A visual novel with interactive segments that's more akin to Warp's D series than modern VN's, The Silver Case provides gamers a glimpse into a miracle-maker's beginnings. We dove headlong into the new PS4 version.
A good story is literally THE reason to play a visual novel, and the unusual presentation of The Silver Case only brings that fact into sharper focus. Forced into lengthy spats of reading, players will soon find themselves knee-deep in the hunt for a missing serial killer named Kamui, who's somehow controlling events outside of his physically-comatose body.
Spanning 14 chapters that are referred to as "Cases" and "Reports," The Silver Case gives a glimpse into a hyper-violent near-future police force, where executions are generally the solution to a problem. Rather than feeling all Judge Dredd, however, The Silver Case encourages players to take the world in stride, accepting the gritty nature of law enforcement holistically. Murder and justice can be the same thing, can't they? TSC says yes, but does so without sugar-coating the gruesome nature of it all.
The original 1999 PlayStation version of The Silver Case had only 12 chapters, and the 2 new ones act as epilogues of sorts to the two halves of the game. The game's division into halves is delineated by the perspective of the story, the first of which follows the pursuit of Kamui from a police POV, while the latter is of a journalist digging into the affair. Each half was also written by different contributors; the first half was written by Suda51, while the second half was written by both Masahi Ooka and Sako Kato.
The writing has it's moments, but it's the twist-laden plotting that makes The Silver Case so engaging. Unfortunately, the written exposition and dialogue suffer in two major areas–the first being an overly-strict adherence to a literal translation of the source material, and the second being a fairly immature interpretation of the dialogue. Immature, in this case, isn't in reference to juvenile humor or language–there's some of that in the source, and it serves to flesh out both the characters and the story. Rather, it's in reference to the inability to self-edit for language that simply baffles the reader by overly using "fuck" this and "fucking" that. Several interactions in the first half of the game literally have characters telling each other to fuck off back and forth at least two times in a row, with no story content between them.
The confusingly repetitive use of expletives, coupled with a straight literal translation of text, means that readers will best be served by reading through the game as they would a Shakespeare play, skimming the material and expecting that they'll glean meaning through osmosis, instead of analyzing the purpose of each word and phrase. While this sounds (and can be) difficult, it does allow for a more natural intake of the occasional poetic line that so many of us in the West associate with Japanese prose.
At it's heart, The Silver Case is a kinetic (meaning no interaction) visual novel wrapped in an interactive shell that sports the occasional puzzle. This means that you do have interactive gameplay segments, but they don't really impact the story. Lovers of choice-driven gameplay–we're looking at you, Telltale fans–might be turned off by this, but allow us to submit the argument that you won't know the difference, and a concrete story path can be beneficial to plot.
The interactive gameplay segments aren't just of the "select this or that" dialogue options, but actually involve moving throughout 3D environments on a grid, and using or collecting various control pads and items. There are the rare trophy-type objects that can be collected as well, which award PlayStation trophies, but they're irrelevant to the story. The puzzles within the game are found inside these 3D environs, and generally involve word or number cryptograms, which can cause some head scratching. Those that are easily irritated by obscure ciphers have been provided a magnifying glass button that gives the answer right off, allowing the story to be followed relatively interruption-free.
To think of these interactive gameplay segments as inherently apart from the visual novel aspect of The Silver Case would be a mistake, as movement is consistently halted for dialogue interjections. This can come off as annoying if players enter the game expecting to have respites from plot, but actually serve to enhance the unique atmosphere once that urge is let go. TSC is at it's most effective when the player doesn't fight against the format, but goes in without expectations. Luckily, the twisting plot within the story segments tend to dash expectations, anyway, so it shouldn't be a hard leap for gamers to make.
The actual movement and interaction controls in The Silver Case are functional, but not intuitive. There are four options: Contact, Move, Inventory, and Settings. Settings allows players to save (and access the settings, obviously,) Inventory allows carried items to be observed, Contact allows items to be interacted with, and Move is pretty obvious. This seems like a no-brainer control scheme: use the L-stick or D-PAD to move, and three other face buttons to bring up either Contact, Inventory, or Save, right?
Wrong. There's a rotary menu of the four options, and you must use the D-PAD to align which action to take, then use a face button to actually take that action. Then another face button is used to take you back that rotary menu when you need to select another option. It would be effective for a touch-pad interface, and the game would actually be great on mobile; on consoles, though, the UI just seems dated and overly complicated.
This kind of hiccup is present on the cryptogram puzzle screens as well, which are accessed by using the "Contact" option while looking at keypads and the like. While entering various alpha-numeric combinations, the controls are fine and intuitive. If you need to leave the puzzle without solving it correctly, however, you can't just select the clearly visible "Exit" button. Rather, you have to erase your entire previous entry and press CIRCLE in order to get out of the screen. This is the kind of thing that should have been avoided when rebuilding the game engine, and it's inclusion is cumbersome. Likewise, the scene transitions between location changes could've had the option to be fast-forwarded.
It has been argued that these old-school elements help preserve the PSX-era feel of The Silver Case, but the presentation and visuals do that well enough on their own, and any younger gamer who's never picked up the 2009 Nintendo DS release of Suda51's pseudo-sequel Flower, Sun and Rain, or played through D, are bound to be frustrated without the benefit of any nostalgia.
graphics and sound
The illustrations in The Silver Case are excellent, and reflect well the drama-themed painted manga inspirations that are clearly behind the story. Unlike most contemporary visual novels, they aren't fullscreen, nor are they always perfectly clear, but this is both an intentional and effective way of murky-ing the waters of the story. The characters aren't quite sure of the truth about what's happening, and neither are the players, to the benefit of the atmosphere.
These still illustrations are occasionally augmented by full-anime clips, live-action clips, PSX-era 3D clips, and occasional key-frame animation, all of which gives TSC a very unique flavor. By Suda51's own admission, this early title had a bare-minimum budget, and that limitation led Grasshopper Manufacture to really get creative with the story's presentation. The HD remake is no different, and what were once flat background colors are now flying-text filled abysses that ultimately stressed us out. What's their purpose? Why does it repeat seemingly random acronyms? The mystery seeps from the screen and into our brains, and it's all the better for it.
The sound is odd, and much of it seems taken directly from the 1999 release. There's no overarching narration, and some button clicks are met with almost goofy sound effects. All of this, combined with a sinister anime-esque jazz track that comes and goes as it pleases, makes the game world a weird and mysterious place. As with The Silver Case's many other strangeness's, it somehow culminates in a package more entertaining that the apparent sum of its parts.
It comes down to this: anyone looking for something different to pop into their PS4's will never find something as different as The Silver Case. It's proof-positive that Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture were breaking the mold right out of the gate, and those willing to fight with a UI better left to history will be rewarded with an experience like no other.
If, like us, you're rabid Suda51 fans, then consider The Silver Case a must-buy. The influence of it on later titles like Killer7 are visible almost immediately, and the story is yet another example of how Suda51's versatility is unmatched. If, however, you've only ever played the lovably wonky No More Heroes series, but think the idea of a visual novel sounds dreadful, then you may have to pass on this one. Unless, of course, you'd like Grasshopper Manufacture's other quirky titles to get re-releases (or better yet, sequels!)–then you ought to do yourself a favor and give The Silver Case a try.
|+ Engaging crime yarn||– Antiquated UI|
|+ Fair amount of story content||– Non-skippable scene transitions|
|+ Unique gameplay elements for a visual novel||– Dialogue could use a rewrite|
|+ A rare peak into a fan-favorite dev's early days||– A tough sell for those too young to remember D|