Sunday, September 19, 2021

Homicide Trinity

Something old, something new, 
something borrowed, something blue

Time to use the rarely used short shorts tag again! Many years ago, I thought I'd use the Short Shorts corner to collect multiple, unrelated short reviews and other observations in one single post, usually when I felt I couldn't fill out a full post about one topic. But I seldom use the tag now, as I often just give up on writing a post of something if I feel I can't write a full post on a subject. But as the topics of today are all games and they kinda form a nice contrast as they tackle the idea of a mystery game in different manners, I guess I can use the tag again now...

The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express (2021) is the first entry in what is planned to be a series of mystery novels on PC by Spanish developer 1564 Studio. The titular Marine Express, no relation to the Osamu Tezuka animated movie, is a newly developed submarine train connecting California with Japan. The elite St. Joachim Academy for girls has booked seats for its classes on the maiden voyage of the Marine Express, offering their (rich) students an opportunity to learn about marine biology during a one-of-a-kind school trip. However, not long after they have left California, the unexpected happens: the body of one of the teachers of St. Joachim is found in his compartment, stabbed to death. The main suspect is a student whom was rumored to have been in a relationship with the teacher. Ranko Togawa and her bestie Astrid however think there's more to this crime, which seems confirmed when more attacks and murders occur in the running underwater train. Everyone is locked up with the murderer inside the running Marine Express until they reach Japan, so it's up to Ranko to quickly find out who the killer is.

I think it was the title that first caught my attention of this visual novel: the name "Ranko Togawa" reminded me of Edogawa Rampo of course, and I think the Marine Express animated movie by Tezuka is pretty neat (the adaptation in the GBA game Astro Boy: Omega Factor too!), so it was only natural I decided to try it out. This game is a relatively short kinetic visual novel, meaning there is no real gameplay and you're just reading the 2-3 hour long story. As a mystery story, it's presented fairly competent, though the plot is not incredibly surprising: a lot of the twists and turns will seem somewhat familiar because they don't vary much from the known tropes of the genre. There's a PlayStation game released only in Japan titled Murder on the Eurasia Express (1998) that has a similar story setting, with a murder occuring on a long-distance train with female students of an elite school, and because of the similar background story, some of the story beats in The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express do remind of Murder on the Eurasia Express: I guess this is a result of both games making use of similiar 'building blocks' so it's not strange they'd end up with similar story ideas too, but because of that, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on early on. I also thought it was a shame the idea of a closed circle situation in an underwater express felt underplayed at times. After a few fish-related jokes at the start of the game, you don't really get the sense anymore this is a train running at high speed underwater. The game is split up in various scenes and chapters, and just having short cut scenes/'eye catchers' that show the train moving underwater and perhaps an Indiana Jones-style map showing the current location of the Marine Express in the ocean wedged between the story scenes would've sold the setting much better. I did love the graphics, music and the writing of this game though. The pixel art of this game is fantastic, and the slightly larger-than-usual sprites really make the characters come to life, and the banter between the colorful cast of characters is quite enjoyable too. There's also a group chat that is updated occassionally for some extra (optional) dialogue to read, though players who want to focus on the mystery can choose to ignore that. The core mystery plot of The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express will probably not surprise more experienced readers of the genre, but it has a lot of spirit and I'm definitely interested in seeing more of this universe.

I assume that most Western mystery readers became acquianted with the exploits of the Chinese magistrate Di Renjie through the Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik, but van Gulik isn't the only person who has written detective fiction based on this historical person. Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is a 2019 PC game developed by Nupixo, and like van Gulik's writings, involves a highly fictionalized version of Di, a young magistrate who is appointed to become the head criminal investigator of the capital Chang'an by Wu Zetian, the first and only empress of China. He is put personally by Wu on the case of the murder of Linfei, a woman who was strangled and whose heart had been cut out. The previous magistrate had tried to pin the murder on the victim's father, but the empress suspect there might be a political plot behind this to weaken her (still fragile) hold on the Dragon Throne, so she wants Di to investigate thoroughly. But while Di is investigating the case, more women are killed in Chang'an and the mysterous killer leaves threatening notes and roses behind at each scene, signalling a crazed killer is on the loose.

Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is basically the complete opposite of The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express in terms of gameplay. The latter was a kinetic novel, where you could only read, Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders on the other hand is an old-fashioned point & click adventure, where you search for pieces of evidence on the screen and talk with various witnesses and suspects to piece the crime together. The game is about 3, 4 hours long and with only a few simple inventory puzzles and one or two parts where you might have to pixel hunt, it's also not a challenging game, but it is quite enjoyable. While Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders utilizes a minimalistic graphic style, it works surprisingly well to create a historical Chinese setting (which is one you don't see in games often anyway!) and the story is also quite unique, making full use of the specific historical background. The prologue for example focuses on an international scandal when a Korean ambassador is killed during treaty discussions at a Chinese manor, while the main game does a great job at really making you realize you're playing a mystery game set in the time of Wu's rule. Each chapter is bookended with a segment where the game tests whether you made the right interpretation of all the evidence you found up until then, and while these segments are far from difficult and basically only checking whether you were paying attention, the presentation is quite good and help make the player feel like they're really solving a crime. Definitely one to try out if you like van Gulik's Judge Dee novels!

Murder Mystery Machine is a game originally released for mobile platforms in 2019 in episodic format, but the complete "first season" was released on PC/PS4/Xbox One/Switch in 2021. In comparison to the previous two games, Murder Mystery Machine is the game most focused on letting the player solve a crime themselves. In this game, the player takes on the role of Cassandra, a rookie police detective who is assigned to the District Crime Agency as the partner of Nate, who makes it very clear he doesn't need a partner and especially not someone who just graduated from police academy. Their first job is the investigation into the death of a local politician who was gaining momentum lately. After solving their first job succesfully together, Cass and Nate slowly learn to know each other better as they get to work on more cases, but their investigations also lead them on the trail of a big conspiracy and it seems the only persons they can trust, are each other. Or not?

The presentation is the first thing that stands out in Murder Mystery Machine: each episodes is divided in several scenes, and each scene ("location") is basically an isometric diorama and you control Cass as she interrogates witnesses and searches each nook and cranny for clues. Each diorama is in 3D and you can turn the scene around to look at the scene from a different angle, sometimes revealing evidence that had been hiding behind a blind spot initially. This reminds of a game like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, which had some brilliant puzzles that revolved around the player turning the level around and looking at it from various angles. In Murder Mystery Machine however, the idea basically remains the same the whole game: sometimes something is hiding behind a blind spot and you're only able to see it if you turn the diorama around, but that's it, the way this idea is used in the first episode is the same way they use it in the last episode. These dioramas look great though and the presentation remains great start to finish. You finish a scene and move on to the next once you have obtained all the neccessary evidence/testimony and answer the core questions of that scene. This is done via an interesting deduction board mechanic.

You basically have all the relevant information on post-its, which you are free to organize any way you want. By linking related nodes with lines, you're able to generate new insights or questions. For example if you have a node about a pistol, and a node about a body that was shot, you can connect those two pieces of information, leading to a new insight that the pistol was indeed the murder weapon. Or you can also connect contradicting information, like A claiming B can vouch for their alibi when B denies such a thing. Connecting those pieces of information would allow you to confront those two people with your new insight. Eventually you'll arrive at certain 'big' nodes, which allow you to answer the scene's main questions like "Who is the main suspect" or "Who has a motive for the murder". While it is required to answer the main questions correctly in order to move on to the next scene, the game doesn't actually punish you when you make incorrect connections between nodes: it will not say that connecting node A and B is unneccessary or punish you for that. This means that if you have a good idea of what is going on, you can keep your board pretty neat because you'll only make the necessary connections between the nodes, while someone just guessing will have a horrible mess of a board, with countless of lines connecting one node to another. Depending on the scene, you'll easily have thirty, forty different nodes which can all be connected to each other, so things can become very cluttered with lines if you are just guessing and not making deliberate connections between nodes. The game can be confusing though, with nodes that have similar information, but you're required to connect specific nodes even though the other node basically says the same. I played this game on the Switch by the way, and organizing your board can be rather frustrating with a controller (and for some reason the Switch touchscreen can't be used!). This gameplay mechanic probably works really easy with touchscreen or mouse, but it's unnessarily complex with a controller.

The game has some replayability as it rewards you if you can find all the relevant connections in each scene (you don't need to make all the necessary connections between information nodes to answer all the main questions in each scene) and the game does become more difficult with each case, as you accumulate more and more information, making each board much more complex due to the possible numbers of connections. The cases themselves aren't very complex, but I like how the game really makes the player make all the deductive connections themselves, allowing the player to make each logical step themselves instead of being a passive experience. The plots of Murder Mystery Machine are often fairly straightforward, but even so, they do make you feel like you're really a detective yourself as you yourself have to connect all the relevant facts to arrive at the right conclusions. The eight episodes are connected through an overarching storyline which develops in a rather predictable manner to be honest, but as an overall package, Murder Mystery Machine is an enjoyable detective game, especially for those who really want to be working on a puzzle themselves.

Developer Blazing Griffin Games is also working on a Poirot game coming out in two weeks by the way, so I'm definitely going to check that one out too!

So a short post this time, with short write-ups on short mystery games.  The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express, Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders and Murder Mystery Machine were all quite different as mystery games, and they all had different things to like about them. I guess I might as well ask the other gamers here if there are mystery games they have enjoyed lately, or whether they are looking forward to a certain title? I already mentioned the upcoming Poirot game, and I still have to find time/money to get me the new Shin Hayarigami and perhaps Tantei Bokumetsu... And if you have played any of the games discussed today, what were your thoughts?


  1. I'm also intrigued by the upcoming Poirot game but I think I'll wait to read impressions before picking it up. Not completely mystery-based but I've been playing through The House in Fata Morgana and loving it. Definite strong Umineko vibes with super atmospheric art and music. SeaBed is another one I have my eye on as well as hoping for an English-friendly physical edition of Gnosia. And of course I experience The Case of the Missing Brewster each day I play Animal Crossing. ^_^;

    1. I'll probably pick up the Poirot game on release, but only because it's set at a fairly reasonable price in Japan at a mere 1500 yen, while the Western release seems to be set about three times as much...

      I've seen so much buzz on The House in Fata Morgana and Gnosia. I guess I will pick them up eventually.

      (It's not like I actually miss Brewster in the sense that I feel his absence actually hurts the game, but a new big update would be appreciated...)

  2. Man, I haven't thought about MMM in years. I remember when the project was first announced, it was as going to be a procedural mystery generator and not an episodic game. I have zero idea how that would have worked, and looking at what happened, I imagine neither did they, but I was still disappointed when they abruptly pivoted to making just another western mystery game. Immediately dropped the whole project and haven't thought about it since.

    I just recently preordered Frogwares's Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, and I've been replaying their other Holmes games to prepare for it. Lots of solid titles there, and I love the free deduction mechanic in Crimes and Punishments onward.

    I'm also following the development of Shadows of Doubt, a big open world title with lots of emphasis on generated content and emergent interactions to created fitting mysteries for them. If nothing else, the devblog updates more often than Blazing Griffin's, which is reassuring.

    1. When I hear "procedural mystery generator" I start worrying immediately, because it seems so easy to fall in the trap of just having generic plots with generic elements that just feel stuck together w/o any synergy, resulting in same-y stories.

      Oh, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One does look interesting! Even without Holmes, the idea of Frogwares doing an open world detective game sounds alluring, with the deduction board system they have been working on in previous games. Sadly enough, I don't have the hardware to play the game! (Last one I played was C&P, though I have seen a LP of Devil's Daughter).

    2. Oh, yeah, the "we wrote three-to-five generic mysteries then fed them to a thesaurus and called it procedurally generated" is a huge recurring problem in the mystery game scene I don't really know how could be avoided. Shadows of Doubt is doing this decently complex personality model for the characters and tying it to as much stuff as possible, so at least it'll avoid the lack of synergy issue. Probably.

    3. Taking a step back, I'm still looking forward to "just" an open world mystery game. Paradise Killer had some neat ideas, and Sherlock Holmes Chapter One seems promising with a relatively small, but dense world (especially if Frogwares can fill the world with many minor mysteries/sidequests that make use of their deduction mechanics).

  3. Hey, Quick question! where can i find Nikaidou Reito's "Footprints-in-the-snow Lecture"? I would love to be able to read it. So glad Death Among the Undead has been published into English, and I hope we get more of Imamura's works in the future!

    1. There's a "no footprints" lecture in Kyuuketsu no Ie/吸血の家 (but if you mean in English, it's probably not been translated).

      Yeah, it'd be great if we could follow up on Death Among the Undead!