Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Murder Digs Deep

「事件は会議室で起きてるんじゃない! 現場で起きてるんだ!! 」
『踊る大捜査線 THE MOVIE』
 
"The case isn't happening in your conference rooms!! It's happening down here, at the scene!!"
"Bayside Shakedown"

The Nintendo DS was in many ways an amazing game device, but one of its greatest successes was the way in which it managed to attract a large audience, reaching people beyond "traditional" gamers. This was of course due to the broad of genres offered on the system. Even many "traditional" gamers will likely have had their first experience with Japanese adventure games and novel games through some of the system's sleeper hits like the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and other puzzle-focused games like the Professor Layton games. For people who mostly read mystery fiction, the Nintendo DS had a lot to offer to armchair detectives, from the aforementioned games to Cing's output like Another Code and Hotel Dusk, but also think of the many licensed games: the Nintendo DS had a huuuuuuge audience and developing for the system was also less expensive compared to its console counterparts, so you also had a lot of licensed mystery games like for the CSI series, or for example Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders.

Unsolved Crimes, released in 2008 on the Nintendo DS, has a rather plain title and most publications back at release seemed to treat it as a budget mystery adventure title, riding on the waves of the bigger mystery games on the Nintendo DS. And in a way, that's not wrong, but I think there's a lot more to Unsolved Crimes than you'd initially suspect, even if it's far from a hidden gem. Still, I think fans of mystery fans should take a look at it, especially as in 2022, you can find this game for next to nothing. While developed by Japanese studio Now Production, a studio I have seen often as a sub-contractor on bigger projects, this game is actually only published in the West and does not have a Japanese release. Set in 70s New York, you play the role of a rookie detective of the Homicide Division of the NYPD. Together with your veteran partner Marcy, the two of you investigate crime scenes and report to your boss Captain Abbot. And when I say you investigate crime scenes and not crime cases, I mean that. In all the major cases presented in Unsolved Crimes, the player and Marcy are responsible for going over the crime scenes again: initial investigation and interrogating suspects is always done by your co-workers, and all you get are reports on those findings. Marcy and the player are always just going up and down the crime scene and Captain Abbot's office. Each case, you go over the initial reports and then search the crime scene: perhaps there's a clue the first responders missed or perhaps you notice a contradiction between the testimonies of the suspects/witnesses and the actual crime scene. The cases can vary from a seemingly simple robbery-gone-wrong, to a deadly incident between friends to even cases involving serial killers and a locked room murder. Meanwhile, there's also an overarching storyline that involves the abduction of Marcy's model sister, though the tasks that involve that case are more like mini-games, compared to the more focused main mystery game.

Let me start with just saying that presentation-wise, yes, Unsolved Crimes looks very grey and boring. I think they were going for a 70s crime drama vibe, and some parts of the presentation like the one single music track they play do a better job at conveying it, but the characters designs are pretty boring, and that's made worse by the fact you only see Abbot and Marcy "in person" in this game: all the other characters mentioned are just mugshots that adorn testimony reports. I can definitely see people looking at screenshots of this game on the back of the box and deciding it just isn't worth it, which, again, I think wouldn't be exactly right.

Unsolved Crimes utilizes the touch screen of the DS (ha, do you remember the time when people thought touch screens were just a gimmick!?) to present 3D crime scenes as well as evidence, which you can investigate from various angles. 3D graphics on the Nintendo DS were seldom really breath-taking, but I'd say the crime scenes look decent enough on the system and surprisingly, in most cases the 3D-aspect of the game is actually relevant. Most cases demand some spatial awareness if you want to solve the crime, and the way this integrates the story/puzzle-solving of this game with the presentation is clever. Some mysteries can only be solved by being at the crime scene and looking at things from a certain angle, allowing you to guess why a witness said a certain thing for example, while in other cases, being able to physically walk around at the crime scene just makes it a lot clearer how events must have happened. this is one aspect where mystery adventure games can really pull things off "normal" mystery fiction (books) can't (see also this editorial) and I think that while Unsolved Crimes does nothing mind-blowing, I think it's a good, not too complex showcase and perfect for people who normally don't play games and would want to "ease into" playing mystery games and see what they can offer when it comes to the mystery genre.

The mystery-solving gameplay of Unsolved Crimes however isn't perfect, even though I completely agree with the spirit behind it and I do wish more games would take cues from it, even if the execution here is definitely not perfect. Basically, every time you find some important clues or learn important facts, Marcy will fire questions at you: answer her multiple-choice questions correctly and present the correct proof to back your claim up, and lo, you have made progress in your investigation! Often, you'll need to answer a few important questions about the scene and report Captain Abbot, which will lead to new developments in the case (usually asking the suspects/witnesses for more testimony), allowing you investigate the case even further. Marcy's questions make Unsolved Crimes both an interesting, and yet at the same time quite boring game. Marcy's questions (usually about 15 per case) are really a way to guide the player into solving the crime, and very methodically build on each other: she starts off with very obvious questions, but after a while the questions start building off answers to previous questions, and before you know it, her questions have allowed you to solve that seemingly impossible locked room murder. But at the same time, Marcy's questions are too methodical, they really go through each and every single step and she fires these questions at you constantly, so the player isn't allowed to think for themselves too much. Each case only takes somewhere between twenty minutes to an hour at most, and that's because Marcy's always just leading you to the correct conclusions. While you'll end up with worse end-of-case ratings if you mess up Marcy's questions, it's unlikely you'll do so (often), as she really moves step by step and you can easily see how each questions builds on the previous answer. And I do have to say, i really liked how her questions really made seemingly complex cases very approachable. Yeah, sure, the locked room murder may seem daunting at first, but Unsolved Crimes does a good job at breaking a difficult problem down into smaller problems (questions) which you can solve, and shows how by building on previously made logical conclusions, you can present complex mysteries and really show the player how to tackle them. The way you solve each case is very methodological, and never does a revelation or deduction come out of nowhere. Some of the questions aren't even just multiple choice, but require you to for example pinpoint locations on a map (the spatial awareness I mentioned earlier) or to point out contradictions between testimony and crime scene and those really make good use of the game medium. So I truly like the idea of the leading questions as the major gameplay mechanic of Unsolved Crimes, as it does a good job at translating the "mystery solving" aspect of a mystery story, but at the same time the game is just too linear and hand-holdy because of that.

And that with the aforementioned sobre presentation does really mean Unsolved Crimes looks very boring: if you're not investigating a 3D crime scene, then you're just answering questions from Marcy or perhaps Captain Abbot. Even when you solve the case, all you get are reports about what happened next, and never do you get to meet any of the other characters in person. Action (touch screen mini-games) are found in the mini-missions that concern the kidnapping of Marcy's sister, like a car chase or even a shoot-out, but those aren't really presenting a mystery story or gameplay, and the finale to this overarching storyline is pretty disappointing as you really don't do much of the mystery-solving you do in the rest of the game.

But coming back to what I said earlier: I don't think this is a bad mystery game, and considering you can find a used copy for very little nowadays, I think it's a neat to check out if you still have a Nintendo DS (or 3DS) and have already played most of the major mystery adventure games on that system. Unsolved Crimes is one that you are likely to have missed, or just ignored when it first released in 2008, and while it's certainly not a masterpiece by any means, I think fans of the mystery genre will be able to find things to like about this game. I for one certainly wouldn't mind seeing more games that build on some of the better elements from Unsolved Crimes.

5 comments :

  1. Always interested in mystery games that do things in an interesting way. I think "spatial" solving is a really interesting aspect that could be explored in games. Maybe I'll pick this up.
    - Velleic

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    1. I came across multiple used copies around here for about 5~8 euro, and it's definitely worth at least that :P

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  2. Thanks for bringing attention to this game. I thought I have played most of detective games published in the DS, but I have never even heard of this before. By the way, are you planning to check out 'Yurukill' on the switch? It receives pretty mixed reviews, but I am curious of the quality of the stories since it is written by the author of Kakegurui.

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    1. While I have played a LOT on my DS, there were still some titles I never got around to buying, but the last two months I decided I'd see which games on the want list were still available (new or used) for reasonable prices, so I've been in a DS mood lately. A few RPGs like Tales of Hearts and RIZ-ZOAWD/The Wizard of Oz, but mainly mystery-themed games like this one, a few of the Tecmo adventures and Nintendo's Project Hacker.

      I am no good with bullet hell games, so I kinda lost interest the moment I saw that word in the game description ^_^'

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    2. Project Hacker sounds interesting. The DS is also one of my favorite systems. Looking forward to more game reviews.

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