Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Reflections of the Mind

"I never sleep I hate those little slices of death"
"Journey to the Center of the Earth"

Last one of the year!

Disclosure: I have translated Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle

Shirafuse Masato's Nightmare Rising series of fantasy horror novels have been a fantastic hit all across the world, being translated in many languages and having become a symbol for J-Horror everywhere, and now a Hollywood adaptation is about to be released. Shirafuse is a big star, known as the "Japanese Stephen King" , but he also happens to be working for the same publisher as mystery novelist Arisugawa Alice, and after a double interview with the two authors, Shirafuse invites Alice for a stay at his home, as according to Shirafuse, he has a "nightmare room" in his house: any person spending the night there always has nightmares, nightmares also being the main theme of the Nightmare Rising series. Alice takes up the invitation and visits Shirafuse's so-called Dreamwatcher House, which is basically like a little cottage in the woods outside of town. There are only a handful of cottages on the road that splits off from the highway into the forest, and the road ends in a cul-de-sac, where the auberge (inn) Reverie stands, with a fairly popular restaurant. Shirafuse, his editor and Alice have dinner at Reverie, after which Alice spends the night in Shirafuse's "nightmare room", while Shirafuse's editor has taken a room at Reverie. The following day however, the murdered body of a woman is found in one of the empty cottages on this road: the cottage belongs to Shirafuse and used to be inhabitated by his assistant Shinya, but Shinya died two years ago and the cottage had been left empty since. The woman, Okita Yoriko, was a friend of Shirafuse's assistant, but only recently learned about his death, and had asked Shirafuse whether she could stay one night in the house where Shinya had lived. She had been staying there the day before Alice arrived at the Dreamwatcher House, but Shirafuse assumed the woman had already left by the time he went out to pick up Alice and his editor from the station the following day, as he had told the woman to just leave the key in the house as he had to tend to his guests that day. In fact though, Yoriko had been killed and in a gruesome manner too: her neck had been pierces by an arrow (an ornament based on a weapon used in the Nightmare Rising series, which had been hanging on the wall) and for some reason, her left hand had been cut off. Being one of the first to discover the body, Alice contacts his old friend Himura Hideo, who teaches criminology at Eito University and who often assist the local police with their criminal investigations as part of his "fieldwork". How will this hunter find the murderer in Arisugawa Alice's Karyuudo no Akumu (2017), which also has the English title Nightmare of a Hunter on the cover? 

It's been a while since I talked about a Himura novel here, so I'll just repeat this even just to be sure: the mystery novelist Arisugawa Alice has two main series, both of which have have a character named Arisugawa Alice as their respective narrators. These two Alices however are not the same person. The Alice in the Student Alice series is a young student who acts as the Watson to the older student Egami (see: The Moai Island Puzzle) , while in the Writer Alice series, we follow an Alice in his thirties who's a professional mystery author, who acts as the assistant to Himura Hideo, a criminologist. The funny thing is that these Alices write each other: the student Alice is a budding mystery author who writes about a professional mystery author named Alice and his friend Himura, while the writer Alice writes about a young student named Alice and his senior Egami. Anyway, Karyuudo no Akumu is of course a book about Himura and Alice. This series is much longer than the Student Alice series, and to be very honest, this is reflected in quality too: while seldom bad, the Student Alice series is consistently extremely good in terms of mystery plotting, clewing and doing Queenian reasoning chains to identify the murderer. The Writer Alice series has its own gems of course, but as it also has like at least triple the number of releases, you can understand how it is not as consistent in terms of quality. 

So what is Karyuudo no Akumu? Well, that's a hard one to answer! I have mentioned more than a few times here that in principle, I am more a fan of short stories than of novels and it's something I felt very strongly as I read this book. Which is a very personal thing of course, but this book has a very limited setting and set-up on purpose, which can make the book feel very slow, because it has too few pieces to move around or to check. Some might prefer the more focused approach, and there's definitely also a reason why this story has such a focused set-up, but to be very honest, as I was reading this I constantly thought the same set-up could have worked just as well, or even better as a short story or a novella, especially as this book is actually bit longer than average, rather than shorter. And as I arrived at the conclusion and followed Himura's reasoning as he very logically identifies the murderer, I still felt that considering the clewing and the other relevant factors for the mystery plot, the story of Karyuudo no Akumu would have worked in a far shorter form too. So that is definitely something that plays in my impression of the book.

For as a mystery story, I do think Karyuudo no Akumu has some good moments. Some really good moments even. For most part of the story however, you feel like Karyuudo no Akumu is just trying to juggle with too many pieces, despite the very, very limited set-up and there really aren't that many pieces. The cast of characters is very small for example, focusing mostly on the six people living on along the road (which had been blocked off from the highway on the night of the murder due to a thunderstorm striking a tree which fell across the road). So the mystery in terms of characters and location focuses solely on that little road, but at the same time, we are also confronted with many smaller mysteries: a cut-off hand, a woman who for some reason was killed with an arrow, what was the woman actually really doing staying in the cottage, where are her hand and smartphone and more. At the same time, these problems don't feel as "big" as say a locked room murder, missing footprints in the snow or even a situation where everybody has an alibi. So these problems "bug" you but are not very effective in really driving the investigation. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the victim and who might have had a motive to kill her, but Karyuudo no Akumu mostly feels like it's throwing all these smaller mysteries at you that on their own are okay-ish, but as a result, it does make you feel like you're playing with too many small puzzle pieces that don't seem to connect in a meaningful manner: the book feels chaotic and disjointed at times.

But all the chaos becomes order when Himura at the end explains how all those disjointed pieces are connected. And yes, there's a reason why a lot of what they find out and what had happened feels so haphazard, and while I wouldn't say the logical chain Himura builds here is as impressive as the tour-de-force we saw Egami pull off in The Moai Island Puzzle, it is definitely the same kind of memorable logic that allows Himura to identify who the murderer is: he focuses on all the actions the murderer took on the night of the murder, even those that don't seem to make much sense, and by applying all the known facts he not only manages to explain why everything happened the way they did, but also how those insights allow us to identify which of the suspects is the murderer. The revelations regarding the motive, while totally convincing, are not presented in a manner as strong "logically" but that is not as big a concern as Himura shows who the murderer is based on what everyone knew at what time and what actions they would or could have taken taking that in consideration, showing exactly that only one person could have commited the murder. I do have to say the last step, where he eliminates the last possible candidate to end up with the murderer, is... not weak, but certainly not very strong. Reasoning-wise I totally get what Himura means and it is true it is a valid way to use to eliminate the last suspect, but at the same time it's not a very strong one and open to a lot of attacks, and is of the kind you'd usually more likely to see as a "first step" in the elimination process (like the first suspect is removed because of this argument) rather than the final person. Still, I was quite impressed to see Himura pull everything together at the end of the book, because I felt throughout there were just so many "loose" puzzle pieces I was afraid it would just feel like a messy blob of minor puzzles, but in fact, it all chains together very nicely, surprisingly so, and it's certainly a book you should check out if you like these kinds of Queenian deduction chains.

But as mentioned, had Karyuudo no Akumu/Nightmare of a Hunter been a short story/novella, I would probably have liked it even better. Of course, your mileage may very well vary here, and in that case, I think you'll find a very competently written mystery novel here that showcases Arisugawa's love for Queenian chains of reasonings. While the core case aspects feel a bit limited and perhaps not really exciting, I think the final section definitely makes this book a worthwhile read, as it shows how the emphasis on reasoning can make very chaotically-feeling stories feel very logical in the end and it's definitely one to check if you like these kinds of novels. And while it's a bit late to mention it now, it's actually the reason why I read this book, because I read somewhere this was one of those books where you could really see Arisugawa doing his "chains of deduction" thing, and I was not disappointed in that regard.

 Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖『狩人の悪夢』

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Turnabout Memories - Part 12

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

Another year passes, another holiday season comes, and as per tradition, this is also the time I look back at the reviews and other posts that stood out the most this year and highlight them in a 'not really a list' list post. As I read the reviews posted this year, I noticed a lot of my favorites were all posted in the first half of the year, making the second half seem a bit... boring, though because the posts on this blog aren't actually written and published real-time (sometimes, a post waits for months before it's published, while others I decide to publish the same week), it's more of a coincidence than a trend, I guess.  Anyway, the lists and categories in this post aren't really made after serious deliberation, and are just pointing to a few of the more memorable mystery media I consumed this year, so in case you happened to have missed them the first time, read them now! I'm already well into 2023 when it comes to scheduled posts, and I can already safely say some of those books will definitely end up in my lists of favorites of next year, so I hope readers will be back next year too. Until then, have a good holiday season!

Best Project Outside The Blog! 
Yes, this is just the the self-promotion category! Unlike 2020 and 2021, I have only one title to mention here. While the release of The Mill House Murders has already been announced, it won't be released until next year, meaning there's only one big, and I do mean big title to mention here: Locked Room International released IMAMURA Masahiro's Death Within The Evil Eye, the direct sequel to his hit novel Death Among the Undead. Death Among the Undead was a personal favorite, and its 2019 sequel was, almost surprisingly, also a real gem, weaving supernatural themes with a mystery story that still valued logical reasoning above else, resulting in the kind puzzle plot-oriented mystery story I love. This is the first time I got to work on a sequel novel too, so that makes it extra memorable. The release has been very recent, so I guess not many have read it yet, though I hope eventually people will pick it up, because it's really a great mystery novel. And I mean, we all have to read something during the holiday season, right?
Oh, and technically a project outside the blog, in the sense that it is not supposed to be directly connected to this blog: I opened a Honkaku-themed Discord server a few weeks ago, so you're welcome there to discuss mystery fiction, including (shin) honkaku stories, with other fans!
Most Interesting Non-Review Post! Of 2022!
Okay, I haven't really made any non-review posts this year... sorry! I'm always reading books, so there's always material for reviews, but I have to admit editorials etc. are the first type of posts to get forgotten whenever it's busy or I am just not in a writing mood. So in the end, the only posts that even fit in this category are my playthrough memos I kept while playing Higurashi: When They Cry. Last year, I did the same with Umineko: When They Cry, writing down my thoughts while playing through the eight episodes of that game and keeping track of how my theories changed with each new episode. Higurashi: When They Cry had a similar set-up with multiple episodes, so it was only natural I would do the same thing. I don't know how many people actually read my notes while I was playing the game, but I still think this is a fun experiment, writing down the theories I play with in my mind while tackling a mystery story of an enormous (and time-consuming) scale. Perhaps I should do this for The Sekimeiya and finally force myself to get past that first part because I know it's supposed to be really good, but it's also really slow...
Book I Didn't Really Want to Read But Wanted to Have Read!
I mentioned the saying "The books you want to have read, but don't want to read" in my review of Maya Yutaka's 1993 novel Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata ("A Sonata for Summer and Winter" AKA "Parzival"), because it was exactly the type of novel it would be used on. This year, there were basically only two novels I read which this saying applied to: Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata and Nikaidou Reito's Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King" 2004).  And of course, this all sounds very negative, but these were books I really wanted to read, but of which I knew it was also likely it wouldn't be an easy experience: Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata was often referred to as a catastrophic deconstruction of the detective story in true Maya post-modernist fashion, while Majutsuou Jiken was a very, very long book and the last one I hadn't read in Labyrinth saga in the Nikaidou Ranko series, and in general, the tone and style of the Labyrinth books just weren't really what I liked about the earlier Ranko books. So why did I pick Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata? Easy: Majutsuou Jiken was actually pretty fun to read once I got started, and I ended up enjoying it the most out of the four Labrinth novels. Natsu to Fuyu no Sonata on the other hand was a tricky novel to read from start to finish, and while I am glad to have finished it to know what all the talk was about, I am also glad it's behind me now!
Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2022! But Probably Older!  
2022 ended with a lot of Nintendo DS reviews, so you'd almost think you had gone back about 15 years. None of those games were really outstanding though, though that was something I already knew: most of these games I played because I have already played so many Nintendo DS mystery adventure games, so I kinda want to play, well, perhaps not all of them eventually, but most of them, so even the less impressive ones. Though I want to highlight Project Hacker and Unsolved Crimes as games with interesting points to them. Some other games that made an impression on me were Lucifer Within Us and the board game Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, but for me, the 'fight' was clearly between Haru Yukite, Retrotica ("As Spring Passes By,  Retrotica"), better known as The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story outside of Japan, and Higurashi: When They Cry, a game I poured a lot of time in. And even then, I knew right away The Centennial Case would win. Created by the director behind personal PSP favorite Trick X Logic, this game utilizes similar game mechanics with a FMV game, resulting in a game that feels like an atmospheric mystery drama, but which really succeeds on showing how a proper whodunnit should be plotted, and how readers (viewers) should combine clues to arrive at hypotheses, and use these hypotheses to solve a mystery. While the individual episodes might not be super complex, The Centennial Case is a great showcase of how to translate a shin honkaku mystery story to the video game medium.
This might actually be the first time a game ends up in this category that was actually released in said year...

Best Premise! Of 2022! 
Rouko Zanmu ("Dreams Are All That Remain To The Tiger Who Has Grown Old")
Always a difficult category. With premise, I mean the blurb on the back of the book or something similar being enough to really rope you in, regardless of the actual execution.We have Houjou Kie's excellent Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo ("Delicious Death for Detectives", 2022). of course, which is set both in the real world and in a VR-game similar to a murder mystery Mario Maker. On the other side of the spectrum there's Ashibe Taku's Oomarike Satsujin Jiken ("The Oomari Family Murder Case", 2021), a fantastic historical work that focuses on the fall of the Oomari family and the women of that family as they remain at home while World War II develops: the mystery is one that could only have occured in war-time Japan, war-time Osaka, and has a bit of a Trojan Women vibe. In a similar vein, Kokuroujou ("The Castle with the Dark Prison") AKA The Arioka Citadel Case deserves a special mention too, being a fantastic historical mystery story set during a year-long siege of a castle. An English translation is in the works by the way! Higurashi: When They Cry has a fantastic horror-vibe premise that really becomes creepier with each subsequent episode, and it uses the whole set-up of multiple episodes really good to flesh the whole mystery out, while other note-worthy titles are Haiyuuenchi no Sastsujin (2021) (set in an abandoned amusement park), Dorothy Goroshi (The Murder of Dorothy, 2018), set in the world of the Wizard of Oz and Cinderella-jou no Satsujin ("The Cinderella Castle Murder" 2021), which places Cinderella in the defendant's seat in the murder case of the prince. All premises that sound amazing right away. I ended up with Momono Zappa's Rouko Zanmu ("Dreams Are All That Remain To The Tiger Who Has Grown Old", 2021) however because I thought the wuxia theme was really original, and while it's very close to "conventional" fantasy (and I have read my share of fantasy mystery novels the last few years), I thought the martial arts aspect of wuxia was also very appealing and I was wondering how it'd be incorporated in the mystery, so as a premise, this one earns many points.
The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
Meitantei ni Kanbi naru Shi wo ("Delicious Death for Detectives") (Houjou Kie)
- Garasu no Tou no Satsujin ("The Glass Tower Murder") (Chinen Mikito)
- Squid-sou no Satsujin ("The Squid House Murders") (Higashigawa Tokuya)
- Oomarike Satsujin Jiken ("The Oomari Family Murder Case") (Ashibe Taku)
- Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono ("Those Who Are Deified Like The Haedama") (Mitsuda Shinzou)
- Kokuroujou ("The Castle with the Dark Prison" AKA The Arioka Citadel Case) (Yonezawa Honobu)
- Higurashi no Naku Koro ni ("When the Cicades Cry") (Ryukishi07)
- Sekigan no Shoujo ("The Girl With One Eye") (Maya Yutaka)
- Aomikan no Satsujin ("The Murder in the Marine Azure Manor") (Atsukawa Tatsumi)
- Haru Yukite, Retrotica ("As Spring Passes By, Retrotica" AKA The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Danger on Ice

I want to do something risky like standing on ice
"Like standing on ice" (Komatsu Miho)

Last Nintendo DS mystery game review this year, I promise!

In 2007, Tecmo released the Nintendo DS game with the ridiculously long title DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series: Kyoto - Atami - Zekkai no Kotou Satsui no Wana ("DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense - A New Detective Series: Kyoto - Atami - The Lone Isle In The Deep Sea - A Murderous Trap"), a mystery adventure supervised by super-prolific novelist Nishimura Kyoutarou. That game was followed up by DS Yamamura Misa Suspense - Maiko Kogiku / Kisha Catharine / Sougiya Ishihara Akiko - Koto ni Mau Hana Sanrin - Kyouto Satsujin Jiken File ("DS Yamamura Misa Suspense - the Maiko Kogiku / Reporter Catharine / Funeral director Ishihara Akiko - The Three Petals Dancing In the Ancient Capital - Kyoto Murder Files"), a game I reviewed only a few weeks ago, and which was based on the works of similarly super-prolific novelist Yamamura Misa. While the two games were based on the works of different authors, the games were quite similar, both following a three-episode set-up and being obviously more aimed at a wider audience beyond traditional gamers, as the games were very simple in terms of difficulty. DS Yamamura Misa Suspense in particular was far too linear and simple. 

In 2008 however, Tecmo also released a sequel to DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series as the third entry in their DS Suspense series. DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense 2 Shin Tantei Series - Kanazawa, Hakodate, Gokkan no Keikoku: Fukushuu no Kage ("DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense - A New Detective Series:Kanazawa, Hakodate, a Freezing Valley - Shadows of Revenge") too has a ridiculously long title and of course once again about the newbie private detective Arata Isshin, who inherited his late father's detective agency. He is assisted by Kyou Asuka, his father's former disciple. These two characters are especially created for this game series with supervision of Nishimura by the way, and thus are not featured in any of his books, but the game does invokve the feeling of the 'two-hour suspenseful television drama' so strongly associated with Nishimura Kyoutarou, and the game of course always ends on a cliff-hanger at the end of each act, and there's even eyecatches between the acts with a Stereotypical Suspense tune. Following the story structure of the first game, we follow Isshin and Asuka on three adventures, one involving murder case happening inside the manor of a pottery master in Kanazawa, the second adventure set in cold Hakodate where a woman is found dead in the hot spring of an inn, and finally, a case involving Asuka's own past, set in a mansion hidden in a deep, snowy valley. It's up to Isshin, and the player to solve these cases!


Not as if this game is challenging or anything though. It is definitely not as easy and simple as DS Yamamura Misa, but you can easily tell this game is made to also appeal to people who have never played a game, as the Nintendo DS was one of those handhelds that really reached beyond the traditional gamer audience. Not a bad thing per se, but there's a lot of competition on the DS when it comes to mystery adventure games. Unsurprisingly, DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense 2 plays exactly the same as the first game, following standard adventure format: you visit various locations as you interview people and gather evidence or testimony. The evidence and testimony you have gathered allow you to answer the quiz-like questions asked in dialogue confrontations with allies or suspects, which will further develop the plot and eventually allow you to solve the case. There's no penalty for getting questions wrong (you are just asked again), so it's all very beginner-friendly. It is not as linear as DS Yamamura Misa Suspense though, fortunately, and therefore feels less rigid. 

As mystery stories, the three episodes included in this game aren't really complex and a lot of the "twists" are telegraphed a bit obviously, but I have to admit that usually, each episode seemed to have a plot point directly related to the mystery which I genuinely found clever and on the whole, the stories themselves are also told better than those in DS Yamamura Misa, so this game never actually felt boring, as it managed to keep a good pace throughout, even if the stories it told were simple. The opening story, Broken Bonds, has Isshin and Asuka travel to Kanazawa, as they have been hired by a master in pottery baking to investigate a series of thefts of expensive pots from their storage. When Isshin arrives there however, he discovers the body of the number one disciple, and the future master of the school as the victim was supposed to marry the current master's daughter. However, while Isshin is busy looking for help, the body disappears from the room Isshin found it. The last act is very clumsily written to show you who the real murderer is as it was basically putting them beneath a spotlight, but I like the whole deal about why the body was spirited away after Isshin had already found it. The second episode, Frozen Feelings, has Isshin winning tickets to Hakodate, so he visits there with Asuka. They meet a woman who is holding an ice sculpture exhibition in an hot spring inn, so they visit there, but as they prepare to enter the hot springs, Asuka discovers a dead woman in the women's bath. This story feels very much like a Nishimura story, as it involves Isshin and Asuka checking out the alibis of the suspects and making use of various means of transport to which of the suspects could've made it to the crime scene despiet a seemingly perfect alibi (being on the other side of the city). I think that on the whole, this was the best episode of the game, feeling exactly like what you'd expect of a game with Nishimura Kyoutarou's name on the cover, even if again the final act feels a bit cheap as it kinda takes the easiest way to eliminate viable suspects by pointing very very obviously to the real culprit. The final episode, Never-Ending Requiem, is a story that hinges on a certain thing that could work in some specific fictional worlds, but not really here, and it just falls flat because of that. Atmosphere-wise, it's pretty good, with Asuka disappearing while she was investigating a case on her own, and Isshin tracing her last known whereabouts to a manor hidden deep in a snowy valley and then everyone getting snowed in, but it tries to do something fairly unrealistic, even though the world depicted in these games is actually fairly realistic. 

Like the first game, DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense 2 also has an extra mode called West Village II ("Nishimura" meaning "West Village"), which this time contains 100 mystery-themed quizzes and puzzles. Some are pure puzzles, but others are short mystery stories where you have to pick a specific sentence to show where the culprit slipped up or where the contradiction is, and they are acually quite fun to kill some time with. The overall game is pretty short, and you probably won't even have 10 hours on the clock by the time you see the credits, but this extra mode will add a few more hours to that.

DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense 2 Shin Tantei Series - Kanazawa, Hakodate, Gokkan no Keikoku: Fukushuu no Kage is plainly put, very much like the first game. It's a game that has decent enough production values, but it is also clearly a game made for people who don't usually play mystery adventure games, so while some of the episodes feature some small clever ideas, on the whole it's all just very simple. and you're more there to enjoy the ride rather than really being challenged mentally to solve a mysterious crime. I played the game between other games though, and found the relaxing pace perfect as such, but this is by no means a high point in the list of Nintendo DS mystery adventure games. It's certainly the best of the three Tecmo DS Suspense adventures though, and if you're like me and just enjoy playing mystery ADVs on the DS, DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense 2 is made well enough to provide for a few hours of entertainment.

Original Japanese title(s): 『DS西村京太郎サスペンス2 新探偵シリーズ「金沢・函館・極寒の峡谷 復讐の影」』

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

A Case of Immunity

" I hate guns. Besides, I'm a bad shot"
"Troubled Waters"

At least these covers are still really neat...

Professional photographer/amateur detective Minami Mikikaze has been playing tour guide for the American forensic expert Elizabeth Kittridge in Japan since Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo ("An Egyptian Cross Mystery"). When he was younger, Mikikaze suffered heavily from a weak heart, but it was Beth's father who was the surgeon who successfully conducted Mikikaze's heart transplantant a few years back, and they have kept in touch ever since, which is also how he became friends with Beth. Beth is visiting Japan for an international symposium and workshop program on criminal forensic investigation, and Mikikaze has been tagging along as her guide and personal photographer, though she can speak (a kind of) Japanese herself. The two of them also happen to get involved in all kinds of mysterious crimes during Beth's visit to Japan, from shorter adventures to a novel-length adventure in Aru Girishia Hitsugi no Nazo ("A Greek Coffin Mystery", 2021). And after a short story collection and a novel, we of course get the novella form: Tsukatou Hajime's Aru America-Juu no Nazo ("An American Gun Mystery", 2022) is once again titled after an Ellery Queen novel and is also the title of the first novella included in this book. Beth has been accompanying Mikikaze, who has planned to this trip to take some nature pictures, but after taking a fantastic photograph of a sunset and making their way back through the forest back to civilized world, the two of them are stopped by a police detective, who is obvious looking for something or someone. When he learns that Beth is an American coroner, he makes some calls and Mikikaze and Beth are asked to come along, and they are brought to the American consulate nearby. They had two events today at the consulate, a cultural exchange fair during the afternoon, and an evening masquerade party to celebrate the birthdays of the wife and daughter of the consul, as their birthdays are within days of each other. However, around sunset security noticed a suspicious figure in the large garden, and when they went to look for him, they found him shot to death, the pistol at his side. The victim was Ethan Matthews, the ex-husband of Vanessa Lang, one of the security officers in charge of the consulate. His obsessive behaviour caused their divorce, but that only changed him in a genuine stalker, which is why he might have been hanging around the consulate, but how did he end up with a bullet in his body? While everyone hopes it was just an accident and that he shot himself with his own pistol, they can't be sure, and as Beth, as an American, happens to be around, they ask her to examine the body and determine the cause of death, because obviously, they want to clear up this murder on consulate grounds as quickly as possible and don't want to wait for FBI agents to arrive from elsewhere in Japan or the US. However, while they are handling this case, and some people are waiting in one of the lounges, another murder occurs, with a man being shot in the head through the window of the lounge. What is going here?

What is going on here? As you may guess from the titles of these books, Tsukatou is greatly inspired by Ellery Queen in this series. These stories are not directly based on the Ellery Queen novels though, but only built on themes or just the title: in the title story's case, two people being shot, and of course this happening at an US consulate, and the victims being Americans. The stories were also inspired by Queen in terms of plotting, featuring chains of reasonings based on physical evidence, focusing on the state and circumstances of how something is found and the logical implications of those lines of thoughts. The state of an object tells something about when the culprit did something, with what purpose they did something, which knowledge they had that allowed them to do something, etc., and all of that serving as clues to identify the killer: the bread and butter of Queen-style plotting. Aru America-Juu no Nazo however does not feel like such a story: it is a mish-mash of seperate ideas that could've found a better place in different stories, but together they... don't add up to very much: there's little synergy between the various events and mystery-to-solution moments, and in the end, this rather long novella just feels... chaotic. 

The story starts promising though, with a consulate party being the "setting" of the story, but it doesn't take long for pretty much all the guests to be sent away, leaving a rather small cast of characters (suspects), and it's here when the chaos begins. What starts as an investigation into the death of Ethan Matthews soon becomes a muddy series of events that just happen, but don't really feel connected in terms of story, with for example Beth disappearing for a moment, followed by a second murder, and the appearance of a surprise character. You have all these events happening, but if you break it down, you see you just happen to have seperate things occuring simultaneously... simply to make the story seem more complex, and not because the incidents are connected to each other, even at the lowest level. This is of course the easiest, and least impressive way to present a "mysterious" story, just by stuffing unrelated events together in one box. Some ideas used in this story are okay or even memorable, but they just don't really work together, and there are certainly a few ideas here that really don't work in this story. The second murder for example, where a man sitting in a chair on the second floor of the consulate is shot from outside, has a solution that really doesn't fit this story or the world of Mikikaze and Beth, while I certainly would've swallowed it easier if it had been used in another story. One aspect of Beth's disappearance on the other hand is brilliant, and does work perfectly in this series, but ultimately, the story doesn't work as one cohesive mystery story. There are few elements that work specifically because they are in this story, while I do recognize there are ideas that would've worked better in a different story, or at least not together.

Oh, and then there's the way this story addresses a certain real-world issue with a fictional substitute. It was kinda daring to do this so close to the real-world counterpart, especially with the fictional twist it uses and while I think the core idea/thought behind this was pretty neatly used, this too feels out of place in this story, in this series.

The second novella, Aru Siam Futago no Nazo ("An Siamese Twin Mystery") is much shorter than the title story, but also much better. Beth and Mikikaze are visiting Kunou Junjirou, a professor researching quantum entanglement within twins. At his lake-side laboratory are more people, like his assistant, his (second) wife and James, his stepson from a previous marriage. James and Alistair used to be Siamese twins, but the two brothers were seperated some years ago, and now Alistair is living his own life as an illustrator in Australia. Present as test subjects are also the Zenba twins. The laboratory is located near a lake in the mountains and they are having a bit trouble with their equipment due to a solar flare, but their problems were not as drastic as those of the people in a private plane flying above them. One crashed plane later, a fire has started in the forest on the opposite side of a gorge. This is also where the main road is, so the people in the lab can't escape the fire, though fortunately, or unfortunately, the crash also took down the one bridge connecting the lake-side to the main road, meaning the fire won't reach their side for quite some while. Still, it is decides to already move the women to the island in the middle of the lake, as the professor has another house there. The party is split in two, with four remaining in the laboratory for the night to watch the fire, while the other four use the motorboat to cross to the island and sleep there for the night. During the night however, the party on the mainland discovers one of them was murdered, and when they phone to the island, Beth tells Mikikaze the professor was also killed in the motorboat when he made a second trip back-and-forth that night. Why were two murders committed during the mountain fire?

Okay, the mountain fire and closed circle situation are of course a homage to The Siamese Twin Mystery, and the presence of one half of a Siamese twin and another pair of twins is not a coincidence either, of course! Where the first story felt chaotic,  Aru Siam Futago no Nazo makes much better use of its page count, and brings a story that feels much more in line with the rest of this series, focusing on Queen-like deductions. We get plenty of deductions revolving around how the two crime scenes on the mainland and the island looked like and what the murderer must have done there, or chose to not do, and that ultimately all adds together to lead to a solution that feels quite satisfying, especially compared to the first story. The book actually cleverly invokes a different early Queen novel too, but that's for the reader to find out more about. But what this story does much better than the first one is the connection between the various events. Yes, at first this story too sounds a bit chaotic with two different murders occuring on the mainland and the island in the same night, and the circumstances are quite different too (one of the twins who was supposed to stand guard on the laboratory roof was found stabbed on the mainland, the professor was killed in the motorboat, and the other twin was found knocked unconscious near the boat), but Mikikaze manages to connect these two incidents not just by guessing they must be related due to them occuring in the same night, but using logic to show how these two incidents must be connected, and how they ultimately point to the identity of the murderer. I really like the hints that point directly to the murderer too, and the motive is quite memorable.

But would I recommend Aru America-Juu no Nazo? I'm really not a fan of the first story and consider the weakest of the series until this point, though I'd say the second novella is definitely worth a read. If you have already read the previous two books, I'd say read this one too, but I wouldn't recommend this as your first adventure with Mikikaze and Beth, as the gap between the highs and lows are too big. I think overall, the first collection is still the best, so start there and see if these stories interest you. 

Original Japanese title(s): 柄刀一『或るアメリカ銃の謎』:「或るアメリカ銃の謎」/「或るシャム双子の謎

Saturday, December 10, 2022

A Story to Die For

" Well, I can certainly testify for your excellence as an editor. And as you know, I'm not that easy to please."
"Murder, She Wrote: The Classic Murder"

Yes, I have been playing relatively many DS games this year...

Earlier this year, I wrote a little about the Izumi Jiken File ("Izumi Case Files") series developed by G-Mode. It is one of the few mystery adventure game series which was originally created for Japanese feature phones. Some might not know about feature phones, but before smartphones took over the world, there was an interesting market for Japan-exclusive 3G feature phones (garakei) in the early 2000s, with many games developed exclusively for feature phones. These games could only be purchased and downloaded on a feature phone via the network provider, and only worked on those models. Smart phones eventually replaced these feature phones and these old feature phones and their services aren't supported anymore, but feature phones were the standard for over a decade in Japan and they provided a unique gaming environment at the time. Due to the shift to smart phones, a lot of feature phone games have become lost media. G-Mode has been re-releasing a lot of old feature phone games on Switch and Steam for the last two, three years however, which is how I got to play the first Izumi Jiken File, which was a popular detective game series back in the early days of feature phone games. How popular, you ask? Well, the series had been downloaded over a million times, so that means quite a lot of people have played these games!

Otona no DS Mystery - Izumi Jiken File ("A DS Mystery for Adults - The Izumi Case Files" 2007) was one of those rare times a feature phone IP made the jump from a feature phone to a dedicated gaming handheld system, which probably is also a sign of how popular the series was. This release on the Nintendo DS consists of six different scenarios/episodes, three of them being ports of the first three entries released previously on feature phones, and three episodes being completely original and exclusive to the DS. Overall though, all these episodes take on the same format and basic story: you play as as Izumi, editor of the famous and immensely popular mystery novelist Kyougetsu Masamune, who has one little problem. Kyougetsu gets distracted extremely easily and this always happens right before a deadline. Kyougetsu usually likes to stay somewhere else as he gets through crunch time,but for some reason he always happens to run into mysterious cases of death and he always gets very distracted by that, for he always suspects it is murder, but due to the deadlines, he can't concentrate on either the murder or his manuscript. And that always leads to our heroine Izumi being forced to investigate the case herself, interview all witnesses and suspects again to come up with her own conclusion, which allows her to compare notes with Kyougetsu and of course ultimately conforming Kyougetsu's suspicions of murder, all just so he will finally finish his book. Most of the time, the episodes are set in a tourist destination outside Tokyo, like Kamakura, Tottori and Hokkaido, allowing the games to show off a little bit of the locale.

As a mystery game, Otona no DS Mystery - Izumi Jiken File is extremely short and limited in scope, but while it is hardly a high point in the mystery library of the Nintendo DS, it is strangely enough also one of the mystery adventure games on the system that is the most truly puzzle-oriented and which really challenge you to carefully look at all the puzzle pieces to figure out who did it. But because the format originates from feature phones, the scope is very small. And that is actually one of the reasons why the series was so popular on feature phones in the first place. For especially in the early days of feature phones, phones didn't have that much free storage space, and more importantly, data costs were of course far more expensive than they are now. Because of that, story-based games for feature phones (like the popular Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney ports) often had to be split up in parts: you had to download a part, play that, and then delete the previous part to download the next part again. The Izumi Case Files games on the other hand were especially designed as light-weight games: each episode was just one single download app, and presented the player with a complete mystery story. That does mean each episode can be played through in just about 30-45 minutes the first time through, but that was close to the norm back then on the system. 

The three feature phone original episodes, and two of the three DS-original episodes follow the exact same three- act format, with limited gameplay, but fairly focused on the puzzle. Each of these episodes has Izumi look into a suspicious death, ranging from a man found one morning frozen on a bench on the "lowest mountain in Japan" to a hobby fisherman who have fallen drunk into the sea near Kamakura. In the first act, you just get the short introduction with Izumi looking for Kyougetsu and him telling about whatever case is bothering him now. In the second act, Izumi examines the scene of the incident and afterwards, she interviews all the suspects and witnesses The witness tells you about what they saw and did before the discovery of the murder and may provide you with one extra bit of information about one of the other suspects. Rinse and repeat for about five suspects, and at that point, you are basically done. For in the final act, you can directly go to Kyougetsu, who will ask you a few questions about the murder to test how much you have learned. Kyougetsu however doesn't really say whether you are answering his questions correctly or not until you have answered all his questions, meaning blindly guessing won't get you far (as you aren't told how many/which of the 5-8 questions asked you got right).

Interestingly however, these games only ask you about your conclusions, but there is no actual gameplay mechanic to represent the puzzle/solving element of the mystery. You are only given the testimonies of the suspects in the second cat and you then have to piece the thing together yourself either in your mind or on paper before you choose to continue with the third act. The puzzle format is a very focused whodunnit puzzle and at times can be tricky for something that is actually very simple in design: basically, you are always trying to make a timeline based on the testimonies of the suspects, checking who saw who at what time, and of course cross-referencing them with the other testimonies. If done right, you'll eventually realize one character must be lying, or at least intentionally withholding information, and that usually leads to the truth. Sometimes, you have also have to figure parts of the howdunnit, and in rare cases, the whodunnit aspect will only allow you to eliminate a few suspects initially, and the case has one extra act to give you that one extra clue that allows you to identify the culprit. To be honest, the really tricky part of the whodunnit puzzle is exactly there's no in-game mechanic to easily compare testimonies, which kinda forces you to put things down on paper or go through the testimonies one by one carefully, for ultimately it's just a "check whose testimony creates a contradiction" puzzle, but on the other hand, you could say this is a fairly pure whodunnit puzzle, of the likes you don't actually often see in mystery adventure games. It fits the simple hardware capabilities of the original feature phones of course, and I did enjoy playing with the testimony puzzle pieces, but every episode basically plays and feels the same because the story in each episode is pretty 'rigid', with next to no real story developments throughout and all witnesses only having one single story to tell you.

One interesting, but flawed addition this DS collection has over the original feature phone entries however is the episode "Wedge Sole", which plays completely differently from the other episodes and is probably even longer than all other five episodes combined on a first playthrough. It's a kind of open world mystery game with ambitious ideas, but not very rewarding execution. This episode is set in Tokyo, on the last day of the year and continues into the first day of the new year. You can play as two characters: Izumi and Masumi, a college student who is a recurring character in the series, and are able to "zap" between the two protagonists at will. The episode also introduces the concepts of "time" and "money": moving from one location to another takes time, and using public transport, or purchasing objects or spending time in a cafe costs money. Once you start the episode, you are basically free to go wherever you want, and you can find various "quests" across Tokyo. For example, if you can find Kyougetsu as Izumi, he will tell you about a mysterious death that has been on his mind, and then you can travel across Tokyo to find the suspects and hear their testimonies and finally report back to Kyougetsu. But you have to locate the suspects yourself, and some persons may only appear at a location at a certain time, so you have to be careful about the time, and how much money you spend on the train. But in the meantime, you might also stumble upon other quests too, like Izumi running into an old friend who seems to have something on her mind, or Masumi getting involved in a kidnapping. 

I like the idea of having a multi-quest mystery adventure game, and the time/money system reminds me of Tantei Shinshi DASH!, which was actually also a very flawed game even if the concept could be fun. But Wedge Sole just has too many minor inconveniences. For example, while you can take on several quests simultaneously, you can only finish one, as the episode ends whenever a quest is ended, so that kinda defeats the idea of being able to take on multiple quests. A quest usually only adds about 10~20 percent to the overall completion percentage, meaning you have to play this episode quite a few times. The map is also extremely cumbersome to navigate: it basically only shows you the Yamanote train line, but sometimes you actually have to transfer to the subway to arrive at a certain location, but that is not indicated on the map, so you just must happen to know what in real-life, you're supposed to change from the train to the subway at a certain station. That of course doesn't really work well with the limited money/time, because you already have to be careful about your actions and then give you a map that isn't really helpful. Ultimately, I didn't really like Wedge Sole even if it was an ambitious experiment to do something else with this series.

The games feature photo-realistic backgrounds and the characters are designed in a realistic manner too by the way, but there's basically no animation, and the games all look incredibly plain. While the three episodes that originate from the feature phones are now all available on the Nintendo Switch too, I have to say they play a lot better on the DS due to this DS version being a proper port. The Nintendo Switch versions are, intentionaly, faithful ports of the feature phone versions, which mean their screen sizes are also as they were on feature phones. This results in very narrow screen on your television or Switch screen, with gigantic black bars on both sides. This DS game however has the graphics properly adjusted for the DS screen, so you can read everything perfectly fine. 

Otona no DS Mystery - Izumi Jiken File is by no means a must-have if you're into mystery adventure games on the Nintendo DS, and yet, it was a game I wanted to play for a long time because it was based on a feature phone mystery franchise, and that fact alone made me really curious. While the main series is now being ported to the Switch, I am still glad I decided to pick this release up due to the DS-exclusive cases, and having found a new copy that was actually pretty cheap. While I think the focus on a whodunnit puzzle is pretty interesting and something you don't often see in mystery video games, there's no denying these games are just very limited in scope, so it's hard to recommend them to people unless you're really into DS adventures. Still, the Switch ports of the feature phone games are on sale every few months, so it might be worth looking those up if you're into this very short, but interesting period in the history of Japanese mystery media.

Original Japanese title(s): 『大人のDSミステリー  いづみ事件ファイル』

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Flight Into Danger

"Mirror, mirror on the wall"
"Snow White"

Oh, better point to the Honkaku Discord server again, in case you missed it because there have been a few more updates than usual these two weeks. And also: the cover art is gorgeous today!

Victoria is the youngest member of the Council of Eight Saints, the highest entity within the Church of Auresta. With believers all across the world, the Church is a powerful organization, making its Council a rather influential body. Which is why even Victoria herself wonders why she was made the eight Saint: unlike her fellow Saints, she can not even use magic and thus her record of helping their followers is rather limited. Her mentor and previous president of the Council however had powers of clairvoyance, and foresaw a future where Victoria would prove to be very important to the Church. Her mentor also saw great potential in the unique powers Victoria does possess: as the "Seer" she can actually *see* magic, capable of seeing magic flow whenever it is used, something not even magicians can do unless extremely powerful magic is being cast. And she can see ghosts of the deceased, though she can not summon them nor is communicating with ghosts easy. Yet, some in the Council have their doubts about Victoria's powers, and that's especially so with the new president of the Council, who was a rival of the previous one. She decides to attack the legacy of her predecessor by attacking Victoria: she accusses Victoria being a fraud and unfit of being one of the eight Saints, claiming she even deceived the previous president. Victoria is detained and has to await a trial, where it's all but certain she will be stripped of her title as Saint and be expelled by the Church. 

While awaiting her exile however, Victoria is suddenly visited in heer cell by the knight Adolas, who desperately needs the abilities of the Seer. Adolas is the nephew of the ruler of one smaller eastern countries within the Edelheid Empire and serves his uncle as a knight. When his mother was young, she serves as a courtlady-in-training at the Imperial Palace, but she got pregnant by a merchant and eloped. The merchant died, and eventually Adolas and his mother were taken in by his uncle, who by that time had become ruler of the country. Adolas' mother recently passed away, but among her possessions a shocking letter was found. It was written by the former Princess Klema, one of the many wives of the current emperor of Edelheid. The letter seems to suggest very strongly that Adolas is in fact Prince Emilio, son of Klema and believed to have died soon after birth. According to Edelheid law, the first ten born children of the emperor have equal succession right to the throne. Prince Emilio was the tenth child of the emperor, but after his young demise, Prince Fernando, the eleventh child who was born only a few days after Emilio, became the last potential successor to the throne. The letter suggests that Klema gave Emilio away because she feared for his life, as she knew Fernando's grandfater, the great statesman Lord Arnoth, would do anythingi to make his grandson the (future) emperor. Adolas' uncle, convinced his nephew is indeed Prince Emilio, plans to have all the eastern countries form a front to back up Emilio's bid to the throne, as the Emperor has been ill lately. Adolas himself however can not believe he is Prince Emilio and in fact, ever since the story came out there have been attempts on his life by agents he believes to be affiliated with Prince Fernando, but because both his mother and Princess Klema are already dead, he hopes Victoria can speak with their ghosts and clear everything up. Victoria agrees to travel with Adolas to the Edelheid Empire and see what she can do to help, but during their adventures which involves being chased by both the Church and assassins, they also get involved with a murder on the one person who could prove whether Adolas is truly Prince Emilio or not, and it is up to the Seer Victoria to find the truth in Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari ("The Insights of Saint Victoria - Tales of the Church of Auresta", 2021)

This story was originally published by its author Haruma Tatsuki via the website Kakuyomu, where members can upload their fiction and have other people read and rate them. The particularly outstanding ones have a chance to be published by publisher Kadokawa, who is behind the site. Earlier I reviewed Robber Rabbit Gets Dead (2016), which was also first published on Kakuyomu, while I have also discussed Isekai no Meitantei and Meitantei Sakurano Mimiko no Saigo, works which were first published on a similar site called Shousetsuka ni Narou. I don't make it a rule to check out these works by the way, but I can appreciate how you have these "grassroots" fiction breeding grounds that get a chance to be published by a big publisher which (especially in Japan) will get you a lot more exposure.

Anyway, a mystery novel with a fantasy setting: that's not the kind of mystery story we're very surrpised to see discussed here anymore, right? That said, I think this book leans a bit more towards fantasy than mystery compared to similar works I have discussed, like Isekai no Meitantei and the Alchemist series, though that is also partially due the kind of mystery these different series want to tell. For Isekai no Meitantei and the Alchemist series had really straightforward mysteries in the form of locked room mysteries, which were given some new allure by implementing magic or alchemy in the narrative: these supernatural elements were of course given their own set of consistent rules of what could work or not, and the result were unique mysteries that could only work because of the supernatural element. That is also true for Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari, but magic here is less strictly defined, and most importantly, the main mystery isn't built around the fantasy elements of the story, even if it is important to the actual mystery solving.

To be honest, I was getting worried about the book around the half-way point, as while we had heard about the main mystery of Adolas wondering about his true heritage, I couldn't really see why this had to be fantasy novel: couldn't this just be a "normal" medieval mystery novel if Victoria wasn't able to summon specific ghosts anyway? The first half of the story was also more focused on the adventure, starting with Adolas helping Victoria break out of prison and fighting off attempts on his own life by people who'd be very inconvenienced if Adolas was in fact Prince Emilio. I had to think back to Kadono Kouhei's Satsuryuu Jiken - A Case of Dragonslayer ("The Case of The Dracocide - A Case of Dragonslayer"), which also felt more focused on the adventure for the most part. So I didn't really understand why the concept of magic existed in this mystery story, as you'd only sometimes see magician-monks attempt to cast magic on the heroes or something like that. This feeling was strengthened by the nature of the core mystery: it was about the heritage of Adolas, a mystery that isn't inherently "magical" or anything like that. With a locked room mystery, at least you can say "this locked room is only possible if Very Specific Magic Spell is used" or even "this locked room is impossible, despite the existence of These Magic Spells That Work According to These Rules", but here the mystery was more like "Did Princess Klema give away her baby two decades ago or not?"  

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by the mystery plot at the end of the book, and that was perhaps exactly because it approached the idea of a fantasy-mystery novel a bit differently. What is interesting here is that the fantasy setting (magic) is not used to directly explain the mystery, but magic is treated as a "given" in this world: some things can be done with magic in this world, and some things not. Minor incidents occur throughout the story, involving actions by characters that don't seem to make complete sense at first. Victoria's explanation of the events involves people taking actions, or not taking actions because certain kinds of magic exist in the world which people know about, which in turn influence their actions. For example: in this world I know using a pistol will make quite some noise, so that knowledge will influence whether I will pick it as a murder weapon or not. In Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari, the mystery plot revolves around people doing things that seem to be counterintuitive or just odd, but that upon second thought make sense because magic exists in this world, and that knowledge forces them to act in certain ways. In a way, it made me think of the Toujou Genya series, where the strong belief in folklore governs the actions of certain characters. In the world of Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu however, magic is a fact of life of course, even if not everybody is able to practice it. Anyway, the mystery is a bit chaotic at first, because it involves the actions of different characters at different points in the story, some in the present and some in the past when Prince Emilio was born, and part of the charm of this book is how Victoria manages to tie all kinds of seemingly unrelated events back to the  main mystery of Adolas' heritage, and to the murder of the one person who could prove who Adolas really is. I think that plot-technically, Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu is actually closer in spirit to the Ellery Queen-like novels I like so much, even if they are quite different: I wouldn't immediately recommend this book to Queen lovers, but the focus on the motive behind people taking certain actions, and how they all relate to each other, is definitely something fans of Queenian deductions can recognize here.

As for the book's merits as a fantasy novel: it is pretty much what you'd expect of a light novel fantasy novel. Easy writing, often a comedic tone with characters bickering with each other. No surprises there.

On the whole, Seijo Victoria no Kousatsu - Auresta Shinden Monogatari felt like a bit different from other fantasy-mystery novels I have recently read. The focus is (seemingly) more on the adventure, but there is a properly clewed mystery plot to be found here, and while it uses the concept of magic not as directly as you might expect for its plot, I would say the execution here is more than passable, and despite my worries earlier during reading, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the end product in terms of mystery. As I am writing this, there's already one sequel out, so I might pick that one up in the future too.

Original Japanese title(s): 春間タツキ『聖女ヴィクトリアの考察 アウレスタ神殿物語』

Sunday, December 4, 2022

番外編:Death Within The Evil Eye Released

Okay, I know I make the same mistake every single time, but I really should start thinking more about what to write in my announcements of upcoming announcements, for there's always little left to write in the actual release announcement, because I already wrote most of what I should write in the announcement of the announcement only a few weeks ago...

In 2021 Locked Room International published my English translation of IMAMURA Masahiro's 2017 novel Death Among the Undead, which was a huge hit in its home country, leading to film and manga adaptations. And yes, I am happy to announce that I got to work on its 2019 sequel too. And with the product page up on the site of Locked Room International, it appears my English translation has now been published (or will be made available the coming days). Death Within The Evil Eye has the members of the Mystery Society travel all the way to to a remote village deep in the mountains as they trace a lead connected to the events of the first book. They and a group of other people who happen to be stranded there end up visiting an old woman of whom it is said she possesses powers of clairvoyance, capable of telling the future. But when the bridge collapses back to the main roads collapse, everyone ends up trapped on one side of a river and it's then they learn that being foretold the future is certainly not always a good thing, for what if the future that awaits you is certain death?

At least among the commentators of this blog, Death Among the Undead had been by far the title most people wanted to see a translation of, so I was really glad I was able to work on the translation and get an English version published last year. I personally liked its sequel Death Within The Evil Eye a lot too, so while I wasn't expecting it, I did hope I'd get to work on that book too in the future, but even I hadn't expected to work on Death Within The Evil Eye so soon! Like the previous book, it combines a classic closed circle situation mystery plot with a very non-classic, supernatural theme, resulting in a very unique tale of mystery, but it's a fair-play puzzle plot mystery that challenges the reader to solve the mystery themselves.

My review of the Japanese version can be found here, but you could also wait until you've read the book yourself to compare notes later. Publishers Weekly also has had their early review up already.

Anyway, I hope people enjoy Death Within The Evil Eye! The holiday season is coming up, so if you're still wondering about suitable gifts, or just want something for yourself to read in the darker months, why not go for Death Within The Evil Eye? And by the time you're done, perhaps consider my other upcoming translation in February...

Friday, December 2, 2022

Programmed for Murder

"There's no code I can't crack!"
"Project Hacker: Awakening"

A short post this time because today's topic isn't really a mystery game, but as there aren't really many write-ups on this game in general...

Amatsubo Satoru is a gifted hacker who in his free time enjoys breaking into computer systems, though all he does is "innocently" weaving his way through security systems and peeking inside, and usually he leaves right away without causing any damage. One day, he returns to his apartment to find it completely ransacked by two threatening men who are demanding a CD-R. Satoru manages to escape to Rina, his 'always-act-before-thinking' childhood friend and after some conversation, Satoru realizes the men were actually looking for Rina: she had picked up a CD-R by accident, and the men had accidentally assumed Rina was living with Satoru. Checking the disc, Satoru realizes it holds a special virus program targeting mobile phone models from one company, and this of course means they're now involved in a big corporate scandal. Satoru decides to use his hacking skills to fight back against the men who are after them, but this only puts the two of them in danger again, until they are recruited by the Japanese division of GIS, an international counter-cybercrime organization. As part of GIS, Satoru is put on several cybercrime cases, often involving the mysterious cracker Blitz, and these cases demand quick thinking and even faster hacking in the Nintendo DS game Project Hacker: Kakusei ("Project Hacker: Awakening" 2006).

Project Hacker: Kakusei is a mystery-themed adventure game on the Nintendo DS which people nowadays probably only know from a Spirit reference in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The game was only released in Japan, though it was apparently planned for at least a North-American release, but for non-specified reasons these plans fell through. The game is rather interesting in terms of publication, because while Project Hacker was developed by Red Entertainment (of Sakura Taisen fame), it is published and co-owned by Nintendo itself. Nintendo doesn't have that many mystery adventure games in its catalog, and let alone one where you play a hacker! While the game does seem to set things up for further adventures, the game never saw a sequel and is basically a mostly ignored IP.

As mentioned in the opening line, for the most part I wouldn't say Project Hacker really should be discussed here. It is, for most of the time, a fairly conventional command-based adventure game, where you can travel to various locations to talk with people, from whom you will learn new information which will allow you visit other locations or confront other people with your new knowledge. No surprises here. The episodes in this game always start with Satoru and Rina being assigned a mission to investigate a certain cybercrime, like a company's money being transferred to a charity, or having them investigate rumors of an IT problem having led to deaths in a hospital, the plots themselves are fairly straightforward and don't really read like a mystery stories, more like thrillers or tales of suspense, though with a fairly light-hearted tone, with Satoru and Rina always arguing and fairly out-of-there characters like a high school student prodigy programmer who also happens to be incredibly into aliens. But don't expect brilliant cybercrime puzzle plot tricks from this game or having to connect clues together to figure whodunnit or howdunnit.

One very memorable aspect of the game however is its (fake) web functions. Within Project Hacker, you can use computers or your special handheld device to access the web, or at least, the web as it looked like in Japan around 2006. When you connect (in-game) to the web, you're brought to a homepage like you had in the earlier days of consumer internet: a "curated" list of links to all kinds of websites all categorized. You can explore all these links, which can range from corporate websites to homepages of hobby clubs or bands, or personal blogs. The pages are of course all fake and made for this game, but they do feel a lot like the mobile feature phone sites you had in Japan around this time and playing this game now in 2022 does feel a bit like you just opened a time capsule. The layout of these pages, the visitor counters, the type of content you'd find there... it's all really neat to see now, and while it feels like a time capsule now, upon the 2006 release, these websites must have felt pretty "real" too. I think there are like easily over 100 different pages about a variety of topics to be found here, which is quite impressive considering each site does feel distinct. This faux web environment of course plays a role in the game: often you have to do some background research using this internet. One of the earliest examples is simply finding the address of a certain company, so you look up their website and check out their directions sub-page, but later cases have you explore these sites for more subtler hints and sometimes it takes a while for you to find the specific page you're looking for, and this is quite fun. The lower screen on the DS can be used to take notes by the way.

But getting back to me discussing this game here despite me saying it doesn't really belong here. The main reason for that is the hacking gameplay in this game, which is pretty interesting, and definitely a fun mystery mechanic At least, part of the hacking is. Hacking in this game can mean two things, you see. The boring hacking in this game is just a series of minigames that test your hand-eye coordination. Breaking through a firewall is sometimes literally breaking a wall in a "cyber-environment" using well-timed taps on the touch screen, making a conection is often like a racing game, where you rush down a "cyber-corridor" while avoiding obstacles, and sometimes you're just playing a shoot' em up to shoot down viruses. These minigames can be pretty tricky near the end of the game actually, giving you little room (time) for failure, so for those not used to action games, this part of an otherwise slow adventure game might be difficult. But these minigames are the not fun part of the hacking in Project Hacker

So what is the fun part of hacking? That is when you have do social engineering to find out passwords for computer systems! Every once in a while during his investigations, Satoru will find himself confronted with a locked computer or door which requires a password. How do you learn this password? By looking around, both in the actual room you're in, but also on the web! Of course it's never as easy as finding a note with the actual password inside a drawer. But if the owner of the computer for example has posters of the series Captain Pepper hanging on the walls, why not check out the homepage of Captain Pepper and see what words could be used as a password? Could it be the release date, or the name of the creator? Is it perhaps that character they have multiple figurines off in the room? While the first passwords you have to guess are very straightforward, other passwords have you explore more possibilities, for example when a person has multiple hobbies, and because you don't know the length of each password (though always alphabet and/or numbers), it often takes several tries to find the exact one, but it is still very fun, because you really have to read through the (fictional) sites and determine what could be a password. Later passwords have you look at multiple sites about very different topics, but which may have a surprising link with a common term for example. But it is during these moments that the game feels the most like a mystery game, where you look at hints in the room, and search for other clues on the web, and have to guess what the password could be. Because the sites are all fairly well-designed as "proper" sites, these passwords are hidden quite organically in the text and there are of course many 'dummy' pages which I don't think are ever used in the game, but put in there to flesh out the fictional web environment and act as red herrings. It's a shame this mechanic only comes up like two or three times per episode, because it's by far the most fun part of the game.

I assume more people have played Flower, Sun and Rain given the Nintendo DS version was actually released in the West, but the main mechanic there is quite similar to the hacking mechanic here. In Flower, Sun and Rain basically everything required a numerical code, which you could find based on dialogue hints and hints and clues found in a tourist guidebook to Lospass, the island that serves as a setting for the game. The guidebook is acquired at the start of the game and you can look through every single page right from the start and it does actually read like a travel guide, but as the story develops, you'll find all kinds of clues necessary to solve the numerical codes hidden within these pages, so in that aspect, it's very similar to the websites found in Project Hacker, being an "universal" clue you use from start to finish, with the guidebook/websites only turning into proper clues once you have the correct context and know what you're looking for.

Project Hacker looks pretty good for a DS adventure game by the way with interestingly animated characters and really well-designed backgrounds. The characters have a 90s anime vibe with their broad shoulders and fashion, though the music is a bit... limited. Like, the main overworld/investigation theme isn't really exciting or fun to listen to, but you'll only be hearing that for 80% of the game...

Again, Project Hacker: Kakusei isn't really a mystery game, so don't expect too much of it in that regard, but it's overall a competently created crime adventure game, and while I feel really indifferent about the hacking minigames, the social engineering parts of this game are really the highlight of the game and that coupled with an interesting cast and a game that overall has good production values, it's certainly worth a playthrough if you're looking for adventure games on the Nintendo DS, especially as even a brand-new, unopened copy doesn't cost much now.

Original Japanese title(s): 『プロジェクトハッカー:覚醒』