The Raven is a love letter to mystery novels, a classic point-and-click adventure game split into three parts. The first, Legacy of a Master Thief, uses some well-worn mystery tropes to involve the player in its web of intrigue and offers some masterful “closed box” style settings to limit the suspects to a small set of well defined, yet equally mysterious characters.
The story for The Raven, actually starts a few years prior to the events of this tale, with The Raven, a master thief operating out of Paris, being shot and supposedly killed by Nicolas Legrand, a small time policeman whose career takes a huge jump thanks to the case. Cut to present time, where the first of the legendary “Eyes of the Sphinx,” a giant ruby, is stolen from a museum in Paris. The crime finishes with a literal bang, as an explosion covers the thief’s escape, and all that’s left in the ruby’s place is an envelope containing the feather of a raven, The Raven’s classic calling card.
Instead of taking control of the famed, now Inspector, Legrand, the player is instead put in the shoes of the middle-aged Constable Anton Zellner. A Swiss Constable assigned to the Orient Express, Zellner, a fan of mystery novels himself, becomes embroiled in the investigation, even when Legrand refuses to involve him in the proceedings. Its start on the famous train line included, The Raven uses a deft hand to weave in as many mystery tropes as it can without making them scream “HEY, LOOK AT ME, WE’RE PAYING HOMAGE TO THIS THING HERE! SEE IT!” Some, like the locked room mystery, are obvious in their usage, while others, like the ability of staff positions to move about unnoticed, are blended into the story naturally. As an outside observer, we are immediately suspicious when these things happen, but the writing makes it easy to accept why those participating would miss something that looks important.
An outside knowledge of these tropes makes Constable Zellner a fascinating choice for a main character. Legrand’s senior by a good 20 years, Zellner’s only real extraordinary ability is his determination to not be left out. Our introduction to him, as he tries to convince Legrand that he is an excellent investigator with a keen and penetrating eye, is quickly subverted by a kid in the same car that speaks up after the Inspector has left. What we’re left with, when everything is said and done, is simply a beat cop, and it’s our involvement as players that transforms his life into that of a Holmes-ian detective.
It’s a rather delicious subversion of the standard “bumbling constable” convention, with the Constable performing deductive feats that Legrand himself seems incapable of because of his single-minded obsession with the Raven’s reappearance. What makes this stand out even more is Legrand’s right hand man, a policeman from Scotland Yard who represents the classic “do nothing” officer, sleeping on the job, ignoring clues and oddites, blaming innocent bystanders for crimes simply because of where they were standing.
The Raven also does an admirable job of concealing standard adventure game mechanics within the confines of a logical story. When you are asked to combine items, they’re never goofy or absurd, but rather real and logical. For the sake of saving them for the story, I won’t go into any depth with actual puzzles, but I will say that this is the first adventure game in a very long time that didn’t require me to use the in-game hint system, or consult the internet for info. Everything makes sense, and it made me feel every bit the sleuth to solve those puzzles using just what was available.
Things fall a part a bit when trying to reconcile the art style chosen with the pixel hunt style adventure gameplay. Items of use either standout like one of the foreground animations of an old-school Looney Tunes cartoon, or they are almost impossible to find, or hard to use. One spot in particular, a medics office right at the end of the game, required the use of an audio reel I had in my possession. I couldn’t use the reel before disassembling the main unit, which required multiple clicks on different instruments that were within pixels of each other. It only slowed me down for a bout a minute or so, but it wasn’t the only one of these instances, and time spent searching for the right pixel is time I could be using to solve a crime.
Borrowing from other modern adventure games, you can hit the space bar to highlight useable items in the environment, as well as access small hints in Zellner’s notebook, but The Raven has taken an interesting tact with this, applying a cost to these rather then setting an arbitrary usage limit. This cost is taken from your detective score, which increases as you solve puzzles and move along in the game. Don’t let that dissuade you from using it if you do get stuck. The cost is a miniscule 10 points, or 100 for hints, and even without finishing every puzzle, I got through the game with enough detective points to get the highest score achievement (I used the highlight feature 16 times and the Hints 2, and those 2 were really just to see what kind of hints were given and what the cost was).
In an unexpected move, there are side activities/puzzles that don’t quite effect the main game, but do come up in dialog later in the game. Most of these are fairly easy, but unlike other adventure games, they are not mandatory to continuing the main story, and depending upon where they are located, may not even be accessible depending on where you are. So let this be a warning, if you are someone that has to do everything, do the stuff that doesn’t seem super important first (I missed finding a certain Baroness’s purse, and she did not fail to call me out on it later in the story).
Coming from the same developers that produced the beautiful Book of Unwritten Tales, The Raven is colorful and bright. The settings in the first chapter are a train and a cruise ship, and both are captured as you would expect, with some incredible work done on recreating the interiors of the Orient Express, as well as that of the ship. That being said, character design, especially when the camera zooms in for conversations, is a one-way trip to the uncanny valley. Mouths move without following dialog, and one more then one occasion Zellner’s eyes seemed to sink back into his head, completely taking you out of the moment.
The conversations themselves are fine throughout, even if they do break the pacing a bit with Zellner’s slow way of speaking. He narrates everything, sometimes going so far as to talk directly to the player. Talking to others who have played the game, some have found it a little off-putting and strange. I found humor in it, and drew parallels to Dr. Watson relating the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I imagine that, to Zellner, this is simply a story he is telling, and your clicks around the environment are pointed questions about the things he has seen and experienced.
There are other clever characters that make these interactions interesting, and probably none more so then The Raven‘s own version of Agatha Christie. Lady Westmacott is a retired mystery novelist who penned storied featuring Zellner’s favorite detective, and hearing her take on the comings and goings-on of the various other characters is altogether entertaining. She mentions multiple times how she is both fearful of the events occurring around her, and excited at the prospect of living through a mystery much like the ones she wrote. She is a wealth of information and a great fictional parallel to the genre The Raven so wishes to emulate. Hopefully, as the remaining two chapters are released, she is used as something more then just a side commentary on matters.
With so much of the story left to see, it’s hard to make any definitive calls on the overall quality of The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief. As for the first chapter though, I am waiting with baited breath to see where the story goes, and to continue on this adventure with Constable Zellner. For fans of the adventure genre, this is an easy one to recommend. For everyone else, there is nothing quite like a good mystery, and this, so far, is absolutely one of the good ones.