There’s only one thing that fans of murder mysteries like more than reading them and that’s trying to guess whodunnit. The gaming generation has become increasingly used to taking its crime-solving abilities onto the PC, with various adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, as well as TV shows stretching from X Files to CSI and Law & Order.
For best-selling author James Patterson it was a no-brainer to link his Women’s Murder Club novels and TV shows to the wider gaming audience, especially as he had the services of Jane Jensen, who was responsible for the mega-hit Gabriel Knight series.
Death in Scarlet is presumably the first in a collection of stories based on the amateur sleuthing of homicide detective Lindsay Boxer, medical examiner Claire Washburn and crime reporter Cindy Thomas.
The storyline revolves around a body found beneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge and it soon becomes apparent that the murder is connected to some form of secret society in Chinatown. The gameplay is simplicity itself: go to a location, find all the hidden objects in the screenshot, complete a few tasks and puzzles, then return to the map.
As this comes under the heading of ‘casual gaming’ – i.e. play for a bit, have a break, come back later, don’t tax your brain – everything is made easy for you. In fact, too easy. The puzzles include reassembling torn photos, a version of Hangman where you have to guess the missing letters, working your way through a mini-maze and doing forensic tests on blood samples where the only challenge is to get the bottles of solution in the right order. The most difficult task in the game is to re-order a pile of symbols before accessing a database, yet even here you have the option either to skip the puzzle entirely or make use of hints.
Only occasionally do you need to interact with objects collected into your inventory and you have absolutely no input into one of the vital aspects of criminal investigation; interviewing suspects. A police chief and the Assistant DA Jill Bernhardt pop up from time to time to push the story along but invariably that’s just to return you to a location you’ve already visited to find more objects you missed the first time.
Maybe the developers should have gone back to the Golden Age of crime games and looked at the Tex Murphy series which had everything, including cut scenes, choices, surprises, fantastically engaging characters and a great narrative.
We raced through the game in less than three hours and, while the graphics are rich and detailed and the comic-strip interludes are an attractive diversion, true lovers of detective fiction will find the game as demanding as an episode of Murder She Wrote. It’s perhaps significant that in America the game comes with a new Women’s Murder Club novella and the opening chapters of Patterson’s new novel. Shameless marketeering? Surely not.