Friday, September 29, 2017

A Frightened Hound Meets Demons Underground

Now Garm howls loud | before Gnipahellir, 
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free; 
Much do I know, | and more can see 
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight
Völuspá (Bellows translation)

It was in the year of 1987 that the world first got to know the ever-smoking private detective Jinguuji Saburou in the Famicom Disk System videogame Shinjuku Chuuou Kouen Satsujin Jiken ("The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case"). It was a hardboiled detective adventure game that, for that period, was surprisingly aimed at an older audience, as the investigation into the mysterious murder of a woman found in the middle of Shinjuku Central Park would bring protagonist Jinguuji and the player to the seedier side of town. While a kindhearted, if somewhat silent man, Jinguuji would not stand for injustice and had the guts to face yakuza gang if the case demanded it. Three other games followed on the Famicom (some of them written by Nojima Kazushige, best known for various Final Fantasy titles), and while the series never scored a real hit, the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou) series somehow managed to survive various game console generations, with releases on hardware like the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo 3DS.

The series not only managed to outlive several console generations, it even manage to outlive two companies. The series was originally conceived by Data East, but they went bankrupt in 2003, with the intellectual property moving to WorkJam. WorkJam then released new games in the series at a fairly steady pace of once every two, three years, but this came to a stop five years ago. Earlier this year, Ark System Works announced they had gotten possession of this series now from WorkJam, which was  just in time too for the thirtiest anniversary of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series.

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series 
1: The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
5: The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
6: At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
7: Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation] 
8: Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
9: Kind of Blue (2004) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
10: The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance] 
14: Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable] 
15: The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS] 
16: Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS] 
17: Ghost of the Dusk (2017) [Nintendo 3DS]
18: Prism of Eyes (2018) [Nintendo Switch/Sony PlayStation 4]

The Ghost of Shinjuku (2006) 
A Bright Future (2007)

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Ghost of the Dusk ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Ghost of the Dusk", 2017) is the seventeenth main series entry in the adventure game series and meant to be a thirtieth anniversary game. The main scenario is the titular Ghost of the Dusk, which starts with our hardboiled detective hanging out in his usual bar when he overhears an agitated man saying he found a dead body inside an abandoned mansion in Shinjuku.  With his interests piqued, Jinguuji decides to check up on the story and indeed, he discovers a dead homeless man inside the decrepit mansion. While at first it appears it was just the man's health that did him in, Jinguuji soon discovers that there might be more behind the man's death. As he digs into the unfortunate death, he also becomes acquainted with the current owner of the abandonded mansion, who lives in a small shed on the mansion grounds. The owner, a former doctor, confides to Jinguuji the mansion is cursed, which is why he doesn't live there himself and the curse soon proves itself to be true as more people die on the premises. Jinguuji has faced the most dangerous gangsters and killers in his long career as a private detective in Shinjuku, but can he also win against a decades-old curse?

The sixteenth entry in the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series was released five years ago, and while Fukushuu no Rondo ("Rondo of Revenge") was supposed to be a work to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the series, it turned out to be a very disappointing game, with a story that at times didn't even feel like it was part of the series, and also fairly clumsy attempts at introducing new gameplay elements. In fact, the game was so bad I feared it meant the end of the series. When Ghost of the Dusk  was announced earlier this year though, it was being toted as going back to basics, going back to the roots of the series. The various key persons in the development team had all worked on the series before (most prominently, the scenario writer for 2002's Innocent Black returned), and like the older games, the focus would be on the story and the music. In that respect, I have to say Ghost of the Dusk did its job very admirably.

With the series having last for thirty years, there are just some things you expect from the series. No Tantei Jinguuji Saburou story for example would be complete without an appearance of Jinguuji's capable assistant Youko, or police inspector Kumano of the Yodobashi Police Station in Shinjuku. Fantastic jazzy music is also a must-have in this series. But the setting is also important, as the games are always set in real-life locations, most prominently the city of Shinjuku (part of Tokyo), which houses not only the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department, but also the center of the underworld of Tokyo, with its red-light district and various gangs housing there. It was here were Fukushuu no Rondo slipped up, but luckily, Ghost of the Dusk proved to be exactly what any long-time fan of the series would want in terms of story. It starts very familiar with the discovery of the body of a homeless person. Homeless persons are very often featured in this series, as many people with no way out eventually do end up in Shinjuku, and unfortunately, they often end up as the "disposible" victims of various schemes of gangs and other nefarious parties. The Jinguuji Saburou series has always paid much attention to the helpless in Shinjuku, from the homeless, to the people who get engulfed by the underworld operating there, and is thus a form of social school mystery fiction, as it addresses problems in society in conjunction with its mystery plot. Ghost of the Dusk starts off like this too, but eventually moves towards a much bigger plot that is very satisfying to uncover. While it is definitely not a grand puzzle plot mystery , it does a good job at mixing the hardboiled mode with some minor puzzle plot tropes.

While the series had some interesting experiments with gameplay (like mechanics where you zap between various protagonists and managing assistants), the Jinguuji Saburou series has always been more focused on presenting a hardboiled mystery story than diverse gameplay, and that holds true for Ghost of the Dusk too. You'll only be using the commands to move to the next location to speak with person X or Y, which will drive the story forward, allowing you to go a different location to speak with person Z, etcetera. Most of the story is "read", rather than "played", but the stories of Jinguuji Saburou are usually interesting enough to keep the player hooked. Occasionally, you'll be prompted to interrogate suspects or find evidence in a room, but these segments are always very simple and it is impossible to fail the game or hit upon a game over screen, or even really get stuck. The simple hint system that has been in place since the first game is also still here: Jinguuji can smoke at practically all times, which will give him an idea of what to do next.

The scenario writer (Kaneko Mitsue) commented that while Ghost of the Dusk's main goal was to go back to the roots of the series, but she also wanted to feature something refreshing and new, which eventually became the focus on the cursed mansion. While country houses and mansions with hidden passages are a staple of mystery fiction, they are hard to do in a hardboiled setting, especially one that is set in the metropolis that is Shinjuku. And indeed, the setting had not been used before in the series, but Kaneko did a commendable job at integrating this trope in this series without making it feel out of place.

As a standalone story, Ghost of the Dusk is a short, but captivating scenario, but this is not the only story included in the game. While this is the seventeenth game in the main series, there exists also a spin-off series of application games originally made for cell phones (not smart phones). If one would consider the main series the "novels", than these application games would be the "short stories". Twenty-four of them were released in the past for cell phones, and twenty of them had been ported to the Nintendo DS/PlayStation Portable in the past. The final four should've been included in Fukushuu no Rondo of five years ago, but were excluded for some reason. These final four application games are included with Ghost of the Dusk. Each of them lasts for about two hours, and are even more focused on telling a story than the main scenario, but are very entertaining too.

Onihime-Den ("The Legend of the Devil Princess") starts with Jinguuji being hired by the wife of an actor who will star in a film based on the popular book The Legend of the Devil Princess. She suspects her husband is cheating on her, and wants Jinguuji to investigate him. To his surprise though, it appears the actor is cheating on his wife with.... Jinguuji's assistant Youko. Eventually, Jinguuji gets involved in an investigation into the death of an actress who died during an earlier attempt at filming The Legend of the Devil Princess. In Ai ga Yue Ni  ("Because of Love...") Jinguuji is hired by a young boy to protect his mother, who has a small bar in the backstreets of Shinjuku. She is being harrassed by land sharks, as a new building project is planned right in the block where her bar is. The story is very talky and at times it seems like the writer just wanted to vent their own thoughts on what love is, but overall an okay story. The best of the four applicatoin games is Wasurenagusa no Omoi ("The Feelings of the Forget-Me-Not"), which has Jinguuji finally fulfilling a request he was hired to do eight years ago. The story jumps between the present and eight years earlier, when Jinguuji had just started in town as a private detective, and it's great to see how different he was back then. In Yurameku Hitotose ("Wavering Hitotose"), Jinguuji becomes friends with the two young owners of the antique store Hitotose, and just as the right time, as he is also hired to locate a Buddhist statue which was stolen from a monesetery in Thailand, which has found its way to Tokyo. The story is a bit predictable, but entertaining nonetheless. Also a note: various characters from this short story return in Fukushuu no Rondo (which makes it even more strange that Yurameku Hitotose wasn't included with Fukushuu no Rondo).

Ghost of the Dusk also includes one mini scenario where Jinguuji and Youko solve a murder at a school festival, as well as a download code for a special 3DS port of the second Famicom game, Yokohamakou Renzoku Satsujin Jiken ("The Yokohama Harbor Serial Murder Case"). While the port is more-or-less the same as the original, the sprite artwork of the characters has been very slightly adjusted.

It was reported Ghost of the Dusk would get an English localization by the way, which would make it the second Jinguuji Saburou game to come overseas. The first game on the Nintendo DS was released in the United States under the localized title Jake Hunter, but it is unclear whether this new release of Ghost of the Dusk will feature the same localized title (or even all the features included in the original Japanese release).

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Ghost of the Dusk was overall though a very entertaining entry in the long-running series. Yes, it is a very lineair experience, with little input asked from the player, but these games have always been more about enjoying the human drama stories, the atmosphere and the music and Ghost of the Dusk does a great job at showing why this series has its fans and why it has lasted for so long in a very volatile industry. Ghost of the Dusk's task was to bring the players a good old Jinguuji Saburou experience, and it did precisely that, but the developers have already hinted they might want introduce more engaging game mechanics in the future, and I do hope they eventually come closer to earlier games like Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni, which I consider the pinnacle of the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵 神宮寺三郎 Ghost of the Dusk』

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