Reviewed: October 12, 2008
Released: September 29, 2008
Based on James Patterson’s popular Women’s Murder Club mystery book (and subsequent television show) series, Women’s Murder Club: Death in Scarlet is a casual adventure and puzzle game that allows players to investigate a number of murder scenes as three different Women’s Murder Club main characters: police homicide detective Lindsay Boxer, medical examiner Claire Washburn, and journalist Cindy Thomas.
Targeting the casual gamer who might not want to spend many hours playing a game that requires a great deal of hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, or other typical gamer skills; Death in Scarlet is, for the most part, an interactive PC version of an I-Spy book with a few puzzles thrown in. Toss in a murder mystery storyline and some suspicious characters, and you’ve basically got the gist of the game.
The game is split up into nine short chapters, called “investigations,” each of which includes examining several of the 18 total locations. At each of these locations, the player will be asked to find hidden objects, solve puzzles, and/or inspect and collect evidence. Gameplay is straightforward, simple, and explained clearly every step of the way, though accidentally missing the instructions to a particular puzzle could potentially get a player stuck, since there doesn’t seem to be a quest log or similar feature for keeping track of current instructions.
The I-Spy portions are the meat of the game and probably the most engaging feature, requiring the player (or players, if you’ve got family or friends joining in the search) to study a set scene and to find certain objects hidden there. These scavenger hunts I didn’t mind returning to multiple times, despite repeat locations, and I was pleasantly challenged by some of the searches. Some of the hidden items are clues or pieces for puzzles the player is then asked to complete, and some of them are completely irrelevant to the investigation. Sure – it’s not terribly realistic as far as crime investigations go, but it’s good enough for entertainment purposes. The game even automatically and conveniently crosses out items found and updates the task list accordingly, saving players any extra trouble.
The recurring blood typing mini-game, however, is less fun and quickly feels repetitive, first requiring the player to complete an easy logic puzzle to sort the chemicals, then asking the player to manually apply each chemical in order and mark each effect. This needs to be done many, many times during the course of the game and gets rather tedious. Perhaps it would’ve upped the game’s rating to allow players to participate more actively in autopsies, but some sort of variety in the medical examiner segments of the game would have made the game much more interesting.
Other mini-games and puzzles, such as a hangman-esque word puzzle and various jigsaw-like puzzles involving the piecing together of ripped-up documents, return more infrequently and add a bit of welcome diversity to the game’s offerings.
The only real downside to Death in Scarlet is that it’s very short, and the difficulty level is very easy. Then again, since the game was specifically designed with casual gaming in mind, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, since it allows players to complete the game without too much frustration, time pressure, or other stresses.
Generally, Death in Scarlet’s graphics are pretty good for this type of game. The very detailed and thoughtfully put-together locations are an appealing combination of book illustration-like 2D painting and 3D render. Though the scenes are mostly static, the intricate specifics of each creates a feeling of depth, and the occasional steaming cup of tea or glowing embers provides a touch of life. Objects are often cleverly hidden, though not always in realistic places, and the character art (often combining photography and illustration) is pleasant enough to look at. The comic strip artwork, in contrast, is perhaps a little lacking in the aesthetics department, but it gets the job done.
One of the only criticisms I have to share is that some of the investigation scenes are a bit too dark. The dimness of the lighting is great for setting a creepy mood, but not so great for spotting hidden objects (though turning up monitor brightness can solve that problem). Another is that, occasionally, an object is either so small and difficult to make out – or scaled so out of proportion in relation to its surroundings – that it becomes a little unnecessarily awkward to find. As long as the player keeps an open mind, though, the seek-and-find graphics mostly work pretty well.
While no voice acting is featured in Death in Scarlet, the game provides a smattering of minor sound effects that provide feedback for various player actions. The inconspicuous, looping soundtrack theme manages to play modestly in the background while providing a touch of cool urban atmosphere with hints of traditional Chinese instruments.
Death in Scarlet (available as an online download for $19.95 or in a retail box with a bonus mini-book for $29.99), while a fairly decent game for its genre and casual gaming target audience, is a tad brief for its price. Though your mileage may vary, I completed all nine investigations in two short sittings, for a total of maybe five hours of game time, maximum. I also started a second new game just to check, and it seems that the scavenger hunt games aren’t randomized, so the replay value isn’t very high.
The book that comes with the game is roughly 175 pages long and contains 1) an exclusive James Patterson novella called Fallen Flowers and 2) a ten-chapter excerpt from Patterson’s upcoming 2009 Women’s Murder Club novel, 8th Confession. Fallen Flowers is something of a prequel to the Death in Scarlet game and introduces many of the same characters involved in the game, and while I won’t be discussing the book much here because this is a game review, I will say that I found the reinforcement of Asian American stereotypes disappointing and that I was glad the stereotyping is a bit less egregious in the game itself, despite the significant overlap.
Anyway, the increase in the retail price is probably justified because of the included book (and the additional packaging), and for the Women’s Murder Club or James Patterson fan, it’s probably not a bad deal. As for the game itself, though, the price seems a bit much for such a short jaunt through only 18 often-repeated locations.
Though it’s really short, while it lasts, Women’s Murder Club: Death in Scarlet is certainly enjoyable enough for its genre. For fans of the James Patterson mystery series, the game and exclusive bonus novella and book preview will probably be an appealing gift combo. Even for someone coming to the game without much prior knowledge of the franchise, though, it makes for a fun – if very easy and very brief – diversion.