The Ben Jordan cases have established a popular and critically acclaimed series of amateur adventures, and author Francisco 'Grundislav' Gonzalez had been recognized as an accomplished game designer in the AGS community even before he embarked on the series. Land of the Rising Dead is the fifth game of the series (which has been announced as having eight episodes in total) and continues the exploits of the eponymous paranormal investigator.
Ben Jordan began his adventures just around the corner from his author's home in Florida, but his work investigating supernatural phenomena has already taken him to Britain in Episodes 3 and 4 and now he heads to Japan. Accompanying Ben are his new friends from the last episode, Alice and Simon, and the team sets to work investigating "The Ghost Murders", a series of killings in and around Osaka. They soon discover that the recently deceased in nearby villages are starting to go missing and that people have been reporting zombie sightings. It seems that Ben will need to battle those from beyond the grave once more, and find out (and put a stop to) what is going on with these murders.
Ben is the only playable character, although Simon is used as Ben's researcher in the plot and gameplay. Ben can ask Simon to look up various things and Simon gets back later with the information. Alice goes around doing her own interviews, but sometimes Ben will need to work with Alice to pull off a deception to continue his investigation. The game's characters are certainly one of its best features: all the "good guys" are very likeable and you really get involved with them. Ben himself has troubled nights and his dreams really add sympathy and complexity to his character. Incidental characters are also well done, including Inspector Yoshi, the skeptical policeman, and a loud, mad, game-show host who tries to get Ben into some hot water, among others. The dialogue, atmosphere and interaction with most of the non-player characters works well, being serious enough to maintain the spooky atmosphere but humorous enough to keep us entertained.
The graphics in Ben Jordan are of good quality for an Underground production. They are not quite up there with Apprentice and Fountain of Youth, but they have their own style and never distract or get in the way. The music is excellent and conveys a great Japanese atmosphere to the game without being clichéd.
The puzzles in the game mostly involve talking to people or acquiring objects and putting them to use elsewhere. The solutions are pretty logical, on the whole, but some of the puzzles seem entirely pointless and unrealistic exercises in padding. And while we're on the topic of padding, there were horrible flashbacks to playing Syberia here, where I had to spend way too long, even with the help of the Escape key to skip stuff, watching Ben walk through nice but irrelevant backgrounds. Such padding certainly wasn't a feature of the last Ben Jordan game, and this is a first in a number of steps backwards for the series.
Unfortunately, Ben Jordan 5 has some notable problems with plot and puzzle design issues. The Japanese police force is presented as singularly inept. Now, you might expect them to be skeptical about reports of paranormal goings-on, but Ben has to go around doing even the most basic legwork and deduction that is neither a challenge to the player nor remotely believable that the police wouldn't have done already.
The whole suspension of disbelief is broken by this and other things. The game-show host who insists on Ben doing his show may be a bit of comic relief, but why would he possibly have heard of him? Some of this might be explained by the overarching plot which has been hinted at, but it's not much of a plot if it ruins the episodes in the meantime. It is all very well to have things in a story that you go back to at the end and say "Ah, that was why...." but if you're left hanging for three more games over some serious inconsistencies in the meantime, then it can spoil things.
The plotline itself also seemed like something of a rehash. The stories in the previous games all seem to have quite a lot of originality, but this episode's story seemed somewhat derivative of the common "Westerner thrown in amongst Japanese culture" theme, and the solution to the zombie mystery is something I've seen in a thousand X-Files episodes.
Of the previous games, I have only played Episode 4 and I enjoyed it a lot. So given the quality of that game and the reports of greatness I have heard of earlier episodes, I found Ben Jordan 5 somewhat disappointing. I hope that any future episodes will address the issues of padding, and avoid puzzles and events that really don't make sense. That is not to say, however, that this is not a good game overall if you can cope with some implausibility. In fact, on the strength of its characters, dialogue, and production values, it's still one of the best games of the Underground scene so far in 2006. Only because the bar had been raised so high by the earlier games did this one fall short; the victim of its own raised expectations. There's still a decent adventure to be had in the Land of the Rising Dead, but if you're a fan of the Ben Jordan series, I suggest you lower your expectations a little before playing this latest installment. And if you're new to the series, you might want to try one of the previous games as your introduction, as it's not fully representative of the best that Ben Jordan has to offer.
Ben Jordan Case 5: Land of the Rising Dead is approximately 23 MB and can be downloaded (along with the other episodes in the series) from the developer's website.