This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Chase: Cold Case Investigations – Distant Memories is, let’s make no mistake, an incredibly awkward title for a game. I can only assume, based on issues with the plot and characterisation I will get to in a bit, that the title reflects the ambitions of the designers – that this is supposed to be the first episode in a series of Chase: Cold Case Investigations, and we are supposed to understand Distant Memories as being the title of the episode.
The premise is this: Shounosuke Nanase and Koto Amekura are detectives stuck in the dull, dead-end job of running the Tokyo police’s cold case department. Amekura is an idealist who is keen to get her teeth into a real case; at first, Nanase seems lazy and cynical and shows no real desire to investigate anything, but as the episode progresses and a fire gets lit under him we see another side to his character – and hints at a tragic past which might explain his reluctance to emerge from the safe obscurity of his office.
The detectives’ idle existence is shattered when someone telephones them with an anonymous tip. Five years ago, there was an explosion at Ryokudou Hospital, and a janitor died. Officially, the incident was found to be an accident – but the anonymous tip claims that the janitor was murdered. As the duo pore over the original case reports and reinterview witnesses, they discover a tangled web that will take all their skill to unpick.
Developed by Arc System Works – known mostly for the Double Dragon series – and localised for English-speaking markets (where it’s available as a download on the Nintendo 3DS store) by Aksys Games, Chase: Cold Case Investigations is interesting mainly for the individuals involved in making it, since it was produced by a team of veterans from the late, much-lamented Cing – including director Taisuke Kanasaki, who directed Cing’s best-loved titles. Cing, if you remember, are best remembered for the visual novels they produced; whilst the early Trace Memory (AKA Another Code) was a bit rudimentary, Hotel Dusk and its sequel Last Window were absolutely delightful. Both of those Kanasaki-directed games included deep, well-realised characters – not just the main protagonist, but most of the supporting cast too – emotionally engaging stories, intricate and interesting mysteries, a decent conversation system and some quite good puzzles, some of which made excellent use of the unique features of the Nintendo DS.
Given this pedigree, I think I and others can be forgiven for having high expectations of this game. Unfortunately, it has at least one serious problem on every front and in several important respects simply fails to satisfy.
Let’s go for the bad news first: far from being the sort of deep, satisfying experience that Hotel Dusk and Last Window were, Chase is incredibly short – I was able to getthrough it in just under two hours, and I wasn’t even trying to burn through it especially quickly. Given this constraint, it would be almost impossible to construct a scenario as intricate and involved as that of Hotel Dusk – hell, even Trace Memory takes twice as long to play through. On top of that, there’s basically no actual gameplay in this beyond two very brief, simple puzzles where you have to spot stuff in photos and some interrogation sections where you have to ask the subjects the right questions (but have plenty of opportunities to correct yourself if you get it wrong). There’s also one bit where Nanase is going over the facts of the case to himself and you have to answer simple multiple choice questions about them to help him (and to remind yourself of the important facts), which is a bit like the end-of-chapter summary sections in the Hotel Dusk series, but this motif appears once about a quarter of the way into the plot and then disappears, like they forgot to put the other summary sequences in – or realised the game was so short that nobody could possibly need them.
Even worse, important aspects of what could have been interesting bits of gameplay or enriched the writing take place more or less offscreen. For instance, there’s several bits where Amekura goes off to research the backgrounds of witnesses, revisit old autopsy reports, or otherwise does some detective work to obtain information useful to your interrogations. All of that sounds like awesome detective stuff that it would be fun to play through – but you don’t get to do it. She just goes off and then comes back and announces what she discovered. Then Nanase probably calls her stupid or something.
Ah, yes, about that – the characterisation in this film is mostly rather thin, and occasionally offensive, and the characters who suffer from this the worst are Nanase and Amekura – which is a really serious problem because they’re the people who we spend the most time with. Nanase has a secret in his backstory which lends him a little depth but for much of the time he’s a rude jerk who invests a lot of energy in belittling Amekura’s ability to do her work. Amekura, for her part, is that old familiar “I am very idealistic and I work hard!” anime stock character. It seems to me that the actual witnesses in the case are a bit more interesting, but that might just be because we spend such a spectacularly short time with them that we have correspondingly lesser expectations of the writing surrounding them.
Speaking of low expectations, I hope you don’t expect a grand visual experience from this game, because the background scenery is dull (you have the detective’s office in a boring shade of blue, and the interrogation room in a different boring shade of blue), and the character designs themselves are pretty drab. They are animated, but never to do anything interesting, and the animation loops are reused extensively. Hotel Dusk and Last Window also relied on a limited palette of characters animations, but it was less grating there firstly because you had vastly more characters and secondly because the animations were done in this really endearing style reminiscent of the Take On Me music video. This is largely a visual novel which may as well just skip the visual part altogether, since they contribute almost nothing to the experience. (The most interesting visual aspect of the whole thing is Nanase’s horrible little chinfuzz beard, notable only because it’s a major visual similarity between him and Kyle Hyde, the protagonist of Hotel Dusk/Last Window.)
So you have next-to-no gameplay, a completely linear plotline, annoying characterisation, dull visuals, and it’s over in two hours. Frustratingly, Kanasaki and his team actually manage to draw you in anyway, despite all of these shortcomings; the writing on the game, for all its faults, at least establishes a mystery that’s interesting enough to become really engrossing. This, if anything, made the sheer brevity of the game feel even worse not better. It genuinely, honestly felt like the hospital explosion case was meant to be the first of a series; as well as the major unanswered questions about Nanase’s past that are left hanging, there’s also a great many aspects of the case that point to there perhaps being something more going on here. (For instance, you never find out who made that anonymous tip-off in the first place.)
People write substantially longer visual novels with more varied graphics and superior gameplay on a hobbyist basis through the love of the medium, so expecting to charge money for what is, basically, a taster for the visual novel that Kanasaki and team actually wanted to write feels a bit rich. It’s particularly galling when it comes from what is actually a well-established studio – admittedly, Arc System Works isn’t an absolute titan of the industry, but they’ve got revenue of over half a billion yen a year and should surely have been able to budget a more substantive project than this, especially given the buzz around Cing.
It would be less galling if Arc System Works were officially going with an episodic serial model – paying a small amount for each episodes and having each new episode come out about a month or two after the last one would be a better model (though there would still be the issue of the episodes, if they were all of this length, being too short to support an especially meaty case). But this came out in May of 2016 and since then there’s been absolutely nothing – not even the announcement of a second episode, let alone an actual release – and at this point I have to conclude that there probably will be nothing. It seems to me that technically speaking, once you have the technology to make this episode there’s not much of a barrier to making the subsequent episodes just as quickly as you can write them and produce the art assets, and that with an episodic series of this nature you would would to be releasing the new episodes at a fairly brisk pace so that players don’t end up forgetting all the important details between episodes so easily. All this suggests to me that whatever the Cing guys have been doing since the game’s release, it hasn’t involved producing a second episode.
Of course, the fact that no episode 2 has come out might come down to poor sales of this first episode. But when the first episode is as sparse and lightweight compared with Cing’s glory years as this, how could poor sales be at all surprising? Word of mouth is a thing, after all, as you’re seeing right here. This thing sells for about £6 on the Nintendo eShop, so the fact that it isn’t priced as a fully-fledged game is at least something, but then again £6 is still £6 more than “free”, and again, there’s better-written and more engrossing and satisfying visual novels out there for free, or for a similarly modest cost. Even when you consider the extra cost of translation, I just don’t feel like I got £6 worth of videogame out of Chase.
It’s interesting that, whilst Hotel Dusk director Taisuke Kanasaki directed this one, the writer of that series (and Trace Memory) Rika Suzuki was not involved – she’s started her own company, and is going to be putting out an episodic RPG called Black Rose Suspects in the near future. If that gets an English localisation I would be very inclined to give it a try, not only because they seem to have a full season structure planned out rather than just expecting you to buy a teaser for the series and then maybe bothering to do the rest if it does well enough, but also because it certainly seems like it was Suzuki’s writing and design work which was the magic ingredient in Hotel Dusk and Last Window and which is the big thing that Chase: Cold Case Investigations is missing.