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East Side Story: A Carol Reed Mystery

Review by Old Rooster
November 2007

Old Ghosts in the East Side

I've finally played a Carol Reed game and found it a most enjoyable experience! For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Carol is a young Englishwoman currently spending her fourth year in Sweden. During her stay, she has become quite the amateur sleuth, solving three mysteries to date, as chronicled in Remedy, Hope Springs Eternal, and Time Stand Still. All of these are produced by the very talented Swedish team of Mikael and Eleen Nyqvist and directly available through MDNA Games.

In this episode, Carol is trying to enjoy a leisurely time with her allotment—just puttering about, maybe seeing a few friends, laying in the hammock enjoying the brilliant weather. However, this is all interrupted by a letter asking her to check out the puzzling death of a vagrant in the apartment of a friend away on vacation. This apparently straightforward task leads Carol into a complex mystery. She'll explore familial relationships, social mores, events of over 50 years ago, emotional depths, and complexities of characters—past and present.

Carol's quest all takes place in and around the Swedish city of Norrköping. Playing Carol in a first-person classic adventure perspective, you'll not only work to solve the mystery, but also have the opportunity to explore with her many of the features and life of a town unknown to most of us. Though the story is of prime emphasis, this secondary exploration aspect adds to the total experience.

Always Carry a Coat Hanger

We should say a word about the impressive technical aspects of East Side Story. The game comes on a single CD and takes about 800 MB of hard drive space. It installed smoothly on my Vista PC, automatically defaulted the resolution to 1024×768, and never once crashed or even hiccuped during my 17 hours of playing time. I cannot say the same, by any means, about many other bigger-budget titles. This technical proficiency certainly helps make the total experience much more rewarding.

East Side Story is completely mouse-driven, with arrows showing paths available. Gears show item interaction possibilities, while a magnifying glass allows close examination of objects. Inventory drops down from the top of screen, being added to along the way by about 20 items, notes, and other needed paraphernalia. Helpfully, no item or tool is picked up that isn't needed at some point, with most of them having obvious relevance. One does wonder, though, if Norrköping doesn't need a Home Depot! Carol sometimes has to go to a lot of trouble to get pliers or a hammer or a flashlight. Of course, that search is part of the fun of adventure games.

The mouse cursor is clearly highlighted with both item hotspots and item interaction possibilities. If the cursor doesn't light up, the item is not needed or the interaction (including combining inventory items) isn't possible. Again, this is beautifully engineered.

Although one can't rotate a specific scene, there is much to explore in most locations. Helping this, and adding to some sense of foreboding, is the use of a flashlight to find our way in the dark. This is a very effective technique. At each site, you'll find a clearly marked exit sign allowing transition to the map.

Unlimited save slots are available at any point in the game, outside of conversations or cutscenes. I found a dozen served me nicely. You'll visit 20 different locations in and around the town, some more than once, with a clear map available to instantly transport you to a selected spot.

"Before I Tell You Anything ..." —Richard

Using a still photograph approach that is as good as any I've seen, East Side Story greatly impresses with the quality and use of images. I'm not sure of the technique, but they give the appearance of what I would get on "vivid setting" with my digital camera.

Each building location opens with a brief black-and-white image, followed by a color rendition. All of these are clear and highly detailed, with many being really striking. Carol moves from image to image, with the huge number of photographs being clustered enough to give a sense of smooth transition around a building, apartment, or woods.

The photographs are so well-done, together with the brilliant background music and ambient sounds, that I would sometimes swear that I saw movement in the clouds or trees. Sound effects include birds, traffic noise, dripping water, even a refrigerator motor! Voice acting is fine, although it is a bit disappointing not to hear Carol reading aloud the questions during interviews.

Carol engages in a large number of interviews, many of them on multiple occasions. During these sessions, the character with whom you are speaking is shown full screen, with up to a dozen images depicting changes in expression. Again, this generous use of images greatly improves the "reality." As an aside, do we really need 3D? The striving for precise-looking game models with accurate lip-synching can seem irrelevant when compared with the elegant and effective simplicity of multiple photographs. After all, it's a game, not a movie!

"Pop by Any Time" —Stina

One of the secondary pleasures of East Side Story is the exploration of and acquaintance with an area unknown to most of us. The game, although fairly linear, allows limited wandering within each of the twenty locales. It's fun to look around Carol's apartment, finding such personal items as a photograph of a Robert Redford–lookalike relative on top of her dresser. Remembering that much of our time is spent in the older East Side of the city, it's interesting to explore an abandoned factory or train station. Plentiful scenic and park-like views are also available, and one can't help but wish to pay a visit to Norrköping.

But much as we like to savor the sights, East Side Story is, primarily, a story! Indeed, it is what I would term a detective-adventure, much in the same realm as Christie's Evil Under the Sun, for example.

Carol traverses through conversations, multiple notes and documents, odd items in strange locales—all the while trying to piece together what happened to this vagrant in her friend's apartment. The cast of characters is varied. There are the lovely and helpful Stina, the peculiar Richard who needs a new shirt, a strange fellow who wants Carol to join his unusual club, and others.

It's not a simple assignment or, at times, game. Puzzles are well-integrated into your exploration, make sense in the context, and are largely inventory-driven. New locations, showing relative progress, are triggered only when certain tasks are completed. One thing tends to lead to another, typically in a logical fashion. Yet, sometimes, you'll think you've seen or heard it all but may well have to return to look for an item not available the first time through or ask some different questions of Stina or others.

This can be a bit frustrating at times, but not overly so. The middle third of the game does drag a bit with some of this backtracking. However, stick around! The last third really picks up with an exciting resolution as good as any mystery.

"Im Back Here Now, Enjoying My Summer in the Hammock" —Carol

Carol has earned a rest, at least until her next adventure! East Side Story is my first game in this series, but it certainly won't be my last. As a retired psychologist and fan of character-driven detective adventures, I found the storyline to be intricate yet constantly compelling. Family relationships, motivation, suspicions, regrets—all were some of the human drives and foibles moving me forward in the several play days. Indeed, it is helpful that notes and documents are stored for perusal. If you walk away from East Side Story for a day, you may well need to refresh yourself on the web of crime that is being carefully woven with this narrative.

Indeed, like a good Poirot novel, a summary and resolution sequence ties everything together at the close of play, leading you to say: "Well, of course, that's what happened!" In that regard, be sure to stay for the end credits, which show a couple of surprises.

In a day of huge video cards and striving for the latest and greatest 3D engine, it is heartening to see what an independent developer can do when he can tell a good story accompanied by a relatively simple, yet so very effective, game engine and design.

I'm pleased to award East Side Story a solid Thumb Up, highly recommending it to any fan of a good story with interesting characters in an attractive and unusual locale.

What I Like Most About East Side Story

  • A cracking good mystery with psychological overtones;
  • Beautifully presented with striking photography;
  • Flawlessly constructed, smooth-playing game;
  • Subtle, tension-breaking humor, both visual and in the script;
  • Sound effects bring life to the surroundings;
  • A very fine walkthrough is linked on the website.

Minor Concerns I Had

  • Play drags a bit in the middle third of the game;
  • Voice acting from Carol's character was quite limited;
  • Some puzzles are very difficult without walkthrough advice. The End

The Verdict

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The Lowdown

Developer: MDNA Games
Publisher: MDNA Games
Release Date: October 2007

Available for: Windows

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Screenshots

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System Requirements

Windows 98/2000/XP/Vista
1 GHz processor
128 MB RAM
16 MB video card
800 MB free hard disk space

Where to Find It

MDNA Games



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