I’ve been told I’m like Sherlock Holmes. I’m not sure whether that means I’m observant and insightful or just an arrogant sociopath. I like to think it means I have peerless detective skills, so I seized the opportunity to test them in Murder for Dinner.
The first thing I detected was the spirit of Agatha Christie sneaking around the party, eating everyone’s canapés. This is definitely a classic-style mystery with an enigmatic host, a cryptic gathering of seemingly unrelated people, shady characters, secret misdeeds and clues aplenty.
The second thing I detected was the total absence of dinner from Murder for Dinner, so frankly I don’t want to think about what spectral Agatha was really eating. Fortunately the other part of the title is pretty accurate. There is certainly murder here, and it falls to you to work out who did the dark deed. To aid you, you have only your eagle eyes and your razor sharp brain. Well, those and your thumb. For once we get the chance to find out how it feels to be Hercule Poirot (with a bit more thumbing).
It’s easy to see why Poirot spent so much time at high society functions. The elegantly appointed house, rolling (if compact) lawns and enticingly impenetrable outbuilding consummately set up the evening of intrigue. Apart from a persistent chug in the game engine whenever NPCs are close by, the visuals are good for an XBLIG title, with character models that remind me of something from the N64 Zelda games if they’d been set in 1920s Buckinghamshire – all exaggerated moustaches and elaborate garb.
I imagine some might dislike that, but I found it charming. It works in the context. Each NPC has their role to play and they play it to the full in both appearance and character, from the weary old soldier to the gossiping duchess. Every one of them has their own secret, and piecing these hidden pasts together is the most satisfying part of the experience. While frustratedly combing the cellar one more time for missed clues, it was the desire to find answers that sustained me. What were those two whispering about? Why is she so anxious about that innocuous trinket?
Beyond the feel of walking amidst dangerous secrets, though, the way if feels to be Poirot according to Murder for Dinner is tranquil and a little repetitive. I’d always credited the legendary literary detectives with a prodigious intellect, but as it turns out the key to solving mysterious murders is actually to walk around the area ceaselessly, prodding at things until one of them suddenly becomes significant. That’s where Murder for Dinner lets itself down a bit. Dialogue can’t be directed and items can’t be picked up or used, so what it all boils down to is pressing A by objects in the correct order. A particular piece of domestic clutter will have no significance until after you’ve spoken to specific people, whose dialogue won’t necessarily give you any indication that this object is relevant. Talk to someone, see if your journal updates, then do another circuit around the house, A-ing everything. Find the right object. Talk to someone else, check your journal, do a circuit.
In that respect, the game is a little disappointing. Being required to choose the correct line of questioning or show the right item to the right person might have made all the difference in helping this feel like a genuine mystery, particularly if some strand of logic ran through it. As it is, your involvement in unravelling the tangled web is minimal, and that starts to show through once the initial glow of ‘holy crap, I’m solving a murder!’ wears off.
Having said that, whether it’s a disappointment will depend on what you wanted. You see, Murder for Dinner is just disguised as a game, like Sherlock Holmes masquerading as a priest in Scandal in Bohemia . In actuality it’s a short story that gives you the means to soak up the atmosphere of a traditional high society murder evening by being there.
Personally I enjoyed the time I spent with Murder for Dinner; maybe an hour in total. It kept me engaged and although I was occasionally frustrated I was seldom bored. With my contribution limited to pressing A in the right places to advance the story I can’t see myself replaying it any time soon, but I don’t regret paying it a visit. It’s a shame that the mystery didn’t need me to solve it and instead solved itself as I watched; had it been any longer than it is, the lack of meaningful interactivity might have started to get boring.
As it is, the atmosphere, the simple but engaging web of lies, and the freedom to wander around the house keeping your eyes peeled for clues make it worth the price of admission for an hour or so of Agatha Christie clue-hunting, at least for those of a contemplative disposition. Adrenaline junkies might want to give it a miss, but they’re probably too busy leaping off gantries and chest-bumping each other to read reviews anyway.