With her bee-stung lips, Katie Holmes bob, and sharp-lined pants suit, 30-year-old FBI rookie Nicole Bonnet looks ready to take on any Bureau-brewed antics thrown her way. But with a multitude of recorded inflections saying “Frankly, I have no idea what to do with it,” it becomes obvious that Nicole isn’t a whiz kid when it comes to piecing puzzles together -- that’s where the player comes in on this traditional point-and-click mystery-murder adventure.
Helping to navigate the landscape from North to South America, Bonnet’s extracurricular abilities and small-town biography come into play at unexpected times in Art of Murder: FBI Confidential (Die Kunst des Mordens – Geheimakte FBI, in its native Poland), to pleasantly surprising results. At other times, take for instance her extensive background in phenomenology and its first-person perspective studies of the consciousness, her past philosophically-heavy studies bear zero significance to the story.
The story is: A tangible handful of New York’s literati are having their hearts cut out of their chests by an elusive yet somewhat sloppy ritual murderer. The weapon of choice: An Incan ceremonial dagger. The leads are surprisingly abundant, but Art of Murder is familiar with how to craft an expected number of well-used murder-mystery tropes: Bonnet, a barely-qualified greenhorn, is oddly setup to lead a high-profile case; people’s identities are hidden in plain sight; unreliable characters speak the truth, unlikely truths feel unfounded; a twist on a twist sets the room spinning in the final chapters; and a curtain call of characters and locations sum up the endgame’s (long-awaited) momentum.
By the book, Art of Murder essentially cooks up what it must to serve up the standardized faire that constitutes a murder-mystery. But story alone does not a game make, and Art of Murder leaves itself open to broad criticism through uneven character development, presenting only a narrow range of puzzles to solve, a bafflingly-dull beginning featuring report filing and an empty printer, and the presence of somehow unavoidable bottlenecks that still keep the adventure genre from garnering the awards it used to back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Bonnet is an amateur agent when she first walks on the badge-flashing scene, but gets so shaken by each successive murder that she suddenly starts referring to herself in the third-person and giving herself pep talks to stay motivated. Were it done with gradual progression it would be brilliant. But snuck in somewhere during the game’s midway point, Bonnet’s newfound “You Go Girl!” attitude is misplaced and cheeky.
Full-on puzzle solving is rarer than it should be, with the brunt of the door-opening gameplay relying on inventory shuffling and arbitrary mouse-clicking to lower the overabundance of invisible walls. Bonet’s monologues could’ve clued in the player to the game’s missing puzzle pieces, but all too often her observations were whimsical, unfocused, or just plain irrelevant to emboldening the case or atmosphere of the adventure. Instead of keeping the investigation tightly focused, the developers saw fit to include tidbit observations that -- with their scattered placement and distracting nature -- do little to flesh out Bonnet’s character. She might walk into a murder scene and casually state that she’s always wanted to live in a Victorian house. Or she’ll get distracted by a blank movie screen and say she’s eagerly awaiting the next Bond film.
Whereas the Bonnet character-development sheet is a tad thin, the sheer number of pop culture references brightens up the game’s character as a whole. In conversation, hat tips are made towards everything from Jessica Fletcher to Lara Croft, from Google Earth to George Lucas, and from Guantanamo Bay to Scooby Doo. When things start getting hairy, Bonnet reminds you that “This isn’t Counter-Strike,” and at one point she even croons an out-of-tune version of The Police’s “Message in a Bottle.” While Art of Murder never makes visual rib jabs to this effect, the spoken references add a welcome dash of salt and pepper to the script.
But why was Bonnet’s voice acting so consistently halting and troublesome? She sounded like a grown-up Valley Girl that could only read four or five words of the script at a time, while the majority of the rest of the cast didn’t perform half as poorly. Inexplicably, the only time Bonnet throws any inflection into her voice is when the player has made a mistake with a mouse click and she berates the player with a condescending line. Everything else, from displaying shock, disdain, confusion, or flirtatiousness, Bonnet delivers lines with nothing more than varying degrees of apathy. Even the unexpected cursing sounds unconvinced, like Bonnet didn’t actually mean to say it.
Another element that makes her movements feel unintentional is when she’s travelling from room to room and suddenly starts picking up a completely random assortment of objects. When Bonnet is coursing about a Pre-Columbian Museum, and inexplicably starts grabbing for an unidentified case, a rubber dinghy, and a fire extinguisher, then the player knows one of those sigh-worthy MacGyver-inventory puzzles is about to rear its ugly, ugly head. And nearly without exception, the cart is placed before the horse on these inventory puzzles, since the player will often have no clue why they’re grabbing what they’re grabbing until a ludicrous situation presents itself requiring the hodgepodge of klepto’d items.
The overall writing improves during Bonnet’s Cusco visit, however. As she dons a pair of safari shorts and hiking boots, the developers stretch their legs in the South American landscape, the artists draw out their best work, and the puzzles for puzzles’ sake finally appear in full brain-teasing glory. Still, Bonnet is working hard to keep opening doors, and to do that she has to engage in activities often incongruous with her investigation. But in South America the puzzles spring to greater life from that point forward. Minor inconsistencies begin appearing with greater frequency (inventory items bear different names as soon as you pick them up, UK vs. US spelling grows shoddy, Bonnet forgets about a character in one conversation that she spoke with only minutes before), but it certainly feels as though the developers their stride in the final chapters.
That doesn’t mean the story is completely digestible, however. While it’s truer to life, perhaps, the “whodunit” portions of the dialog that start unraveling the mystery grow increasingly convoluted. Several characters in the story have names without faces, and as twists and turns wind about with off-stage characters, the mental imagery gets murky, and it’s hard to unearth those eureka moments that allow a murder-mystery to finally fall into place.
Art of Murder paints itself into a corner with the same old brushes we’ve seen misused time and time again. And not until the closing chapters does the mystery grow in heft and momentum. The gameplay and pop-cultural spunk, however, works to bridge the digital divide between Agatha Christie and CSI.
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