Famicom Detective Club is easily one of the least expected game releases for the Nintendo Switch. Originally released for the Famicom in the late 1980s, this visual novel duology was only ever released in Japan, with only re-releases on Super Famicom, Game Boy Advance and the Wii U Virtual Console to prove that NIntendo hadn’t entirely buried them in their past.
Now Utsugi Detective Agency’s teenage detectives have returned to re-solve the cases of The Missing Heir and The Girl Who Stands Behind, fully remade for the Nintendo Switch and with localisation and release outside Japan.
The first thing that struck me was just how good this game looks. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but all the environments are full of hand-drawn detail, and the characters are nicely stylised in an anime visual novel fashion, and there’s new Japanese voice work that wasn’t possible back in the NES and SNES days. I particularly enjoyed the subtlety of some of the character animation, capturing different facial expressions well to go along with the lines of dialogue, and some lightly 3D body motions coming in alongside when they’re needed. There is still an odd juxtaposition between when you have these nuanced animations and some snazzy fades in and out if you switch to talking to another character in the scene.
And you’ll be doing an awful lot of talking. While these are detective mysteries, you won’t be picking up clues all that often, and must instead prod and prompt people you’re talking to in order to get them to open up and provide you with the clues needed to progress.
Talking to someone will present you with a bunch of talking points that all relate to the case at hand and what they know, but there’s also the option to get them to look at an object, to investigate the scene, or to think to yourself – ‘Remembering’ in The Missing Heir, and ‘Speculating’ in The Girl Who Stands Behind.
At a few key points, both games break up the formula by posing you a slightly different challenge: to fill in the blanks and highlight a key item in the investigation, the new prime suspect, or the like. This can have you typing in a word or picking from the extensive character notes that will have been taken through the course of the investigation.
The problem is that the game’s flow is so muddied and messy. On plenty of occasions, you’ll have to prompt a person repeatedly on one particular topic to get them to finish their thought, but there’s no indication when a particular topic has been run dry, only when new points are added and highlighted in yellow. That’s relatively manageable when you can turn on an auto-skip for already read dialogue, blipping the dialogue box on screen so you can continue to lawnmower your way through the conversation items.
However, that persistent trawling of a conversation won’t always help you. There’s dozens of daft sticking points where, for example, you know you have to meet someone at a particular time, you know that you’ve run your witnesses’ conversation trees dry, but you have to speak to them both one last time in a very particular way for the time prompt to appear. Similarly, when scanning the environment and looking at a person, you might have a different result that triggers a new action when looking at their face compared the rest of their body. Worst are the dialogue puzzles where the “solution” is to select the option to quit the game.
Frankly, it’s quite infuriating at times to be stuck at a dead-end like this, and there were numerous times where I resorted to looking up a solution online. These weren’t the kinds of puzzles where you see the answer and go “Oh, why didn’t I think of that?” They’re the puzzles that have you cursing the game’s obtuse design. That there isn’t a new hints system for some of these sticking points is a real shame. The saving grace is that the core mysteries are both full of twists and turns that kept me nicely engaged.
The two games have rather contrasting tones. The Missing Heir sees the protagonist waking up with a nasty case of video game amnesia, but still throws themselves back into the investigation of the death of the Ayashiro family’s matriarch. Ostensibly a death of natural causes, it soon appears that there’s something a bit fishy going on, not least because each of her heirs starts popping their clogs and rumours of the Ayashiro family head waking from the dead to exact their revenge run wild through the village.
The Girl Who Stands Behind, meanwhile, is a prequel (and one in which your protagonist is not first bonked on the head, even if it’s still important to play this game second for the duology’s narrative to flow). Again, there’s a supernatural twist to things, as a freshman schoolgirl winds up dead after investigating the titular Girl of legend, a ghost that seems to have a connection to an old cold case. It’s just that little bit spookier in tone.
The most important thing is that the stories are both fun to unravel, even as they are amusingly backloaded with twists and crazy turns in the last few chapters. Not only that but you’ll be surprised at the end of The Girl Who Stands Behind to discover the game has been tracking certain actions and choices along the way.
The game experience is nicely broken up into bite-sized chapters, each equating to a day in the investigation. At the end of a chapter, you’ll typically head back to Utsugi’s office and get a chance to recap the day’s events, putting together a handful of new puzzle pieces. It’s a nice way to break things up for shorter play sessions, with both games having 11 chapters and running for around 5 hours, depending on how stuck you get!