To see a smartphone nestled in Hercule Poirot’s well-manicured hands was only a matter of time.
Agatha Christie’s most famous detective has always been a modern man, fixated on modern conveniences and the architectural modernism of the 1930s that explained why David Suchet’s Poirot was so enamored with the facade of his home at Whitehaven Mansions. Poirot also spent the 1960s bewildered by how the world was moving on without him. But a smartphone is a bold step for a character so traditionally and thematically rooted between the two World Wars — really, I already have a million questions. Does Poirot have good data hygiene? Would he accept a random AirDrop? What kind of apps does he use? Does he have overdramatic thoughts about relying on a machine to exercise his famous little gray cells? Does he bring his phone to the bathroom?
Agatha Christie – Murder on the Orient Express, Microids’ new playable take on the classic story, unfolds in December 2023, one of very few Poirot adaptations set in the present day. The game follows the same plot as the novel: Poirot is in Istanbul, where he receives an urgent message calling him back to London; he meets his old friend Bouc, who offers him a spot on the legendary titular sleeper train headed for Paris. A body is discovered during the journey, and Poirot is quickly enlisted to solve the murder.
This version of Poirot is a tall yassified gent with an aquiline nose, who cuts a very different figure from the canonically small, prim detective whose head was “exactly the shape of an egg.” He’s mostly the same oddball narcissist that Christie’s audience saw as a uniquely discreet problem-solver at the end of an interwar period full of technological change and socioeconomic upheaval. The gameplay borrows from Microids’ other two Poirot games, which were developed by a third-party studio, Blazing Griffin. On the Orient Express, Poirot finds clues, interviews suspects, completes environmental puzzles, and maintains a “mind map” of problems that are solved by doing “workshops.” Workshops are simple deductive exercises like guessing sequences of events or matching pairs of clues. With enough evidence, Poirot can confront suspects and make accusations.
The overall detective gameplay seems wildly incongruous with a savant detective character, especially compared to the problem-solving and detective mechanics in Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, which felt more substantial and satisfying. Here, frequent “good job!” feedback screens add some levity in line with Poirot’s penchant for patting himself on the back, but getting constant praise for choosing the most obvious answers in the most rudimentary workshops quickly becomes irritating. A painfully self-evident segment where Poirot observes left- or right-handed passengers had me wondering if I was trapped in some kind of rolling tutorial. It is admittedly tricky to clearly externalize a character’s sense of intuition and process of deduction, but there’s a glaring disconnect between the way Poirot’s inner workings are dumbed down, and his outward image as a sophisticated know-it-all. If this is an intentional bit of cheek to show how basic Poirot’s deductions really are, the joke doesn’t land.
The real problem with Agatha Christie – Murder on the Orient Express is how it sabotages two vital pillars of the Christie mystery: Poirot, and the very specific interwar period in which he lives. Modernizing Poirot has historically been unsuccessful because it eliminates the social significance of his character and reshapes him into a stock period detective that no longer resonates with the world he inhabits; the Kenneth Branagh films are guilty of doing this in their efforts to make Poirot palatable. There’s a great London Review of Books analysis of Christie’s Poirot formula that quotes literary critic Edmund Wilson: “You run through [the Poirot book] to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, because they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader’s suspicion.”
What the reader — or in this case, player — becomes interested in is Poirot as a formal device to make sense of a world in flux: a post-WWI Belgian refugee in England, acutely conscious of living among the most raging xenophobes in Europe, who weaponizes his circumstances to get what he wants. In Christie’s books and the long-running ITV series, Poirot consistently uses his appearance — pretending not to understand idiomatic English, playing up his eccentricities — to gain the upper hand. He is at once the greatest detective in the world and commonly seen as an unwelcome foreigner in London. Microids preserves a sliver of this personality, which does its best to shine via some spectacular voice acting, but the character’s impact as an offbeat interloper feels sadly anemic in the 21st century, and at no point are we treated to the classic Poirot side eye when someone talks down to him as an outsider.
Christie’s formula requires Poirot to be a self-conscious little weirdo. He is as remorseless as his creator when it comes to cutting through the bullshit to expose the ugly, rotten truth: that people do horrible things, sometimes for no reason. But he is embarrassed as often as he embarrasses others; he is abrasive and unlikeable because that is what it took to expose murder in a culture obsessed with keeping up appearances. The final portion of the game — a new addition to the core Orient Express story — at last lets Poirot loose into the world with Locke at his side. As you switch between both characters, Poirot mostly feels passive and sanitized, and Locke simply isn’t compelling enough to fill his shoes either as a protege or protagonist. The result is an oddly paced dash through remaining stops on the train route, with a bit of “not all Middle Easterners are bad” storytelling shoehorned in between.
The problem isn’t bringing Poirot into 2023, but the developers’ failure to understand how and why Poirot was so powerfully effective in his environment. Why modernize such a purposefully constrained, claustrophobic setting yet fail to take full advantage of the period change? If anything, choosing to adapt a less confined story would have offered stronger opportunities to play with Poirot’s relationship with today’s world, instead of attempting to cram it all into the denouement where he actually gets to leave the train. Microids makes some direct narrative substitutes, like simply replacing the Great War with the Iraq War, but you can’t just Mad Libs a different war into an entirely different context without considering how this affects characterization. A successful modern Poirot would have to be an altogether different person — someone who can embody the necessary outsider role, with the ability to dismantle comfort and order in the name of justice, but most importantly, someone whose identity is actively in conversation with the current reality, and knows exactly how to exploit it for a moral cause.
Peeling a perfectly good apple to expose its mealy, worm-ridden core is Poirot’s specialty — a thinly veiled analogy for peeling away layers of lies in the course of investigating a murder. This version of Murder on the Orient Express works well for crime fiction fans who want to spend a few days retracing familiar steps on an all-too familiar train; there are just enough differences to keep the mystery fresh, especially if you haven’t read or watched an Orient Express adaptation in a while. The train environments are beautifully designed with an eye to preserving the details of the real Orient Express, right down to the in-cabin sink cabinets, and the voice acting is wonderfully expressive. It is arguably more engaging than its two predecessors, even when it occasionally insults your intelligence. But it will also remind you that Poirot, as a peculiar and particular type of hero, doesn’t work if you pluck him out of the circumstances that help to define him and his role in the story.
The game did manage to answer one of my questions, though: Hercule Poirot does not charge his phone at night, and this, mon ami, might be the greatest modern crime of all.
Agatha Christie – Murder on the Orient Express was released Oct. 19 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Microids. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.