Relentless seems to be tapping into a curious cultural phenomenon. No matter how much the British are pilloried and stereotyped as braying aristocrats or straw-munching yokels by other cultures, we'll always be better at it ourselves. Never a nation to shy away from a hearty laugh in the mirror, we're our harshest and most accurate critics, self-deprecating with a quietly scathing gentleness which endears us to ourselves. Blue Toad Murder Files is very much in this vein, an excellently observed take on rural Britain - heavy on stereotype without the inherent laziness which this so often implies - wrapped around a murder mystery board-game concept.
Still, when I sit down with a couple of other players to tackle the first chapter of this six-episode puzzler, due out in December, I'm not sure what to expect. Will it be competitive, like those games of Cluedo that end in actual bodily harm? Or more congenial, like watching Poirot with your Mum and Aunt Doris on the sofa at Christmas? Turns out it's a bit of both, with some of the competitive elements of the company's uber-series, Buzz, bubbling nicely alongside co-operative, team-sofa sleuthing activities.
Its Britishness is obvious from the off, as a sweeping vista of an idyllic rural settlement rolls across the screen, showcasing windmills, duck ponds and a cosy village pub. When the narrator kicks in, with the quietly bombastic measure of a disparaging history professor, the scene is set. It's not Stephen Fry, but it's an excellent approximation of everything he's come to represent in British culture. Incredibly, all of the top-class voice-over work is done by just one actor, Tom Dussek.
After a brief and engaging introduction to the village of Little Riddle, a steam train arrives bearing the four purposefully stereotypical avatars players get to control. These characters - the sharper-than-she-looks granny, the Enid Blyton plucky youth, the moustachioed and stentorian gent and the intrepid American girl - are the constituent members of the titular Blue Toad detective agency, sent away for a nice break in the country by the head of the organisation. Needless to say, it doesn't take long for people to start turning up dead, and it falls to the sleuths to pick apart the mystery - aided and obstructed in equal measure by village gossips, suspects and bobbies alike.
What this means is around an hour of gameplay, starting off with a short cut-scene that manages to convey just the right amount of character in a few lines of funny dialogue and subtle facial animation. This is followed by an individual puzzle taken on by the player with the pad. Once solved, you pass the pad to the player next to you for another segment of storyline and the next puzzle. Once everyone's had a go, there's a short round of comprehension questions on the scenes and dialogue that just played out, which make sure you've been paying attention. Once all the puzzles are solved, by moving around the various village locations on the map, it's time to name the murderer.
The memory test mechanic means you should remain engaged with the story, rather than switching off, once the controller moves on to the next player. It's also suitably non-confrontational, with puzzles that encourage mild co-operation whenever someone gets stuck, or at least a little gentle ribbing. There's no sense of wanting to 'win', more an atmosphere of trying to be a useful part of a team. Design director Paul Woodbridge likens this to watching an episode of your favourite mystery drama with a friend or loved one, generally puzzling out whodunnit for the general good whilst chasing the quiet approbation which comes with getting there first.
The puzzles themselves are relatively straightforward without being too much of a breeze, with some nice new ideas mixed in with a few old staples. Each is timed, with a medal awarded according to speed and the number of guesses. Failure bears no penalty other than the mild censure of your fellow investigators and a condescending quip from the avuncular narrator. Don't expect a Mensa test, then, but there's more here than word searches and simple mazes. Did you know that 'strange lipsticks' is an anagram of 'sticking plasters'?
It's all very well presented and polished, with the pervasive atmosphere of a late-forties BBC radio play or a sentimental episode of the Archers. Embroidered wallpaper of the sort you might expect to find in a classy gentleman's club adorns the interstitials, and flocks of ceramic ducks flutter across the loading screens. Each puzzle is introduced in towering, classic font, casting a shadow to a hammy yet apt crescendo of pantomime string stabs. Relentless is fully aware of the Englishness of it all, and isn't shy about the fact that Blue Toad Murder Files is aimed primarily at a British audience, although there's hope that the tradition of American interest in Britishness will carry here.
As lead writer Iain Lowson explains after we finish the episode, which takes around an hour, he didn't dumb the script down to make it accessible. This is unequivocally a family game, yet it throws around words like 'egregious' and 'libation'. There are things children will skim over and their parents enjoy, and vice versa, but it's all somehow part of the charm. The synergy between script, voicing and character animation is the game's principle asset, and these aspects work together very well to produce a general cosy appeal which encompasses young and old alike.
For its first self-published title, Relentless is aiming high. "The whole idea of the game is to be a replacement for TV," says Woodbridge, a clear shot at the Christmas living room crowd. What's more, the devs are positive that a game like this could never have been a success until recently; the mainstream acceptance of consoles and their presence in most houses means that new directions of development are opening up for studios who wish to explore them. Blue Toad might never become a blockbuster series, but Relentless could well be carving out a very British niche in a new, family-driven market. Try it out at the Eurogamer Expo this week to see how it's getting on.
The first episode of Blue Toad Murder Files is due out on 17th December exclusively on PlayStation Network.