision. At the time, this game seemed too difficult for my undeveloped 15 year old brain, but now my 27 year old master sleuth brain finds it a little easier... or was it that cheat sheet that's now available on the web?
The characters are rather amusing, especially Sir Charles Foxworth and his manservant Regis. Sir Charles is supposed to be master of logic and deduction, but as we learn by their dialogue he is only master of the obvious. Most deductions come from Regis, until Sir Charles picks up on the hints, and then takes credit for them. This relationship is amusing at first, but it keeps going throughout the game with no new surprises and grows a little trite by the end.
All the other characters are archetypes lifted right out of Agatha Christi's classic novels. There's the rich landowner, the southern belle, the temptress, the colonel, the bumbling philanthropist, the blue collared crewman with more to him than meets the eye, the reverend, and the old widow. The characters are all very shallow and superficial, which probably takes away from the depth, which might have been enjoyed in interactions with them. Many modern adventure games have vastly improved on the depth of their characters, thankfully.
Game control is brilliant, and quite unique for it's time. It is extremely easy to use, and allows a large range of actions to take place. Basically you walk around using the joystick until you want to do something, then you hit the button to bring up a menu of options. Your main tasks are to collect evidence and collect snippets of dialog from the passengers of the steamship.
The use of the steamer trunk is a brilliant way to more thoroughly examine evidence, as well as unload some objects from Regis' limited pocket space (reminiscent of the trunk in Resident Evil). In this mode Charles and Regis can examine an object such as an envelope and see if it contains anything. They can also put two distinct objects together and see if Regis or Charles can make any inferences between them. The dialogue here is often amusing.
Sometimes the graphics should have been used a little better to display the game world. For example, there is supposed to be a gun hanging from the railing near the murder scene, but you can't even see it! It should at least be slightly visible to the player as it would be for the characters. The only way to find it is to stumble upon the Investigate menu option while standing on deck outside the room.
A lot of the puzzles can be unduly hard because they just aren't very intuitive. Many times you will be stuck wondering what the programmer wants you to do next. This game is also from the era when adventure games would let you get stuck and not be able to complete the game. Play testing would have helped enormously with ease of some of the puzzles. You can also be killed, and right out of the blue too. Sometimes just entering a room will trigger a trap that kills you dead unless you react sharply. This was from the time before they realized getting killed didn't add fun to adventure games.
Passengers have lots of varied things to say to you each time you talk, however the note taking also didn't always seem to work. In one instance I made some notes about some cologne but the game didn't accept them. If you don't take the correct notes when they are offered, you're stuck. You can't go back to someone and repeat the conversation. And it's not always obvious what the key words are in conversations. If ignore opinions and only extract facts you should stay on the right path, however.
The in game graphics are colourful and top notch, similar to Maniac Mansion. At the end of the game everyone on board is rounded up into one room for the big finale, which is similar to how Poirot resolved his mysteries. With 10 characters and the Commodore 64's limit of 8 sprites I'm not sure how they pulled this off, but it seems a fitting finale to the mystery.
This game is an excellent romp from the past and is lots of fun to play, even in this age of incredible graphics. It's not quite up there with the likes of Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, or Neuromancer but about on par with The Detective Game, Deja Vu and Project: Firestart.
|GRAPHICS - 9/10|
|The graphics in this game are great. They were aiming for a cartoonish quality and they really achieved it. Each character is quite unique and well animated, especially Regis' funny waddle. They did an excellent job representing the size of a river-boat, making it a pleasure to walk up and down the decks at a leisurely pace.|
|SOUND - 8/10|
|The music is quite good and has a nice character to it. It occasionally plays a little tune when you emerge from a room. It really complements the action as Foxworth and Regis stroll along the deck looking for their next clue. The sounds are also exceptional, from the sound of the steam engines to the opening and closing of doors. There is a nice balance between music and sound, giving you time to just absorb the atmosphere of a river boat.|
|PLAYABILITY - 8/10|
|Gameplay can be hampered by the note-taking system, which is hit-and-miss. I think it should have taken notes automatically for you after each conversation. The real puzzle is who you show your notes to, and this would remain intact. Also, the puzzles weren't that great. There were hardly any puzzles where you have to figure out what object to use with something in the environment. The game focuses more on the detective work, which is handled well but could use a bigger dose of old fashioned puzzles.|
|OVERALL - 9/10|
|This game has a great atmosphere and a great premise. It's got a lot of things going for it in the beginning, but once it gets going it tends to lose something. The story and characters are pretty good but the main mystery is too standard and quite forgettable. Although it never gets as deeply into the wackiness and originality of Maniac Mansion, it's still a superior game.|