Hamlet: A Murder Mystery

Developer:  EMME
Publisher:   Castlerock/Pantheon
Year Released:  1997

Review by Steve Ramsey (September, 2003)
This is not a murder set in a quaint little English village, but is in fact the Danish murder most foul of Shakespeare fame. In this offering, you get to both "be" and "not be" whilst as Hamlet you endeavour to avenge your father, spare all the innocents, and literally recover your wits.

It's an interesting outing, punctuating a game world in which you must solve puzzles with 40 minutes of video clips from the Kenneth Branagh film version of Hamlet. These video scenes tell the underlying story which you are in fact attempting to change.

The acting is generally quite superb, as anyone who has seen the movie can attest. However the videos themselves are somewhat grainy in their reproduction, making long shots in particular a bit murky. On the plus side, they do play almost full screen. The quality, though, did not detract from the overall enjoyment gained from watching and listening to a wonderful Shakespearean tragedy.

By contrast, the 3D virtual graphics of the game world are sharp and detailed, if a little flat.

As well as the video scenes, snippets of dialogue will be heard as you attempt to solve the puzzles and whilst you explore the castle. It will pay to listen closely, particularly as there are no subtitles.

The play's the thing
Game-wise, the puzzles are the thing. Progression through the game is about as linear as you get. Find the (usually) single hotspot, and advance to a new scene or puzzle, or perhaps another room in which again you need to find the lone hotspot. Moving the game forward in this respect will not be much of a challenge.

The puzzles, though, might be. They are on the whole well integrated into the plot, and are varied in type and difficulty. The two best, which are among the toughest, are one in which you have to put twelve screen shots in the correct order to create four extracts from the movie, and another where you have to work out which friend came from what direction carrying what item and at what time using clues (eg Horatio arrived one hour before the person with the sword; the book did not come from the west) described in typical prose.

Some puzzles require you to access the Books of Lore, or to read a book you might find on a shelf. You might solve them by trial and error but you will, for example, more easily concoct an antidote if you read the poisons book. Strangely, one puzzle involving Ophelia and flowers indicates a knowledge of botany and Ophelia's penchant for using certain flowers in certain ways is essential, but actually requires a limited trial and error solution. You would likely be there for ages, though, trying to match the Humours with the right Element and Temper for each person without a bit of in-game information gathering.

There are two or three mild arcade like puzzles, including the duel at the end, and there is a small maze. The maze is quite easy, as wrong turns result in dead-ends and a return to the start.

The save game function leaves a little to be desired. The game will autosave at the start of each Act, but there is no indication that you have actually reached another Act. Apart from that, you have one save game slot, which is only activated by exiting the game. Also, once involved in a puzzle there is no way to back out, so not only can't you save in the middle but you must complete it, or shut down the game using ctrl-alt-delete. Some puzzles you simply don't see coming, so occasionally I had to press on past wanting to stop playing.

You can make a few wrong choices, but a voice-over will probably indicate why it was wrong, then the game will return you to just prior to your wrong choice. Coupled with the fact that the progression is so linear, one save game is plenty. You won't ever have to reload an earlier save. Having to exit to save, though, is annoying.

Madness in great ones must not unmatched go
I mentioned before having to find your wits. Hamlet was always considered slightly mad, and you will not infrequently find yourself returned to his study. It is here that early on you learn that you must complete quests (the puzzles) in order to be granted various Wits: judgement, invention, and instinct to name just a few. It's a nice little construct.

If you have a knowledge of the play, you will appreciate even more the changes wrought by your actions. I confess I never much liked what happened to Ophelia, so being able to change it was rather good. The video scenes of these results are also intriguing. Given some events simply didn't happen in certain ways in the film (or the play), the question needs to be asked as to why there is footage of that outcome? I could find no answer anywhere on the web, so either it was shot especially (Castlerock is of course involved), or creative cutting is used to have actual scenes illustrate something completely different. Or perhaps both. In any event, the result is a good one.

You play the game by choosing "to be". If you choose "not to be" you access the complete and unabridged text of the original play, linked to the Books of Lore which give commentary and insights into the Renaissance world. You can, in fact, switch between the two at any time you like.

The rest is silence
Like Night Cafe from the same publisher, Hamlet came out in 1997 and is now much sought after. Also like Night Cafe, it is multi-layered and the packaging is excellent.

Hamlet took about 10 hours to complete, so it isn't long. But what it lacks in length and openness, it makes up for in spades by the sight and sound of a major work plus a number of entertaining puzzles. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements
Windows 95 (played in 98), Pentium 90, 16 Mb RAM, 4x CD ROM, 16 bit sound card, 640 x 480 resolution.