The piece of entertainment software discussed in this article has quite an unusual history. Most of us would at least have heard of Italian author Umberto Eco and his first novel especially, 1970's The Name of the Rose, which broke through into uproarious international limelight with its postmodernist subversion of definitive, final answers – in a genre that hinges upon them perhaps more so than any: the murder mystery. After the inevitable film in 1986, starred by the by-then Bond-free Sean Connery, perhaps the very next adaptation of any sort was The Abbey of Crime (Le Abadía del Crimen), a game from 1987 initially only released in Spain that follows the book's main beats about as faithfully as the youthful narrator and sidekick Adso does the "beats" of his mentor and main protagonist free-thinking friar William of Baskerville. The review at hand is mostly based on a playthrough of the "Extensum" remake from 2016 with some cross-referencing to see what's different from the original.
This game, whipped up at the height of the Golden Age of Spanish Software by Paco Menéndez, with compatriot Juan Delcan https://www.stirworld.com/inspire-people-juan-delcan-on-his-viral-video-artwork-safety-match-and-instagram-as-a-medium behind the easel, was Menéndez' third publically released title. The one preceding, Sir Fred, had already been a big review hit on the ZX Spectrum in a more conventional style – it was a clever and good-looking non-linear adventure platformer. The fame garnered by The Abbey of Crime, for the Amstrad CPC first and foremost, would however owe to adventurous design of a different kind. While I consulted the old-games aficionado Kris Asick of pixelships.com on whether he concurred with other opinions online about the true degree of the game's technical novelty, and while his take was it "definitely seems advanced for its time" but he didn't think it was quite a first with anything, it seems this game was more than the sum of its parts: an ususual setting, the isometric game world is sizable enough to believably and immersively represent a real location, though examples of something similar exist in 1984's Game Knight and earlier; an investigation that has to find spaces inside a mandatory organized schedule; a very fleshed-out AI by 1987 standards, with the characters ably pathfinding around the tortuous halls of the monastery as they go about their daily business and deliver the player information (though 84's Ultima IV also had NPCs follow their individual time tables and also gave the player agency in conversations with them, and The Great Escape from 1986 has even bigger similarities); and the narrative, while borrowed, was of course far from an everyday affair in games of the time, apart from perhaps Interactive Fiction. The players remember this game standing out with its overall immersion and ambience which was further reinforced by prudent choices in sound design. Apparently fitting all of it into under 100 kb wasn't an easy feat.
So how exactly did Menéndez adapt the novel in such a way as to make the player play a significant role in the investigation? Do we interrogate the habited inhabitants, setting up insiduous traps to catch those trying to hoodwink us? Do we pit magnifying glass against deceitful discrepancy? Well, this is where detractors may set up camp number one, because he kind of didn't. It really is just a retelling of the same story, with most if not all of the philosophical underpinnings never making the cut (same as the film actually, and this is why Eco himself probably wasn't any the more enthused over any game takes than he was over the film), and playing it is in effect a sea of meanderings in a prodigiously obtuse environment, trying to stumble onto the one or two key discoveries open to be made at any given time, in largely the same order as the book as far as I'm aware. You're not solving the mystery yourself per se, you're essentially just watching it unravel around you. While I had at some point seen the film, my memories weren't quite crisp enough to know what was supposed to happen next, and I wasn't ever sure if the game would add its own twists to it. Thus for a long time I felt paranoid about missing events and clues and was fully prepared to have to start everything over after the first playthrough had ended in a colossal cartwreck. To my great surprise, it arrived safely at the finish. Nota bene, this grace was only granted by a nifty feature added to the remake known as "save files". It may be the original also gave ample time for the required snoop-jinks, but this wasn't the only concern. We'll get to the others in a minute.
So while the gameplay won't necessarily hold you in awe, this thing still translated in Menéndez' hands into something that certainly hadn't quite been experienced before. Firstly, the isometric camera doesn't have a fixed angle like most, though not all, such games did or do. Instead, I suppose in order to unfetter the choice of how best to render each room, the player was made to frantically follow whimsical rotations from screen to screen (this appears to have been Juan's idea). It makes mental mapping quite a murky affair. Secondly, as the two protagonists are, after all, guests of a bona fide Benedictine monastery, they must by all means abide by the strict code of conduct. The player needs to attend church and mealtimes as well as refrain from sleuthing around the premises at night... in sight of the fretful Abbot at least. Infractions drain your obsequium. ("My... what?") Effectively, your standing with the Abbot, a far shot from a common-or-garden health bar, and there is no way of refilling it. And this is a primary reason why you'll want to go ham on saving at different times if playing a version that allows for it, and probably a large part of why people remember the original version for abject cruelty. It's sometimes very unfair how it works since you can be literally a few steps behind the rest and still have been too slow for the Abbot's liking! Thirdly, and relatedly, the game makes use of the so-called "canonical hours" – a partitioning of the day into seven stretches all headed by organized prayer or whatnot. The hour advances with every important discovery, or just by itself. I believe, despite my own good fortune, it's possible to miss certain cues and have to reset. Fourthly, you can actually command Adso to perform independent actions. This really just amounts to controlling him by pressing DOWN instead of UP to get him to pick up items William has no interest in making a mule for. Lastly, the game has in-engine cutscenes where it shifts focus to a different character going about their business, providing preternatural clues. This wasn't quite a first, with another game from the Spanish golden age, 83's Bugaboo, having incorporated cutscenes as well, and arcades and mainframes having seen similar things in the past.
At this point, I should mention this weird game saw inspired zealots remake it more than once, actually. Of these tokens of serious adoration, the "Extensum" one I've been referring to is the definitive one, with the most noticeable changes from the original, changes the late maker himself might well have had no qualms about had he lived to see it emerge in 2016. Past the compulsory redrawn, and very pleasant, graphics, these changes start from the monastery's layout which seems to have copied the film's set, similar to how the protagonist was made to look like Connery. Most notably, there is now an entire large outdoors area complete with herbal plantation and stables and things. More of the characters and dialogue are brought in too, and there are a few new basic tasks woven in to flesh out the gameplay. Apart from that, there's the addition of a precious parchment that Adso can collect and start filling in to provide you with some sense of directions (I don't know if the original shipped with a map or not). Helpful extra indicators populate the screen but can be turned off if they turn you off. For the average player, it's difficult to imagine reasons why you wouldn't choose to play this specific rerelease that is freeware to boot and also runs on Linux and Mac. Some quirks and annoyances still exist that could probably have been addressed, such as the molasses-like title and ending crawl, and the English translation isn't as professional as you would hope. In any case, these two games are certainly at home in our collection! Two thumbs up!
TIWIKS = Things I Wish I'd Known
Reviewed by: LotBlind
- To control Adso it's best if you hold the down arrow / space down instead of tapping.
- Make sure to actually watch the cutscenes available for valuable hints.
- There is a big golden key next to Malachia the Librarian. That's the key to the library. There is nothing subtle about it – literally just go up to it and take it with Adso and Malachia will be... fine? This is in both versions and we can only assume something didn't carry across well from the book...
- It's best to know ahead of time... you're not actually meant to do anything in the library the first time you go there. Just... get a feel for the place and don't get lost? Only the third visit is supposed to yield a breakthrough. I've chosen to say this here because it's really very confusing otherwise.
- There's one puzzle that breaks the 4th wall a little bit and requires a slight amount of lateral thinking.