Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Silver Case (PS4) - Kill The Past

Back in 1999, game developer Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51, directed and released a visual novel called The Silver Case, the first title released under his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, for the original PlayStation. However, it remained a Japanese exclusive for the longest time. The first attempt to bring it to the west was a planned remake for the Nintendo DS that never materialized, as Suda51 was unsatisfied with the product, claiming that it would require a lot of changes to fit the dual-screen environment of the handheld. Years later, a proper remaster of the game was released for the PC in 2016, also the first time the game saw the light of day in the west. 2017 also saw a worldwide release of a PS4 port of the game, the subject of this review. Since Suda51 is a favorite on this blog, we wholeheartedly dove in to take a look at one of his first games. Compared to his later output, it’s rather interesting and unique to say the least.

In 1999, a series of mysterious murders is committed within what’s known as the 24 Wards. This prompts the 24 Wards Heinous Crimes Unit to investigate, concluding that the murders were committed by Kamui Uehara, a man who had previously killed a number of government officials in the now-famous “Silver Case” 20 years prior. However, Kamui was held in a mental hospital and deemed unfit to commit crime again, leading the HCU to wonder how he could still be around. The player character, a member of the Special Forces known as “Republic”, has been recruited to help investigate the Kamui case.

The story of The Silver Case is told from two perspectives. The first scenario, Transmitter, is told from the perspective of a detective, the nameless protagonist recruited by the Heinous Crimes Unit, trying to track down Kamui. The other scenario, Placebo, is told from the perspective of a freelance journalist, Tokio Morishima, investigating the Kamui case. Due to the presentation of the story in the main menu, which resembles a sort of record player, Transmitter can be viewed as the A-side and Placebo the B-side.

The Silver Case is split into two sides, like a record.

As for the execution of this presentation, it’s overall very solid. The premise of tracking down a serial killer presumed inactive is intriguing on its own, but it gradually unfolds into a rather elaborate, but engaging, conspiracy involving government politics surrounding the 24 Wards, as well as the true nature of Kamui Uehara and how he relates to it all. I won’t say too much to avoid spoilers, but I will say that’s it’s rather essential to play both Transmitter and Placebo, preferably trading off between them to make full sense of the story; I say this because I played Transmitter and then Placebo and found myself lost a little on some of the details until I finished both. Even though Placebo starts out as more or less Transmitter from a different perspective, the story does pick up sooner rather than later and has its own unique twists and turns.

Though the plot of The Silver Case is a bit odd and has some bizarre twists, which may be more acceptable if you’re a Suda51 fan, what makes it engaging is its themes. There are some elements of postmodernism present, mainly through the game acknowledging itself in odd ways, most notably how it handles the concept of a silent protagonist in a game. In the case of this game, the player character is implied to be literally mute, which elicits some interesting reactions from the other characters; by contrast, Tokio is very talkative throughout Placebo.

The nameless main protagonist of The Silver Case, whom
the player can name (Protip: His "default" name is Akira).

One major theme of The Silver Case, which also loosely ties a few other Suda51 games together, is the theme of “Kill the Past”. A “Kill the Past” game generally involves the protagonist having to either directly confront past events they are at odds with or destroy some relic of their past which burdens them in some way in order to move forward with their lives. This idea of destroying a relic of the past is played out rather well in The Silver Case and manifests itself in an interesting way, though the payoff is better if Transmitter and Placebo are played in the right order.

What’s notable about The Silver Case is its gameplay, or the lack of. Since it’s a visual novel, most of the time the player is reading through text and dialogue to advance the story to its, in this case, pre-determined conclusion. It’s kind of annoying that you can’t adjust dialogue speed or skip through it, however there are certain times when dialogue speed is used for dramatic effect or to recreate use of an online chat room, so it also kind of makes sense.

When not reading text, the player has the opportunity to explore a three-dimensional world in first-person view and interact with objects. Movement in this part of the game is restricted to a grid-like system where the player can only walk between specific points on the map, which operates not unlike “tank controls”, but the player can also look up and down; turning resets the view. However, there are numerous points of interactivity depending on the part of the story and there is some occasional puzzle solving. I will admit, however, that sometimes it’s not completely obvious where the player is meant to go next to advance the story, but fortunately the limited map points make it pretty easy to figure out with trial and error.

A section of actual player interactivity in The Silver Case.

During the actual gameplay segments, the player uses a command ring with four options: M (Move), C (Control), I (Implement) and S (Save). Players normally have to scroll through the command ring and select the command they wish to use, though the options are also accessible through shortcuts. Move and Save are the most likely to see use, while Control, basically interacting with an object, can only be used on map points marked by a sun and Implement, in which you use an inventory item, is pretty rarely used. The controls do take some getting used to, but it’s pretty easy once you adjust.

While gameplay is present somewhat often in the Transmitter part of the game, the Placebo portion is a lot more text-oriented. As such, there’s a bare minimum of actual interactive moments, restricted entirely to four objects in Tokio’s apartment: his computer, phone, apartment window and pet turtle, Red. Due to this more limited presentation, Placebo is more boring to sit through, especially if you play like I did and tried to go through it all in one sitting (this is partly why I discourage the playstyle).

The visual presentation of The Silver Case is rather unique mainly due to the Film Window engine. Film Window was created to take advantage of Grasshopper’s limited resources available at the time, but the way they did so gives it an experimental flavor and helps it stand out even from other visual novels. The way Film Window works is that the game places windows on top of a larger backdrop relevant to each case. In these windows, the player can see 3D backgrounds, 2D artwork (both character profiles and whole shots), dialogue text and both live-action and animated footage. The seemingly random, but ultimately deliberate, placement of each window helps to highlight the emotion of each scene and can easily ramp up the tension at the right moments. The use of numerous mediums is also executed pretty well and can at times create an appropriate sense of unease.

Film Window in action.

Each chapter also feels unique, since they all have unique backdrops and general color schemes which suit each case. For instance, case#3: Parade is presented entirely in black and white and has a dedicated intro animation. case#4: Kamuidrome has a generally green color scheme to match its relation to the internet, also reflected in how the backdrop generates random words in a special typeface, however I did find that this chapter in particular saw some framerate drops due to the number of visual effects in the backdrop.

The visual style of case#4: Kamuidrome
(compare with case#0: Lunatics, above).

Transmitter and Placebo also have general style differences within the 2D artwork each side uses. Specifically, Transmitter uses a generally more realistic style while Placebo uses a rougher, sketchier style. Not only does this difference help each side feel different from each other, it can also create two different appearances for characters who appear in both sides, most noticeably with Tokio Morishima and Tetsugoro Kusabi from the Heinous Crimes Unit. It’s not too jarring, but it can create a different impression of certain characters as a result.

I’ll also mention here that while the game will use the visuals of the remake by default, it’s possible to alter the settings to instead display the visuals of the original PlayStation release instead.

The soundtrack for The Silver Case, arranged by Akira Yamaoka for the remake, is also pretty good and helps to give the game its own identity. Each track contributes well to the atmosphere, including the unique track for each case, and the prevalence of certain cues helps to highlight certain scenes and make the score more memorable.

Before I end this review, I’d also like to mention that as of 2017, the remake of The Silver Case also includes two additional chapters meant to more directly bridge the game to two sequels (these are included in the PS4 version by default). case#25: White Out leads more directly into The 25th Ward: The Silver Case and report*6: YAMI leads more directly into Flower, Sun, and Rain; the former game did not receive a proper re-release until 2018, until which it was considered a “ghost game” by Suda51, and the latter had received only a DS version in the west. These new chapters are pretty short, you can complete them both in less than 10 minutes combined, but they do a good job of making the player want to see what happens next.

case#25: White Out also adopts a similar visual style to The 25th Ward.

The Silver Case is a very interesting game. Its premise goes into sometimes bizarre territory, along with some philosophizing, and has a unique presentation. The actual gameplay is a bit bare, especially in the Placebo portion, but does present a method of interactivity unseen in a good number of visual novels. Considering this is Suda51’s first game under Grasshopper Manufacture, it’s pretty solid overall, but also feels more barebones compared to his later work. What really keeps the player invested, however, is the unique feel the Film Window engine provides as well as how more about each character is revealed through the different cases. I’d recommend this mainly to Suda51 fans who want to see where a lot of traits found in his later output originate, and who want to add one more of his games to their library, or for people who are looking for an interesting visual novel to play. It’s rough around the edges, as plenty of older games are, but worth playing once.

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