THE COLONEL'S BEQUEST / Sierra / PC
I remember the Colonel's Bequest mostly getting panned by the gaming publications at the time it came out, and what few archival reviews from the period that I can dredge up on the internets are very mixed at best. That's fair, I suppose, as the game is not without its little niggling gameplay and story flaws, and you can readily see some spots where it could have tuned up a bit.
However, this game (and its sequel) are among my favorites of the old Sierra catalog. It plays around with the typical adventure game structure to give you a genuinely interesting murder mystery that, if you don't spoil it for yourself with a walkthrough or something, actually has a good bit of replayability. The atmosphere might also seem more than a bit dated with its 16-color graphics, but the well-done art and music were enough to also genuinely scare the pants off of preteens and adolescents giving this one a go when it first came out.
The game is set in the 1920s, and takes Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" (as well as designer Roberta Williams' own previously released text adventure Mystery House) as its main source of inspiration. You play as Laura Bow, a young journalism student at Tulane University, who is invited to spend the weekend at her with her friend at the Dijon Manor, an appropriately spooky old Civil War-era plantation out on an island in the middle of the Louisiana bayou. Colonel Dijon is the uncle of Laura's friend, and has called his family together for a reunion in which he plans to announce the terms of his will. Laura and her friend Lillian are ferried out to the manor where they will spend one long, creepy night in which the guests of the house mysteriously start dropping dead one after the other.
Technically, your only real goal is to survive the night. Due to the game's structure, you can just blithely stumble around without a clue as to what is going on and still complete the game. This is a big part of the game's replayability and what I find so interesting about it. There is no passage of "real time" in the game, but it is divided up into Acts, each of which take up an hour of the night. There are certain "trigger points" you have to find in each act, usually in sequence, and when you find one it advances the time by fifteen minutes. Every time one of these fifteen minutes intervals passes, new things happen, people move to different places around the island, etc.
There are a range of different endings and rankings you can get, and this is determined by how thoroughly you investigate throughout the night and whether you can explain what was going on and who did what at the end of the game. During each fifteen-minute interval, there are a lot of little hidden things that you can miss which will not be present later in the game, so it behooves you to explore thoroughly. Also, there might be different angles from which you can approach a "trigger point" - for example, if you stumble into it blindly you may interrupt a conversation, causing the participants to clam up, but if you sneak in unobserved from a different route you can listen in and get more information.
Aside from solving the murder mystery (and it may be possible that there is more than one murderer throughout the game), there's also a whole optional subplot involving a hidden Civil War treasure and the former owners of the plantation that one can totally miss if they are not carefully exploring the whole time.
The game plays like a typical Sierra SCI adventure, aside from the time passage structure. You can't really get "hung up", though you can easily miss stuff along the way that causes you to get a lower score or less of an explanation to the mystery at the end. There are a number of random deaths around, and a few of them are irritatingly cheap, but on the whole for a game with a "stalking murderer" theme the amount of irritating "Sierra deaths" here is at a reasonable minimum. The art is quite decent - the facial portraits aren't anything special but there are a lot of close-ups employed, and there are some really nice hand-drawn backgrounds. The music is likewise well-suited to the game, mixing a sort of ragtime/Dixie feel with creepy ambiance and doing a nice job of it.
The only thing that really bugged me about the game is that it has the "teleporting people" problem common to mystery/horror games - that is, people go from one location to another impossibly fast, or through a route where it is not possible that you or someone else would not have seen them. If you can stomach these "deus ex machina" occurrences - and it's not really hard to - the game really is pretty interesting and easily worth a look.
* Quest Studios - MIDI and MP3 music
* Gameplay Video
* Dr. Feelsgood