Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Don't Fool with a Phantom

NO!x4 信じていくことは

It's the destiny 
of all that reflects in your eyes to break down 
NO!x4 You're free
To believe that
"Invisible Story" (Kishimoto Hayami)

Clubs for mystery of aficionados are far from a rare sight in Japanese mystery novels post 1980s. Mystery clubs for example play an important role in two of the novels I have translated (The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle), but you see them in plenty of other novels and there are also series that revolve around them. What makes most of these clubs different from the mystery clubs we see in a lot of English-language fiction is demographics: most clubs we see in Japanese mystery fiction are school or college clubs, making both the average member fairly young, but also giving the club and its members a different kind of background setting. There are of course exceptions, with the Art of Murder Club in the Nikaidou Ranko stories being more similar to the ones we see in English-language fiction with people with various ages and professions

The Seven Unravellers in John Sladek's Invisible Green (1977) were a rather diverse bunch too, ranging from a lawyer interested in the legal side of mystery fiction to a low-ranking policeman who seemed a bit too interested in the morbid side of murder. The most colorful person was perhaps Major Stokes, a complete anticommunist nutcase who suspected a conspiracy behind everyone and everything, even among his fellow Unravellers. The members of the club saw each other one last time before World War II heated up to take one group photograph, but then drifted apart. Some of them kept in touch with others, or at least an eye on them, like Dorothea Pharaoh. It was also she who twenty years later decided the Seven Unravellers should meet again. After sending her invitations for the reunion, she is surprised by a phone call by Major Stokes. The War only worsened his paranoid mind and while he's fairly sure Dorothea is one of the good'uns, he can't be sure she isn't watched. He does confide to her that he's close to uncovering a cunning Communist plot to infiltrate British society and that he hopes that Dorothea can pass on a letter with his findings to the right authorities, as he's convinced he's being targeted by a certain "Mr. Green", citing his dead cat and stolen milk bottles as evidence. Dorothea isn't quite sure what to make of Major Stokes, so she decides to hire American sleuth Thackery Phin to keep an eye on Major Stokes to see if he's really in danger, but after a night of surveillance, Phin is highly surprised to find the Major dead in his lavatory. At first sight, it doesn't seem the Major's death could have been caused by anything but an unfortunate heart attack, as there were no signs anyone had entered the house that evening. The paranoid Major had changed his flat in a little fortress with every door and window bolted, and had even left trails of white powder on the floor so nobody could walk around without leaving footprints. The only opening in the house was a little window in the bathroom, but that was hardly large enough for anyone to crawl through. But the timing does seem a bit too good after the Major's warning about Mr. Green and soon after, other Unravellers also find them confronted with color-coded messages, which ultimately culminate in more murders committed by a Mr. Green who can seemingly get in and out any place without ever being seen.

Invisible Green is one of those classics in the impossible crime subgenre that I sorta knew partially already before ever reading it due to references et cetera, so it was perhaps not a completely surprising reading experience. In that sense I think Invisible Green had the misfortune that I had already seen variations on the first locked room murder in other media already that had been worked in more detail. The setting is definitely an alluring one: a miser living in a mini-fortress, a man so paranoid he leaves powder on the floor so he check whether someone is in his house. So how could a murderer even get into such a house and kill the Major in the toilet? I like the trick as a concept: as I mentioned, I have seen this same idea used in more modern mystery fiction too, so it's obvious that Invisible Green was the original source for the trick. The problem is that while the fundamental concept is good in Invisible Green, the details of the story don't really work with the trick: it's not really likely going to kill someone the way it's presented in Invisible Green, not with the house described as it was and how the body was discovered by Phin. In the more contemporary variations I've seen of this concept (which I have read before Invisible Green), the details and clewing were worked out better than in Invibible Green, providing a far more convicing mystery story. Those stories perhaps had the advantage of being written with the power of hindsight, allowing them to alter the trick/setting enough so it is more practically workable, but for me, reading this novel really made me see how those other stories improved on the idea of Invisible Green to make it a more satisfying locked room murder, even if the basic idea is definitely good. It's the small details that make it less convincing in this novel.

After the death of Major Stokes, the remaining Unravellers (and Thackery Phin) decide reunite again to find out who Mr. Green is and whether they are involved with the Unravellers, but more murders follow. I'm not that big a fan of the second murder, which is barely an impossible one and basically only worked because the murderer was extremely lucky. It does feature a nice clue that will ultimately point to the identity of the murderer (though I'd argue that clue could've benefited from more supporting clues). A third murder has an interesting concept, being that that the impossibility mostly revolves around all the remaining suspects being gathered in one house during a party, with the victim being elsewhere. But here you also notice little details that make this plot not really workable the way it is described here: not only would the murderer have made themselves very vunerable for an extended period, the murderer's actions 'post-murder' would also be harder to perform than the story pretends them to be. I don't need naturalistic realism in my mystery fiction, but the moment I try to just imagine the scene as it's explained in the novel, I seem to think of several problems that aren't addressed and which would, at the very least, made the thing a bit harder to pull off.

I might sound like a nagging critic here, but on the whole, I do think Invisible Green is an amusing read. The writing is funny with all kinds of references to other mystery writers (duh, it's about a mystery club) and there's a lot of variety in the plot too. And I am definitely going to read the other novel Black Aura. In the future.

But on the whole, I felt that Invisible Green had a few interesting basic ideas, that could've been worked out better to bring a more convincing product. It stumbles when it comes down to details, details that make the core mystery plots far less plausible than the plot pretends them to be and depending on the reader, that can really kill the experience. It's not completely fair to compare this novel with later stories that reappropiate, and improve on ideas we see here, but I couldn't have planned for the order in which I happened to read these stories and I simply have seen more comprehensive variations on the ideas seen in Invisible Green, which makes the little faults stand out on me.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Danger on Parade

There's far too much to take in here 
More to find than can ever be found 
"The Circle of Life" (Carmen Twillie, Lebo M.)

Anyone try that new mystery manga in Jump+, Kamonohashi Ron no Kindan Suiri ("The Forbidden Deductions of Kamonohashi Ron")? Still early days and it's a bit predictable, but for now, I'm still interested to see how it will develop.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan. I didn't vote for the stories this year though. Or any year since I became a member.... I read far too few new releases each year to put in an informed vote...

Each year, the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan awards the Honkaku Mystery Award to the best mystery novel published in the year, as selected by the Club's members. Meanwhile, the Club has also been publishing annual anthologies with a selection of the best short stories published that year. Up until 2018,  the annual anthology was titled Best Honkaku Mystery [Year], with up to ten different stories, as well as one essay on mystery fiction. The format was changed last year however as it moved to a smaller pocket size with a slightly smaller selection, and the title too of the series underwent a transformation. After last year's Honkaku Ou 2019, we now have Honkaku Ou 2020 ("The King of Honkaku 2020"). The purpose of the second volume in this series is of course still the same: to offer a look at what recent Japanese short mystery stories have to offer.

Sansha Mendan ("A Terrible Parent-Tutor Meeting") by Yuuki Shinichirou introduces us to Katagiri, a college student who has a part-time job at a tutor agency. Usually, he acts as one of 'salesmen' who meets with prospective students and their parents, but depending on the wishes of the clients, he also tutors. This time he's sent to a new client, where he's to help a sixth grader with his grades. Katagiri makes his way to the Yano residence and meets with the kid and his mother for the first time. They start their first lesson right away, but as times passes by, Katagiri notices that something is wrong. The attentive reader can probably guess what's going on after a while, but the way Yuuki builds to the climax through the clewing is good, and there's even more to the story beyond the initial main problem, which makes this an amusing opening story. Kinda reminds me of some Detective Conan stories, where the Detective Boys get involved in some ongoing event without even realizing that.

Higashigawa Tokuya's Alibi no Aru Yougishatachi ("Suspects With Alibis") has an interesting backstory: it was originally written for the whodunnit contest that runs in the magazine Mysteries! The first part of the story was published in Mysteries! issue 93 (Feb. 2019), and ended with a Challenge to the Reader. Readers who had sent in the correct answer regarding the identity of  the culprit and the reasoning behind that conclusion could win a money prize. The solution was of course published in the following issue of Mysteries! The story is about a young man who after a long day at work returned home, only to get knocked out by someone and later wake up to find out that a valuable family heirloom was stolen. He realizes however that only four people could've opened the safe in his house: his estranged brother, the uncle who found him lying at home, his cousin and his girlfriend are the only suspects, so he decides to not call in the police, but to hire a private detective (with a rather sassy smart speaker as an assistant) to resolve the case privately. Initially, it seems like all four suspects have iron-clad alibis for the time of the theft, but despite that, the detective claims he knows who the thief is. This is a very well-constructed whodunnit story, that at one hand is very fair toward the reader and can be solved if you read everything in detail and think carefully what doesn't fit, but it still has some clever tricks up its sleeves to make sure that not all readers who would send in their answers would get it completely right. I love these kind of whodunnit stories which basically reward the reader for being an attentive reader, but which can still put out a rabbit from their top hat even though you were sure you had found everything already. A good example of how a whodunnit story should be written.

Last year, I reviewed the short story Kangokusha no Satsujin ("Murder in Prison" 2015) by Ibuki Amon, which was set in the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Torawareru Moromitsu ("Moromitsu Imprisoned") is part of the same series and set on the third day of 1868, as the Meiji Restoration was approaching its climax. The struggle for power has now also reached Kyoto, and being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Shikano Moromitsu of the Owari Domain finds himself captured by men of the Satsuma Domain. Moromitsu might not have an extremely high status, but thankfully he's still not someone you can just kill without any consequences, so he's held captured in a cell in the Kyoto manor of the Satsuma Domain. Moromitsu learns that another man is kept in a neigbouring cell, but that man seems to have given up completely and laments that he isn't even allowed to die as a warrior. Moromitsu however has not given in to despair yet, and plans his escape from his cell, even though he has no resources. This story is obviously inspired by Jacques Futrelle's famous short story The Problem of Cell 13, only now this cell is located in 1868s Japan and the props used by Moromitsu are of course also unique to the time setting. Don't expect to be able to solve this conundrum yourself, but watching Moromitsu as he MacGyvers himself out of that cell is certainly very enjoyable material.

Fukuda Kazuyo's Kikime no Osoi Kusuri ("Slow-Working Potion") is a story I should probably not explain in detail, as it's really the type of story where you need to see things unfold for yourself. The case revolves around a man and a woman in their twenties, who were enjoying a meal in a fancy Italian restaurant, when suddenly the man keeled over after drinking his coffee and died in the hospital. What follows is a series of accounts from various characters which slowly unveil what actually happened in the restaurant. Each new account gives you more insight into the man and woman in the restaurant and the build-up to the man's death, but also seem to make things more confusing as you also realize that it doesn't really make sense why the man ended up dead. Good build-up to the climax where you finally realize why the build-up and the death didn't seem to mesh completely.

Nakajima Kyouko's Benjamin is the odd one out in this anthology, and on the "message from the author" page, Nakajima herself writes she was surprised her story was chosen and that she didn't even realize it was a puzzle plot mystery. Narrator Yuugo tells the reader about his father, a zoo director, his big sister Sachi and "Benjamin", a slightly odd animal that lives in their zoo and the odd discovery Yuugo made about Benjamin, but explaining more would be spoiling the plot. Personally not a big fan of this story as I think it's closer to science-fiction, with a twist that seems a bit telegraphed too well.

Yoru ni Ochiru ("Fall in the Night") by Kushiki Riu tells the story of a mysterious attack on a child in a nursery school: a man suddenly barged in the room during the break and threw a girl out of the window. Luckily, the little girl survived, but obviously, the horrible incident attracted the attention of everyone, raising questions about the attacker, but also about the security measures of the nursery school. Journalist Katou Katsuki is put on the story, because his family home is nearby, which means no extra travel expenses. The story works towards a sad denouement when Katsuki realizes what the motive behind the attack is, which has a parallel to the situation at his own parental home. I would definitely believe it if someone would tell me that this story was based on real events, as the topic matter addresses real social problems, but this story does that without sacrificing anything of the mystery. It's perhaps the most 'realistic' story of the whole volume, but it's still a satisfying read as a mystery story.

The final story... I am not going to discuss here, because I have already reviewed Ooyama Seiichirou's Tokeiya Tantei to Oosugiru Shounin no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi with Too Many Witnesses") earlier this year, in a seperate review! I liked the story a lot, so I'm not surprised it ended up in this volume. This story was also adapted as the final episode of the Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu television drama which aired earlier this year and according to the introduction by Ooyama, this story was actually written because the television production staff came up with this plot for the series finale.

On the whole, I liked this year's iteration of Honkaku Ou better than that of last year. Tokeiya Tantei to Oosugiru Shounin no Alibi I already knew, but it's definitely a strong puzzler, as is Higashigawa's whodunnit story (I wish I had read this in real-time, because I actually solved it correctly!). This year's volume is also surprisingly diverse, with stories set in the far away past (Ibuki Amon's story), but also stories that seem to tackle real social issues (Yoru ni Ochiru) or tales with a more dramatic angle (Kikime no Osoi Kusuri). As a reader who often tends to fall back on the works of authors I already know, reading an anthology like this one once in a while is a safe and enjoyable way to get to know a few new names without having to invest too much money/time.

Original Japanese title(s): 『本格王2020』:  結城真一郎「惨者面談」/ 東川篤哉「アリバイのある容疑者たち」/ 伊吹亜門「囚われ師光」/ 福田和代「効き目の遅い薬」/ 中島京子「ベンジャミン」/ 櫛木理宇「夜に落ちる」/ 大山誠一郎「時計屋探偵と多すぎる証人のアリバイ」

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Dragon's Teeth

Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win
"The Fall of the House of Usher"

Man, some of these books that have been in my backlog for ages and I honestly don't remember when or where I got them. Sometimes I'm lucky, and there's a receipt inside or a store name on the price stickers, but often, I just don't know...

Kadono Kouhei's Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer ("The Case of The Dracocide - A Case of Dragonslayer", 2000) introduces the reader to Romiazalth, an independent city-state located strategically in a valley between the two warring states of Daiki and Melknorse. While the states on both sides would like to make Romiazalth their own, neither side would ever dare invade the grounds of Romiazalth. For the city-state is also the territory of one of the seven dragons that live in this world. Dragons are absolute beings of this world. Not only older than the human race, but also much wiser, and these beings also wield absolute magical and physical prowess far beyond the capabilities or even imagination of humans. The protection of 'their' dragon, who does not allow for a war being fought in the dragon's territory, has been the guarantee for the independence of the citizens of Romiazalth for generations. This is also the reason why peace negotiations between Daiki and Melknorse are held to be here at this neutral place, led by the Seven Seas Alliance, a global trade alliance. The masked Edworth Theseworks Markwhistle, nickname ED, is sent to Romiazalth as the Alliance's battlefield meditator, and he is accompanied by his friend Major Heathrow Kristoff, lauded and feared throughout the world as the Wind Knight. The two are also joined by Captain Riesse Riskassé from Katahta: her mission is to attend the negotiations as a third party, but she's also an old classmate of Heathrow. The three decide to see the dragon in its cave first to ask for permission to hold tbe peace negotations here, but they stumble upon a world-shattering sight inside the cave: the dragon is dead. The ultimate being in the chain of life, a being that has been on this world for longer than human history, a being that possesses unlimited magical power has been derived of its life. The grand metal nail sticking out of its neck, right beneath one of its scales, is proof the dragon has been murdered. But how, and why? How could someone kill a being that is in every manner superior to man? How could the most powerful creature on this world be murdered just like that by man? Given that the cave is usually protected from outsiders through a magic seal cast by the mages of Romiazalth (the dragon is far more powerful than any human mage, so the seal is not to keep the dragon inside, but people out) and that nobody can just walk inside the cave to attack the dragon, the citizens of Romiazalth first point at ED, Heathrow and Riskassé as the culprits, but they manage to buy themselves a month time, before the peace negotiations start. The trio decides to have a talk with the six other people who visited the dragon these last few months to see what they can learn from them and whether the real culprit is among them, but they have to hurry, for not only are the peace negotiations approaching, if ED does not return to Romiazalth before the end of the month, the Death Mark spell cast upon him will kill him.

How odd. I think I bought today's book just over ten years ago in Japan, and I remember that not long after buying it, it was announced by Del Rey they would be publishing the English translation with the slightly altered title The Case of the Dragonslayer. I kinda forgot about this book as it disappeared into the backlog list, but I was always under the impression the English version The Case of the Dragonslayer was available. But when I dug up this book from the graveyard a while ago and looked it up, I was quite surprised to learn that apparently, the English-language edition was never actually released? Or was it? It has an ISBN, there's cover art to be found, there's even an official summary and reviews of what seems to be the English version, but I don't believe the book was really released, or even if it did, only in very limited numbers, as you can find next to no accounts of people actually buying/reading the English version.

And yep, that's artwork by Kaneko Kazuma, probably best known for his work on the Shin Megami Tensei game series! And author Kadono Kouhei's name might sound familiar too, as he's also the writer of the popular horror light novel series Boogiepop, which has also been adapted as anime a few times.

Anyway, back to the book. I've been reading quite a few mystery novels this year with some fantasy element: Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller") is obviously about time travel, the Isekai no Meitantei series is set in a parallel fantasy world, Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well") has a talking cat, Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita ("Once Upon A Time, There Was A Body") is set in fairy tale land, you know the drill. All these books however are also very good detective stories, not despite, but thanks to their original takes on the puzzle plot mystery. In my mind, I have always seen them as mystery stories, with a fantasy element. Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer however I'm inclined to describe in the opposite manner, it's a fantasy novel, with a mystery element. Obviously, this novel is not set in our world, but in a medieval-esque fantasy world with dragons, knights and mages, but that was also the case with Isekai no Meitantei. What makes this novel feel more like fantasy is the story structure: after the first chapter in which our heroes discover the dracocide, they embark on a long journey across the world trying to trace the six other people who visited the dragon earlier that year. Each destination brings new adventures, from meeting new allies to having to fight assassins and you even get a world map, that allows you to trace the route our heroes take as they travel (small note: in my edition the map is at the end of the book, but it's not listed in the table of contents, so I read the whole book and only found out there's a map after I was done). Following the group's road trip with adventures around every corner is of course very fantasy-esque in terms of story, as especially ultimately, the heroes don't really do that much detecting and investigating during their long trip. They just find each suspect, have a talk and move on to the next and the fact they have to fight a bit along the way, that's fun to read perhaps but not at all connected to the dracocide. If you're just reading for the murder plot, you might be surprised that probably more than half of the book isn't that relevant.

I guess you can compare Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer to something like Pratchett's Feet of Clay of the Discworld series, in the sense that they are foremost fantasy novels, that happen to be dealing with a mystery plot. Ultimately, the problem of Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer revolves around the why and how. I think the book has some nice ideas, though not always worked out perfectly. The why is basically a mish-mash of several reasons for the culprit (a bit of this, a bit of that): some parts of the motive seem very superficial, while other parts seem to suggest a motive of a truly epic scale involving a very patient murderer, but taken all together it lacks convincing power. Had the story focused solely on the latter as the motive, it would've been much more impressive. I do like the how a bit better. The question of how a puny human could ever hope to defy a dragon, and actually win by killing it, is raised a few times over the course of the book (and when you see that even the Wind Knight stands no chance against the sheer pressure radiating from other dragons) and I think the book does provide a satisfying explanation to it. The misdirection regarding the murder weapon is pretty clever, and the build-up to how the actual murder was pulled off is nicely foreshadowed too (though it does require the reader to make a few bold guesses in order to arrive at the solution).

Compared to the other fantasy-inspired mystery stories I named earlier, Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer definitely feels a bit lacking, in the sense that that this is clearly written as a fantasy novel, where the heroes happen to be dealing with a seemingly impossible murder case, rather than mystery story that happens to involve fantasy elements. The main mystery of the murder on a dragon, a deed deemed utterly impossible, not even in the imagination, is quite alluring and the solution has some nice ideas, some even very good, but I can't deny other parts of the solution feel slightly contrived and/or underdeveloped, which do undermine my ultimate feelings on this book. I do like the world presented in this novel though and with many references to many things existing in this world we haven't actually seen ourselves yet in this first novel, I have to admit I'm curious to see what follows next. So perhaps I'll return to this series in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 上遠野浩平『殺竜事件 - a case of dragonslayer』

Friday, October 16, 2020

Poisoned Paradise

"Nani the hell?"
"Paradise Killer"

This review comes nearly three weeks later than I had first expected. First time on this blog I was literally physically not possible to finish a work of mystery fiction as planned (due to motion sickness).

Welcome to Paradise! The tropical Paradise Island located outside of reality has been the home and experimental grounds of the Syndicate, a group which hopes to summon back the ancient gods through the completion of Paradise. However, the Syndicate's attempts at creating paradise has always failed in the past due to demonic powers corrupting the very fabric of the island and destroying society itself. Each time, the members of the Syndicate were forced to give up on the corrupted Paradise and "reset" everything by creating a brand-new Paradise and moving to their new home to once again attempt to achieve their holy goals. Paradise 24 too has failed and everything has been set into motion to move to Paradise 25, of which everyone is convinced that this time, they'll succeed. But just as the transition to Paradise 25 is almost over and only a few members of the Syndicate remain on the island to draw the curtain on Paradise 24, the unthinkable happens: all the members of ruling Council of the Syndicate are murdered in their highly-secured penthouse. Lady Love Dies, the "investigation freak" who had been banished from Paradise three million days earlier is summoned back to Paradise by the Judge, who asks Lady Love Dies to look into this crisis. While there is a suspect in Henry Division, a Citizen possessed by a demon who escaped his prison on the night of the mass murder, the Judge thinks there might be more to the case and gives Lady Love Dies carte blanche to investigate the Council murders and to bring the people responsible to the courtroom in the 2020 open-world detective game Paradise Killer (Nintendo Switch and Steam) by Kenzan Game Works.

As I'm writing this very sentence, I'm still not sure whether I really like Paradise Killer or not. Which is fairly rare, as I usually have a gut yay-or-nay feeling whenever I actually start writing a review. But Paradise Killer is in many ways a very unique detective game, one that's definitely worth trying out for its original take on the mystery videogame subgenre, but which at the same time (intentionally) does things so differently from conventional mystery games, it also feels unsatisfying at times. I can see why some people would see it as their game-of-the-year, but I can also agree with people who don't like the end product of Paradise Killer that much and personally, I'm probably leaning more towards the latter group, but if anything, I do think Paradise Killer is a game worth trying out if you're interested in mystery videogames, because it's undeniable it tries to take the mystery videogame in new directions.

The key-word here is of course open-world. The player takes on the role of Lady Love Dies and at the start of the game, you're dropped on the island and the Judge basically tells you "hey, people have been murdered, go figure it out." And from that point on, Lady Love Dies is free to do whatever she wants on Paradise 24. For a moment Paradise Killer reminds of those magic first hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, when you realize you can go anywhere and try anything you want. In Paradise Killer, you're free to explore the whole of Paradise 24 in first-person perspective: you're shown where all the suspects are on the island and where the crime scene is, but you can tackle everything on your own terms. Do you go to the crime scene first, or do you decide to speak with the Architect/interim leader of the Syndicate first? Do you just look around at the crime scene, or do you use your platforming skills to climb in and around the building to see if there are any other clues lying about beyond the normal pathways? The way the game allows you to tackle the problem in your own preferred manner right from the start reminds of how the J.B. Harold videogames start (allowing you to visit A LOT of persons at A LOT of locations right from the start), but Paradise Killer is far more ambitious as it features a whole island as its setting, which you can explore completely freely. This kind of freedom in a mystery game is really unique: most mystery games only allow you to move between small, closed-off locations that are always directly connected to the story, whereas Paradise Killer has a whole island with distinct areas like a residential area and a factory and you can explore every little corner on this island, even spaces which have nothing to do at all with the crime. It's quite overwhelming at first, though the game does help you out by showing with an AR-overlay where all the important characters/locations are on the spacious island. The open-ended approach also connects to the ending of the game: at any time of the game you're allowed to go the Judge and initiate the final segment of the game, where you accuse the culprit and lay down your evidence. So when you think you have enough evidence to back up your accusation of your suspect, you can just go to the courtroom even if there are still some parts of the story unaccounted for, if you suspect it has nothing to do with your main case.

Most mystery games work like a tunnel, forcing you down a set route, providing you with the necessary evidence and leading you down the path towards the one and only answer. Paradise Killer turns everything around by giving the player complete freedom to explore a 3D space and by allowing the player to miss evidence. At the start of the game, you're only tasked with the investigation into the murder of the Council, but once you start looking around, you'll soon stumble upon more crimes and mysteries (that are related to the Council murder). But if you choose to not explore the island, it's quite possible to miss these sub-plots completely or not find the evidence that help solve those other crimes. Paradise Killer rewards exploration of the island, not only by having clues lying everywhere, but also other collectibles that help flesh out the lore of the kooky background story of Paradise Killer and a special currency that is used for fast-travel options as well as the purchase of certain upgrades.

While the open world is what makes Paradise Killer unique and a refreshing game, I have to admit it's also the main reason it didn't quite manage to convince me. The island is lusciously designed, hiding secrets in every nook and cranny and the geography includes a lot of verticality, making for an interesting setting: you can explore the moats and sewers beneath the living quarters, but also find your way up to the rooftops of the many flats on the island or explore the mountain cliffs looking down on the island. But I absolutely hated having to go down twenty staircases, through three districts and cross half the island and take another elevator there just to talk with another person. Every time I wanted to do something, it'd take ages to get from point A to point B because of the labyrinthine design of the island, combined with the horrible map which doesn't show any paths or convey the verticality of the island (a compass would've been wonderful!). Talking with the completely bonkers characters like Crimson Acid and Doctor Doom Jazz was fun and you actually learn a lot about them and the overall backstory as you spend more time with them. But the time spent traversing between these great characters is not fun. There are a few movement upgrades to be found that allow you to travel across the island more easily, but you can only obtain those upgrades by... exploring the island and finding certain collectibles. I get the idea of wanting to reward the player for exploration of the island, but if a player just wants to focus on the solving the mystery, it's very vexing that something like a double jump, which makes the game more enjoyable to play, is locked away. Occassionally, the spatial design of the island does become relevant to solving the crime, for example by allowing you to find secret back doors to search otherwise locked houses or by having clues hidden in places that aren't directly visible from the ordinary pathways. Yet personally, I think I'd have preferred more intricately designed compact locationss with deliberate purpose for each and every detail, instead of having clues spread too thinly across a location that is just far too large. The way the 3D space was used for the mystery plot was barely any different to how you usually see it in conventional, single-path mystery games.

For example, at one point I accidentally fell off a cliff near an important crime scene, all the way down to a beach beneath a cliff, only to stumble upon a clue that had fallen there. Apparently, someone had dropped this clue down from above. At first sight, you might think this is clever use of the 3D space, but when the game barely gives a reason for that clue to be hidden at that location ("Character A must have dropped it here. And never bothered to retrieve this damning piece of evidence despite having ages to do so"), it becomes clear the developers just placed the clue there because the 3D space was there, but not because it made much sense plot-wise. That happens a few times, and that's why I think a more deliberate design to the 3D space to suit the story would've have been better. If it's going to be choosing between haphazard design that also requires you to use a lot of time just to explore it or more linear, focused design for a mystery game, I'm going for the latter.

Oh, and you might remember me mentioning how I got motion sickness from this game. I'm pretty prone to that with first-person perspective games, so everyone has to find out for themselves how they'll handle Paradise Killer. Later updates did help a lot with the motion sickness for me, which is why I was actually physically capable of finishing the game now in the first place, but still I have to admit I was glad the game was over, because I simply couldn't look at the screen too long. Paradise Killer reminds of Danganronpa's investigation modes with its 2D characters in a 3D space which you explore in the first person, but I never felt that nauseous with those games. 

The focus of Paradise Killer is completely on exploration, and it does reward players who like to check out everything a lot. If you stay on the beaten path, you'll miss a lot of the more crucial clues and often, taken the unconventional route will guide you to a clue that will perhaps implicate a character you hadn't suspected until that point. Exploration will definitely give you a more satisfying experience, as more and more of the mystery becomes clear. As you wander around Paradise 24, questioning suspects and looking for physical evidence, you'll gather clues and testimonies which are recorded in your handy computer Starlight. It's here where you probably start to realize that as a detective game, Paradise Killer does things very differently. For Starlight and Lady Love Dies basically do all the thinking for you. Each time you find a new lead, Lady Love Dies will comment on it, and Starlight itself will connect each piece of evidence to the related parties. For example, if you find out that the alibi of a character is faked, that piece of evidence will be automaticaly filed to the profile of the corresponding person. Leads that haven't been connected yet will be left unsorted, giving you an idea where to focus your investigation on. Never in the game do you need to think yourself about the evidence you find, because everything is done for you: evidence and testimony is explained in detail by Lady Love Dies, who will automatically explain who it'll implicate and why and who you should tackle next to learn more about this lead, and Starlight will also file the new facts away in the correct manner. In most mystery games, the story will usually test the player to see if they really got the story, for example by asking you to prove that A was at the crime scene, and you then have to present the piece of evidence that proves that. In Paradise Killer, you only collect evidence, but you never have to think about it. In a way, it's the complete opposite of Return of the Obra Dinn: in that game, you were tasked with identifying the victims on a ghost ship, but none of the clues presented in the game were ever recorded in a special menu. The player had to make the connections and interpretations themselves, and for example recall that the uniform a character was wearing indicated a certain rank or something like that. In Paradise Killer, all the clues you find are interpreted automatically in the correct manner and you don't have to think about them at all. Most of the clues are also very straightforward, like a phone record that directly contradicts a character's supposed alibi or even blood samples left on the scene. The most actual thinking you'll be doing throughout most of te game are the few minor environmental puzzles you come across, but they are very simple and not really fun at all, like "hacking computers" by matching pictures.

The game thus rewards players for exploration with clues and evidence, but the game fails at rewarding the player for actually contemplating on the found clues and evidence, because it will connect all the dots automatically for the player. There's never that satisfying "Aha!" moment when you suddenly see what the connection is between the various cryptic clues, nor any moment where you feel triumphant for using your brain to solve the mystery. The game also never has you truly act on the evidence you find, and there are no mid-story developments that drive the plot in another direction, even when you have found evidence that implicates certain characters and you confront them with it. This lack of interaction with the evidence and clues is also reflected in the game's final segment, when you go to the courtroom and accuse people for the various crimes you'll have uncovered over the course of the game. When I say trial, you might be tempted to think Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney or Danganronpa-esque gameplay, where you corner a suspect by picking their testimonies apart and presenting damning evidence, but that's not the case here. At the end of Paradise Killer, the Judge just asks you to accuse a character for every seperate crime you have discovered over the course of your investigation and to present the evidence for your case. The thing is: Paradise Killer is ultimately not about finding the truth, it's just about whether you found enough evidence to implicate the character you're accusing. You're actually free to accuse anyone you want for any of the crimes, though it's harder to get a conviction if you don't have any supporting evidence. Still, you can choose to accuse one character, while also being in possession of more decisive evidence pointing toward as a diferent character. The game is not as much about figuring out the truth, but about building a case with evidence against a suspect, and in the courtroom all you have to do is just dump all the evidence you found during the game on the table and then just sit back as the game will explain everything for you. The game will also not tell you what the real truth is behind the Council murder: while finding all the evidence will definitely give the player a clearer idea of what probably happened, never is anything completely confirmed. Due to the open-world design, where it's possible to completely miss evidence or lines of investigation, the story also becomes a bit weird if you have found all the evidence. Because the game is mostly non-linear and you can find clues in any order, the story is written in a way that for most crimes, you'll find evidence implicating multiple characters to varying degrees. It's ultimately up to you to decide which of these suspects you'll actually accuse of what crime (or who you'll want to let go on purpose), but if you find all the evidence in the game, you kinda end up with a story where everyone apparently tried to do similar things at similar times, because Paradise Killer tried to sell you multiple red herrings at the same time.

Style-wise, Paradise Killer is great by the way. I remember when I saw the first reveal trailer of Paradise Killer earlier this year and was quite intriqued by the visual style, which seemed like mix between JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (half of the cast's names could've been from JoJo!) and Danganronpa. But the quirky designs with idols with a goat's head do sell the weird, alien world of Paradise Killer, as does the music. A lot of the aesthetic might scare off mystery fans, especially the fantasy-like setting, though in general, most of the "technology" seen in Paradise Killer is just fanciful decoration. Locks and security systems that register character-unique blood vials might sound weird, but functionally, they're the same as fingerprints. There are more of these instances where the technology sounds really crazy, but not that weird when you think about it more closely.

I don't think Paradise Killer is a dividing game per se, as I certainly see a lot of potential in the idea of an open-world mystery game, but at the same time, I do think that it shows a lot of the weakness of the basic concept, and as presented in the form of Paradise Killer, I don't think the open-world design makes up for the loss of direction and focused plot design in more conventional mystery games. Players who love exploring a world freely to find clues themselves will have a blast, but I myself really missed being able to think about the evidence and clues myself and being tested by the game to see if I got it. Those instances where you cry out "Aha!" or where you are asked to prove that X was the killer and you smile because you know exactly what innocent-looking piece of evidence to present that will decisively prove their guilt. Paradise Killer lacks these segments where you solve the mystery in your mind, and only focuses on solving the mystery on your feet. In the end, the game even tells you that it's not really about solving the mystery, but just finding enough evidence to support an interpretation of the events. As a fan of puzzle plot mystery stories where everything falls in place perfectly in the end thanks to a long, detailed chain of reasoning by the detective, Paradise Killer isn't exactly what I look for, though I'm definitely interested to how developers will further build upon the ideas and concepts explored in this game, and it's definitely worth a try for any fan of detective games.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

A Tiki Scare is no Fair

"And now for our next number. An original based on an ancient Voodoo chant: Mamba Wamba!"
"Mamba Wamba and the Voodoo Hoodoo"

Live and Let Die is one of those James Bond movies that were always shown on television back when I was a child, so I've seen the film sooooo often and I always think of it when I hear the word Voodoo. Also: watch Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated! It's really good.

Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935) starts in the studio of our narrator Cartershall, who is working on a painting of his girlfriend Pete (Patricia). The two are suddenly visited by the solicitor Maître Pierre Valentin Bonjean Tousellines - Comte de Limonade, who informs Pete that her relative Uncle Eli recently passed away. Uncle Eli was Pete's guardian after her father's death, but his nasty character drove Pete away and Eli later moved to his chateau Morne Noir in Haiti. Because Pete is one of the persons named in the will, and the will specifies that prospect beneficiaries need to be present at the reading after the funeral, she and Cartershal make haste to Haiti to bring their final respects to Uncle Eli. Eli Proudfoot was found with a bullet in his head at his estate, but despite the swift arrival of both Eli's doctor and Maître Tousellines at the scene, no culprit nor weapon was found. While the Garde d'Haiti assumes suicide, some locals fear Eli's death was a murder committed by good ol' Voodoo zombies. The belief in the local voodoo traditions is so strong, that Eli had arranged for a stake to be driven through his coffin at his funeral, to make sure he would not be brought back a zombie. Upon arrival at Morne Noir, Pete and Cartershall meet the other people named in the will, a colorful, but highly unsavory lot who would've fitted perfectly in the Moss Eisley cantina. At the reading, they learn that all these people have been put on a numbered list. The highest-ranking person on this list will enherit the whole estate twenty-four hours after the funeral, provided that this person has remained on Morne Noir all that time. With Pete ranked last on the list, it's clear she'll have no chance of inheriting anything, but the people have hardly retreated to the chateau when one of the party is killed, and a lot more deaths follow in the next twenty-four hours...

When I think of mystery stories that revolve around last testaments with complex conditions that become the motive for a murder case, I always think of Yokomizo Seishi's work, like for example Inugamike no Ichizoku. Wills that seem to be written exactly so every potential heir will have a darn good reason to kill the others off. Funnily enough, I still remember the first time I encountered this trope in mystery fiction, back when I was a child. The Scooby Doo, Where Are You? episode A Night of Fright is No Delight (1970) has a similar plot, where Scooby-Doo is named one of the heirs of Colonel Beauregard Sanders, but the heirs will only inherit if they stay the night at the haunted mansion. People weren't killed in that episode of course, but the Phantom Shadow did target the rival heirs one by one like you'd expect.

I thought a lot about Scooby Doo! while I was reading Murder on the Way, because I think this novel is really chaotic and fast-paced. It feels exactly like a Scooby Doo! cartoon, always rushing, with something happening every few seconds even if it doesn't always make sense. Once the first murder is committed, the story doesn't stop even once. The bodies don't even have time to cool off, as people are murdered one after another in rapid succession. Some of them 'just' with a good ol' pistol shot, others in more fancy manners like err, what happened in the billiards room. It's very silly actually, as we also find Lieutenant Nemo Narcisse and his men of the Garde d'Haiti at Morne Noir right from the start. Despite the presence of these 'guards' in the house though and their constant ordering around of the remaining heirs, people keep on getting murdered and most of the time, it's just because the guard left their post and the murderer quickly did the deed. Which is ricidulous. There are a few murders which are a bit more interesting, like a dissappearing person from a cramped subterranean corridor and a locked room murder where a man was shot in the head and a fire was started, even though the corridor door was guarded and the door to the connecting room sealed with planks. This locked room murder is pretty simple though and the story fails on actually selling the impossibility: very early on in the story, it is revealed there are in fact hidden passages in the chateau Morne Noir, but because of the breakneck pace of the story, there's little time to consider each death to the fullest. The possibility of the existence of a hidden passage is hardly considered by the time we get to the locked room murder, which undermines the whole mystery because it's already been established it's perfectly possible there's just some hidden door somewhere. The story also tries to sell the mystery of how the dangerous rival heirs constantly manage to get their hands on loaded weapons to threaten the others with, but if you've already established there are hidden panels in this house earlier, the narrative should at least go over the possibility weapons are kept in such hidden spaces. Murder on the Way! is clearly written as a suspenseful pulp thriller and it works perfectly as such (cliffhanger after cliffhanger after cliffhanger), but if the various mysteries are supposed to be elements used to convey the creepy atmosphere to the reader, then these mysteries should also be considered in more detail, because now I kept on thinking 'Yes, but you hardly talked about this or that possibility despite earlier events, so I don't really see what's so baffling about the situation given the (few) details we've been given at this point.' I doubt anyone will have any real trouble figuring out who the murderer is though, as long as you don't let yourself be distracted by the speed at which the plot is running.

The use of voodoo and zombies as a theme in this novel was also a bit disappointing. Early on, the use of voodoo as a theme is awkward: for example it's said that some people think that Uncle Eli was killed by a zombie because there was no pistol found at the crime scene.... which doesn't make any sense as a logical line of reasoning (no pistol does not equal zombie). The mystery revolves completely about the absence of a pistol, but there's nothing that even remotely ties this to the local belief of zombies, yet the narrative pretends like this makes absolute sense. Zombies are mentioned a few more times later on, but most of the time, it's used more like a magic phrase which is supposed to strike fear in the reader, rather than making narrative sense. It's pulp of course, and perhaps I shouldn't have expected too much of it, but interestingly enough, all the mysteries I've reviewed on this blog involving zombies have been so much more entertaining and or informative. Gabriel Knight - Sins of the Fathers (novelization of the same-titled videogame) is more a horror-mystery, but explores the theme of Voodoo both in the sense of authentic ancient African religions as well as the New Orleans kind in a far more gripping manner. Yamaguchi Masaya's masterpiece Death of the Living Dead is technically not about the Voodoo-kind of zombies, but about the living dead (murdered punk becomes the living dead and tries to solve his own murder while hiding the fact he's a walking corpse) and is an excellent example of how to truly incorporate the theme of the living dead with the fair play mystery, as it features an ingenious puzzle plot making full use of the supernatural premise. The same holds for Imamura Masahiro's Shijinsou no Satsujin, which is the zombie-themed mystery novel all others need to be compared to (or movies!). The story about a series of murders going on in a hotel during a zombie outbreak is fantastic, merging the movie trope of hordes of brainless zombies with the crafty puzzle plots and logic-based deductions of the Queen school. With Murder on the Way!, voodoo and zombies are more like window dressing, like in a Scooby Doo! episode where you may have a specific ghost, but practically speaking it could have been any ghost with any appearance. It's only near the end when the zombie theme becomes more prominent, but even then it's used in rather predictable ways.

Oh, and a small note about Roscoe's writing style. His prose is entertaining to read, but the racist tone is hard to ignore if you read it as a modern reader. Some of it may be the mores of the time, some of it may simply be Roscoe himself. Most characters are reduced to single-point caricatures in general (the German is the "Nazi"), but the tone is especially noticable when Roscoe's describing the black population of Haiti. Murder on the Way! is definitely a product of its time. 

Murder on the Way! can be an amusing read though, despite all I've written above. It's a pulpy mystery thriller that tries to keep you on your toes from start to finish, features a unique setting with its zombie-fearing Haiti and the plot also features a few alluring murders and other impossible situations. But you really need to switch your mind off and just enjoy the ride, for if you pause even once, you'll start to realize there's also a lot that raises question marks in your head. I'll also admit that I had hoped that this novel would be something it never intended to be: a fair play puzzle plot mystery that actually made good use of the theme of voodoo and/or zombies, a story which would really incorporate supernatural "zombies" as a vital element to be considered in the logical reasoning necessary to solve the murders. I may be spoiled in that respect, because the titles I mentioned earlier are truly masterpieces of the genre that showcase how zombies as the supernatural can work perfectly in a well-plotted fair play mystery, while Murder on the Way! obviously only intended to use Voodoo/zombies as a horror element. If you're just looking for a very active and busy mystery story, Murder on the Way! is a safe choice, but I can't help but feel there's wasted potential here.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Bad Chemistry

街中冷えだしてagain, new fallen snow 
「今日の君と明日を待つ」(Garnet Crow)
The city starts to get cold again, new fallen snow
But your warmth envelops me
"Waiting for Tomorrow With The You of Today" (Garnet Crow)

If this year had been normal, I'd have reviewed the Detective Conan film The Scarlet Bullet right about now, as the home video usually releases around this time of the year. The film's been postponed to next year, but I guess today's topic feels a bit like the Conan films.

A worrying growth in crimes that are extremely difficult to detect for conventional police detectives due to the ingenious, but evil of use science and technology has led to the creation of the Scientific Investigation Unit within the Metropolitan Police Department. But even the specialists attached to this unit are not able to bring much light in the case of a serial bomber: two bombs have already gone off in Tokyo, but not even the SIU is able to figure out what the bomb actually is, as they can't find any trace of the material that used as the explosive at any of the crime scenes. Superintendent-General Hoshina of the Metropolitan Police Department decides to resort to a very unusual measure: he calls his own grandson Kyou back from the United States and adds him in an advisory role to the SIC. Kyou is only twelve years old, but a true genius who has gotten multiple university degrees and assisted police investigations over in the States with his knowledge of science. In Japan, Kyou is partnered with... Kugayama Kyou of the SIC. While the two share a name, Kugayama's not at all like young Kyou: Kugayama is the lazy rookie in the SIC, who's usually only answering the phone whenever everyone's out, or simply playing videogames. Young Kyou however quickly shows his worth when one look at the latest bombing scene gives him a clue, and eventually the two Kyou's solve the case. But more mysterious cases that require the brilliant mind of young Kyou await them, and slowly the two also learn of the existence of a criminal mastermind who's been planning these crimes in the 1995-1996 manga KYŌ.

KYŌ was created by the duo Takashige Hiroshi (story) and Minagawa Ryouji (art), who are probably best known as the creators of the action series Spriggan. While Spriggan was serialized in Shonen Sunday (like Detective Conan) however, KYŌ was not serialized alongside that other mystery series with a child-detective in Sunday: KYŌ was serialized in Shougaku Go-nensei ("Fifth Graders") and Shougaku Roku-nensei ("Sixth Graders"), magazines aimed at elementary school students of specific grades (series in these magazines "move up a grade" too whenever a new school year starts, so you don't miss out on series as you grow older). That's perhaps why the series features a brilliant child as the protagonist, and the series' focus on science, for hey, if you study well and choose a career in the exact sciences, you'll be able to solve these crimes yourself too!

Well, not really, unless your name is Yukawa Manabu, for the first thing that came to mind when I read this manga was that the plots here are similar to those of the short stories of Higashino's Galileo series: the criminals in KYŌ all make clever use of very specific applications of scientific phenomena to create impossible crimes. The first bomb case for example is 'impossible' because the police can't find any trace of the explosive at the crime scene and don't even know how a large amount of the explosive could've been brought to each of the scenes unseen, while there are some other minor gems in subsequent stories too. In the second story for example, a man is apparently boiled to death in his own apartment which was locked from the inside, while the third story is about a man who was found frozen in his hotel room. And not just frozen: it was clear the man had been instantly frozen to death as he was still standing! The methods used to create these impossible crimes is also of a rather epic scale when it comes to mystery fiction, using specific machinery or resources to be able to produce the wanted scientific phenomena. Interestingly enough, I had to also think of the Detective Conan films of these last few years. The criminal schemes there have been featuring a lot of explosions as well as significant growth in scale, and in that sense, the stories in KYŌ were a bit like if the Detective Conan film formula would be used for a regular series. 

As a mystery manga, KYŌ's a bit predictable in the sense that often you'll have some vague ideas about how the crime was committed, but ultimately, these impossible crimes all rely on scientific phenomena that you'll probably not think of immediately,  so it's more about the surprise of learning how some natural phenomena could be used for criminal intents, rather than this being a series with the intention of actually challenging the reader with solving the crime themselves. The story set-ups are interesting though (seriously, the concept of a man being frozen instantly is awesome), but the focus is completely on the howdunnit, not on the whodunnit, and the plots also feel a bit repetitive in the sense that each story follows the same formula of young Kyou almost instantly having some idea of what is going on and then the criminal using low-level thugs to scare Kyou off, and then older Kyou trying to get the two of them out of trouble. It's also a bit silly to see what kind of crazy ideas these criminals come up with for relatively small goals (relatively speaking to the actual method), but that's part of the fun!

The series is also very short. It consists of five stories (each comprised of two chapters), and that's it! It's all collected in one volume and while the story does reach a certain conclusion, and it actually manages to portray an overarching story across the limited length involving the mastercriminal the Professor, it definitely feels more like a set-up for something larger. KYŌ is very compact and surprisingly well-planned for such a short series, but this is a case of a series that would've benefitted from more chapters, if the following plots had also become more diverse. As it is now, it doesn't outstay his welcome, but you're kept wondering whether this was really all they could get out of the concept.

But as a single volume release, KYŌ is fairly entertaining material. Compact, to the point and strongly focused on telling its story through the limited number of chapters, while at the same time featuring a few interesting murder situations. Worth a read if you happen to come across the volume.

Original Japanese title(s):  たかしげ宙(原作)皆川亮二(画)『KYŌ』

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Phantom Rhapsody

『スパイラル ~推理の絆~』

"The melody of logic will always play the truth"
"Spiral ~ Bonds of Reasoning~

Huh, another mystery about time travel... rather many of them this year...

As far as I can remember, all the mystery videogames I discuss here on the blog are adventure games, with novel games being a subgenre within the adventure genre. That's not surprising of course: a mystery is a carefully plotted narrative with clues and build-up, and what genre of videogames would fit better than the narrative-driven and puzzle-focused adventure game? Games like the Ace Attorney series have you wander around collecting testimony and evidence which you use to solve contradiction-centred puzzles to move the plot forward (in a Columbo-manner), while a novel game like Kamaitachi no Yoru takes on a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure form to allow the player to find the correct route to the solution. Some series will focus more on telling a story than allowing the player to actively solve a mystery (like the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series), some may focus almost completely on having the player solve a mystery (like Return of the Obra Dinn). But ultimately, these are all games that fall firmly within the broad adventure genre of videogames.

Which is what makes the Nintendo DS game Sigma Harmonics (2008) unique, for this is not 'just' a mystery adventure, it's also a role-playing game, a unique combination. Of course, given that the developer is Square-Enix (of the influential Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series), the fact that this is a Japanese RPG doesn't come completely out of nowhere and given that the JRPG is often a story-driven genre, one can probably imagine that the combination of genres could work. I remember this game was mentioned in a comment to a post early in this blog's lifetime. I think I expressed my interest in the game then, but I only bought it a few years later, and then even more years passed before I actually played it. With this blog over ten years old now, I estimate Sigma Harmonics had been on the list for almost nine years now.

Earth is always threatened by the existence of twilight demons who want to change the flow of time to bring forth destruction, but they find an obstacle in several clans who have vowed to protect Earth with their special powers. High school students Kurogami Sigma and Tsukiyumi Neon belong to such families. The Kurogami family specializes in "tuning" the world, which allows them to repair the changes in time made by the demons. The Tsukiyomi family specializes in combat, allowing deities to possess them during battle. Demons are usually sealed away in the Crack of Time, with the Seal located in the Great Clock in Kurogami Manor, meaning the clans only have to fight the occasional escaped demon. One day however, the Seal is broken and Sigma and Neon awaken in a completely destroyed world, a world where the Kurogami family has been extinct for several generations. They realize that the demons must have changed the past so the Kurogami family died out, resulting in the new present. With "their" present now gone, Sigma and Neon follow the trail through the Cracks of Time to find out what happened to the Kurogamis. They learn that several generations earlier, the whole family died out in "The Kurogami Family Tragedy", a horrible murder case. Because demons are banished into the Cracks of Time, they can not directly affect and kill people in the 'real' world, but they can influence people's minds to give them a nudge in the evil direction and have them kill other people. Sigma and Neon too can only observe short fragments of past events through the Cracks of Time, but this does allow them to solve the murders: by figuring out the truth behind the murder case and identifying the person acting under the demon's influence, they weaken its hold on the timeline, allowing Sigma and Neon to fight the demon and fix the timeline again. However, the demons don't give up easily and keep on picking new murderers and methods to ensure The Kurogami Family Tragedy occurs, while Sigma and Neon are willing to risk everything to recover their own future.

Fighting demons? Changing timelines? Cracks of Time? Definitely not the usual themes you encounter in mystery stories, though far from rare in RPGs. Sigma Harmonics sounds completely nuts as a detective story at first, but it works better than you might expect at first. The gameplay loop basically consists of three elements: an Exploration (adventure) mode, a Battle mode and a Reasoning mode. Each chapter starts with an introduction of the people who lived in Kurogami Manor back then, followed immediately by the murder scene. Then you move to the Exploration mode, where you guide Sigma and Neon as they wander around Kurogami Manor in search for clues. Because Sigma and Neon are stuck in the Cracks of Time, they are only able to see short fragments of the events and conversations that occured back then, so they first have to puzzle together a timeline of the incident for themselves using these so-called "Sound Inscriptions" scattered across the manor and by finding evidence for themselves. As they wander around though, they also encounter minor demons in the Cracks of Time, which Sigma and Neon have to battle (win a fight, earn experience, level up, learn new moves/become stronger, the usual RPG stuff). Once Sigma and Neon have gathered all the necessary evidence, they can start deducing how the murder was committed, and who the murderer is by combining all the facts they found. The story then moves on to the chapter boss battle and after that, the next chapter. Rinse and repeat as the demons cause a new murder in the next chapter.

Sigma Harmonics has a really interesting concept full of potential, but the execution is highly uneven, and on the whole, I can't really recommend the game wholeheartedly. To start with the good: the Reasoning system is fairly original, and the way the mystery part of the game links up to the RPG system is really good. At the end of each chapter, you need to deduce the truth behind the case by answering self-posed questions and placing the various facts you learned throughout your search of the manor on a board, which allows you to generate new insights. For example, you may want to determine who has no alibi, and you accomplish that by combining the Sound Inscriptions that tell you that [A was seen by B], [C, D and E were all together] and [F was not there]. Interestingly, the game will proceed even if you pick the wrong answers/facts at certain times. While you'll be wanting to generate the right answer, the game actually also allows for you to generate false hypotheses, making this a tricky mystery game as the game won't immediately tell you you're wrong, but allow you to build upon your wrong premises. This is something few mystery games allow for, though I've discussed games like Trick DS, Trick X Logic and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments in the past that do similar things. The brilliance of this lies in the subsequent encounter with the demon possessing the murderer: the chapter boss' strength is directly influenced by how close to the truth you came during the Reasoning section. If you arrived at the completely wrong conclusion, you're in for an impossible fight, while deducing the complete truth weakens the boss so much you can beat them in two or three hits! This synergy between the mystery plot and the RPG battle mechanics is absolutely fantastic, making it really rewarding to solve the crime as best as you can. You can easily defeat the bosses even with minimal character leveling as long as you make sure you identified the correct murderer/murder method.

The RPG battle system has a neat idea behind it too, for those interested in JRPGs. During battle, Neon is the one who will be fighting demons while possessed by a deity, but it's Sigma (the player) who can control her actions, as Neon isn't conscious while she's possessed. Each attack runs on a cooldown timer, so after using a certain move, you need to wait for the timer to recharge again. These timers are connected to a music equalizer and Sigma has the power to change the background music during a battle to change the equalizer and the speed at which certain attack piles recharge. Sigma is also able to change the deity who's possessing Neon during a battle, which also alters her attack style. Interestingly, Neon's apperarance and personality also change when she switches "jobs" and this is also reflected in her dialogue in and outside of battle, giving you different "flavors" of Neon to team up with in the story.

The game also has fantastic production values. The setting of a semi-futuristic Showa-era Japanese manor looks great, somewhat similar to 1920s manors like the Kagetani Manor in Kohakuiro no Yuigon and the Kinema Mansion in Glass Rose. The 3D models of the main characters belong to the best ever put on the Nintendo DS system (the polygon count is crazy!), the music is fantastic and there's some solid voice acting too. Few games on the DS look and sound so good.

So it's such a shame the game is literally filled with small to major annoyances that ultimately bring this game down. It's like the designers decided to make every little thing you do slightly annoying, but it all adds up quickly. Interacting with evidence/Sound Inscriptions isn't just using your stylus on the touchscreen directly, no, it's having to go through a menu first, and then select the "Examine" command each and every time. Some evidence is clearly indicated on the screen with a hotspot; but others aren't for some sinister reason, so you can never be sure what can be interacted with or not unless you try that for every little thing on every screen. Sometimes, evidence can only be interacted with/seen if you're standing immediately in front of it, while in other times, you don't need to do that. Evidence/Sound Inscriptions are also scattered across several timeslots: you may start at 15:00, you search the manor for all the evidence/Sound Inscriptions of that timeslot, then jump back to 14:00, search the exact same-looking manor for the evidence/Sound Inscriptions of that timeslot etc. It's very, very boring as nothing changes between timeslots except for the locations of the evidence/Sound Inscriptions. Random encounters with demons have a load time of a few seconds, which quickly add up. And then you have the so-called Karma demons which wander around the manor in all timeslots. They are incredibly strong (stronger than most bosses) and usually can't be beaten the first time you play this game. The idea is that you evade them as you search the manor for evidence, but that's all they are: an annoyance that force you to take a roundabout route through the manor simply because you can't beat them. It just takes more time (and don't get me started on the Karma that suddenly spawn right in front of the door of the room you're currently in). Karma don't add anything to the game, and don't even give unique rewards if you do manage to defeat them. The Reasoning system can be very finicky about where you need to place your evidence (and restarting a board is cumbersome), while the Battle system is pretty vague about how changing your Job/BGM changes your options during a fight, so usually, you just stick with the same job/BGM with the strongest moves. With enemies that mostly do the same despite different appearances and little room for implementing real strategies, things get very stale soon.

Storywise, there's also a lot of room for improvement. Overall, the story can be pretty interesting: each chapter/alternate timeline features a different murder case, with different people becoming the murderer or victim, and with different murder methods. It's pretty neat how these chapters also link up: some clues carry over to the next chapter, sometimes previous chapters work as misdirection because events seem similar and overall, you can definitely sense that each chapter adds something as you move towards the finale. The mystery plots themselves are not very complex, but as you only see fragments of the case (through the Sound Inscriptions), it can be pretty tricky reconstructing what happened exactly and overall, I found them adequately satisfying, even if a bit vague at times. But the overarching story is also very vague most of the time. A lot of the background story and details are only explained in a sort of encyclopedia hidden away in the menus and never mentioned in the main storyline. Some of these details are indeed trivial and fit perfectly there as an extra, but a lot of is pretty crucial to understand the main storyline of Sigma Harmonics. And even with those hidden extra story explanations, the story lacks cohesiveness. The ending is also utterly nuts. What starts out as a minor time-jumping mystery RPG... well, the transformation in tone and scale in the last chapter, that's like jumping from the first episode of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann straight to the last one. It's like the writer didn't even care about the worldbuilding of Sigma Harmonics anymore and decided to go out with a bang, even if it didn't make any sense or lacked set-up.

Simply said, Sigma Harmonics is a flawed game. The production values are absolutely top-notch, and the concept of mixing the mystery adventure genre with a RPG certainly has potential and it does result in some fine moments in this game, but there are just so many game design choices that don't seem to make any sense, like they were only made to irritate the player. One or two of these misses wouldn't have killed the game, but when every little thing seems to be designed in a way to be just the right kind of annoying, you end up with a game that can't be recommended to everyone. Only try if you're really, really interested to see how the deduction mechanics work in this game or how a mystery RPG could work. This is exactly the type of game that could improve a lot from a remake treatment.

Original Japanese title(s): 『シグマハーモニクス』