The Elk Moon Murder

Developer/Publisher:  Activision
Year Released:  1996

Review by Gordon Aplin (September, 1996)
elk.jpgAnna Elk Moon is dead. Shot through the head at close range. Who could have committed such a terrible crime ... and why? When she was alive Anna Elk Moon was a successful artist specialising in her Native-American pottery, but it seems she rubbed a number of people up the wrong way. Like an episode of "Murder She Wrote", scratch the surface of the sleepy, desert town that was Anna's home, and you will quickly discover that it is brimming with suspects and motives.

Meet your partner
The Elk Moon Murder is an "interactive" murder mystery and your role as a rookie detective with the Santa Fe Police Department is, of course, to examine the scene of the crime, interview anyone who knew Anna, follow up potential leads and check alibis.

Because of the 'sensitivity' of the case you are accompanied by Detective John Night Sky -- a Native-American who gets to ask all the questions and appears on-screen, whereas your character does not. Although there is scope in this scenario for you to play 'yourself', it doesn't work out this way, as most of the time you feel that you are playing Detective Night Sky. Sure, you can 'choose' which questions to ask during interrogations but it is Night Sky who delivers the lines and, consequently, you never really develop a separate identity. Even as the game opens, and you are told to report to police chief Weber's office, it is Night Sky's voice you hear responding, and at this stage you haven't yet been introduced to your partner.

After the chief outlines your assignment and sets your deadline you return to the aerial view of Santa Fe from where you can select locations to visit. As you progress in your investigations, and learn of other characters who may have known Anna, new locations will highlight and you must choose to follow one thread or another.

The game is similar in appearance to Activision's, Spycraft, in that the characters you interview 'pop up' in video footage once you enter their location, and your multi-purpose Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is always on hand to allow you to receive important communications and to request alibi and forensic reports. Also, in your PDA you can play back interviews and review case notes and evidence. Unfortunately, that's where the similarity to Spycraft ends. Elk Moon has no inventory, so you can't pick up items, and there is really nothing else to interact with, no identikit pictures, no tracking devices, no audio tapes to analyse for sounds and, apart from the murder scene, no locations to examine in detail.

Watching the clock
Still, The Elk Moon Murder is a well-crafted and intriguing mystery with numerous red herrings and false scents laid across your trail, as I soon discovered. Listening to your partner's advice isn't particularly helpful, and nor should you jump to conclusions. Catching a suspect out in a lie doesn't necessarily make him or her guilty of murder. I would have enjoyed this aspect of the game, sifting through the clues, interviewing suspects, checking out alibis, were it not for the imposition of a time limit that quite spoiled it for me.

You are given five days to find Anna's killer which, on the face of it, doesn't seem too bad except that, as Officer Rebecca Orlando cheerfully informs you, "time flies in Santa Fe". And it surely does! Apart from reviewing case notes and replaying interviews in your PDA, just about every action in the game costs you fifteen minutes. Ask a question and fifteen minutes tick by, take a photo at the crime scene -- fifteen minutes, request a forensic report -- another fifteen minutes, and so on. At the start of the game I checked out the crime scene thoroughly, as every good police officer should, interviewed Anna's husband, and that was it -- day one over, and all within about thirty minutes of actual playing time. With only four days left to go (possibly just another two hours) this wasn't an auspicious beginning for what I hoped was going to be a complex and involving game.

Time limitations
Clearly, this time limit 'feature' serves no useful purpose other than to attempt to disguise the fact that the game isn't really that difficult. Once I realised my 'mistake' I restored and took note of Chief Weber's valuable advice to use my time wisely. Even so, I was able to complete the game in just a few hours or so of actual playing time and still see some of the 'incorrect' endings, such as being taken off the case -- or worse. And, I must admit that I found some of the incorrect endings to be unsatisfactory and even illogical, but I don't want to give away too much here.

The time limit in this game meant that I couldn't follow all the leads I wanted to, nor interview all the suspects, as I was continually compelled to make choices based on best guesses and this, to me, was the biggest disappointment. I would have enjoyed it much more had I been able to carefully investigate and eliminate suspects after meticulously checking them out. As far as I was concerned the race against time loomed too large in the game play and detracted from the story.

Interactive movie
Unfortunately, apart from making choices about which thread to follow, there were no real barriers to progress within the game, no obstacles to overcome and no point at which I felt stuck. Although, to be fair, this is not being promoted as an adventure game. In essence, The Elk Moon Murder is an interactive movie so, rather than presenting lots of problems to overcome, it essentially relies on you succeeding in navigating your way through the story. Still, it could have done with a bit more 'hands-on' detection instead of relying so heavily on interrogation.

Despite this, it is a very polished production with an intriguing, contemporary storyline. It comes on only two CDs (which may account for its brevity given the amount of video footage it contains) and can be installed to DOS 6.22, Windows 95 or Mac. The interface is simple point and click and the game allows for unlimited saves, at least in Win 95. Unfortunately, it doesn't provide for on-screen text.

As I said earlier I was really looking forward to enjoying an absorbing murder mystery and although The Elk Moon Murder had potential it never quite lived up to its early promise. Had it not been for the annoying time limit I could have heartily recommended this to all murder mystery fans but, as it is, be aware you could finish it in a few hours if you happen to hit on the correct leads. rating:  

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1996. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
486DX2/66, 8MB RAM, 35MB uncompressed hard drive space, 2xCD-ROM, VESA local bus or PCI video card with 1MB video RAM, 16bit sound card, mouse, DOS 6.22 or Win 95, 16bit high colour SVGA.