Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Burning Question

"Match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you can guess whodunnit"
"Ellery Queen (avant-title)"

I don't have that many books with bright yellow covers I think....

One of my favorite reads last year was Ashibe Taku's Oomarike Satsujin Jiken ("The Oomari Family Murder Case"), which in a way was the quintessential Ashibe novel, because I think it might be the book where he managed to combine all his personal tropes/interests and the mystery plot the best. Many of his book have very detailed historical and literary references, often ones that only the fans will understand, and while sometimes I think it goes a bit too far, it was handled extremely well in Oomarike Satsujin Jiken, a story that was set in war-time Osaka (the city of Osaka also being a major theme of Ashibe's books) about the downfall of the Oomari family during the war, one of the many merchant families in Osaka, focusing on its female members who stay behind to hold the fort while the men were sent to war. The way the book blended the historical setting and the Trojan Women-esque story with a mystery plot that could've only worked in that specific setting was really good, and to me, it really felt like the work where all these Ashibe tropes came together the best.

Ashibe Taku's Meitantei wa Dare da ("Who is the Great Detective?", 2022) is many ways very unlike what I'd normally expect of an Ashibe work, and almost the complete opposite in tone and approach compared to Oomarike Satsujin Jiken.  The book is a short story collection, and the premise of the book is that the stories are everything but (straight) whodunnits, and yet they are, in a way, still whodunnits. As the title of the book already suggests, the seven stories in this book are not about whodunnit, as in, who committed the crime, but the stories turn the question around, and presents the reader with variants. In one story, the question is who shall be murdered, instead of whodunnit, and while in a different story, you are actually asked to deduce which of the suspects isn't a culprit, because the rest of the suspects in fact are all conspiring criminals! And of course, the final story, the title story, has you even guess which of the "suspects" in the story is in fact a detective. So the stories are whodunnits, but not in the way you'd expect!

When I say that this book is very much unlike a work you'd expect from Ashibe though, I do have to say right now that's especially noticable when it comes to the matter of the "depth" of the stories. For this book is really short, and each story is over before you know it. The stories all follow a similar set-up too, starting in media res with the narrator (each time a different person) finding themselves in a pressing situation which forces to guess their special variant of whodunnit, and once the set-up is explained to the reader, it basically immediately advances to the solution. Each story moves at a very fast pace, but also very much just revolve around one single trick or idea, Where other short stories I read by Ashibe often had very deeply fleshed-out historical settings or more engaging "fluff" around the core plot with for example literary references, the stories in Meitantei wa Dare da are all so focused on their single-idea-per-story, each story is basically a hit or miss. Either you like the idea or not, and there's little more to a story to feel anything about, almost like one trick ponies. So whether you'll like this book, will depend very much on the mystery of each individual story, and only on that, because that's all the meat on the bones.

And because all stories are quite short, I don't think it's wise to introduce them one by one as I usually do because by the time I'm done you basically already know 3/4 of the stories. But to briefly pick up a few: the first story is titled Hannin de nai no wa dare ("Who is Not the Culprit?") and has perhaps the funnest reversal of the whodunnit concept. The narrator is the nephew of a money lender with some enemies, and because his uncle is dying and he will inherit, the narrator suddenly learns some people who borrow money are very willing to kill to escape their debts. Making use of a coupon to stay at a remotely located inn, the narrator happens to overhear three of the other guests at the inn conspiring to kill him because he'll inherit his uncle's money lending business, but the narrator can't get a look at their faces nor does he get to hear the voices really well. Due to the remote location, he can't just get away on foot, so the next morning, he looks around the breakfast hall, staring at the four other guests having their first meal. For if there are three conspirators, it means the fourth must be not connected, so the narrator wants to ask them for help before the three culprits will do something to him. Ultimately, the plot is very much a 'figure out who is not lying' type of plot, but the set-up is really funny. Another memorable one is Ikinokotta no wa dare ("Who Survived?"), where a reporter is put on the trail of a group of missing persons who seem to have no connection whatsoever, but who all have been invited to the same, remotely located hotel. When he arrives there however, the building suddenly catches fire and is lost completely. However, the police find traces people have been killed in the guest rooms, and the whole set-up reminds them of those death game stories, where people are lured together and somehow enticed to kill each other. But a clue sets the reporter on a trail that makes them suspect one of them faked their death, but which of them? Again a story that revolves very much about one trick/one clue, though I think the "big" clue in this story is better than the one in Hannin de nai no wa dare.

Other stories have titles like Kaitou wa dare da ("Who is the Phantom Thief?"), Tsukamaru no wa dare da ("Who Will be Arrested?") and Wana wo Kakeru no wa dare da ("Who Sets the Trap?"), so you can probably imagine what kind of stories that will be. Some stories are very straightforward in the way they handle the title theme (Who is the Phantom Thief? will probably not suprise you in terms of how the story goes), some stories are a bit more surprising, like the title story, where the detective is actually the "bad guy" because one of the guests at a hotel is an operative working for a foreign dictatorship looking for a political activist who is lying low in Japan.

You can tell author Ashibe has fun with these stories and some of the seven stories have clever twists or a well hidden clue that makes you go "aha!' when you reach the end, but still, it does feel like he could've gotten more out of the whole concept of the book, because each story is just so... light. At first I even thought that these stories had perhaps been serialized in a non-mystery magazine (so for a general audience) and that's why they were so short and very much about one single idea each time, but apparently, this was a straight-to-book release. I can imagine Ashibe wrote this lighter experience in between his bigger, more developed projects with tons of historical and literary research behind it, like a short 'rest' period between his heavier works, but I can't help wondering what he could've gotten out of the concept if it had the 'depth' of many of his other works.

Don't get me wrong though. I did like Meitantei wa Dare da as a read, and it was fun each time to see how the whodunnit angle would be changed, but I read this book between other, longer/"weightier" books so it was perfect for me as a breather read. As a mystery short story collection though, it's not exactly what you'd expect from Ashibe based on other works I have read, and it'll probably feel a bit lean on the bones for many readers, even if the core premise is definitely entertaining. So not a bad read, but I think the premise is still better than the execution.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『名探偵は誰だ』

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Sea Mystery

No swellings tell that winds may be 
Upon some far-off happier sea—
 No heavings hint that winds have been
 On seas less hideously serene.
"The City in the Sea"

Huh, that's funny, this is a detective game with a historical setting about Ryuunosuke, who studied in England, and who has to solve a mysterious death on a ship crossing the world. And it's probably not the game you were thinking of.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake in September 1923, private detective Toudou Ryuunosuke boards the liner Shouyoumaru in San Francisco to retun to Japan. On the second day of his trip to the harbor of Yokohama, a passenger and waiter bump into each other, toppling a barrel on the deck, but to the great surprise of the few people on the deck at the time, a skeleton comes falling out of the barrel. The captain of the ship is called, who wants to keep things quiet as he fears news of a skeleton on board might cause a panic, but one of the guests who was silenced finds it all a bit too creepy, so she confides in Toudou Ryuunosuke about the affair and hopes that he, as a detective, can find out where that skeleton came from. Toudou accepts the job and starts poking around on the ship, which is transporting many people from professors, photographers to military men, but also of course the large crew of the ship. But while Toudou is investigating the affair of the skeleton, a crew member is found murdered in the ship's barber shop and Toudou is officially asked by the captain to look into the murder. But how are the skeleton and this murder connected? That is the great mystery in the mystery adventure game Ougon no Rashinban ~ Shouyoumaru San Francisco-kou Kairo Satsujin Jiken ("The Golden Compass ~ The Murder Case on the Shouyoumaru on the San Francisco Harbor Route", 1990).

Ougon no Rashinban is the second entry in the Toudou Ryuunosuke series originally created by Riverhillsoft, a developer creating adventure games for Japanese PCs in the eighties. Their star writer was Suzuki Rika, who would later set-up her own company Cing which was responsible for a few great mystery-themed adventure games on the Nintendo DS and Wii (the Another Code and Kyle Hyde series). During her time at Riverhillsoft however, she also created a few well-known series in the mystery scene in Japan: besides the Toudou Ryuunosuke series, she also created the J.B. Harold series, about the Liberty Town detective J.B.. The Toudou Ryuunosuke series, also referred to as the "1920 series" as the games are set in that period, originally "ended" with Ougon no Rashinban by the way, but after Riverhillsoft closed, Althi acquired the IP. Althi would release the original games on the DS, but also on (pre-smartphone) mobile phones, and they would also create brand new entries in the series. I don't think Suzuki Rika was involved with the games after Ougon no Rashinban, but there are like nine of them in total. As a fan of Suzuki's work, but also because of my interest in mystery adventure games in general (also the older ones!), I had been wanting to play this game for a long time, as I had once seen footage of the original PC version, and it looked quite good. I ended up playing the Switch port of the mobile phone port of the game by the way. I can't quite find when this game was released on mobile phones, though I guess it'd be in the first half of the 2000s like most of these games, and the Switch port released earlier this month (Thanks to G-Mode, which has been releasing these old mobile phone games!).

Putting it bluntly, if you have played any of the major Riverhillsoft adventure games, you will have played all of them, as they are all extremely similar in design. And there is a caveat: the game design is really dated. So these games are not really something you'd want to play very often, in succession. Like always, after a short introduction of the case, you are just dropped in the game, and given extremely many locations to visit, to talk with also an extremely large cast of characters. I'm talking 30, 40 persons, spread across at least as many locations. Ougon no Rashinban in particular has insanely many locations to visit, basically the most of any of the Riverhillsoft games I have played. The game allows you to basically visit any room on the Shouyoumaru, but many of those rooms have to function at all in the game, and are just there to inflate the number of options. So a lot of it is just to waste your time (outdated game design). Once you have found someone to talk to, you can talk to them about like 60 different topics per person. 60(!), you say? Yes, you can ask each person about all the other characters on the ship, about the incidents you are investigating, about other things going on and also show them the evidence you have. Do that times 30-40 people, which you have to find on the ship, and you can see how dated the design feels.


I like the basic concept of these games though, as they give off a feeling of being open-ended. At the start of the game, you can visit a very large amount of locations from the start, and as you start talking with the passengers about all the topics, you slowly start to see the connections between each character. A might seem like a nice guy at first, but when you talk about A with B, B might reveal something interesting about A. By talking to everyone, you'll slowly start to connect dots to create lines, and very slowly, your suspicions regarding a character will be risen. But because initially, you are fairly free to tackle these interviews with the characters in any order you like, it feels kinda open-ended, especially considering this was a game originally released in 1990. Ougon no Rashinban does streamline this a bit, as the game is divided in chapters (a specific part of the trip/time of the day), and once you have obtained all the necessary information about everyone/everything of a chapter, it will move on to the next chapter, with time also passing by between each chapter. Within a chapter, you have relative freedom, but this chapter division does make the game feel more... alive, I guess, as characters move around between chapters and there are also actually story developments.

But because the game is quite old, the game design feels very tedious. In each chapter, you are just basically just going around EVERY room and talk to EVERY person, because you need to activate the story flags that will allow you to move on to the next chapter. But you simply can't know beforehand where those story flags are hidden. Sometimes, a character will suddenly decide they can reveal something about a different character, even though they wouldn't do that in the previous chapter. Sometimes, you just need to confirm they don't know something.  Sometimes, just meeting with a character turns out to be a necessary story flag. There is a flag counter for each chapter, but more often than not, I thought I had done everything, and then it turned out I had 140 out of 160 flags for that chapter. And then it turned out I hadn't spoken with a character about a character he didn't have anything to tell me about in previous 10 chapters, but now decided he knew something interesting about! Or when the men's bathroom is completely useless for 13 chapters long, but then you do need to search in chapter 14 to find a piece of evidence. The official site of G-Mode for this game actually has a hint guide/walkthrough and while it will direct you to do the trickier parts, it often skips necessary flags too, giving you only like 90% of the tasks you need to do each chapter. So I'd be following the walkthrough step by step, and still end up missing like 10 story flags, which I'd have to look for myself.


You'd think I hate this game, but I do really like the atmosphere, the character art, and the story that is told. But it is very much a game of its time, and this game has probably about 1.5 times the locations of the J.B. Harold games, making it feel much more tedious, as there are so many rooms that are just there as filler. But yeah, this is the type of game that truly deserves a remake, because mystery adventure games have come so far in three decades. I mean, even the most basic of things, like a menu with a character list or relation chart is nowhere to be found, even though the cast is huge! (as I am writing this, I learn the original PC version had one! Why didn't the mobile port have it too!?) There is not even an in-game map to tell you where every passenger is staying on board of the Shouyoumaru, you have to write that down yourself. Mechanically, all you can do in this game is talk to other characters. There is no real interactive mechanic by which you, as the player, have to solve the mystery yourself: you are never punished, nor are you asked to answer questions yourself. You just gather information, and the game will connect the dots for you. Searching rooms for evidence is also just selecting an option, and Toudou telling you whether he found something or not. There are so many things in Ougon Ranshinban a modern game would streamline and make more enjoyable to play. In the game, you "listen" to a lot of testimony of characters about others, and sometimes, that will allow you learn someone has been lying to you, but you can't actually actively confront someone with that knowledge. The player themselves have to remember character B told them something about A, which activates a story flag, meaning the next time you talk to A, Toudou will automatically press A about the matter. A modern game would probably use a testimony inventory system or contradiction mechanic to give the player more agency to actually detect the mystery themselves, or at least allow them to have some kind of mechanic to allow them to re-read important testimonies. And while the mobile phone version does show a little mark when you hear something for the first time (activate the flag), a modern remaster would streamline the general flow a lot, meaning less wandering mindlessly around having to check every location and talk to everyone about everything, and limit your options more. Meanwhile, a more modern take on the game would also allow you to see more directly of the Shouyoumaru itself, which is an interesting location. Each character actually has an interesting story behind them, even if their lines are fairly short, so it'd be cool if that could be developed more, allowing them to speak in more detail about the interesting parts of their part of the story, while cutting the huge amount of "I don't know anything about that" lines.

But as said, the art of the original PC version is really nice, and while the mobile phone port looks, understandably, very cramped, it does have a nice atmosphere...

As a murder mystery, Ougon no Rashinban doesn't rely on clever tricks or anything, it's really about slowly uncovering the various relationships between the many characters on the ship, and slowly zooming in on the suspect, but I think that, especially considering the time this game was released, this was a pretty good effort in terms of character-focused mystery fiction. So it'd really benefit from a modern take on the same base story and characters, as I do think this part is done well, it's only very dull and monotonous to play.

Having played so many of Riverhillsoft's adventure games, I can't say Ougon no Rashinban ~ Shouyoumaru San Francisco-kou Kairo Satsujin Jiken surprised me very much. It plays like I had expected it, and tells the same kind of human-focused mysteries I have learned to appreciate. But at the same time, I have the feeling this game tried to be more ambitious by having even more locations to visit, but that only resulted in a more tedious game as so many of the "added" content is just empty filler. I think that of all mystery games I have played, these Riverhillsoft adventures would benefit the most of a remake, with actual interactive mystery-solving mechanics, as the story itself is usually interesting. I wonder if there's a market for that...

Original Japanese title(s):『黄金の羅針盤 翔洋丸桑港航路殺人事件』

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Telltale Weapon

"Up, up, and away!"
"The Adventures of Superman"

Today's book: one I didn't plan to buy so soon after release originally, but it ended up as the 10th title on the 2023 Honkaku Mystery Best 10 ranking (for late 2021-late 2022 books), so I felt compelled to pick it up...

Several months ago, I reviewed Higashigawa Tokuya's 2005 novel Yakatajima ("The Island of the House"), an entertaining mystery novel which was set on the island Yokoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. Higashigawa's Shikakejima ("Trick Island", 2022) is technically a sequel to Yakatajima, but they can be read seperately very easily, for Shikakejima is set about two decades after the events of Yakatajima, and takes place on a different island in the Seto Inland Sea. There are a few short cameos and minor references to Yakatajima, but nothing absolutely vital. The book opens with an unusual family gathering on the private island of Nanamejima (Crooked Island), an island which is basically a gigantic slanting cliff sticking out of the sea: the holiday home of the Saidaiji family is located on the lower (level) parts of the island, while the back garden basically becomes a steep hill that goes up and up until the every end, where it turns into a direct drop into the wild seas. The Saidaiji family business is publishing books: decades ago they started out with an illustration book of Momotarou, but has now grown to be one of the biggest publishers in the Okayama prefecture. The death of the family patriarch thus makes waves. The last will of Saidaiji Gorou will be read at the island, but one of the persons who has to be present in order for the will to be read is Gorou's nephew Kazuya, who more-or-less disappeared long ago. With the help of the private detective Kobayakawa Takao however, he's soon found in the capital and brought on the boat to Nanamejima, alongside the lawyer Sayaka, who comes here instead of her father (the family lawyer, but who is now bed-ridden). Sayaka doesn't really get along with the rather strangely behaving Takao, but they arrive safely at the island, and Sayaka reads the will as planned. The following day however, Kazuya is found dead in the back garden, and a storm prevents the police from coming immediately. Sayaka and Takao also strongly suspect the family has something to hide, based on some of the wording in the will, and if Kazuya was killed because of that family secret, Sayaka and Takao also need to be careful with how they act, as they are all trapped on the island now. 

An island with a strange building, an island in the Seto Inland Sea, a closed circle situation... yep, Shikakejima is very much the (spiritual) sequel to Yakatajima. Due to the many (in-universe) years between the two books setting them apart, they can be read seperately without any trouble, though we do learn that the private detective Kobayakawa Takao in this book is the son of two characters we met in Yakatajima, and they have short (indirect) cameos too, so that's fun for the fans. There are a few other sneak references to the events of Yakatajima, but nothing in the book truly requires you to read them in order. Though I do think Yakatajima was overall better than Shikakejima, so that might influence your choice on whether to read them in order, or not, or whether you'll want to read either of them, I guess. 

Tonally, this book follows the same style as Yakatajima and Higashigawa's usual way of telling stories: with a lot of (physical) comedy, people bickering and misunderstandings, and beneath the camouflage of the comedy, you'll find cleverly hidden clues and foreshadowing elements to the core mystery plot. Shikakejima does not stray from the Higashigawa Template, though personally, I do have to say I liked the bickering of the two main characters in Yakatajima more than in Shikakejima, though I guess that's just personal preference. There's a distinct Yokomizo Seishi-esque atmosphere you can detect in the background and a few overt references too to some of private detective Kindaichi's better known adventures, starting with the last will and the specific call for the nephew to be present during the reading. There are more call-backs to Yokomizo and his Kindaichi series, and I do think having a bit of knowledge of the Kindaichi tropes will help the reader's enjoyment of the book.

Also similar to the first book is the presence of a strangely-built house on a small island. The Saidaiji manor is a big house, with not only two wings on either side of the main building, but also a gigantic dome functioning as a library on top of the main building, but the layout is very odd, forcing people to take the stairs in the main building to go up one floor first, before they can go to either wing of the building (i.e. the wings are not accessible via the ground floor). The building is so strangely built, you know instantly it will play a role in the mystery, but it might very much surprise you in what way!

The book is basically divided in two major mysteries: one is the current death of Kazuya who is found murdered in the back garden. His body has been completely beaten up, but not only does a storm prevent the police from coming, both Sayaka and Takao seem to notice the whole family actually seems very reluctant to actually report the deal to the police. Because they are just guests on the island, they don't dare to dig too much into the family secrets, but they eventually learn about another family tragedy that occured several decades ago on this very same island: the former patriarch of the family was killed one night, but the deed was immediately discovered, and the men of the family followed the murderer all the way up to the highest top of the gigantic slanting cliff, but there the murderer disappeared, and the only explanation seems like they must have fallen into the sea, as there is absolutely nothing at the top of the cliff. The whole deal was covered up by the family, and the nephew was one of the people on the island that night, and it seems like this current murder is connected to what happened in the past.

I have to say though, the past mystery isn't really super interesting. The solution to that seems rather... an easy way out, and it's not really well-clewed. It doesn't help I know Higashigawa has written a different story that uses a similar idea, but here it becomes such a big focal point of the whole story, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed: as a way to explain someone disappearing from a super high cliff, it's just... bordering on being cheap. The current murder, of the nephew who was found in the back garden though, that has a lot more interesting points. Practically speaking, it's incredibly silly, but it's also amazingly memorable: it's definitely a murder method I am not likely to forget, and certainly one of the most memorable ones I'll read this year. While I think it's incredibly difficult to realize how exactly this murder was committed, I do have to admit there's one absolutely brilliant clue dangled in front of the readers which I found really clever too, even if I don't think it's enough to really have the reader realize what is going on. That said, the method itself is incredibly original, and as a "punchline" it's fantastic. It's the type of murder method that could indeed only be used in mystery fiction, the type that is more about being fun than being realistic.

Overall though, I didn't quite like Shikakejima as much as Yakatajima. Perhaps it's because I also read them relatively close (about six months apart), but I don't think the past murder is very strong, and while I like the present murder in general, I think the existence of the past murder muddles things a lot, as there is little to no synergy at all between the two murders. So you get two distinct ideas, and I think the present murder would simply have been enough to carry either a shorter novel or a short story, or with something else that has more synergy with the present murder. If you had to choose, I'd recommend Yakatajima over Shikakejima.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉『仕掛島』

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Case of the Photo Finish

 Where do I 
Fit in the picture of your world
"Impossible" (Nadia Gifford)

Most of the books I discuss on the blog are part of a series, and I have mentioned before that's because I generally do like reading series. It's just convenient knowing, with some wiggle space, what you could expect from a certain book in advance if it's a series work, so I often end up reading a book in a series I am already familiar with (or perhaps of a writer I already know). If I read a book with the most brilliant alibi trick ever, it is just unlikely a book in the same series (written in the same period?) will turn out to be the absolute worst mystery novel I ever read, or at least, I assume so. So when I don't have any titles I want to read immediately for one reason or another, I usually end up picking up a book in a series I already know.

Not all series actually benefit from... being a series though, I realized as I read Aizawa Sako's Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku ("Invert II - The Blind Spot in the Finder", 2022). This is the third book featuring Jouzuka Hisui, an attractive, mysterious woman who is a self-proclaimed "spiritual counselor". In the brilliant first book from 2019, Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui"), we learned that as a spirit medium, she had the power to channel of the deceased and see flashes of their dying moments. In the book, she teamed up with a mystery writer, who had to reverse-engineer Hisuis visions and find real proof and come up with a supporting line of reasoning to present to the police, as they weren't likely to believe them just saying "she channeled the victim". The book was exciting from start to finish, and could surprise you any time because it would use Hisui's abilities in rather unexpected ways. The second book, Invert - Jouzuka Hisui Toujoshuu ("Invert - A Collection of the Inverted Stories of Jouzuka Hisui" 2021), managed to keep this element of surprise and an air of mystery surrounding Hisui by presenting inverted mystery stories: by this time, the police is, reluctantly, working with Hisui as they recognize she has certain abilities that allows her to pull of things others can't, even though they don't really understand how and in Invert, we followed three different murderers who would be approached by a rather mysterious woman who'd claim she had channeling powers. At first, none of these murderers believe her of course, but you can imagine the shock when she tells the murderers things only the victim would know happened at the time of the murder, and she'd slowly connect those visions to real evidence of their guilt. What made this book work, once again, was that we never saw too much of Hisui and never knew what she had up her sleeve: in the first book we saw from the POV of the mystery writer who had to interpret her visions, in the second book we mainly follow the murderers. Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku is, as the title suggest, however following the same format as the first Invert: the book contains two stories (one short story and one basically long enough to be considered a novel on its own). This of course already takes away a bit of the surprise element, as the book more-or-less follows the same formula as the previous book and it does feel like more of the same, which is very disappointing: I remember being very excited to realize how the format had changed between Medium and Invert, allowing for more surprises and mystery around Hisui, but Invert II just follows the trodden path.

Which isn't helped by a second element of this book I didn't really like: the focus on Hisui as a character. I think this is because the Jouzuka Hisui series had turned into a multimedia franchise by the time these stories were written: there's a manga adaptation by the artist behind the The Decagon House Murders manga and a live-action drama series started airing around the same period Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku was released (with the first story adapted in the series too). The live-action series is pretty interesting by the way because it actually changed titles midway: the first half was based on, and named after Medium, but once they got past those stories, the series changed titles to Invert, and a new promotional poster was released, making it technically a "different" series (and of course, the stories then shifted to the inverted mystery format). But I have the feeling both stories found in Invert II were written with this expansion into different media in mind, with a bigger focus on Hisui as the protagonist, with probably more scenes focusing on Hisui personally and her private life in this book alone than in the two previous books combined. Like I mentioned earlier, one of the reason I think both Medium and Invert worked so well was because Hisui was a rather mysterious, hard-to-read character, which allowed for cool surprises sprung on the reader, but Invert II moves away from that and instead decides to reveal much more about her. The result is a book that is an okay inverted mystery story collection, but which misses that *extra* element of surprise the other two books had that made them especially good. Invert II is a normal inverted mystery collection, in a series that had been above normal, so it stands out a lot.

The first story is also a bit simple in set-up despite its length. In Seija no Kototsute ("Message of the Living"), Hisui and her assistant/housekeeper Makoto end up stranded on the road with their car, next to a dangerous-looking cliff, during a storm, so they run to the nearby house with the lights on they passed just a minute ago. They ring the bell and hope to be offered shelter until the storm is gone, but find the door open and a surprised teenager in the hall looking at the two beautiful women in wet shirts. But the reason Souta is surprised is actually because this isn't his home and the woman who lives her is lying upstairs dead with a knife in her body. This is actually the second house of a classmate of Souta, and Souta had been hiding here after running away from home. Never could he have dreamed the house would be used this very day though, so he fell asleep in one of the bedrooms, but then woke up when he heard the woman coming inside the house. After accidentally making a noise, the woman came upstairs suspecting a burglar and before Souta knew what had happened, they were struggling, they both fell on the floor and when he woke up, the mother of his classmate was lying dead in front of him. He had just cleaned his hands and face when Hisui and Makoto stepped inside the hall, so, yes, he was very surprised at the sight of the two women. As they're already inside, he can't really send them back outside in the storm, so he finds himself forced to play the role of someone who lives here, allowing them to stay here until the storm is over. Normally, a teenage boy would be more than excited about being to spend the night in a house with two beautiful women and his hormones certainly clouds his judgment at times, but there's still the body upstairs, and keeping up the lie of him living here becomes harder and harder as Hisui starts asking more questions...

Okay, this is an inverted mystery, but as Souta didn't plan any murders and he's honestly completely surrpised by the sudden stay of Hisui and Makoto, he obviously keeps making small mistakes and rather easy-to-see through lies. It's not really satisfying as an inverted mystery, as even Souta himself knows the lies he's been making are just barely believable ("I'm not on any of the family pictures because I don't like being in pictures") and while Hisui and Makoto usually let things slide, many parts of the Challenge to the Reader Hisui presents to the readers at the end of the story aren't really impressive: she asks us to identify what put her on the trail of Souta being not a resident of the home, while as the reader, you feel more like "in what way was Souta ever believable as a resident of this house???". Souta is just stumbling from one lie to another, so unlike most inverted mystery stories, it's not like you are trying to find the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly planned murder and the tone of the story, where Souta is also just fighting his hormones and fantasies of being alone with two beautiful older women, of which Hisui especially isn't shy of some physical contact, and your mileage will vary on that comedic element of the story. The big mystery is of course how Hisui will eventually find the corpse. There are some parts of the problem-solving that depend on things I usually like: Queen-like deductions based on physical evidence (like a woman's wallet lying on the table and wet sneakers outside) that allow Husui to deduce what happened, but some of these deductions seem a bit iffy, and one negative clue in particular didn't really work for me, because it was too much of a jump for me to have readers guess that would be missing simply based on what was found. So this was not my favorite story in the series by any means.

The second story, Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku ("The Blind Spot in the Finder") has Hisui becoming friends with Junko, a photographer who shares an interest in mystery fiction. Little does Hisui know that Junko's interest in mystery fiction actually sprang from the fact she's been planning murders, as she wants revenge on the bullies who are responsible for her younger sister's suicide many years ago. The victim is Kanon, a popular model who went freelance a while ago, who has no idea the photographer she has asked to take her new photographs is actually the sister of the girl she used to bully in high school. Kanon has been tormented by a stalker lately, so she had moved to a somewhat remote lodge near the mountains for some privacy, and it was here where her body was found in the bath tub, with some signs indicating her stalker had broken in and after a struggle, stabbed her. Police investigation however also leads to finding Kanon had contact with Junko lately about a photo shoot, and that Junko's sister's suicide had been caused by Kanon. She's questioned just to be sure, but she has an iron-clad alibi: for on the day Kanon was killed, in the afternoon (the estimated time of death), Junko had been together with... Hisui, going on a photo shoot date together. Hisui confirms she had been with Junko the whole day, spending the day at a park with Junko taking pictures of Hisui. She is also reluctant to look more into the case, as Junko's one of the few friends she has made since returning to Japan, but as the police investigation digs deeper into things, Hisui realizes Junko's alibi might not be as strong as believed.

While this is an inverted mystery story, we don't get to see the details of how Junko managed to have her alibi with Hisui for the time of the murder, so that's a big part of the mystery for the reader too. Another point about this story, is that it's only about Junko for about half of the narrative: a lot of the story is dedicated to Hisui herself, where we learn about how she's really fond of Junko as she has troubles making friends and this leading to her dilemma of not wanting to suspect her friend of murder. This look into Hisui's personal life and feelings on a case are what doesn't really work for me personally in this volume, as I loved the mysterious vibe of Hisui in the previous stories. This story is rather long, I have read full novels of about the same length, but for me, the story could've left these Hisui-focused parts out, and be about half the length it is now for a better, more focused mystery story, but I guess this focus on Hisui as a character is an intentional change in direction for this series. As a mystery story, I think its merits lie especially in the way to how it is proven how Junko managed to fake her alibi: the trick itself is perhaps not very surprising, though it's set-up well, but the clues leading up to this conclusion are really good: focusing on the state of physical evidence, theorizing about why they are in a certain state, and combining all of that together to a comprehensive line of reasoning. This is certainly the best part of the story: if the story had only been about the trick of Junko, it would have been an okay, but not remarkable story, but the clues leading to the conclusion defnitely make this better than it would've been otherwise.

So Invert II - Nozokimado [Finder] no Shikaku didn't manage to impress me as much as the really impressive Medium and the entertaining first Invert. This is due to a directional change I personally didn't really like, and that combined with the fact we only have two stories now, one of which is probably intentionally a bit lighter and more comedic than usual, we end up with a volume that has very little of what made the previous two volumes so memorable. The title story is a fine inverted mystery story with a focus on the logical reasoning leading to the downfall of the murderer, but I don't feel this book is a must-read in comparison to the previous two books, and to be honest, if an Invert III is released, I'll probably wait for a while before I return to this series, as I don't really feel compelled to read more of Invert right now. Though I'd be enticed to read more of Hisui again of course if the series takes another directional change, because I know Aizawa can come up with really surprising twists with this series when not sticking to any specific formula..

Original Japanese title(s): 『invert II 覗き窓の死角 』:「生者の言伝」/「覗き窓(ファインダー)の死角」

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Clues Challenge

Hey, you can hear me, right? Yeah, I know, it's weird, me calling out to you even though we can't see each other. But I know you're there, so listen to me. I need your help. I am supposed to research a book called Zarathustra no Tsubasa, but I have no idea what it is or what it exactly is I am supposed to research. I'm just not good with this thinking stuff. So I thought, perhaps I should get some advice from someone who's better at that. Yep, it's you I am talking about. So perhaps you could tell me what do do?
To help ⇒ Go to 2.
To not help ⇒ Go to 6.

Great, we're a team now, the two of us! Should we come up with a team name? No? Oh, okay, well, you might change your mind later on. Anyway, we're going to investigate this Zarathustra no Tsubasa or whatever it is called. But don't worry, I haven't come completely empty-handed. For example, did you know Zarahustra no Tsubasa is Japanese? It means The Zarathustra's Wings. What? You ask me whether I know Japanese? Well, to be honest, the English title The Zarathustra's Wings is just one I noticed on the cover of the book, as it has both a Japanese and English title. I also found out that the book was written in 1986 by Okajima Futari and that it is apparently a gamebook. What should we do first?
Look up the author of the book ⇒ Go to 3.
Look up what a game book is ⇒ Go to 4.
Oh, right, Okajima Futari. I've heard of him. Or to be exact: them. It was the pen name of Inoue Izumi and Tokuyama Junichi, who were active between 1981 and 1989. I think they also wrote Klein no Tsubo and Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta. Apparently, this is the only gamebook they ever wrote, though Klein no Tsubo does begin with a man writing a gamebook, which is then going to be changed into a virtual reality game. Guess the theme of a gamebook must've remained interesting to them, as Klein no Tsubo was released almost ten years after The Zarathustra's Wings. But that's all we need to know about Okajima Futari for now, right? What next?
Add (W) to your inventory. 
Look up what a game book is ⇒ Go to 4.
Look up what The Zarathustra's Wings is about ⇒ Go to 5.
So I looked around on the internet, and I think a gamebook is a type of fiction where the reader participates in the story themselves by making choices, which changes the outcome of a story. They're also known as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventures.The choices you make as you progress in a story, for example by choosing to go either left or right in a maze, will lead to different narrative branches, all with varying outcomes. Some gamebooks also have more complex systems built-in, like an inventory mechanic or a story flag system which allows the game to check whether you have done certain segments already or not. Gamebooks were especially popular in Japan in the 1980s, ranging from both original gamebooks to gamebooks based on for example films like Laputa Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.  You even have gamebooks based on Famicom (NES) video games, like the ones based on Famicom Detective Club Part 1 and Part 2. So The Zarathustra's Wings is one of these books, huh? And there are of course (board) games like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective which are design-wise very close to a gamebook.
Add (F) to your inventory. 
Look up the author of the book ⇒ Go to 3.
Look up what The Zarathustra's Wings is about ⇒ Go to 5.

Oh, that's funny. The Zarathustra's Wings is about this detective, he's not really bright, so he needs help when it comes to the mental stuff. So he starts taking advice from some person we can't see, telling him to do this or do that... sounds familiar? Yeah, he also talks to that person directly sometimes. Anyway, the detective is hired to investigate the murder on Kashima Eizaburou, the wealthy businessman who was found dead in his study three months ago. He had recently obtained a jewel called the Zarathustra's Wings and shown it off to some house guests, but the following morning, he was found murdered in his study, and the Zarathustra's Wings were missing! What's more, the study was locked, and the key found on the desk inside the study, so this means it was a locked room murder! This detective is hired by the son-in-law to find out who the murderer is and to find the missing Zarathustra's Wings. Sounds like an interesting adventure! Should we read it?
Inventory check.
Do you have (X) in your inventory?   ⇒ Go to 8.
If you want to read the book  ⇒ Go to 7.

The murderer suddenly appears behind you, plunging a knife into your back. If only... we had made a different choice, I might've been able to save you...  
Wow, that took a bit more time than we had expected, didn't it? For the most part, it does what you'd expect of a gamebook, allowing you to choose who to interview or where to go. By using a special story flag checklist, the book also makes sure to know what pieces of information you have obtained (or not), which will become important later on. A common problem with gamebooks also seen in The Zarathustra's Wings is of course that each section of a gamebook is fairly short, so it reads quite differently from a novel: a lot of the story feels quite shallow and too much to-the-point and all the characters kinda feel the same. But at least the book makes you feel like a detective. Kinda. The book is basically divided in two parts, the first part being more focused on the murder investigation, and the second part on the search for the missing jewel. In the first half, you will be interviewing the suspects, see what you can learn from them and explore the study where the murder happened and the other rooms of the house. While the murder took place in a locked study, the trick used to accomplish this is very, very basic and the tricky part of the gamebook is basically activating all the story flags necessary to "solve" the murder: you might have a very good idea of what happened, but if you happened to miss a section and not have activated Story Flag A for example, you might fail in the "accuse segment" anyway because you didn't discover all the evidence. Perhaps this would have felt more satisfying if the trick itself had been more complex, but because the trick is so simple it almost feel like nitpicking... And in general, the necessity of "activating story flags" (= proving you obtained certain pieces of information) is a style that works very well with Ellery Queen-esque "elimination" deduction styles (where you cross off suspects of a list), but not so much as with a locked room... The second part of the book is focused on learning the whereabouts of the Zarathustra's Wings and a certain coded message is a vital key to learning its location. The code itself is in hindsight pretty simple, but there aren't really good hints beforehand, and you can't advance in the book without breaking this code: you only learn which section to go next if you decipher the coded message. When The Zarathustra's Wings was originally released in 1986 (before Internet!), apparently a lot of people got stuck there so when the book was re-released as a pocket in 1990, they added a segment with sealed pages at the end, with a hint (basically the answer) to solve the code, out of fear of people getting stuck there again. But what did you think of this second part? I wasn't a big fan of it myself, because it was so focused on the code, and if you had missed certain story flags in the first half of the book, you'd be punished here severely.
Inventory check.
Do you have (F) and (W) in your inventory?   ⇒ Go to 9.
If not  ⇒ Go to 6.

It is impossible to have (X) in your inventory. You cheat! I didn't know I was working with a cheater! Forget it, I'm outta here!

Guess we're done now. We've looked into Okajima Futari's gamebook Zarathustra no Tsubasa or The Zarathustra's Wings. I guess it's more interesting as a concept, as there aren't that many mystery gamebooks, and certainly not by mystery novelists. But the mystery itself in the book isn't super exciting: if this had not been a gamebook, but a normal mystery novel, the locked room murder trick would be very disappointing and one could also argue that a locked room murder on its own doesn't work very well with the way the gamebook handles story flags, and that a pure whodunnit would've been better perhaps. The code too is a major part of the story that might not be really what people were looking for when they opened this book wanting to play a murder mystery gamebook. So Zarathustra no Tsubasa is only worth looking into if you are specifically interested in trying a murder mystery gamebook, as there simply aren't many, but don't expect a hidden gem here. Anyway, that's it for our team-up for now. Perhaps we'll meet again, but until then, stay safe and don't make any wrong life choices.
The End

Original Japanese title(s): 岡嶋二人『ツァラトゥストラの翼』

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Badge of Honor

「祟りじゃ〜っ! 八つ墓の祟りじゃ〜っ!」
"It's the curse! It's the curse of the eight graves!"
Tagline for the 1977 Yatsu Haka Mura film

Not a really in-depth post this time, but something I did want to highlight, especially now it becomes relevant also to people who read Japanse mystery fiction in translation...

Back when this blog first started out, the only English translation available of Yokomizo Seishi's work was The Inugami Clan. It would take over a decade for more of Yokomizo's work to be published, starting with a re-titled re-release of the The Inugami Clan translation as The Inugami Curse, but publisher Pushkin has since also released many other entries featuring who is perhaps Japan's most iconic fictional detective, at least, if you ignore Edogawa Conan... (disclosure: I have worked on translations for Pushkin). In Japan, Kindaichi Kousuke is without a doubt seen as one of the best known fictional detectives of the country. This is not only because of his attire, but his stories, set mostly in a post-war Japan, were perhaps contemporary when many of the most famous books were written, but in the years that follow, these stories started to offer something nostalgic. Of course, the post-war world as depicted in the Kindaichi novels is not portrayed as something that is good per se, but there's something familiar about the world, old-fashioned in its culture and mores that may have changed in the many decades that have followed, and often in a positive way, but there's still something recognizable in these books that invoke some kind of nostalgic reaction.

While the Kindaichi Kousuke series may have started publication in the post-war period, they have been kept very much alive in the minds of following generations due to many, many, many adaptations for the Japanese audience. My guess would be there's a new television adaptation of a Kindaichi Kousuke story like every two or three years, and before you ask, yes, there was one this year, as there was another television adaptation of Inugamike no Ichizoku broadcast this April. Basically any generation in Japan will have experienced some kind of adaptation of the Kindaichi series on television or in some other form. This of course leads to a 'chicken or egg' type of question, as obviously, they also make these adaptations because they know there's an audience there that knows the IP. At any rate, the Kindaichi Kousuke novels are well known, and have been popular for a long time... but that wasn't always so.

When reading up on the growth of the series, you'll often come across the term the "Yokomizo Boom" that occured in the 70s. This might be over a decade after most of the now most famous novels were published, but it was in this period the novels were really re-discovered by the general audience and the franchise gained a new life. The 1976 film Inugamike no Ichizoku was of course one of the major symbols of the succes of the series: it was the very first film of newly established studio Kadokawa, the film that would determine its future. Fortunately, the film was received well, leading to several sequels starring the same production/cast (Gokumontou, Akuma no Temariuta, Jooubachi and Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie) and it put Kadokawa on the right track to slowly grow, and it is now one of the major film studios in Japan. Of course, the bet on doing Inugamike no Ichizoku as the first production was based on data: the book publishing arm of Kadokawa had been having a great success selling paperback releases of the Kindaichi novels, and that is what the Yokomizo Boom really was: making the books available at a reasonable price for the mass market. Kadokawa still releases these pockets of the Kindaichi series and it's one of the most enduring lines in the fiction catalogue. These pockets really brought Kindaichi to the wide audience. While the books had been adapted before too before the 1976 film of Inugamike no Ichizoku in various forms, it was really the seventies that made it a huge franchise.

But... interestingly, the decision to do these mass market pockets of the Kindaichi Kousuke novels, sparking the "Yokomizo Boom" was based on something people wouldn't immediately expect. The answer? Comics. It was actually a comic adaptation of a Kindaichi Kousuke novel that was so popular, it attracted the president of Kadokawa's attention, convincing him to do pocket releases of the novels. The very first manga adaptation of Yatsu Haka Mura ("The Village of Eight Graves") was created by Kagemaru Jouya, and started serialization in 1968 in the manga magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Drawing in the gekiga style of that era ("dramatic pictures", depicting a more cinematic, adult-oriented style), the manga adaptation tells the same story as the book. The young man Tatsuya is contacted by a laywer, who says that Tatsuya is the son of Tajimi Youzou and that the Tajimi family, now led by the twin grand-grandmothers Koume and Kotake, hopes that Tatsuya will become the new head of the Tajimi family, as his older brother and sister are physically too weak. They live in the Village of Eight Graves, where centuries ago, eight samurai warriors were betrayed by the villagers. But because the conspirators started to meet early demises, the villagers, in an attempt to stop this 'curse', decided to deify the spirits of the dead samurai to appease them. The current villagers however do not want Tatsuya to return, as his father Youzou did something horrible in the past, and they fear his return will spark new deaths in the village. And of course, deaths do start to happen, but is it really the curse that is at play...?


The 1968 adaptation of Yatsu Haka Mura is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original book. While it is set in contemporary times (so 1968, and not the original 1948), it follows most of the book, something possible because it's certainly not a short adaptation at close to 500 pages. Some parts are of course a bit brief: some characters like Tatsuya's far-off relatives Shintarou and Noriko make few appearences, but hey, that's better than the adaptations where they get cut completely, right? The story also immediately tells you about the horrible deed Youzou (Tatsuya's father) did in the very first chapter, something that is usually revealed a bit later, but I guess it made for a more dramatic (and bloodier) first chapter...  But as a manga, this version of Yatsu Haka Mura reads quite well, and especially the art by Kagemaru really captures the oppressing, dreadful atmosphere of the isolated community that is the Village of Eight Graves, and the further the story goes and more murders occur, the creepier it becomes as the villagers start to show their hostility towards Tatsuya more obvious. The artwork also conveys the horrible murders quite well, and as a suspense manga, it's quite good.

And I do say suspense manga, because like the original novel, Yatsu Haka Mura is not a puzzle-focused mystery story. It is a suspenseful horror-adventure, that is great in atmosphere, but not much of real detecting goes on. Kindaichi appears a bit more often in the manga than in the book I think, though he's always only just a character seen from Tatsuya's POV, but still, the tale's mostly about following Tatsuya as things go on in the creepy village and he finds himself slowly cornered by all the events going on. Again, the art really emphasizes this element of the story, and makes it quite an enjoyable version. Just don't come in expecting to read a proper detective story where there's much... detecting going on.

But as also mentioned in the every important Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, a guide on the history of mystery comics in Japan, it was the enormous success of this manga during its serialization that convinced Kadokawa Haruki to publish the original novels as mass market pockets, creating the Yokomizo Boom in the 70s, cementing Kindaichi Kousuke's image as the Japanse fictional detective. In fact, there is a reason why Yatsu Haka Mura is indeed the first Kindaichi Kousuke pocket released by Kadoakwa, and why it is still numbered as the first one in their pocket releases, even though it is not the first novel in the series at all. This too can be traced back to the comic.

Anyway, I doubt this manga adaptation will ever see an English release, and even in Japan, it's not kept in print, but still, it's kinda interesting to see how much influence a comic adaptation can also have on the future of a series. In a way, perhaps we'd never have seen English translations of these books now if not for the existence of this comic adaptation! So in that sense, I think it was at least worthwhile for me to read this adaptation.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史(原)、影丸譲也『八つ墓村』

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

He Came With the Rain

"All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain... Time to die"
"Blade Runner"

It's been a while since my last game review! Especially of a recent game...

A young man awakens in a room, having lost his memories about his own identity. However, based on his clothes and the documents he's carrying, he quickly realizes he is a Master Detective, member of the  World Detective Organization. As per the instructions on the letter he found, he quickly makes his way to the express train headed for Kanai Ward. Kanai Ward is a special city where it never stops raining that is governed by a private company: the Amaterasu Corporation. The Amaterasu Corporation is so powerful not even the Unified Government has any say in Kanai Ward, and the city is generally actually kept closed off, not allowing outsiders to enter, nor people from Kanai Ward to leave. The young man learns his name is Yuma Kokohead, and that the World Detective Organization has sent several Master Detectives into Kanai Ward to investigate the Ultimate Secret of Kanai Ward, which is likely connected to a major crime that has been taking place all over the world, though the leader of the WDO refuses to give the few detectives in Kanai Ward any more information about it to not color their views. The detectives are all assigned to the Yakou Detective Agency, the only detective agency in Kanai Ward, though the boss, Yakou, is quite reluctant to make too much waves in Kanai Ward, as he's having trouble staying in business anyway: the Security Division of the Amaterasu Corporation act as the de-facto police of Kanai Ward, and have been controlling he city with a rather cruel hand.  As the detectives dig into the secret of Kanai Ward however, they get involved in various murder cases they have to solve, something not particularly appreciated by the Security Division. However, Yuma has one card up his sleeve. While he may have lost his memories, it turns out he made a deal with the devil. No, to be precise, he made a deal with a death god. Shinigami-chan is a supernatural being who made a deal with Yuma before he lost his memories and she has granted him the power to enter the Mystery Labyrinth: a supernatural world which allows them to solve a mystery in the real world, if he manages to find the way out from the Mystery Labyrinth. Can Yuma with the help of Shinigami-chan figure out what the ultimate secret of Kanai Ward is in the 2023 Nintendo Switch game Choutantei Jikenbo Rain Code, released in the West as Master Detective Archives: Rain Code?

Master Detective Archives: Rain Code is the latest game by the creators of the Danganronpa series, and quite literally so. While Danganronpa creator and writer Kodaka Kazutaka left Danganronpa developer/publisher Spike-Chunsoft to start his own company Too Kyo Games (creating games like Death Come True), Rain Code is co-developed by Spike-Chunsoft and Too Kyo Games, And you can really tell this was made by the Danganronpa creators, with art by Komatsuzaki Rui, but also lots of design choices and story telling beats that will be very familiar. Long story short: if you like Danganronpa, you're likely going to like Rain Code too, and if you didn't like Danganronpa, I doubt very much Rain Code will change your mind. The main set-up is very similar, with a multi-chapter story structure where you solve murder mysteries (often of an impossible nature), but also delve into an on-going mystery, which will get resolved in the final chapter. 

The at-times psychodelic pop art design we know from Danganronpa is also present, creating a very unique, but also very recognizable look for this game. When I first saw the game in a trailer, the world already looked very memorable, but having played the game, I can definitely say Kanai Ward, as a physical location, looks absolutely beautiful. It reminds a bit of Final Fantasy VII's Midgar, being a major city ruled by one big corporation, but the various city areas ranging with mostly office buildings to slums and a downtown area do look very memorable, especially with all the rain falling constantly, and the main area in particular has Blade Runner vibes going on. Art-wise, the game looks really cool.

Gameplay-wise, the main beats will not sound very surprising. At the start of each chapter, you control Yuma (in a third person view this time) walking across town, interacting with the various characters and sometimes even doing little sidequests to help the citizens of Kanai Ward. Once you had advanced, you'll get involved in a murder case, where your first priority becomes having to collect evidence. Sometimes, you'll have access to the crime scene, but often this will be a bit tricky because Yuma is actively locked out of an investigation by the local authorities. Enter the various Master Detectives who have joined the Yakou Detective Agency with Yuma: Master Detectives possess special, supernatural powers which they use in their investigations, ranging from being able to hear the slightest sounds in a certain radius, like even a heartbeat of a person hiding in a different room, to being able to use a kind of psychometry to visualize how a crime scene looked like when it was first discovered. Using these powers (often functioning as a kind of minigame), allows Yuma to collect the necessary evidence to solve the mystery, which is always done by having Shinigami-chan move Yuma (and often an ally) into the Mystery Labyrinth. I have to admit I wasn't really that impressed by the gameplay implementations of the various Master Detective powers in the investigation parts of the game. They provide for a bit of variety, but barely so, and while sometimes they did allow for unique mysteries, these moments were rare.

The Mystery Labyrinth is where the actual solving of a mystery takes place, being a supernatural realm that physically represents the mystery at hand. Abstract design representing the case makes these Mystery Labyrinths a sight to behold, but at the same time, I have to say I really, really think the Mystery Labyrinth is a failed attempt at a concept I think I can agree with in terms of ideas, but the execution in terms of gameplay is just not fun. Which is a bit of a shame, considering how good it feels to solve a mystery in well, a mystery game is pretty important. I think the basic idea behind the game is that they didn't want the player to ever get bored with the mechanics of solving a mystery, so they designed this part so there's always something happening. The main meat of these parts are the Reasoning Death Matches, where you have to "battle" with the mystery you're struggling with personified. This mystery-man will try to prove your deductions are wrong, but by using the correct evidence to prove they are wrong on the correct utterances, you can point out contradictions in their story, and thus "defeat" them. This is of course very similar to the Danganronpa games, in turn taken from the contradiction mechanic of the Ace Attorney games, so little surprises here. As in Danganronpa, there's an action element here, as timing and "evading" utterances is also important, as taking too much damage will kill you. But, this is not all, and that's the biggest problem I have with the Mystery Labyrinth. As said, they don't want to bore you, so basically everything is constantly presented with a different "mechanic" (often it's just the same mechanic of having to pick between three options, sometimes with a timer, or having to present a piece of evidence already in your possession). But because they want to make it look exciting, they present these questions in over the top manners in the Mystery Labyrinth, from having to pick the correct answers quickly while falling in the sky or fighting off a bad guy or riding a mine cart through a maze The Temple of Doom style. The questions themselves are perfectly fine, and I'll talk about that later, but every time the game switches to a different minigame, it has to load. And the load times are strangely long. Like, sometimes, you're waiting 20 seconds just for the next question to load, just because the presentation needs to be so over the top. It creates an incredibly bad flow for the game, as often you're physically forced to wait, even though answering the question correctly is rapidly leading you to the truth. After the first two chapters or so, I really got fed up with having to constantly wait for the extravagant presentation to load, even though the questions themselves are fairly simple.

Also: I have to admit I used the fast-forward button a lot on the banter and post-mini game discussions where you walk through the corridors of the Mystery Labyrinth after a while, because often, the game just needed to automatically go through all the banter before it allowed you to move on to the next gameplay segment... Each chapter also ends like in Danganronpa, where you have to do a short reconstruction of the timeline of the murder to show you really understand what had been happening. I still like them conceptually, as they will help people really order all the many events into a chronological story in their mind, but for some reason these parts (the voiceover of the reconstruction) can't be fast-forwarded....

The thing is, even though the Mystery Labyrinth can be so tedious because of the constant waiting, I do like the basic concept behind it. In games like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa, a lot of the story has to move forward via longer conversations and via contradictions, because that's the meat of the gameplay. Here, the idea is that the Mystery Labyrinth can just suddenly throw questions at you, which don't require as much of a natural set-up dialogue-wise, but which are still relevant to solving the mystery. I think this is related to the difference to a prose mystery story and a mystery story presented as a game: a mystery game will often have to be designed to have the mystery be able to be solved mainly through the core game mechanic, whereas a prose story, can provide starting points for solving the crime in a lot of different ways. In Rain Code, they basically have a magical explanation for why a certain question will pop up at this certain point, which might seem a bit artificial, but you don't really question it because of the supernatural background, and it allows the mystery solving process to be pretty streamlined. For example, Rain Code has a few stories where the mystery will be solved through an elimination method similar to Ellery Queen, where you have to identify the characteristics of the culprit and compare them to the suspects. That set-up works pretty good with the Mystery Labyrinth, because it can pose these questions that allow you to tick off those characteristics at the right time, without having to rely on the classic contradiction mechanics of Ace Attorney and Danganronpa, allowing for different kinds of mysteries, and different types of chains of reasoning to be presented in a game. I was quite pleasantly surprised to see that in a mystery game, so the idea of the Mystery Labyrinth really appealed to me, which in turn made it even more frustrating I had to wait for the game to load constantly for every single moment

The individual cases are pretty fun too, often slightly inspired by famous detective stories. The prologue for example, which introduces the player to the gameplay mechanics, takes place on a running express and is titled after Murder on the Orient Express, while the first proper case in Kanai Ward is about a horrible serial murderer with a title that reminds of Shunou Masayuki's Hasami Otoko ("Scissor Man"). There's even one set in a highly secured lab reminscent of Mori Hiroshi's stories. While I think in terms of complexity, the cases in Rain Code are nowhere near the more complex ones in the Danganronpa series like from the second or third game, I generally like most of them for their set-ups and the way they use the world of Kanai Ward, and the way the chains of reasoning are laid out for the player to solve these cases. You'll be solving quite a few impossible crimes (locked room murders) in this game, most of them with elements you'll recognize one way or another, but still presented in a fairly entertaining way. The Ultimate Secret of Kanai Ward on the other hand is not really a "conventional" mystery, and your mileage may very well vary on how much you like it. I kinda saw it coming, and I do think a few of the clues are quite clever, but it didn't come as shocking as it was probably intended, and the last chapter is quite bad in the sense it's basically one gigantic information dump on the player. The side-quests though are pretty boring, where you're not doing any real detective work and just doing errands across town (talk to A, then talk to B, return to A), which will feel very much as out-dated game design, similar to PlayStation 2 era Ryuu ga Gotoku/Yakuza games.

In the end though, I think that Master Detective Archives: Rain Code is a fairly interesting mystery game, even if it's hampered by atrocious loading times. It is basically what you'd expect from a game of the creators of Danganronpa and I assume many who read this blog will have played at least one of them, and thus have an idea of whether they'll like it or not. For those with no Danganronpa experience, I think it is a good game, but certainly not as comprehensive as the later entries of Danganronpa (which are cheapter at the moment), and some game design ideas do feel a bit dated. It's certainly not a epoch-making mystery game, though save for the loading times, it is a pretty solid designed game with interesting, even if not very complex mysteries for the player to solve. I had fun spending time in Kanai Ward at least, and if there's even a sequel, I'll definitely be very interested.

Original Japanese title(s): 『超探偵事件簿 レインコード』