Hercule Poirot gave the main speech at my university graduation. Not the more recognisable Poirot figure of David Suchet, but the late Peter Ustinov. I don’t remember a whole lot about what he said, other than that the Iraq war was going to end poorly for all concerned; and he probably didn’t have to employ Poirot levels of deduction to figure that one out.
Bear with me, I am going somewhere with this.
You see, King Art (creators of the Book of Unwritten Tales and recent beneficiaries of a successful Kickstarter campaign for Battle Worlds) have clearly spent long evenings indoors with some Poirot boxed sets and yellowing, water-damaged copies of various Christie novels. Their latest episodic point and click outing, The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief, owes much to this world of butlers, fated cruises and murder most foul.
It’s a tone that’s harder to nail down than you might think.
Before the BBC’s crime output became dominated by alcoholic Scandinavian single parents in cool jumpers (nothing against those shows mind you, they’re great,) stuff like Miss Marple and Poirot would sit happily as the early afternoon or Sunday evening detective fare. It was family viewing that somehow managed to remain lighthearted, in spite of the inevitable dash of murder.
King Art has extracted this curious tone and applied it with skill to The Raven. There are bombs and violent thefts and haunted detectives, but it’s all delivered in the spirit of high adventure and intrigue. Murders end not with deep emotional scars for the bereaved, but with minimal spots of blood on blankets and tastefully arranged corpses.
In part, this may be down to affable protagonist Anton Jakob Zellner. He’s a balding Swiss constable with a positive attitude and an appetite for the sort of investigative police work found in the crime novels he enjoys. Zellner takes everything in his stride, whether it be something as simple as chatting with a mischievous young boy or narrowly dodging a bullet.
It is the 1960s, and Zellner finds himself (where else?) on The Orient Express. Naturally, it doesn’t take too long for him to ingratiate himself into a plot involving colonial jewels, suspicious motives and the apparent return of a legendary thief.
Hey, doesn’t that sound like a great excuse for a series of point and click puzzles? Why yes, it does.
With these, The Raven tries to stick somewhat close to reality. You won’t be solving any crimes by combining a dog with an elastic band and then snapping the elastic band to make the dog bark to vibrate a pre-placed piece of cake off a table to make an obese person bend over for it and lose their keys. You know, just for example. The story does take place within a somewhat idealised detective novel world though, so expect solutions that are in-keeping with that setting.
You don’t even have to solve them all. In his travels, Zellner will come across optional puzzles and activities that don’t prevent progress in the main narrative, but can instead be dealt with if he (and you) wish. Figuring out ‘secret’ puzzles will net you some Adventure Points, which can be spent on a quick hot-spot highlight or (at a higher cost) on a helpful hint towards your next move. At the end of the episode, your proficiency as a detective is judged by the number of points you have remaining.
It’s not a bad idea, as it rewards the diligent puzzle-hunter for their prowess while still allowing newer players to make it through to the end. But it can lead to annoyance when the narrative is accidentally pushed on quicker and further than the player may like.
In The Raven’s opening scenes, Zellner is given the task of finding a missing purse. I was making progress with this, but then inadvertently triggered a cut-scene that took me beyond that stage in the game. The nearest auto-save was also post cut-scene, so the purse remained unfound. Pop-up videogame boxes with “You’re about to cross the point of no return!” written on them are inelegant, but in this case I’d probably have welcomed one.
The game complicates matters further by occasionally presenting a problem that actually can’t be solved until the narrative has moved on a little. There’s a point at which it becomes clear that you need to get beyond a guard to the hold of a ship, but although certain pieces of this puzzle are in place you can’t actually progress past it until the plot has moved on and a couple more characters are on deck near the door.
When you combine this with the optional puzzles, it creates a bit of a dilemma in the completionist player. You don’t want to push the plot too far in case it prevents you from solving something, but you never know when you might actually need to get the plot rolling to tackle a given problem. The only option, really, is to save often and return to previous points if necessary.
That’s actually wise advice in general, because The Raven is a touch on the buggy side. Zellner sometimes loses his mind and decides he’ll just spin in place for a while or take an impossible route to a location, leaving you stuck in an endless animation cycle with no recourse except quitting out of the game entirely. Similarly, I encountered a point where returning to a certain scene would always result in a totally black screen.
These issues are likely to be patched, but at present they disrupt the narrative flow of what is otherwise an enjoyable title.
It’s a shame too, because the rest of the presentation is wonderful. King Art’s English localisation (the team is German in origin) is first rate, with strong performances from Zellner (Neil McCaul,) his reluctant associate Legrand (Andrew Wincott) and Zellner’s beloved crime author Lady Westmacott (Nicolette McKenzie.) Character animations are fairly naturalistic (when not stuck in a bizarre loop,) and the the hand-sketched nature of Zellner’s in-game notebook is especially lovely.
The problem with drawing absolute conclusions with titles that are episodic in nature is that you’re only getting a single portion of the story. While the first segment of The Walking Dead was fine, it would’ve been impossible to predict just how moving that series would become on the basis of its opening chapter. Thanks to the infamous radio battery puzzle, certain bits of characterisation even seemed pretty weak.
According to The Raven’s own press, the story will at some point flip to an entirely different character perspective. Whether that will strengthen what has already been established as a solid narrative in Chapter One, or undermine it by yanking the focus away from interesting, established characters, is impossible to say. Across the five or so hours that Eye of the Sphinx takes to complete, King Art has demonstrated enough talent for creating a convincing homage to 1960s murder-mysteries that I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The optional puzzle structure and occasional bugs are somewhat disappointing, but the semi-realistic conundrums, unusual setting and likeable presence of Constable Zellner are all in The Raven’s favour. Poirot, I think, would approve.
If this sounds like the sort of game you might like to win in a giveaway contest, you’re in luck! We’re running just such a thing over here. You’ll win the entire game, too (when it’s all released.)