Monday, June 16, 2014

Detective School Dropouts

『みえないストーリー』 (岸本早未)

An invisible story
We're still uncertain
But is it alright for us
to believe we can still go on?
"An Invisible Story" (Kishimoto Hayami)

I sometimes make comments about my book backlog, but that backlog isn't even nearly as horrible as my games backlog. Today, a game I think I purchased two years ago. But it could also have been five years ago. I forgot.

Two years ago, I discussed the complete Tantei Gakuen Q ("Detective Academy Q") manga series in three parts (part one, two and three). The series, created by the people behind Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, told the story of Q (Qualified) Class, a group of five young students of the prestigious Dan Detective School. Kyuu, Megu, Kinta, Kazuma and Ryuu all had their own fields of speciality (Kyuu and Ryuu were geniuses in reasoning, Megu had photographic memory, Kinta had extraordinary physical skills and Kazuma was the resident whizzkid) and would combine their powers to form Voltron to solve a myriad of cases, from simple thefts to serial murders. Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da! ("Detective Academy Q: You're the Great Detective!") is the first of two Game Boy Advance games based on the series and offers the player, in the role of Kyuu, four different cases to solve together with the other members of Q Class.

It shouldn't be very surprising if I tell you Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da! is a detective adventure game. Not all, but a fair amount of the games I discuss on this blog follow the same exact command-style format (in fact, that's where this blog's current look is based upon. To be precise, the lay-out is based on Famicom Tantei Club). Talk to the right persons and investigate the right places to obtain the necessary evidence and answer a few questions in the denouement scene to solve the case. Nothing new here.

Well, one interesting special feature is the evidence collecting system: the player has to 'notice' and write down the evidence himself. Whenever you see something suspicious (the dialogue usually gives it away), you have to press a button to 'record' these hints in a notebook yourself. Then, at the end of each story, you'll have to select a certain, set amount of these hints that lead to the solution of the case. The catch is that 1) it's thus possible to miss the necessary hints (if you didn't record the hint) and 2) there are a lot of fake hints. If you chose the wrong evidence, your case will be faulty and fall apart during the denouement. This system makes the investigations a bit more exciting, as you wouldn't want to miss recording a decisive piece of evidence. The red herring hints are also fun, as these make it a bit more difficult figuring out what really happened.

But it's also a very faulty system. Most importantly, the system is extremely vague (in fact, it's not even explained in the game! I am not that big a fan of tutorials, but this really should have been explained...). Because you have to 'save' evidence yourself, and because of the existence of fake evidence, you never know whether you have collected all the necesssary, right evidence to solve the case. You just have to guess. The game sometimes gives you the option to expose the murderer / trick early, but you'll often need evidence you can only find after being given that option. Which makes no sense at all. That's like Ellery Queen giving you a Challenge to the Reader, only to reveal that you needed facts made known after the Challenge!

Also, it's extremely vague what the game expects from you at the end of each story. When you choose to expose the criminal, you are told that an X amount of hints will reveal the truth behind the case. But that's all. You are never given a specific description of what the game wants of you (do you want evidence that points to the criminal? Evidence of how a certain trick was performed? Evidence of when the crime was commited?), and it often results in just a guessing game in just what the games wants you to prove. The Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney games in comparison always make it very clear, mostly by very precise wording and focus on contradiction between testimony and evidence. Trick DS also had a lot of fake evidence/hypotheses, but at least you were given a direction, because the game would tell you exactly what hypothesis would follow out of each specific combination of evidence pieces. In Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da!, you can only pray you're going in the same direction the game wants you to go, because it never tells you anything.

Oh, and finally, I was kinda disappointed that the game was so focused solely on tricks. If you do manage to read the game's mind and 1) collect all of the right evidence before entering the finale and 2) select the right evidence despite not being told what the game wants you to prove in the first place, you're done. The game is focused completely on just figuring out how a thief managed to get to the eight floor of a department store, steal an art artifact, and get out within five minutes, or what kind of alibi trick is behind the multiple murders in a small mountain village (real examples from the game) and if you do manage to get these parts right, the criminal will confess immediately, without any effort at defending himself. Which is kinda anti-climatic. Once again, Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney is built completely around the premise of deductive confrontations with criminals, but even other adventures without such an obvious detective vs criminal confronation system usually feature a criminal who will at least give you the pretense of putting up a fight, instead of just saying "yes, you're right, arrest me".

Was there nothing good about Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da!? Well, the stories themselves are also quite boring, so mostly no. I do have to mention that I did think this was technically a good game. I don't mean that in a mocking way, but the character design (based on the manga), the menus, the voice samples (the voice actors from the animated TV show), the music, I really liked what Konami did for this game in terms of presentation. I know it sounds sarcastic, but I do like the game on a technical level. And I do think the evidence collecting system has potential. But presentation and ideas aren't enough to make a good game... (Also: see this older post where I talk more about mechanics in detective games)

And two more notes: each chapter opens with a short test about a variety of topics, to simulate the 'school' element of the series. The idea is good and the questions that test your deductive skills and other detective related skills are fun, but a lot of the questions are just random trivia questions, and hard ones too! Also, there's a competitive card minigame, which is insanely fun, because this minigame actually does test your deductive skills up to an extent. I had more fun with the minigame than with the main game.

Anyway, Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da!? is a pretty disappointing game. And I mean pretty in the literal way of the word. There's a vaguely good idea with the evidence collecting system, but it stays vague the whole game, leaving the player in the dark as to what he's supposed to do. A bit more direction would have helped the game. As well as more interesting stories. Conclusion: this game definitely does not belong in the Qualified Class.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵学園Q  名探偵はキミだ!』

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