Sleuthing – Old School Style
There used to be a time when adventure games ruled the PC gaming industry. Growing up I gorged myself on Infocom text adventures, and later almost every Sierra or LucasArts adventure game I could get my hands on. With the advent of high-powered graphics cards, adventure games fell out of fashion. With the boom of casual titles in recent years, however, adventure games have made a definitive comeback, though now they are more commonly a product of “budget” PC gaming by smaller developers.
Art of Murder: Cards of Destiny is a decidedly old-school point-and-click adventure that hearkens back to those old Sierra games. You take the role of FBI agent Nicole Bonnet, hero of two previous City Interactive adventures in the “Art of Murder” series. Nicole has received a mysterious package containing an old projector bulb and a bolt which puts her on the trail – and into the crosshairs – of a serial killer. Starting in Nicole’s apartment, you’ll soon point and click your way through Louisiana, Maine, and various locations in between.
Click and Ye Shall Find
Cards of Destiny utilizes a very simple and traditional adventure game control scheme. Left-clicking will move Nicole around, while double-clicking will make her run. Right-clicks are reserved for looking at objects, and the cursor is context-sensitive so that you’ll always know whether an object can be taken, manipulated, or merely observed. An inventory bar at the bottom of the screen provides easy access to your objects, which can be combined together or picked up to be used on the environment. Anyone who has played an adventure title in the last 20 years will feel right at home.
They’ll also feel right at the home for the need to click *everything*. One of the slightly obnoxious design decisions in Cards of Destiny is that you’ll often be “trapped” in an area until you solve the appropriate puzzles, take the appropriate items, or interact with the appropriate objects or NPCs. While this does serve to ease the challenge level of the game, it can feel a bit restricting at times. After spending a lengthy period of time just trying to leave Nicole’s apartment at the beginning of the game, I was starting to wonder if I was really cut out for FBI work after all.
The game does offer one nifty little hint system that works quite well. Clicking on the question mark icon in your inventory bar will overlay a question mark icon on any object in your scene that can be searched or manipulated, and a door icon over every exit or close-up view. This hint system is wonderful in giving you a nudge without feeling like you’ve cheated, and also eliminates the always annoying “pixel hunt” problem so common in point-and-click adventure games.
Some Puzzling Designs
That’s not to say that your brain won’t be challenged. Cards of Destiny’s puzzles range from the glaringly obvious to the desk pounding obtuse, though the majority fall somewhere in the middle. A little common sense goes a long way in the game, and typically you’ll be able to figure things out by applying a little logical thinking. The game utilizes a great deal of object-combination puzzles, so you’ll want to pay close attention to your inventory. Objects in your inventory can even be viewed and rotated in 3D, a trick that may offer further clues or even new objects.
Unfortunately there are some aggravations with the puzzle design as well. The game is bad about not revealing items or letting you progress until you perform some “trigger” action. For example, you may have to talk to all the people in the local bar before you are able to click on a certain necessary item, or you may have to discover a certain item before conversation topics open up to you necessary to progress the story. While a certain amount of this is common in any adventure game, it often feels a little illogical in the context of the game’s story. For instance, at the start of the game the reason I couldn’t leave the apartment was because “I didn’t want to interrupt the sweet idleness.” What does that even mean?
Not Gonna Happen!
The game’s presentation is often as stiff and awkward as its dialogue. While the environments you explore are rendered nicely, the human models resemble mannequins controlled by an unseen (and extremely slow) puppeteer. I hate to beat the presentation up too badly; as a budget title I’m not expecting A+ production values. However, the animation combined with the often atrocious voice acting really detracts from the experience.
To be fair, many of the characters Nicole runs into do a serviceable job in the acting department – at least well enough not to make you cringe outright. Listening to Nicole herself for more than a few minutes, however, is great way to test your ability to withstand torture. Apparently poor Nicole has no sense of how sentences should be properly inflected, which means she comes off sounding like a cheerful Magic Kingdom tour guide whether she is describing her cat or the bloody remnants of a dead body. It’s really hard to be creeped out at roaming around an abandoned movie theater on the trail of a vicious killer when every description is read like an exuberant travel agent describing weekend getaway cruises. Even worse, incorrect clicks will inevitably result in a “Nothing doing,” or “Not gonna happen!” sung in that same ear-gouging sing-song inflection.
Art of Murder: Cards of Destiny has its heart in the right place. It’s not trying to be anything more than a classic mouse-driven adventure title aimed at teens and young adults. However, the satisfyingly classic gameplay and puzzles are overshadowed by a dull story, sometimes comically stiff presentation, and an intensely grating main character. There are certainly worse budget adventure titles out there, but there are some better ones out there too. Unless you’re in desperate need of an old-school adventure with a serial killer theme, this is one crime you may want to leave unsolved.