Art of Murder: Cards of Destiny Review
Since 2008, Polish developer City Interactive has been hard at work building up its Art of Murder adventure series. The games in the series blend a somewhat CSI-ish approach with the traditional point-and-click adventure and follow the investigations of sexy FBI agent, Nicole Bonnet. Serial killers are drawn to Agent Bonnet like flies to honey and in the latest Art of Murder title, Cards of Destiny, she faces off with her creepiest adversary yet, the illusive Card Man (Good villain—terrible nickname.)
At game start, Bonnet is taking a much-needed stay-cation in her New York City apartment when a mysterious package arrives. The package represents her first clue from the Card Man, a nefarious murderer who not only revels in killing his victims via elaborately mechanical means, but who enjoys having Agent Bonnet bear witness to his work. Bonnet can't resist such an intriguing case and is soon hot on the Card Man's trail.
The game follows the lead of the previous two Art of Murder games, consisting mainly of character dialog and clue-hunting. There's also a considerable amount of database searching and lab work (such as sound analysis and evidence scanning), since this time a good chunk of the game takes place at the New York FBI office. There's even a bit of target practice at the FBI shooting range, which seems random at first but proves to be useful later on. Along the way, Agent Bonnet's co-workers provide a fair amount of entertainment, from the mother-figure secretary to the douche bag boss, to the absurd lab specialist who can't keep from hitting on her.
As in other Art of Murder games, the scene shifts multiple times as Bonnet follows the trail of the killer and in Cards of Destiny, we're taken through a small but widely varied collection of locales starting with New York City, moving on to the Louisiana bayous and ending in snow covered Maine. Throughout, Agent Bonnet remains hot on the heels of the killer, deftly gathering the clues to convict him—that is if you have the skills to solve each location's intricate web of situational puzzles. In general, Cards of Destiny does a good job of creating contextual brain-teasers and manages to avoid including puzzles-for-puzzles' sake. As in previous Art of Murder games however, things sometimes get frustrating when you know what you need to do but can't do it until you fulfill some random condition that may not make any sense.
Related to that, it's also annoying when the game arbitrarily disallows you from picking up items you'll eventually need, in order to force you to revisit the area later on. I mean, let's be honest—realism is not the adventure genre's strong point. How many people do you know walk around randomly picking up hubcaps and hacksaws and sandwich boards, “just in case”? Adventure gamers accept this inherent silliness in the interest of minimizing the amount of backtracking. They'll gladly run around stuffing their pockets with random crap, knowing that if they can pick it up, they'll likely be needing it later. Cards of Destiny's strategy of allowing you to look at and even comment on an object, but forcing you to return repeatedly to try and pick it up at the “proper” time, just isn't fun. Thankfully, this only happens a few times during the course of the game.
Another curious design decision involves Agent Bonnet's PDA, which at first looks like it's going to be a very useful tool, allowing you not only to make phone calls but to reference documents, goals and dialog. Most games that give the main character a cell phone use it either to convey additional story information, or to give the player a place to get hints or reference their current objectives.Very quickly, you'll discover Agent Bonnet's PDA is basically nothing but a cutscene prop; you can never make a phone call (calls happen automatically during cutscenes) and the information in the PDA is always a story segment behind the one you're currently playing and as such, provides no useful objectives or hints. And due to the game's tremendously poor translation, you'll find you're gonna need all the hints you can get.
Seriously, Cards of Destiny's translation is one of the worst I've ever encountered. At first it seems like a fluke—a bit of bad writing perhaps, that warrants a chuckle or two. But then it goes on and on. It makes for some extremely bizarre interactions among the characters, both verbally and tonally, so much so, you might even have trouble at times understanding the meaning of what they're saying. This has the unfortunate effect of watering down the game's tension as well as negatively affecting the game's voice acting as it's constantly obvious that the convoluted verbiage made it nearly impossible for the voice actors to figure out the proper inflection for each of their lines. And it's really too bad because overall, the acting's pretty good, the high point being Bonnet's Harvey Keitel-ish partner, Dick Parry. For every high there must be a corresponding low, and Art of Murder's vocal low is a series of cliched portrayals of cops with cheesy Irish accents. Maybe it's just me, but isn't it a weensy bit weird to have a big, African American cop talk like the Lucky Charms leprechaun?
Anyway, the story of Cards of Destiny is a lesson in missed potential. Watered down by the poor translation, it struggles throughout to hold onto its dignity. At least it does a good job of keeping you guessing regarding the identity of the killer and creates a formidable villain in the Card Man. Agent Bonnet too is a worthwhile character—she's smart, tough, fearless and easily holds her own among her male coworkers (many of whom spend their work time hitting on her).
While the stories in the series are gaining in interest, the graphics just aren't showing any growth. As a result, Cards of Destiny looks a lot like the two previous games. The character models are fairly basic (and the celebrity inspiration is fairly obvious with Agent Bonnet doing a low poly impression of Cindy Crawford and partner Dick doing his best to win the Harvey Keitel lookalike competition), the animations are wooden and Agent Bonnet still pivots like a robot every time she changes direction. The cinematics too are crying out to be upgraded, their gritty compressed-ness making for jarring disconnects between story sequences and gameplay. The good news is, the environments look pretty good, presumably because it's easier to create realistic objects when they don't move.
The Art of Murder: Cards of Destiny is a flawed, but entertaining adventure game. It offers an interesting setting and storyline as well as challenging (if on occasion, nonsensical) puzzle play, and a significant amount of unintentional humor due to the poor translation. From a gameplay/story standpoint, the game is a solid third chapter in the Art of Murder series; from a graphics/ attention-to-detail standpoint, the game exposes an obvious need for the series as a whole to modernize and improve.