We should have seen this coming.
When the DS was released way back in 2005, adventure games for the system were few and far between, but the ones that were around were... how should I put this? Brilliant. Not because they were the best adventure games ever made, or were even all that different from games that had been coming out for the PC for years, but because in spite of the scaled-down format, they somehow managed to be fun, novel, stylish, and (*gasp*) appealing to a wider audience than the subset of DS owners who already considered themselves adventure gamers. "How come there aren't more games like this?" I remember people asking, after playing Trace Memory or the first Phoenix Wright. And I remember thinking, wow, this could actually be a turning point. For a little while there, it seemed like the adventure genre might stop being the butt of jokes and could even find a whole new audience, thanks to Nintendo's handheld. What a concept.
I'm sorry to say that with the release of Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles, the honeymoon is officially over. Not only is this the worst DS game I've had the misfortune of playing, it's one of the worst adventure games I've ever played, period. And coming from someone who loves adventure games and is usually willing to give them a fair amount of leeway, that's saying a lot.
Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles is a repackaging of Tantei Jinguji Saburo, a noir-inspired crime-solving series that has been kicking around Japan in various formats for twenty years. Last year, a DS version with six cases was released in Japan. Five of those cases were ports of existing content and the sixth was a brand new, DS-exclusive title. Jake Hunter is an English localization of the Japanese DS release, except it only includes the first three cases, none of these being the case that was specifically designed for the DS. But hey, that's okay, right? I mean, most of the Phoenix Wright cases were ports of GBA titles, and those worked out. Which is why I'm not willing to cut this game any slack for being a port. I don't care that it's a port. There's so much more to condemn it for. Like low production values, poor localization, abhorrent writing, and a general lack of this little thing called gameplay.
A Jake Hunter case goes pretty much like this. You start out in your office at the Jake Hunter Detective Agency. Someone comes in and offers you a case. You go to the scene of the crime. At best, you have the options to "inspect," "talk," and "move," which can be selected from the bottom screen using either your stylus or the D-pad and A button. (All of these options aren't always available; it depends on what the game wants you to do next.) When you've found what you are expected to find, a new location might open up. You can "move" there and "inspect" and "talk" some more. At some point you'll return to your office, smoke a cigarette, and call it a day. Then the cycle repeats, until Jake finally has an a-ha! moment and cracks the case.
As in many DS games, locations, character portraits, and text are displayed on the top screen, and the options you can choose from to control Jake's actions are shown on the bottom screen. The gameplay isn't all that different from what you do in the investigation segments of Phoenix Wright (or any adventure game, for that matter), but it's seriously stripped down. For one thing, selecting "inspect" doesn't mean you get to comb the location for clues. Instead you'll be presented with a short list of things you can inspect (i.e. "vicinity," "door," "door handle"). You're not looking for clues in the environment and honing in on them, but choosing from a predetermined list of areas and reading text about each of these areas. Sometimes the text is merely descriptive. Other times, it unlocks a new area for you to inspect or identifies someone you can talk to. For example, inspecting a hotel lobby might cause you to notice that there's a front desk, which adds "front desk" to the list of things you can inspect. Inspecting the front desk clues you in to the presence of a receptionist. Only then does the "talk" option appear, allowing you to engage the receptionist in (minimal) conversation.
Another big limitation is that you can't move around at will. The game won't let you leave for a new location until you've done everything it deems necessary in the current location, even if what you're being forced to do is entirely unnecessary in the grand scheme of the story. More often than not, if you select the "move" option, Jake will say that there's more to do or he's not ready to go, even when it's clear that you've done all you can. (It's not like you get that many options in each location to begin with!) When this happens, you're usually stuck having to talk to a character nearby so Jake can comment about how there's nothing left to do and it's time to leave. Only then will the game let you leave, often forcing you to the next location it wants you in, rather than letting you choose your next step.
The issue of non-interactivity extends farther than this. Even when you are allowed to access your map, there are usually only one or two locations on it. Your meager inventory includes business cards and a cell phone, but you can't use these items preemptively. You have to wait for a conversation to reach an awkward impasse ("He won't talk to me unless I find some way to convince him I'm a detective!") or for the lightbulb to go off over Jake's head ("If only I had some way of reaching the police!") On a couple of occasions, the game does lead you into a more interactive mode, usually involving an action sequence. For example, you're about to be beaten up in an alley. Instead of choosing between "talk to thug #1" and "talk to thug #2" you now get to choose between "dodge," "punch," and "kick." With the exception of a few camera shakes, the action isn't shown on-screen, so these sequences feel detached and ironically less action-packed than they would have if the game had just presented a few descriptive sentences about being jumped in the alley by a couple of thugs.
At several points during a case, you'll be prompted to "think." In the first two cases this typically happens at the end of a day, whereas the third case gives you a little more freedom to exercise Jake's powers of deduction throughout the day. Not that it really matters, since Jake Hunter's version of "thinking" is to present you with a series of mundane questions and multiple choice answers. These sequences seem like they'd be a good way to make connections and put together the pieces of the investigation, but in reality, they're pretty contrived. The game is just testing your memory, and the stakes are low to none. If you get an answer wrong, no problem, simply try again. There's no incentive to get the answers right, and no puzzle solving required to reach an epiphany. This is more like a pop quiz where you're forced to prove you were paying attention to what just happened, before the game will let you proceed to the next scene.Continued on the next page...