The recent trend in adventure games has been to take on more of an episodic model, which is great when they finally come to fruition, but often results in an introductory chapter that lacks satisfaction. Detective Grimoire ($1.99), from publisher Armor Games and developer SFB Games, fortunately bucks this trend, offering a solid, self-contained story that also has sequel hooks firmly planted. Although it offers just a single case that can be solved in just a few hours without a lot of effort, the level of polish on both the art and the story help elevate the experience. I also appreciate its more abstract and light-hearted take on things. It helps the game stand out a bit in the current landscape of more serious and realistic entries into the adventure genre.
This game is actually the titular character’s second outing, with his first case being a flash game released in 2007. It was a pretty straight-forward point and click adventure game that had you solving the case of a murder at a fairground. There are one or two vague references back to that game in this one, but if you’ve never played it before, you’ll be quite fine starting off here. In fact, if you have played that first case, you’re probably going to be a bit shocked at how much the developers have stepped things up in terms of production values. The generic, poorly-animated, anime-inspired characters have been swapped out for characters drawn in a unique, abstract style with lots of nice animations. Grunts and giggles have been replaced with some surprisingly good full voice acting, and the gameplay itself has evolved ever-so-slightly from pixel hunting. While the first game was very much an amateur production, Detective Grimoire feels extremely professional and polished.
In this game, you play as Detective Grimoire and must of course solve a murder case. This time, the location is a tourist attraction built in a swamp. The owner has met an untimely fate, and everything points quite squarely at a single suspect, with just one tiny problem: said suspect may or may not exist. As you investigate the swamp for clues, you’ll meet with seven different characters who all have some degree of suspiciousness to them. By searching for clues, talking to the different characters, and making some inferences, you’ll eventually puzzle out both the identity of the culprit and the mystery behind the attraction itself. The story is fairly engaging, and the characters have, well, character in that Ace Attorney (Free) kind of way, though, much like those games, you’ll probably figure out the answers to the big questions well before the protagonist does.
The gameplay largely consists of moving from location to location searching for clues by clicking around on the screen, and questioning all of the people you come across. In the manner of Ace Attorney, you can present clues and profiles to people to gather more information. You’ll also come across some very light puzzles that feel like the stuff seen in a lot of early DS games. Generally, all you need to do to progress is be thorough in your questioning and make sure you haven’t missed clicking on anything in the background. Each character has a challenge associated with them, where you need to present the correct evidence and choose the right answers to uncover some sort of secret they’re carrying. Sometimes, the Detective will stop to gather his thoughts and you’ll have to play a sort of mad-lib with your clues and sentence fragments. Apart from some items that are easily-missed, there’s not a lot of challenge to the game, but it’s just engaging enough to keep you playing.
As I mentioned before, it’s not a terribly long game, clocking in at a few hours, but the pacing is pretty good and the story is told well enough. Right around the time the killer becomes quite obvious, another interesting mystery is introduced that helps carry the plot through to the end. By the time the credits roll, we’ve had both major plots resolved, with a few questions left unanswered that could serve as sequel fodder. As is usual with this kind of game, there’s not much in the way of replay value, but I think what’s here is a pretty good value compared to its peers on the App Store. It’s basically like a late-game case from an Ace Attorney game in terms of length and content. It’s particularly impressive when you take into account just how good everything looks and sounds.
Each of the locations in the game is represented by a gorgeous painted backdrop, often with small touches of animation to help the scene come alive. When you talk to a character, you see a full-body close-up of them and Grimoire, and depending on what they’re saying, they’ll act out one of several animations. All of the text is fully-voiced, and the quality of the acting is quite good, though it’s a bit too obvious in situations when one actor is playing multiple characters. There are also some nice ambient sound effects and a haunting soundtrack that helps establish the mood. The only damper on things is that this is one of those games that completely ignores the mute button on your mobile device. You’ll have to manually turn the volume all the way down or use headphones if you don’t want to disturb people around you. One of the puzzles involves sound, so I can kind of understand why they did it, but I’m not a fan of games overriding your choice in that regard.
Detective Grimoire has a nice, friendly interface. It’s very easy to use and things are laid out nicely. By default, the game will try to highlight important areas of interest, cutting back on some of the pixel hunts, but you have the option to turn this help off and I recommend doing so if you want even a modicum of difficulty. There’s no support for Game Center achievements or anything like that, but the game does keep a running percentage of how much you’ve found. Not all of it is necessary to complete the game, so that serves as an objective beyond actually solving the mystery, if you’re so inclined.
I like all of the mechanics in this game, and it’s really a well-crafted experience. I very much appreciate that the story is self-contained. I wish the game had a bit more bite to it, though. None of the puzzles are challenging in the least, and there are no consequences for making mistakes, leaving the game on the whole feeling a bit more like a visual novel than an actual detective adventure. I feel like everything is in place here to make an absolutely top-shelf adventure game if they opt to make a more elaborate sequel. In this outing, however, Detective Grimoire is going to have to settle for being an enjoyable, though altogether too simple, ride. Check it out if you think you won’t mind the lack of challenge.