Genre: Mystery Adventure
Release Date: October 2007
Note: Oriiginally published 13 February 2008
If you like a good mystery, chances are you’ve heard of Agatha Christie, possibly the world’s best-known mystery writer. Her books have sold over a billion copies, and I count myself as a big fan, having read every single one of her brilliant mystery novels. So it was with great anticipation that I installed Evil Under the Sun, the third game (after And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express) in the Agatha Christie mystery series from The Adventure Company,and embarked on my reviewing journey.
The game begins with Hercule Poirot, an eccentric Belgian detective who is the protagonist of numerous Agatha Christie novels, sitting in his immaculate Whitehaven Mansions London office with his friend Arthur Hastings, telling him about a recent summer vacation on an island resort that turned deadly. Poirot relates the story of how shortly after he arrived at the Smuggler’s Rest Hotel on the island, a resident was savagely murdered. The brilliant detective that he is, Poirot had managed to solve the mystery in a single day. Now he wonders if Hastings would have been capable of doing the same.
Hastings eagerly accepts the challenge and allows Poirot to take him back in time – to relive all the events he experienced during the vacation and see if he can arrive at the same conclusions as Poirot did. So as the game begins, you find yourself playing Hastings, who in turn is playing Poirot, on his island summer vacation. You must piece together clues from your observations and conversations with twenty or so characters on the island, and do a bit of puzzle-solving to figure out this whodunit. Throw in a couple of ghost sightings, strange voodoo rituals and talk of buried treasure, and it’s clear there’s more going on at this resort island than meets the eye.
Evil Under the Sun is a third-person point-and-click adventure that sticks to the tried and tested adventure gaming conventions. Anyone who has ever played a point-and-click adventure game will feel right at home with the interface. Clicking anywhere on the screen leads Poirot to slowly shuffle over to wherever you want him to be, like a graceful emperor penguin. Thankfully, double clicking on screen exits spares us his exit stroll, transporting him instantly to the next screen. When your mouse passes over an object on the screen that can be picked up, your cursor will change into a hand to indicate that. Accessing objects that have been picked up and placed in your inventory is as easy as right clicking your mouse. Placing your cursor over a character will make it change to indicate an opportunity for a conversation (or sometimes eavesdropping).
At the top of the screen, there are several icons that will allow you to access the main menu, your inventory, a very handy notebook (that is automatically updated with clues and a list of pending tasks) and Poirot’s office. You’ll want to go back to Poirot’s office if you’re in need of some help. A mysterious contraption called the Finger of Suspicion in Poirot’s office will allow you to place a card with a character’s name on it, and the finger will point to one of the five options: talk, assist, observe, search room or eavesdrop. This can be useful for finding out which character you need to focus on, to move forward in the game.
Evil Under the Sun is divided into eight acts, each requiring you to complete certain tasks (such as conversations, puzzles and errands) before moving to the next. You won’t venture far from Seadrift island during the course of your investigation, except some excursions by sea tractor to Leathercombe Bay. On the island, you’ll be able to extensively explore a handful of locales such as the Smugglers Rest hotel (where you’re staying), the Smugglers End Pub, Cutter’s coves, an old run-down monastery, a few beaches, and a nearby, almost deserted village. You will revisit these locations many times during each act, trying to locate characters to talk to or search for objects to help in your investigation.
The gameplay relies heavily on inventory-based puzzles, where you’ll have to use or combine objects to get ahead. Often you’ll find yourself pixel hunting on the screen to locate objects that can be picked up and be of potential use later in the game. I never knew Poirot was a borderline kleptomaniac, but this game certainly seems to suggest so. He will be swiping anything that isn’t bolted down, often to the point of seeming like a jolly old man out on a leisurely romp of petty larceny. Sneaking into a hotel room to steal someone’s typewriter, pilfering perfume bottles from another guest’s bathroom cabinet, swiping ice picks from hotel bars – anything is game.
When you’re not scavenging for junk around the island, you’ll be talking to and learning more about the characters on the island. A lot of the characters have intriguing back stories that will unfold and reveal themselves over time. The tension between certain characters will sometimes be immediately apparent, while with others you will have to carefully follow the conversations to notice signs indicating if something’s amiss. The developers have done a really good job with character detail and especially with their realistic facial expressions. The same cannot be said about character movement, which is often stiff and robotic. The voiceovers are a mixed bag as well – sometimes they’re spot on and breathe life into a character, at other times you’ll notice botched up accents and wooden delivery bereft of any emotion.
One of the more enjoyable parts of the game is the witty banter between Poirot and Hastings. There are plenty of jokes and snide remarks exchanged between the two, as Poirot tries to make Hastings play his part more faithfully, right down to his fussy eccentricities. Whenever Hastings tries to do something un-Poirot-like, such as comment on a woman’s attire or climb a ladder, Poirot will admonish you with “Hastings! What does Poirot know of women’s fashion?” or “What are you thinking Hastings? Poirot does not climb up and down the ladders”.
Evil Under the Sun also looks really beautiful. The game is set amid a backdrop of World War II, which has just broken out. The developers have done a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere and feel of the time, with environments, décor, and vocabulary faithful to the period setting. The beautiful background art, 3D graphics and haunting musical score add a layer of immersion to the game that will draw you in. The animated environments, with gray clouds drifting in the sky, seagulls soaring in the breeze and waves idly lapping the beachfront all make Seadrift island come alive.
But one of the things that really irked me was the game’s incredibly slow tempo. It can be a tedious experience to watch Poirot slowly lumbering through the island locales, searching for that one elusive object to complete a puzzle or tracking down a particular person to talk to. The frustratingly slow fade-out transitions as you walk from one screen to the next will be trying for even the most patient of you gamers out there. And where is the detective-style work you’d expect from a Poirot mystery? Blindly exhausting every dialog tree option when you encounter a character, and solving clichéd inventory puzzles is pretty much all that’s required here. The game reeks of missed potential – a cookie-cutter adventure that brings nothing new to the table.
And, well, there are more serious problems with the game. On more than one occasion the game crashed on me, despite my having a configuration that is close to the recommended system specs. The game would get slower and slower as I played, till it either crashed or I was faced with a “whiteout” – my entire screen would turn white and no matter where I clicked, I could not see Poirot (I could hear him walk around). I would eventually be forced to restart the game. Forget about a smooth playing experience if your system is not close to the recommended system requirements. On more than one system with better than minimum requirements, the game crashed like china in a room full of monkeys.
Overall, although the story isn’t all that bad (a reimagining of the original story with a different ending), the game is bogged down by its bugs that are still unresolved at the time of writing, and a cause for much chagrin among the many who bought this game (just look at any gaming forum with an active discussion on the game). When it works, the game ends up being a mildly entertaining adventure, but ultimately an exercise in tedium to plod through. I’d recommend this game only to die-hard Christie fans and hardcore adventure gamers looking for their next quick fix before a truly memorable game comes along.
Final Grade: C (current buggy version), B- (with bug fixes)