Now this was unexpected. A high-budget FMV (Full Motion Video) mystery game from Square-Enix was the last thing I thought would end up on my lap. Nowadays, these types of interactive movies tend to be short games made and published by small studios and companies. Now, some might think that games like The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story are novelties introduced by indie studios short on cash but overflowing with creativity; this is not the case as the concept of games using pre-rendered videos to present their graphics are as old as video games themselves dating as far back as the early 80’s. Games such as Dragon’s Lair, Time Gal among many others.
For better or for worse, these games were never able to establish a foothold in the industry; their high production cost coupled with minimal gameplay basically relegated this subgenre to glorified tech demos. It was in the form of visual novels that enthusiasts of story-heavy video games found their niche, and also how publishers were able to keep costs in check.
The Centennial Case’s story is told from the perspective of mystery novelist Haruka Kagami. Haruka is a well-celebrated author and during an autograph session, she and her editor Akari Yamase are visited by Eiji Shijima. Eiji is a biologist and also a scientific consultant for Haruka’s books. The Shijima cherry blossom ceremony is about to begin, and Eiji wants to use this opportunity to employ Haruka’s help under the guise of writing about the ceremony. By using Haruka’s expertise in writing crime dramas, Eiji hopes to uncover the identity of a recently unearthed skeleton at his family’s estate and also investigate his family’s most well-guarded secret: The Tokijjiku. A fruit that is said to grant eternal youth to those who consume it.
After the prologue where the main cast is introduced, a new chapter will start with the discovery of an old magazine or book containing some story or article that mentions the Tokijiku, or an incident involving the Shijima family. Haruka’s method of sleuthing is interesting; she’ll imagine that she’s actually back in the past as one of the people involved in the incident. The rest of the cast will also participate in these imaginary time-traveling investigations in the same way; it’s very amusing and funny to see the gardener in the present time take the role of a cabaret employee in the past for example. This gives a lot of dynamism to the story-telling as the mysteries pile up while retaining its simplicity enough to not confuse the player too much.
When playing these tales from the past, an introductory video in black and white will be shown, and a narrator will give context to what was happening in Japan at that point in time immersing more curious players even more in the story.
Each chapter plays like a self-contained crime mystery novel. After a dead body is found, Eiji, Haruka and their alter egos must find the perpetrator so the story can continue, similar to how a miniseries work. This format is very convenient as the player can enjoy the story without needing to watch the whole thing at once. The story is well written, intriguing and fun to watch.
The Centennial Case plays like you’d expect from an interactive movie. In fact, the game design is extremely conservative and with little interaction. Each chapter has three phases: The incident phase is where the movie part plays. Clues can be collected when QTE-like prompts appear on the screen for a limited time; this part is optional, as all possible clues will be unlocked during the reasoning phase; here, the player will need to get much more involved as there’s no auto-solve button. Arranged in a honeycomb-like grid, mysteries will be placed on a slot normally in the form of a question. What you need to do is drag and drop clues onto slots adjacent to the question. If the clue fits, there it sits, and a hypothesis is formed. When enough hypotheses are created, the game will proceed to the solution phase where Haruka will use the clues and Hypotheses found to determine the real culprit. If Haruka fails to guess correctly, a jokey cutscene will play where Haruka will embarrass herself and it will be game over.
The gameplay loop may sound interesting for an interactive movie, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. The movie parts are lengthy and as stated previously, any input from the player is completely unnecessary. Because of this I didn’t feel I was part of the story and much less playing a game. The reasoning phase feels much more like an exercise in trial and error than an actual investigation: Even when the game states that paranormal activity can be discarded, some hypotheses suggesting the opposite will be created to waste the player’s time. The solution phase is where you’ll feel more involved as you’ll need to present evidence to back your statements. Even then, it’s not nearly enough to make The Centennial case’s gameplay even close to satisfying.
The story is completely told in movie form which is nothing short of impressive for this kind of product when presented in video game format; hours upon hours of high-definition recorded scenes using real actors and locales. Everything is done in a believable and entertaining way which goes to show how much care was put in crafting this story. On the PlayStation 4, the cutscenes are rendered in 1080p although it didn’t really look full HD to me.
The audio department is also very well done. The Centennial Case’s soundtrack fits in very well with the themes presented. The Japanese cast play their roles superbly for the most part, but there’s still an option for english VOs.
In the end, The Centennial Case succeeds in telling an interesting story but fails in being a video game. For those who like story-heavy games light on interactivity and that don’t offer any meaningful challenge like what can be seen in the Zero Escape series for example, The Centennial Case might be just what you’re looking for.
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