A good murder mystery is always fun, especially when it's set in the 1960s on a train. Coincidentally, The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief fits that description to a tee and makes a very welcome debut on PC, Mac and Linux (with Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network appearances to follow later this summer). It's a traditional yet very cinematic point-and-click adventure from King Art and is one of the best games in the resurgent genre to appear this year. As is popular these days, this is an episodic adventure game and is divided into three chapters to be released a month or so apart from each other. Chapter One is entitled The Eye of the Sphinx and is a meaty offering, giving you a lot to do and not rushing you through with around six or seven hours of play time.
You play as Constable Zellner, a middle-aged, overweight, balding Swiss police officer who has never really got very far with his career. He's a likeable fellow and quite a change from the usual adventure game heroes. Zellner has a new assignment and he's keen to prove himself at long last. You are tasked with assisting Inspector Legrand, a celebrity detective who is famous for killing a master thief known as The Raven several years earlier. Recently, a new string of robberies bearing the call sign of The Raven have begun - is this just a copycat or was The Raven never really stopped at all?
Legrand is a man obsessed and doesn't really want your help, but Zellner is a stubborn fellow and more clever than he appears. From the early stages it's clear that your relationship is going to be a strained one. The chapter is divided into two major sections: a journey on a train and a journey on a ship. Both of these are absolutely drenched in 1960s atmosphere and there's a lot of attention to detail. You will find yourself becoming immersed in the story and environments quickly. It appears that the developers were going for an Agatha Christie vibe, and Zellner certainly is reminiscent of her famous Poirot character, but at the same time there's a hint of 1960s James Bond about the whole thing which lends a sense of urgency and adventure.
Despite this being a traditional point-and-click adventure, the game is presented in full 3D. The environments are exquisitely detailed and lush with a lot of attention put in to getting the mood right, so much so that they almost look pre-rendered. The early sections on the train have a wonderful austere quality to them making it immediately apparent what era you are playing in. Characters are also 3D and they merge with the background environments very well with designs that fall somewhere in between cartoonish and realistic. There's a lot of personality which comes across from each character just in their looks and movements, and the somewhat exaggerated animations contribute greatly towards the cinematic feel of the whole thing.
The 3D nature of the game doesn't prevent it from playing like the old-fashioned 2D adventures of the 1990s. There's no awkward control system, you just click where you want Constable Zellner to move and he walks there. Hover the mouse over an interactive item and click to either look at or interact with it. It's simple, well implemented and never distracting. Adventure games by their very nature require you to pick up objects, solve puzzles and talk to people, but the high detail level of the environments mean it can be easy to miss small items if you're not looking very carefully. The game comes with a built-in hint system which can highlight hotspots on the screen for you (although it's very brief and usually requires you to press the help button several times) and a journal with which you can get subtle pushes in the right direction. These hints do come at a price: every time you solve a puzzle or make a discovery you are awarded points, whereas using the hint system will deduct points from your overall score. You're not likely to run out of points to spend, but the system is perhaps a bit too vague.
Talking to the other characters, all passengers on the train or ship, reveals a lot of good writing. Everyone is perhaps a little bit over-the-top but it would appear to be an intentional method of really delivering a wide range of personalities and quirks. You will meet a mysterious and moody violin player, a German doctor with poor bedside manner, a mischievous American child and an elderly English mystery writer (clearly intended as a homage to Agatha Christie herself) among others. The wide range of accents required from the voice actors could have pushed this into 'Allo 'Allo! territory, but things never become silly. Most conversations are engaging and revealing, allowing you to get a sense of the characters and begin to formulate your opinions on whether everybody is really who they say they are. Parts of the game are slightly bogged down by some long-winded chats and they do feel like they slow things down a bit too much; notably the game begins with a somewhat excessive talk between you and Inspector Legrand which does feel like a very heavy way to open and has a danger of putting you off before you've even started.
The game goes for a realistic approach with the puzzles, never requiring you to do anything silly or illogical. If you need to get through a locked door then there are no obtuse solutions, you just need to either find something suitable to pick the lock or bash the door down with, as appropriate. A good deal of puzzle solving comes from talking to characters and putting clues together, but you'll also need to investigate crime scenes, find evidence and get creative. Both the train and ship are relatively restricted environments meaning that you don't have to go too far to find what you need and you're unlikely to become too frustrated but experienced gamers may find it a little on the easy side.
The Raven is off to a very promising start. It has a lot of charm and feels somewhat quaint. The slow pace may be off-putting to adventure gamers more used to the old LucasArts' style, but give it a chance and it quickly becomes engaging. It has one of the strongest musical scores to appear in an adventure for quite some time and its cinematic presentation makes it more dynamic that you may expect.