Touch Detective 2½ review
A year ago, I reviewed Touch Detective, the debut Nintendo DS adventure game from Japanese developer BeeWorks and publisher Atlus. As the third adventure game to come out for the handheld system after the excellent Trace Memory and Phoenix Wright, Touch Detective had large shoes to fill, and it didn't fill them very well. With its pixel hunts, obscure puzzles, and punishingly linear gameplay, the game suffered from pretty much every pitfall an adventure game can suffer from, and the fact that it did next to nothing with the DS's unique capabilities made it no better than a mediocre PC game. At the time, it was one of the few DS adventure games out there and helped fill the void until Hotel Dusk and Phoenix Wright 2 came out, but on the whole, Touch Detective struck me as extremely average.
So here I am one year later reviewing the sequel, Touch Detective 2½. (I'm not sure what the point of that ½ is, other than to be cute. In an amusing/annoying twist, the font Atlus used for the manual didn't display the ½ correctly so the game is referred to as "Touch Detective 2?" throughout--perhaps a more fitting title, as in, "They really made a sequel to Touch Detective?") Based on the screenshots and Atlus' marketing materials, I had a hunch going in that the game I was about to play would be more or less identical to the first. Still, some little part of me was hoping for an improvement, anything to show that the designers had paid attention to the criticisms of the first game and tweaked it to become, if not something awesome, then at least something better. But alas, it was not to be. Touch Detective 2½? On the whole, it's pretty average.
The sequel's premise is identical to the first game. You play as Mackenzie, a newly appointed member of the Great Detective Society and official "touch detective." (What exactly a "touch detective" is seems to be something only Mackenzie understands, and even though people ask her what it means throughout the game, she never wants to talk about it.) Mackenzie is a little girl who lives with her butler Cromwell and mushroom sidekick Funghi. Her cases usually involve her two closest friends, the conniving detective wannabe Chloe and well-meaning bubblehead Penelope. Each case, or "episode," as the game calls them, follows a simple formula. Someone presents Mackenzie with a problem (i.e. all the colored noodles in the town have been stolen), and Mackenzie must figure out who did it. Her methods of investigation are very simple: talk to people and "touch" things with the stylus to pick them up or use them. Yep, that's about it.
Each episode has a central theme or location, such as the annual noodle festival, at which all the townsfolk have gathered to dance, play games, and (you guessed it) eat noodles. Much of the investigation unfolds in this main location, but in most of the cases Mackenzie can also traipse around town to various other places, accessible via a world map. In this way, you can question people who are not directly involved in the action, collect seemingly irrelevant but ultimately useful items, and occasionally get help from Cromwell.
The case usually takes a deeper turn somewhere in the middle. In the noodle example, which is Touch Detective 2½'s first case, it turns out that not only have the town's colored noodles been stolen, but so has a very important item that could ultimately lead to the entire town's downfall. Even when the stakes are supposedly high, the case is always treated with a blasé, sing-song attitude that reminds you these are just children playing make-believe. One could argue that Touch Detective 2½ is a comedy game and putting the characters in true danger isn't necessary, but the fact that the cases never seem all that important—even to the characters—and are often downright silly made it hard for me to care about what I was being asked to do. (This may be due in part to localization issues, where the gravity of the situation hasn't been translated well into English, but I'm not willing to put all of the blame on iffy translation.) The sole exception, a case involving ghosts and lost love, stood apart to me as the best of the bunch; I only wish more of the content followed that episode's lead.
There are five cases this time around, one more than in the previous game. You have to play the cases in order, but there is a "bonus case" that you can distract yourself with between episodes (more on this below). The stories are linked by the Cornstalker, a common enemy who looks, surprisingly enough, like a stalk of corn in a superhero outfit. The Cornstalker generally poofs into the episode near the end, and even though Mackenzie cracks the case, the guy always gets away. This common thread running through the episodes is new to Touch Detective 2½, initially giving me hope that the game would have more depth than its prequel, but unfortunately the Cornstalker storyline is not well executed. Although the cases seemed to be building to a climax, the ending was abrupt and didn't tie anything together. The villain didn't detract from the game, but even as the credits rolled I was so confused by his never-adequately-explained presence, I was left wondering why the designers bothered with him at all.
Other new characters include Daria, a fellow girl detective who, in spite of her mission to catch the Cornstalker, usually bows out to let Mackenzie do all the work; Connor, the proprietor of the shopping plaza's new antique shop, whom Mackenzie has a crush on; Mayor Tom, a talking turkey with such an inflated sense of importance he has a museum devoted to him; and the artist, a big-lipped lady obsessed with two things: art and noodles. These characters show up in multiple cases. Then there are the guest stars who play major roles in a single episode's storyline, such as Harrison (a big, burly archeologist who reminds me of Sweetums from the Muppet Show) and the scary, mace-wielding train conductor. There are also some returning characters from the last game, including Beatrice, the bird-like condominium owner; the bakery lady; and the ghost-faced locals. New players may be a little lost as to the roles of these recurring characters, but you'll figure them out quickly. I only noticed a couple of points where knowledge of the previous game would have been useful, and those were during the bonus case and didn't really have an impact on the gameplay.
Between the new and returning cast, BeeWorks has built quite a menagerie of quirky characters to inhabit the Touch Detective world. Unfortunately, they're largely interchangeable and none are interesting enough to carry a story. I mean, she's okay and all, but I never found myself thinking, "Yes! I get to go talk to the bakery lady again!" This raises an important point about the writing: it's just not very good. It's not really bad, either, in that there are no glaring grammatical errors or gross mistranslations, but it's pretty straightforward and bland. In a lighthearted game with such varied and bizarre characters, you'd expect at least a few laugh-out-loud performances, but all the dialogue has the same tone. It's a shame, because some good writing could take this not-so-great game and raise it up to something worth your time.
Some of the locations are reused from the last game, too: Mackenzie's office, the shopping plaza, and the condominium. Others are new, and only become accessible on the map as you progress through the game's five episodes. A couple of the cases in Touch Detective 2½ follow a different formula—most notably episode two, which takes place entirely on a moving train—but for the most part, the gameplay consists of making something happen, then visiting every location open to you and talking to every character you encounter to trigger the next thing that happens. The world is small, so triggering an event isn't too difficult, but it makes for choppy gameplay, particularly in the later episodes when more locations are available. I was left feeling like I wasn't really affecting anything, and more like the whole story was scripted and I was just clicking through it. Of course, in any game the story is scripted and you essentially are making the story move by clicking through it, but a good game hides this mechanic from the player. Touch Detective 2½ does not.
I found myself getting stuck less than I did in the first game, which either means the designers made an effort to provide more straightforward gameplay or I'm just better at predicting the logic this time around. Either way, there are no puzzles that had me baffled for long periods of time. Likewise, none of the puzzles really made me feel smart for figuring them out. The gameplay is all very simple point-and-click, with the stylus serving as your mouse would in a PC game. Although the stylus could have been used in more unique ways, such as in a puzzle where a screw needs to be turned using a specific method, Touch Detective 2½ never makes use of the touch screen for these activities like games such as Trace Memory and Hotel Dusk have. If the game were a PC or Game Boy port I'd understand it, but since Touch Detective 2½ was designed for the DS, this is a pretty big failing.
The "bonus episode" can be accessed at any time, and is comprised of 30 mini-quests that Mackenzie can complete by talking to and running errands for various people around town. As in the last game, the bonus episode gives you something more to do, but I wouldn't call it compelling gameplay. The mini-quests are painfully simple and are often solved by trial and error. The fifty-item touch list is also back, again serving as an incentive to crawl all over the locations looking for things to tap your stylus on, but in the end it's not a rewarding experience. If completing the bonus episode and touch list resulted in unlocking a really cool extra, like a cutscene that helped tie together the disjointed overarching story, then I'd recommend it, but as it stands, these tasks are really just time wasters.
The graphics, interface, and music are more or less identical to the first game. You control Mackenzie by tapping the stylus where you want her to go, or alternatively, by moving an on-screen cursor with the D-pad and then pressing A to make Mackenzie go where the cursor is pointing. (I wish the D-pad would allow for direct control instead, but c'est la vie.) The stylized graphics are reminiscent of the hand-painted adventure games of the 1990s, with big-eyed characters and cartoon-style cutscenes lending an anime flare. There's a fine amount of detail in spite of the small screen size, but more close-ups on items and on the faces of people you speak to would be appreciated. My biggest gripe with the graphics is that Mackenzie frequently walks through other people rather than walking around them. Not a huge deal, but it's sloppy.
The music hasn't changed much. The theme that plays at Mackenzie's house is still annoying, and the museum theme made me want to stab Mayor Tom in the eye with my stylus every time I went there. That said, I really liked the haunting melody that plays at the abandoned mansion. (I'm still humming it days later!) Touch Detective 2½ is text only, but when the characters "speak," a tone accompanies the appearance of the text on the screen that's fairly indicative of that character's personality. I liked this feature last time, and still do. It's a creative way to use sound to tell the player a little more about the character, while keeping within the DS's limitations.
The bulk of Touch Detective 2½'s action takes place on the DS's bottom screen. The top screen is mainly used to display a close-up picture of Mackenzie. Depending on what's happening, she'll react with a scared face or a giggle. Sometimes a thought bubble will show her inner monologue, which may or may not lend insight into what's happening on the bottom screen. I found myself ignoring the top screen most of the time and therefore missing most of these interjections, but missing them didn't have any impact on my ability to understand or complete a case. This non-essential use of the top screen is another waste of what the DS can do.
Okay, so: few improvements over the first game, a convoluted overarching storyline, painfully simplistic gameplay. What should I score such a mediocre title? Once again, I'm going to have to go with three stars. If you're the DS-owning, adventure-game-loving type who has already run through the new Phoenix Wright and are really hurting for another DS adventure, then yes, think about getting Touch Detective 2½ (but you might want to wait a few months and see if the price drops). Just know what you're getting into. I did—and I have to admit, there were points where I enjoyed myself. I only wish there had been more.
If you're a DS owner and you like adventure games, you might enjoy this one, in spite of its flaws. It's not horribly offensive, it's just not as good as it could be.