Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Plot It Yourself


Going over the crime scene hundred times. (Japanese saying)

I talk more often about my reading backlog, but I'm even worse with games. I think I bought my copy of this game back in 2010 already... 

The discovery of the body of Bill Robbins in the parking garage of Houlington College shocked the otherwise peaceful Liberty Town. Bill Robbins was the president of the Robbins Company, and his whole family had connections (also by marriage) to all the other major families in the town. And when a man is well-connected, it also means there are a lot of suspects. Was the murderer his new wife, whom he had married only six month ago? His new brother-in-law who hated him? The local physician who has been a family friend for decades, but has no clear alibi? Whoever it was, J.B. Harold, the silent, but methodious police detective in charge of the case is sure to find out whoddunit in the videogame Keiji J.B. Harold no Jikenbo - Satsujin Club, also known as J.B. Harold - Murder Club (Nintendo DS).

J.B. Harold - Murder Club was originally a 1986 PC adventure game developed by Riverhillsoft and written by Suzuki Rika. It did quite good on the market, and was ported to several other systems, from MS-DOS, to Windows, TurboGrafx-CD, Nintendo DS and iOS. It would also spawn many sequels. Riverhillsoft would eventually go bankrupt in 2000, but by that time Suzuki had already left the company to set up developer CiNG, which would be responsible for some of the Nintendo DS and Wii's more innovatieve mystery adventure titles, until CiNG's own bankruptcy in 2010.

The most memorable feature of this game has to be its design as an adventure game. It follows the traditional command-style adventure interface, where you select commands to move around and ask suspects questions. Usually, games that follow this design are fairly linear in their story-telling: you talk to suspect A, which gives you acces to location B and suspect C, which in turn... etc. Once in a while, the story will have some drastic developments, and rinse and repeat. The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series for example is a classic example of this model.

J.B. Harold - Murder Club however is almost like a non-linear, free-roaming mystery adventure with the command-style interface, which is a rare combination. The prologue of the game shows you how Bill Robbin's body is discovered, and after that, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want, in any order you want. Right from the start, you're able to go to many locations and suspects and each interview with a suspect will result in a new lead: you might want to check up on that alibi the suspect claims to have, or perhaps you want to follow up on that rumor the suspect told you about a different suspect, etc. Because you're basically free to start your investigation anywhere you like, and can choose to follow any lead in any order you want, the game actually gives you a non-linear experience. I for example started with investigating the location where Bill Robbins' body was found, and then questioning his brother and following up on his alibi, whereas you could also choose to investigate Bill's wife, his family-in-law or his business relations first, which would've resulted in very different leads. As you near the end of the game, the story naturally becomes more of a linear experience, as you'll have discarded most red herrings, but especially the first half/three quarters of this game, you're really free to follow up on any suspicions you have.

It's this design choice which makes this a unique game, but depending on the player, it can also be a very boring game. J.B. Harold - Murder Club's story has no real development throughout the course of the whole game. You're just interviewing suspects and then checking up on everything. There's no structure to the game because of non-linearity. Right at the start of the game you're given access to a lot of data, and the rest of the game consists of you sorting everything out. Games like Ace Attorney are designed to keep you on your feet, by feeding the player new information and new story developments every once in a while. This is not the case with this game. In fact, one could simply finish this game by asking every suspect every question and using every available command in the game: eventually you will reach the end. In that aspect, this game can feel very lacking.

If you do really keep up with all the various leads the game feeds you though, you're given a very unique experience. Most mystery games put emphasis on story developments, and the sense of wonder of solving a mystery. J.B. Harold - Murder Club is more 'realistic', in the sense that it puts emphasis on a policeman's legwork: you solve the Bill Robbins murder by good old fashioned questioning of each and every suspect, and checking on their alibis and motives. It's a very minimalistic adventure game, but it works strangely enough. This sober approach is also seen in later in the game: you need to collect enough evidence before you're able to get search warrants from the prosecutor or bring suspects in to the police station for questioning. The overall mystery plot is nothing particularly fancy, but it works in the context of the game, and I found it entertaining.

It's interesting the series is titled J.B Harold though, because J.B. is pretty much non-existent in the game. The character rarely appears on the screen himself, and you never see his dialogue lines, only those of his conversation partners. Bland isn't the right word, it's simply that he appears so very little on screen there's little to say about him.

Overall though,  J.B. Harold - Murder Club is an interesting and original mystery adventure, but it can easily turn into a just-click-on-every-command game, so the player does need to make some effort to keep themselves interested in the story. If you manage to, the game turns into a distinctive mystery game, which really makes you feel like you're slowly uncovering a complex murder case. Some older versions of this game have been released in English, though the version I played, the Nintendo DS port, is not available in English. The sequel was also ported to the DS, so I might pick that game up too some time.

Original Japanese title(s): 『刑事J.B.ハロルドの事件簿 殺人倶楽部』


  1. Have you checked the english dub of Danganronpa 3 anime ?

    it's hilarious, here are some clips

    1. Meh, considering I've played all the games in Japanese, and I actually know the Japanese voice actors from various others roles (and none of the English voice actors), I have really no interest at all in the English dub.

    2. me neither, I've only watched the clips

      but Junko's voice and that last scene with Kirigiri is spot on

  2. so yeah, I thought the clips were funny...