- Great storytelling
- Subtle characterization
- A cut above past Jake Hunter titles
- Jake Hunter Unleashed returns
- Improved password system
- An inconsistent translation
- Voice acting and cutscenes appear in only one case
- Three save slots for six cases
Jake Hunter: Ghost of the Dusk is the closest a game has come to putting players in the shoes of a hardboiled detective. More visual novel than adventure game, this title doesn’t offer much in terms of challenging gameplay, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s no risk of failing, because making a wrong choice causes Jake to say something like “I thought about that, but did this instead,” which makes it easier to stay focused on the stories the game tells. The mysteries are thrilling, and if you’re familiar with the investigation phases of Ace Attorney, you’ll understand the gameplay. Investigating crime scenes, talking to witnesses, making choices – it’s all here and compliments the detective aesthetic of cigarettes and booze quite well. I don’t know if this title will do anything to advance the wider acceptance of visual novels, but if you like mysteries, there’s little else like it.
Part of this is because as a visual novel, it lacks the frustrating adventure game logic seen in other titles like Tex Murphy. Another part is due to the game’s realism and timelessness. Everything exists in a Simpsons-like world where the characters never age, but the world around them slowly changes. Downturns in the economy bring on unsavory landsharks. The death of a homeless man turns into an international conspiracy. Each of the cases feel as relevant now as they would’ve when the series started in 1980’s Japan. If Ace Attorney is the comedic counterpoint to the detective genre like Clue and High Anxiety were in movies, then Ghost of the Dusk is The Man Who Knew Too Much or The Third Man.
As a series, Jake Hunter (known as Tantei Jingūji Saburō in Japan) has been around since the Famicom, yet the West has only seen a handful of releases. Those who played Detective Chronicles or Memories of the Past on the DS may remember the series for having simplistic storytelling and flat characters. It’s worth pointing out that both of these games are compilations based on the first handful of Jake Hunter cases made for Japanese phones – four of which are remakes of the original Famicom titles. Ghost of the Dusk is also a compilation, focused on the last cases in the mobile series along with a brand new 3DS-exclusive case, and the differences are just vast. The storytelling is on a whole other level those other titles couldn’t reach.
It’s much clearer that Ghost of the Dusk‘s cases were once separate releases, too. They all have their differences that make them stand out. The 3DS-specific case, “Ghost of the Dusk” features Japanese voice acting and cinematic cutscenes that are more in line with the series’ later console releases. While the mobile cases aren’t that technologically advanced, they have smaller differences, like unique game mechanics, redrawn character portraits for the main cast, and recurring characters that pop in and out. These minute changes might be annoying to people who want cohesion and interface uniformity, but I liked it. Since each case functions as a snapshot into the life of a P.I., these changes help make the time progression between each story feel natural.
It’s hard to criticize games like Ghost of the Dusk for not having a lot of gameplay because that’s how they’re designed. It’s like getting upset that Mortal Kombat doesn’t have an open world to explore. It doesn’t need it. Instead, visual novels are most vulnerable when it comes to the text in the game. It’s the one thing these games revolve around, and is especially important when the text is localized into another language. In this case, I have to commend publisher Aksys Games for putting in some really great passages. There are parts of the game where I couldn’t put my 3DS down – I lost all track of time. But, this is only true for about 70% of the script. The other 30% is filled with a lot of errors and confusing decisions I don’t understand and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about them here.
The problems begin on a macro level – starting with Aksys’ decision to westernize this series and get rid of most of the Japanese names and locations. Character names are most often anglicized and it works sometimes, but other times, it changes fundamental aspects of the character. Even worse are the locations, which have been renamed with Latin words. Main areas of the game like Aspicio and Tripudio sound fine, but it starts getting silly when characters say things like “he’s in Meridianam in Pura Peninsulam.” It feels kind of like someone raided a dictionary with little regard to how the words would read in context.
Things get more complicated the deeper you go. Originally, in the DS Jake Hunter games, Aksys went so far as to state in the script that the game took place in America – though they’ve since dialed this back. It’s easy to see why. Characters read Japanese text, wear traditional Japanese clothes, live in stereotypical Japanese homes – it’s clearly Japan in all but name. Aksys now states that Jake and co. are not in America, but hints they’re not in Japan either. Instead, they’re in this weird Anywhere region where people speak English and go to places like Liberales Collis, but act as if they’re Japanese. It doesn’t work.
Then there’s the issue of the static backgrounds – a staple in visual novels from Ace Attorney to Sweet Fuse. They’re unaltered from Ghost of the Dusk‘s original Japanese release and the original names and characters, regardless of what the translation says. This leads to one scene where Jake talks to an owner of a bar near the front entrance and you can see above the door a big sign saying “MINORI’S” just like that. Yet, in the script they keep referring to the bar as “Bricklayer’s” and it feels a lot like trying to call a basketball a motorcycle. It’s baffling anyone would even try.
Of all the other issues the script has, from simultaneous name and pronoun confusion to phrasing like “that much time must was like an eternity,” the confusion of the name of the bar got me the most. Why insist on changing the bar’s name if the background image couldn’t be changed? Couldn’t enough Japanese names be kept so the script remained completely coherent? Why all the effort to westernize the series if Aksys is unable to do it properly?
I think it’d be better if future Jake Hunter games were localized in the style of Sega’s Yakuza series. Just embrace the Japanese culture. Go all out. He can still be Jake Hunter, I wouldn’t mind that, but other than that it’s gotta be all westernized, or not at all. This weird hybrid approach doesn’t suit the game and undersells its strong points. The series deserves better, especially if it’ll survive in the West.
The frustrating thing, though, is that I still liked Ghost of the Dusk a lot despite these issues. Visual novels are a great fit for detective stories. The storytelling in these cases is a cut above the rest, and a lot of the script reflects that. But any recommendation I give has to come with a warning.
Ghost of the Dusk is the kind of game you can relax with beside a roaring fireplace. A warm cup of cocoa in your hands, your dog laying at your feet, the soothing jazz score emanating from the 3DS and seeping into your soul – it’s a great vacation companion, and a good counter to evening snowstorms. However, there’s this other side to it, this seedy underbelly you’ll have to get through like I did. It won’t ruin the experience, but it may make you wonder what happened. If you love detective stories, it’s absolutely worth it to play this game. Even if it’s a lark between larger games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2. As long as this series gets the recognition it deserves, it’s worth it.
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com or contact me on Twitter. This review was conducted using a 3DS retail copy of the game that I purchased on launch day.