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.Continued on the next page...