November 7, 2009

Review: Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: hidden objects | inventory | jigsaws | logicals | misc

playtime: 8 hours | difficulty: easy

developer: MumboJumbo | publisher: Big Fish Games

links: Official site | Buy this game

Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy
game brief: A 160-year-old mystery, 30 ghosts from the past, and only 24 hours to piece all of the clues together! Who killed Edgar? Was it the publisher? His fiancée's brothers? Or could it be that Poe knew too many secrets about the wealthy storeowner? In this chilling tale of the mysterious and untimely death of Edgar Allan Poe, you'll take a shadowy journey to try to solve the mystery of his death. (Official website)

review: Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), an American writer, poet and literary critic, is most famous for his tales of mystery, horror, crime and romance. Ironically, Poe’s own life-story (Wikipedia) reads much like one of his novels, and his mysterious death, unexplained to this day, forms the basis of the hidden object adventure, Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allen Poe Conspiracy.

Casual games rarely aspire to elaborate storylines. So to see developers MumboJumbo tackle a story as complicated and controversial as what really happened to Poe that fateful election night in Baltimore initially feels over-ambitious.

The game starts in 2009 in Poe’s study. A raven (popularly considered Poe’s mascot based on his poem, ‘The Raven’) leads the player to the chained ghost of Poe, who must be set free by solving the 160-year old case of his murder. To do so, the player must use Poe’s watch to travel back in time, and unravel seemingly unrelated mysteries that eventually lead to the truth of his demise.

From the Westminster Cemetery at Baltimore where Poe is buried, the player time-travels to 19th century Paris, solving the murder of perfume store employee, Marie Roget, and then to New York, solving a second, startlingly similar murder, that of cigar store girl Mary Rogers. This segment is based on Poe’s tale, ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’, but certain characters are taken out of the story and set into the ‘real’ scenario of Poe’s life – and death.

From New York, the player, at Poe’s behest, travels to Sullivan's Island in South Carolina to recover pirate Captain Kidd’s treasure. Based on another famous Poe story, ‘The Gold-Bug’, this segment is short, and feels irrelevant until the very end, when it reveals the modus operandi of Poe’s murder.

Using a train ticket found on Sullivan's Island as a lead, the player then travels to Baltimore, retracing the events that led to an injured Poe being found, dressed in a stranger’s clothes, in a lane beside Gunner’s Hall on the night of the elections. Poe is taken to the hospital, where he dies, but the investigation soon exposes the real culprits and their motives. Finally, poetic justice is served, along the lines of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Masque of Red Death’. Poe is free of his chains once more, and the player is richer by about $15 million, part of the pirate treasure.

The game has a conceptual time limit of 24 hours for the resolution of the mystery; however this does not translate into any game-play component. The hidden object hunts are not timed either.

The screens are neat and attractive, and some, like Poe’s grave at Westminster, are drawn in realistic detail. Animation is sparse and average by today’s standards. The object cliparts are ordinary, but relevant to the era and scenario they are set in. Some of the hidden objects are present on-screen, while the rest must by ‘exposed’ by using objects that have already been located and stored in a toolbox. Extra ravens can be collected to serve as hints, but given the uncluttered screens, few are essential.

A few brainteasers - match items, jigsaws and logical puzzles - are scattered through the game; none are unduly complex, and all are aligned with the plot.

The other high point of the game, besides the story, is its music. Composed mainly of piano and violins, the scores are haunting and melancholy, and occasionally, scary. They effortlessly build ambience, and along with spooky sound effects, add significantly to the experience.

The research is remarkably in-depth. The story integrates Poe’s real life and literary works seamlessly into a tight new adventure. Well-known protagonists, both real (physician Dr. Moran, literary rival Rufus Griswold, fiancée Elmira Royster, politician Boss Tweed) and fictitious (Inspector Dupin, William Legrand) populate the narrative.

Several peculiar events related to Poe find place in the game – the legend of ‘The Toaster’ who leaves a bottle of cognac and three red roses on Poe’s grave on his birth anniversary every year; Poe’s efforts to secure funding for his journal ‘The Stylus’; the fact that he is said to have repeatedly called out the name ‘Reynolds’ before he died; and rumours that he may have been a victim of ‘cooping’ - illegal confine-ment linked to election fraud, depicted in the film, ‘The Death of Poe’.

Multiple reference points blur the lines between reality and fiction, and create an alternate universe that is an amalgamation of both. This is both good and bad – it gives the plot tremendous depth, but also leads to massive confusion of names, places and events for the average gamer who’s just not that into Poe. It often feels like much is going on that doesn’t link to anything that came before; this sort of head-scratching can turn off casual gamers who are consciously looking to take it easy.

On the other hand, the game can intrigue players, like it did me, to retrospectively delve more into the baffling history. I was fascinated by the effort of the developers to write the story using inputs from numerous, often contradictory, sources, close all loopholes, and take it to a conclusion that is lucid and satisfying. On cross-referencing Wikipedia and the game, many of the finer nuances became relevant, creating some ‘ah’ moments; it also set me wondering how much more I’d have enjoyed the game if I truly knew Poe’s life and works in depth.

Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allen Poe Conspiracy is a fitting tribute to one of the world’s greatest writers on his 200th birth anniversary. Highly recommended for those looking for a robust story in a casual game.

g@mrgrl rating: 3.5/5

This is an original review written by me. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without my written consent.