Saturday, July 14, 2018

Moving Target


"The justice of the police is sending the evil to hell, and saving the good from hell. Finding the fragments of truth and putting them back together, is like issuing tickets destined for both heaven and hell."
"Yajima Kihachirou"

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling I am one of the few mystery bloggers who regularly also discusses mystery fiction in the videogame medium. For me, mystery fiction in the form of a videogame is as normal as mystery novels, TV series or audio dramas and there's all kinds of exciting things videogames can do with a mystery plot that are neigh impossible to do in any other medium, so I never really understand why people who like mystery fiction in general, would even want to ignore something as important as mystery videogames. One of the most important systems for mystery gaming was to be the original Nintendo DS line, where a plethora of mystery adventure games were released for. Its success is in hindsight no surprise: its dual screen, touch screen control and portability basically foreshadowed our obsession with smartphones now, making gaming both accessible and easy to take with you and the system also managed to hit an excellent price point for its games, as game cartridges (memory cards) were becoming cheaper, while a DS game in general didn't need as much development costs as games for home consoles like the Wii or PS3. Lots of mystery adventure games were thus released for the DS, as they were relatively cheap to develop, and these kinds of story-based games appealed to a lot of non-traditional gamers.

Nishimura Kyoutarou is an extremely prolific writer who, as of now, has more than 600 books to his name, is not only strongly associated with the travel mystery genre, but also with the numerous TV suspense dramas based on his books or original ideas by him. He was also one of the writers who jumped into gaming early on, with games based on his works released for systems like the Famicom (known as the NES in the West), PC and 3DO. What's unique about these games are that they aren't adaptations of existing novels, like sometimes happen with an author like Agatha Christie. The games featured originals tories, and Nishimura was usually credited with the original plot or at the very least, with his supervision over the project, making him usually at least somewhat connected to these games in terms of contents, instead of just signing off his name.

A while back I reviewed Nishimura Kyoutarou's not-so-good novel Tokkyuu Fuji ni Notteita Onna and a commentator asked about some of these games, and I had to admit I had only played one of them. But it was a long time ago, and I played it when I had just started studying Japanese, so I thought now was as good a time to play the game again. I had to dig around, but I finally found my cartridge of the Nintendo DS game with the overly long title DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Arata Tantei Series: Kyoto - Atami - Zekkai no Kotou Satsui no Wana ("DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense - The Detective Arata Series: Kyoto - Atami - The Lone Isle In The Deep Sea - A Murderous Trap", 2007). Nishimura Kyoutarou is credited with the original plot and supervision for this game which features a new, original detective character. The 35-year old Arata Isshin is the son of the private detective Arata Kenshin, who was murdered three years ago. Unable to cope with the death of his father, Isshin left Japan to wander around the world for three years. Realizing he can't run forever, Isshin decides to return to Japan and step in his father's footsteps as a private detective. Upon his return to Japan, Isshin finds that his first task is to find his father's disciple Asuka, as he can't possibly run a detective agency without her help, but he finds that she has stopped working as a detective and is now working as a maid in a traditional inn in Kyoto. Isshin runs off to Kyoto to get her back, but he's only just arrived when a murder occurs in the traditional tea room in this faraway inn in the ancient capital of Japan.

I'll just refer to this game as DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Arata Tantei Series 1, as the full title is way too long. This game, which was followed by a sequel in 2008, is designed to be like the TV dramas based on Nishimura's work, which is also evident by its presentation, with the overly dramatic music and even "eyecatchers" for the "commercial breaks". Storywise too, DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Arata Tantei Series 1 feels very much like a "stereotypical Nishimura Kyoutarou" story, with a murder happening at popular tourist destinations or other exotic places and an emphasis in the mystery plot on alibis and the use of time-schedules (when you say Nishimura, you say elaborate alibi tricks using train schedules). This game consists of three stories, each set somewhere else: the opening story A Maze Four-and-a-half Tatami Mats Wide is set in the ancient capital Kyoto, where Isshin tries to convince Asuka to come back to Tokyo to work with him at the detective agency. The second story, A Miniature Garden of Love and Hate, starts Isshin and Asuka returning to Tokyo by Shinkansen, when their train is stopped in popular sea resort Atami because of a bomb threat. The final story, Broken Similarities, has Isshin and Asuka being kidnapped to a solitary island, where he's forced to prove that the current defendant for his father's murder is actually innocent.

As a game, DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Arata Tantei Series 1 is extremely beginner-friendly. It follows the standard adventure format: you wander around various locations as you interview people and gather evidence or testimony. The evidence and testimony you have gathered allow you to answer the quiz-like questions asked in dialogue confrontations with allies or suspects, which will further develop the plot and eventually allow you to solve the case. DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Arata Tantei Series 1 is very easy to pick up for non-gamers, as there's no penalty for giving wrong answers (it asks you to reconsider your answer), and the game also makes it clear to the player where you should go next or who to interview next, making it impossible like in older games to wander around for hours as you don't know who you should talk to about what in order to advance in the game. The downside of this accessibility is of course that this game is almost ridiculously easy, as you can't possibly stray from the correct path. So you're really here just to enjoy the story.

Mystery-plot wise, the game is never really surprising (again, the difficulty is fairly low), but the core ideas are usually okay, though one can question where they wouldn't have worked even better in a different format. A Maze Four-and-a-half Tatami Mats Wide has some nice ideas in terms of clews in relation to the crime scene (a small room for the traditional tea ceremony) and it really fits the Kyoto vibe. A Miniature Garden of Love and Hate is pretty ambitious and is perhaps the most "Nishimura Kyoutarou"-esque, with its focus on the Shinkansen bullet train and multiple crime scenes in both Tokyo and Atami. There's a pretty daring plot going too, but the step-by-step presentation that doesn't allow the player much freedom does prevent this story from becoming truly surprising. Interesting is the guest mention of Nishimura's most famous creation, Inspector Totsugawa and his subordinate Kamei, who are helping the Atami Police in this case. The final story, Broken Similarities, is set in a 1:1 replica of the building where Isshin's father was murdered. Isshin is first forced to prove that the current defendant is innocent, even though it was Isshin himself who first discovered his father's body three years ago, with the defendant standing near the body with a gun in his hand. During this new investigation however, a new murder happens in the exact same way his father's was murdered, and this time, it's his father's best friend Agata who's found holding the gun. While the "strange building on an island" reminds more of Ayatsuji Yukito than Nishimura Kyoutarou, the mystery is actually very Nishimura-like, with an emphasis on alibis and character movement. The trick behind the seemingly impossible murder is actually very clever, and there's a brilliant clew staring in you in the eyes that only becomes obvious in hindsight, but I can't deny that this final chapter is also a bit draggin, and it's a bit obvious who the murderer is as they have the widest variety in character animations prepared for them compared to the other characters!

This game also has a mode called West Village (literal meaning of Nishimura), with 50 short mystery quizzes and riddles. In some of them you have pick out a contradicting line in a story to solve the mystery, in others you have to figure out an alibi trick with a train schedule by moving trains around to arrive at a certain spot by a certain time. These are usually fairly entertaining short quizzes that serve as a break for the main game, and the latter quizzes are easily the more challenging part of this game, surpassing the main story!

DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Arata Tantei Series: Kyoto - Atami - Zekkai no Kotou Satsui no Wana is overall never an exceptional game, though it's never a bad game either. It's obviously created in a way so non-gamers can also enjoy this game and in that sense, this game is a pretty good introduction for people to see how a mystery story can translate to a game. There's little challenge here, and the mystery plots do suffer a bit from this streamlining, but overall, I have to say I did have fun with this second playthrough of the game. I never got around to playing the second game in this series actually, and I might pick it up, as it's cheaper than lunch nowadays.

Original Japanese title(s): 『DS西村京太郎サスペンス 新探偵シリーズ「京都・熱海・絶海の孤島 殺意の罠』

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