Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk is one of a few third party titles still coming to the 3DS this year. Launching on September 28th, it is the first time the series will see a Western release since Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past in 2009. One of the many DS titles to get published in the wake of Ace Attorney‘s popularity, this franchise is best described as a series of detective themed visual novels – not much gameplay, a lot of reading, and a non-existent chance of losing the game. Given that I have an affinity for games like these, I thought it might be good to get caught up with how well the series has fared so far in the West.

Going in, all I knew about the two titles, Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles and Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past was that they were both localized by Aksys Games, and were kind of the same game, but one had more content. I also knew that Detective Chronicles did not get the greatest reviews, while Memories of the Past did significantly better. Beyond that, I was pretty much in the dark.

Jake Hunter, as it originally appeared on the Famicom.

Though there are not that many sources discussing this franchise in the West, I did my best to dig in with some preliminary research. I found that the series, known in Japan as Tantei Jingūji Saburō (Detective Saburō Jingūji), dates back to the original Famicom, having just celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Since then, the series has jumped around platform to platform, including a long line of mobile titles. In fact, the four Famicom games in the series were remade as the first four cases released on phones. These titles were then ported to the DS and make up the basis for what we’ve seen of the series outside of Japan so far. A couple of these cases have been released on iOS in the West as well.

Aksys Games is now known for localizing visual novels like the Zero Escape series, but back in 2007, when they first announced they were bringing Tantei Jingūji to the West, they were primarily known for their work on the Guilty Gear series. Interestingly, it was around this time that Guilty Gear developer, Arc System Works, began working with then-current Tantei Jingūji developer WorkJam, to continue the series. It’s easy to imagine that it was Aksys’ relationship with Arc System Works that helped them get the localization rights, as they were also partially responsible for Aksys’ other most notable release at that time: a remake of the Playstation RPG Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth for the DS.

At this point, I was still unsure exactly how different Detective Chronicles and Memories of the Past were. The gist I got was that Memories of the Past was a re-translation with more cases added in, but whether this was how the game was originally released in Japan, or if it was some wild special edition that Aksys managed to put together, I didn’t know. The best way to find out, I figured, was to play both games to see the differences myself. So, I dug in further.

The Detective Chronicles box art is okay at best – not very distinctive.

LEADING OFF WITH DETECTIVE CHRONICLES

Released in 2008, Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles very quickly gives off the vibe of a short, budget title (and indeed, it’s been mentioned that the game retailed for $19.99). We have three cases to choose from: “The Petty Murder of a Fragile Heart,” “Seaside City Conspiracy,” and “Crash and Burn.” There’s also an options menu and a place to input passwords found throughout the game to unlock some extras, but that’s it. That’s all there is in Detective Chronicles.

When you start up a case, the next thing you’ll likely notice are the visuals. Really, the nicest thing I can say is that there are a few animated cutscenes in the game that look kind of nice, but other than that everything is bland. The three main characters look okay, but everyone else looks like they’re NPCs from other, larger games. They leave no impression. The backgrounds look similarly nondescript. They get the job done, but have little life to them.

The music is not much better, though it at least has a distinctive chiptune jazziness to it. As for the characters, well, we don’t learn much. Jake Hunter is a detective, and he does detective stuff. All we really learn about him is that he likes to smoke, and he isn’t above getting into back-alley brawls when need be. Even more one-dimensional is his assistant Yulia Marks, who just does her secretarial duties and makes coffee, helping Jake when he asks for it. Jake’s police liaison and personal mentor, King, seems to have a couple notes to him, but he simply isn’t around enough to get a good feeling for him.

While part of this is due to the character design, I also have to fault the script, too. It feels directly translated from the Japanese – there’s no character to it, and it reads poorly. It has plenty of typos (“on” and “one” get constantly confused), and also lacks subtlety. I was initially confused during the first case, because it read like no one, not Jake, not King, had ever handled a murder case before. The reactions to the crime just seemed too overwrought. But then I realized – the game was attempting to use the old detective noir trope where everyone mentions how they “have a bad feeling” about this particular case and was just doing it poorly.

Dialogue in Detective Chronicles can feel so stiff and formal.

Where the script falls short, one would hope the mysteries themselves would be intriguing. While they aren’t bad, it’s important to remember that these cases were originally made for the Famicom, remade for mobile phones, and then ported to the DS. They evolve over time, but there’s a simplicity to them that makes them less exciting than, say, a case in an Ace Attorney game. These three cases are pretty straightforward – you might find yourself rooting for another twist or two, only to end up disappointed.

Another thing that should be mentioned is that Aksys tried to Americanize this series. Obviously Jake Hunter is notably different than Jingūji Saburō, but that’s one thing. Another thing is taking a series very clearly meant to be set in Japan, transplanting it to America, and then doing a bad job of hiding it. Ignoring that the original Japanese names of these cases make references to real Japanese places like Shinjuku and Yokohama, there are more apparent problems like a now-presumably American murder victim having her headstone carved with kanji. I won’t say it’s impossible – Mary Taylor could be part Japanese in this version of the story – but it just feels like a stretch to even say. Little slips like this just keep eating at the edges.

Overall, this game left me with more questions than answers. Why, if this was the first appearance of the series in the West, did this game feel so simple and slapdash? Is this really how this series is supposed to be? Wouldn’t it make more sense for Aksys to put their best foot forward and make as much of a splash as they could? What we got in Detective Chronicles feels like a slice of a much larger game, so what happened here? 

Chinese agent Ryo Hsu, getting one of the best lines in Detective Chronicles.

I went back and did more research, looking if there were interviews that could help answer these questions. I found one – a Q&A Aksys’ localization editor Ben Bateman did with Eric Caoili for the portable gaming website, Tiny Cartridge. Ben states in the interview that Jake Hunter: Detective Chronicles “was a test to see if there was a market for digital novel style games.” 

He goes further when talking about the changes they were making for Jake Hunter Detective Story: Memories of the Past, which, it should be noted, only came out eleven months after Detective Chronicles. Bateman adds, “with this version we decided to focus on style, the content having already been established with the translation/editing of the first game.” Siliconera’s announcement that Aksys was localizing Memories of the Past, goes into this deeper, detailing just how much content was added. More cases. Plenty of unlockables. Extras that North American players might not normally get otherwise.

This means, in their quest to create a “test” product, Aksys took what was actually fun and cool about the series out of the game. To be blunt, it looks as if they did a quick and dirty translation, and released Detective Chronicles to see if anyone would bite. Then, seeing that enough people did, they went back and gave us the real thing. I understand the need to be cautious – but did they ever consider how people would react to what they were given? If I wasn’t already interested in learning more about Jake Hunter I don’t know if I would have gone back to Memories of the Past based on Detective Chronicles alone. It doesn’t leave a good impression.

I still found myself willing to continue, though. My confidence was shaken – I had to replay those same three cases over again – but I held out hope that it would be worth it. What I didn’t realize is how what I discovered would shape my understanding of Memories of the Past – that was, to me, the most surprising thing of all.

Much better cover art, showing Jake looking like a serious detective.

REPEATING AND IMPROVING WITH MEMORIES OF THE PAST

Thankfully, Memories of the Past feels more complete. It’s, without question, the game we should have gotten in the first place. Actually, it’s kind of amazing to consider that this version only came out eleven months later – there’s so much more care put into the localization and so much added in, that I didn’t mind playing through the early parts again. It was nice to read them with better writing.

This time, Jake has a personality. He’s become that classic noir detective. He’s not the most likeable guy – calling every woman he meets “babe” and “dollface” – but those statements alone almost tell us more about him than Detective Chronicles did. Yulia has better characterization too, as a snarky, overworked, and underpaid assistant. She’s tired of Jake’s sexist behavior, but is nonetheless drawn to the work. There’s also King, who seems more like an old British Inspector from a Masterpiece Theatre special, and actually does play a bigger role in the new content. 

Jake Hunter Unleashed delights in being weird and fun.

The visuals and the music remain the same, and there are still the occasional typos and mistakes, but I felt more willing to look past those aspects because of how much new stuff there is. In addition to three more main cases, we also get a chance to experience Jake Hunter Unleashed – a chibi-style representation of the series that exaggerates everyone’s personalities and condenses the mysteries into ten to twenty minute episodes, where all of the evidence is given to the player, and it’s up to them to piece together what happened. These stories provide a nice contrast to the relative seriousness of the main game, and is further augmented by the ability to unlock bonus Unleashed episodes that have their own overarching plot. This brings the total number of cases from three, to eighteen. 

In the main game, the three new cases are “As Time Goes By,” originally the last game in the series made for the Famicom; “The Red-Eyed Tiger,” the first original case developed for mobile; and “Memories of the Past,” a DS-exclusive case that ties the whole game together.

While “The Red-Eyed Tiger” is nice enough, it feels like Just Another Adventure. Nothing about it feels notable or important. Perhaps because it was developed for mobile, I don’t know, but it doesn’t match the expansive momentum of “As Time Goes By” where the story got bigger and the plotline more complex. You can tell the original developers at Data East were doing their best to work the Famicom to the bone to make “As Time Goes By.” It has a unique storytelling structure that uses multiple perspectives to tell how Jake and Yulia end up working on separate cases that slowly become one as the larger picture grows. It has character development, heart, and enough twists and turns to make it a legitimately interesting mystery. Going from this into “The Red-Eyed Tiger” is a disappointment as a result.

“Memories of the Past” meanwhile, is maybe not as deep as “As Time Goes By,” but it has surprises of its own that are worth discussing. One of the biggest problems I had with both Detective Chronicles and Memories of the Past, is that if you start at the beginning and play case-by-case, there’s no way to have a continuous save file. To save during a new case, you either have to overwrite your save during another case or use a new save slot. The fact that they are cut off from each other like this makes absolutely no sense – even if you consider both games as compilations (which they are). You’d think it would be obvious to make it so players don’t feel like they have to delete their progress in one case to save in another.

Everything is explained in “Memories of the Past,” when a new character, perpetual-whiner Ken Krause, is forced to steal Jake Hunter’s case files, read them, and report on them. This can be done either by reading each file – which means playing through the case in its entirety – or by skimming them, which skips playing through the case if you’ve done it already.

What this means, essentially, is that the game is meant to be played using “Memories of the Past” as an overarching framework to view all of the other cases. You have one continuous save file here. It works. Yet, if you didn’t know that, and you especially wouldn’t if you played Detective Chronicles first, you’d have no reason to play the last case of the game first, instead of going in order.

I really want to focus on this for a minute. I like Aksys’ work a lot, but it’s clear that, in their release of Detective Chronicles, they ripped apart the story of the game. They released the first three cases without the overarching plot – the very reason to justify why Memories of the Past was made. It’s no wonder Detective Chronicles reviewed so poorly – the developers never meant for it to be played like that. The context isn’t there. It feels all wrong.

Note the boring office background.

Something else you can’t help but notice is that the mechanics of each case keep changing. This is likely due to the fact that these cases were originally entire games made at different times with different technology available, but it’s strange to experience. The “Think” mechanic changes constantly, where sometimes it’s used as a quiz minigame for Jake to collect his thoughts on what’s happened so far, and other times, used to decide what he should do next. Other mechanics, like the ability to “Fight” simply disappear over time, and still others show up for one case and then disappear without a reason why.

The work put into Memories of the Past is a good apology for those who played Detective Chronicles. The unlockables this time go deep, as there are character bios you can read for characters who aren’t even in the game, and staff comments from the developers and Aksys themselves. The Aksys comments probably have not aged well (sexual harassment jokes abound), but I was interested in how they called the Jake Hunter series one of their “flagship” titles, even though we’re finally seeing the next one come out now, nine years later.

Several titles in the Tantei Jingūji Sanburō series have come and gone in that time, so the chances that Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk will pick up right where Memories of the Past left off are slim, but I’m more confident in seeing what else the Jake Hunter world has to offer now that I’m caught up. I’m actually kind of excited.

Ghost of the Dusk’s cover art changes the game by being stylish and colorful.

LOOKING TOWARDS GHOST OF THE DUSK

I can’t help but wonder how a visual novel detective adventure will do on the 3DS this late in the game. I commend Aksys for taking a chance on it, even with the first appearance of the series on Switch and Playstation 4, Prism of Eyes, out now in Japan. It’s definitely a risk I hope pays off. Aksys has had plenty of experience in the world of visual novels in the last nine years, I’m confident at least their work will be up to snuff compared with their other titles. If it does well enough, perhaps they’ll surprise us and also localize the prequel Rondo of Vengeance? Maybe in a double-bill with Prism of Eyes?

Even if we do have to deal with more ports of mobile releases, and a continued attempt to Americanize the series, I’m convinced Aksys would only return to the series now if they were convinced that they had something good on their hands. The real question is whether or not we’ll continue to see stories that break the established mold so far, like “As Time Goes By,” or if we’ll have more stories like “The Red-Eyed Tiger,” which feel like the series is spinning its tires in the mud.

We’ll find out in just over a month. Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk comes out in America on September 28th. Its boxart already looks great, so if that’s any indication of the future, I’m all for it.

And here’s Prism of Eyes‘ Japanese Switch cover to round out the picture.

As always, feel free to contact me on Twitter or email me (at dcichocki@tiltingwindmillstudios.com)to let me know your thoughts! See you sooner than you think!

Note: The header image is also taken from Prism of Eyes. Jake Hunter – now in HD.