Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past review
With his first investigation dating back to 1987, Jinguji Saburo, a thirty-two year old private eye with a fondness for fancy suits, Glenmorangie whiskey and hazardous cases, is a real adventure star in Japan. However, his westernly incarnation, Jake Hunter, debuted only last year on Nintendo DS with the decidedly disappointing Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles. Not only did the game suffer from an awful translation, it inexplicably featured only three of the six cases formerly available in Japan. It’s no surprise that the game received a lukewarm reception at best. What is surprising is that Aksys, the American publisher, recently decided to re-release the game, but this time with all six cases included, and each featuring an enhanced translation. In addition to these improvements, Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past features an “Unleashed” mode, consisting of another six brief comedic investigations and tons of extra goodies, like interviews with the developers, trivia quizzes and even a bonus visual story. This is clearly the game as it was originally intended to be, and if you aren’t put off by streamlined gameplay, you will now be able to experience this captivating pulp romp to the fullest.
Before delving into the game itself, let’s start with the translation issue. If you already played the first Jake Hunter release, you know that the adaptation was not only dull and uninspired, but also brutally hampered by awkward typos, continuity inconsistencies and overly cumbersome sentences. I’m pleased to say that when the publisher promised a game “re-localized with creative imagination and flair”, they weren’t lying, because the translation has indeed been significantly improved, now very fluent and atmospheric. For example, the game’s first case opens with detective Kingsley discovering a corpse in a park. Looking around at the blossoming trees, Kingsley originally mused: “As I let out a sigh on the fresh cut lawn I realized summer was fast approaching.” Now the translation reads: “I could smell the warm odor of fresh-cut grass… Summer was coming.” Later in the scene, Kingsley originally pondered over the clash between the peaceful surroundings and the savaged body: “The thing before me was nothing like the beautiful park”. Ugh! Rather insipid, no? Thankfully, Kingsley’s thoughts are now a much more satisfying: “The beauty of the park faded away around the crumpled body before me”. These are only two small examples but they demonstrate how much effort has gone this time into translating the game and staying true to the gritty, grim realism of the setting without lapsing into triviality or flatness.
For those not yet familiar with Jake Hunter, let’s clarify another fact right away: if you expect an investigative adventure à la Phoenix Wright, full of quirky characters and labyrinthine inquiries that bear little resemblance to real-life procedures, you will be surprised by the splenetic feeling of Jake Hunter’s truly hard-boiled approach to life and work. During his six cases, our rough-and-tough PI will find himself face to face with ruthless drug dealers that often kill just for the pleasure of it, desperate punks capable of anything to get money for their fix, and powerful mafia lords that may like to dress and speak like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, but can also be ferocious and violent like an Abel Ferrara villain. Furthermore, the setting of the game – the fictional town of Aspicio and its poor, often socially degraded surroundings – is a miserable one in which you will encounter starving, homeless vagrants more often than flashy prosecutors. Accordingly, Jake Hunter often copes with delicate, very contemporary issues like drug abuse, social iniquity, illegal trafficking with Third World nations, corporate espionage, and betrayed childhood, all done with a down-to-earth approach that some may find depressingly harsh, but I found refreshingly realistic in a way that reminded me of the early Police Quest games.
The writing is still sometimes a little overdone – there’s only a certain number of noir clichés I can stand in the same sentence – but I was fully convinced by the hard-hitting tone of Jake’s narration, full of bitter remarks and pessimistic, even nihilistic thoughts. Jake himself is one of the game’s major selling points: while he certainly lacks the goofy charm of Tex Murphy or the tormented soul of Gabriel Knight (and surely the depth of both), Jake’s meditative, melancholic stance is reminiscent of a lone gunman from the Old West; his strong moral fiber, coupled with an equally powerful sexual allure, making him the perfect protagonist for this pulp adventure, and a worthy heir to the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
The supporting cast also serves the stories pretty well, particularly Jake’s assistant Yulia Marks, who even becomes a playable character in some cases. Yulia is a country girl transplanted to the violent Aspicio, and while she has managed to preserve a certain naïveté and compassionate approach to life, she can be just as good a detective as Jake. Her segments are usually full of background notes about the Hunter Detective Agency, and the writing does a great job in capturing both her sassy sarcasm and her tender loving care toward Jake. I found the change of tone very well accomplished and a welcome break from the unrelenting mood of Jake’s investigation. The other characters – from the kind-hearted detective Kingsley to Ryo Hsu, a Chinese secret agent whose deferential demeanor is often coupled with a lethal martial skill, to Vincent Drago, rising member of a Cosa Nostra-like mob organization – are quite interesting, if not as detailed as the two protagonists, and they provide the game with a nice feeling of continuity that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
In fact, the first five episodes are pretty much unrelated (or at least seem that way as you play), as they simply chronicle different moments in the life of Jake Hunter. There are certain recurring elements, but the various stories can be safely enjoyed without any previous knowledge, with the notable exception of the fifth episode, where Jake’s feelings toward a specific character mirror his second case. While not particularly original or groundbreaking in any way, the investigations are usually intriguing enough to keep player attention high. One thing I really liked is how diverse they are: not only do they differ in setting – we get to visit other cities around Aspicio, like the quaint, European-like Depono and the industrial town of Ceteri, for example – but also in their narrative structure.
The first three episodes are quite linear and straightforward, but the later plots are more original, making good use of such devices as flashbacks, flash-forwards, external omniscient narration, changes of storytelling perspectives and so on. For example, while some cases begin with the familiar PI cliché of a client walking into the detective’s office to ask for help, one case starts slowly and takes its time to get the player acquainted with the various characters/suspects before the investigation really takes off, while yet another begins with Jake and Kingsley leisurely strolling through a park and remembering a case that happened a year before. Once Yulia steps in to recount her side of the story, the script offers some really entertaining moments when she and Jake cheerfully bicker about the past events.
These are only little touches, but they help to give each case its own distinctive feel. I really liked them all, with only “The Red-Eyed Tiger” leaving me cold because of its rather rushed ending. On the other hand, I particularly enjoyed “Crash and Burn”, which gives plenty of details about Yulia’s backstory and features a heartbreaking story about lost childhood memories, and “As Time Goes By”, whose imaginative plot full of unexpected twists and heart-wrenching moments distinguishes itself with some really compelling characters, like the little Kurt Snyder, a kid that literally stumbled upon Yulia and became like a child to her (and even to Jake, though he’d rather die than admit it). Near the end of the case, I had to wipe more than a few tears off my face, and this fact alone speaks to how immersive Jake Hunter can be.
The last case, the titular “Memories of the Past”, deserves a little more emphasis than the others. With an ingenious gimmick, the designers have crafted an excellent plot that encompasses all the previous episodes, tying them together in a cohesive and extremely fulfilling narrative. I can’t really reveal any details, because what starts rather abruptly with a seemingly unrelated situation turns out to be not only a creative way to retell the stories of the past, but also an incredibly riveting investigation in its own right, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that its script is one of the best I’ve experienced in a DS adventure. In fact, its narrative, which cleverly entangles past, present and future, enthralled me so completely that I had to finish it in one long session, since I wasn’t really able to put the console down.
The graphical presentation maintains the dark tone of the investigations, blending real-life photographs of the various locations with vivid portraits of the characters. The latter lack much animation, but they are quite eye-catching with their inky colors and thick black lines, nervy angles and austere expressions. Even the smiles one can get from Yulia or Kingsley, the two most positive characters, are often rather melanchonic, and I found this forlorn appearance to bode well for the dusky nature of the adventure. I’m almost glad that the game doesn’t feature voice acting, because this way I was free to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s voices for Jake and Yulia, and they fit right in. The music, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to recall the old noir movies from the ‘40s, but while the individual themes can be quite catchy, overall the track loops are so short that they become slightly annoying after the first few hours. Fortunately, there are notable exceptions like the second episode, which features a rather remarkable orchestration during the final day of the investigation, and “Memories of the Past,” whose soft jazz tune, mindful of Max Steiner’s soundtracks, is spot-on for the meditative atmosphere of Jake’s last case.
While the characters and the setting may strongly appeal to you, there’s still one issue that may determine whether Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past is the right purchase for you. The game labels itself an “interactive novel” and believe me, it is. This means that the actual game is extremely streamlined, perhaps too much so. Each investigation plays out more or less like this: after accepting a case, Jake must visit a certain number of locations in order to obtain clues and speak with characters, and then contemplate the information gathered before another day starts. Many days offer a certain amount of non-linearity, allowing players to choose the order in which to visit the locations, but once Jake arrives at a place he can’t leave until he finishes his exploration thoroughly. This usually means inspecting everything, talking with everyone available, and then inspecting everything once again. Each action can be selected via the stylus or a combination of arrow keys and the A button (an option I found more intuitive and quick). What really simplifies the game is that once a verb is selected, you are presented with a menu list of objects or people to apply it to instead of interacting with the game world itself, which prevents the possibility of ever overlooking anything.
There are other elements of the interface to help the player as well. A press of a button brings up a journal with all the relevant information of the case at hand – victim, crime scene, time of death, witnesses and so on – and another button opens Jake’s inventory, which is usually used to show his business cards to other people or to use his cell. Jake can also be prompted to light a cigarette, and since he is a good ol’ PI, smoking usually helps him think, which provides the player with some hint about how to proceed. I can’t really see why a player would need this option, though, because the required input from the player is so minimal. When Jake calls it a day and heads back to his office, the player must ‘think’ about the case, but these segments play out like rather simple quizzes that test your memory more than your reasoning, and you can botch every answer with no penalty at all. So in the end, proceeding through the game is simply a matter of carefully exhausting every available menu option.
Even though I’m a fan of interactive movies and appreciate a good story flowing unhindered by contrived conundrums, I do want them to challenge my intuition, my deduction skill, my “little grey cells”, as Hercule Poirot would say. Unfortunately, even when Jake Hunter presents the player with an actual puzzle – such as cracking a code to obtain a vital clue, for example – there is very little thought involved, because the player is always offered three options to choose from, and figuring out the correct one is simply a matter of discarding the two most unlikely answers. As a result, sometimes the game feels a little too straightforward for its own good, with Jake and Yulia taking charge of all the thinking and leaving players with only the tapping. It’s a pity, because with just a little more input required, Jake Hunter could have felt more “interactive” and less “novel.” I’m not saying that you can breeze through the game with your brain off, as the last three cases pose a little more challenge for your detective skills. There is a puzzle in the last investigation, for example, that concerns an encrypted message that I found really tough and clever. However, a little more interaction would have made the game even more absorbing.
It should be clear by now that Jake Hunter is really somber in tone, and you may sporadically find yourself looking for a lighter diversion. Fortunately, since the game comes with an “Unleashed” mode that offers whimsical stories and wacky investigations, you won’t have to look elsewhere to find it. The plots of these six brief cases (the last one only becoming available after you complete the others) are rather simplistic, but it’s really funny to see our serious, calm and collected Jake Hunter coming to grips with these comedic escapades. These episodes vary greatly in quality: I particularly liked “Picture Perfect” – where Yulia has to correctly re-arrange seven pictures based on a case file after smashing them with a mighty jump – because it really challenges the player’s deduction skill, and “Behind Closed Doors”, mainly because Kingsley is such an endearing character that it is impossible not to bond with him. Without doubt, the unlockable case is the best of the lot, but be warned: “Jake Hunter and the Mysterious Hotel” is quite buggy, and you won’t be able to finish it if you choose Yulia as a partner for the investigation.
On the other hand, I found a couple cases a little uninspired, and even a tad boring. What I really didn’t like about the “Unleashed” episodes in general is that if you make a mistake during a Deduction Phase – when the characters are required to piece together the clues and figure out who the culprit is – the game prompts you with a game over screen and you have to start back from the beginning. As a result, I found myself saving more often in these supposedly relaxed investigations than in the main ones. Nevertheless, these little jaunts can be quite appealing thanks to their zany writing and caricatured art style, which is a refreshing change from the photorealistic, often gloomy presentation of the main episodes.
The “Unleashed” cases aren’t the only bonus content offered, as the developers have put a huge number of goodies in the game. During his investigations, Jake will often stumble upon strange words – often hidden within the descriptions of items unnecessary for completing the case at hand, or mumbled by certain characters as non-sequiturs – and these passwords can be used to unlock various extras from the main menu, ranging from a comprehensive quiz about the whole game to interviews with the developers to appealing images from each case that resemble movie posters. Particularly interesting are the movie gallery, which allows the player to replay all the cutscenes, a summary of all the supporting characters that weren’t included in the final product – some of which sound really interesting, making my hopes for a sequel even higher – and especially a visual novel about Sean Thorpe, one of the most compelling characters appearing in the game, that recounts the events of Memories of the Past from a different perspective.
All in all, it took me roughly twenty hours to complete Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past, including an hour or so spent with the “Unleashed” cases, and as the ending credits rolled I was both satisfied and sad, the latter because I didn’t want the game to finish so soon. While it’s true that the streamlined gameplay will drive some players away, the game does have a lot to offer: Jake Hunter is a strong, likeable character that will appeal to every Philip Marlowe buff, and Yulia Marks is such an endearing, identifiable protagonist that I really developed an attachment to her. The six different cases – ranging from the simple early ones to the complex, imaginative later investigations, full of twists and food for thought – are different enough to keep the game fresh until the end, and the stories themselves are engaging noir romps that will make you feel like you’re reading a real page-turner. Add to this the tons of extras and you get a thoroughly enjoyable if very lightweight game, one that will strongly appeal to any Dashiell Hammet fan and any adventurer that likes their investigations hard-boiled.