Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Circus Reviews - Black Closet

This review was written about an earlier version of the game; newer features have since been added and are not mentioned in this review.

This review has been edited since its original posting.

I've been talking about this game for a good while, and now it's finally out of beta! Black Closet, by Hanako Games, has officially been released, which means it's now time for my review.

Our protagonist is Elsa Jackson, a senior at St. Claudine's Academy who has been elected president of the Student Council. Her job is to solve mysteries and keep scandals from ruining the school's reputation, with the help of her council members/minions: popular and flirty Althea, stubborn and opinionated Thaïs, friendly new girl Mallory, hypercompetent assistant Vonne, and quiet and antisocial Rowan. Your goal is to keep your fellow students in line, while trying to find the traitor within your own ranks and still keep your grades up long enough to get into a good college.

Gameplay, shown above, involves assigning your minions to tasks such as searching a crime scene or interrogating a witness. Your minions will match their skills against the stats of whatever they're going up against. Succeeding gains you valuable evidence, while failure may lose you council karma or school reputation, both of which you need to keep above zero to avoid a game over. As previously mentioned, there is a traitor in your ranks as well, randomly generated at the start of each game, and she will deliberately sabotage your missions until you can find out who she is and successfully win her loyalty to the point where she turns back to your side. Also, your advisor, Miss Talmage, will occasionally assign you cases that are so important she will expel you if you don't solve them successfully.

Right off the bat, I have to say it: this game is hard. Your cases are on a time limit, and your karma and reputation meters can take severe hits if you fail to solve your mysteries in time. Restoring council karma isn't too difficult, but restoring school reputation can usually only be done on certain types of cases (though you do get some outside of that, like a friendly meter boost at the New Year). It's possible to get a string of just the wrong types of cases and end up running your reputation dangerously low. There are also some plot-based cases that can be rather tricky; one in particular largely depends on the Random Number God smiling down on you and granting you a successful search. Luckily there is an option to pass off the plot cases to Miss Talmage if you get truly stuck (and you'd better exercise that option, because failing a plot case is a game over). Players who have played Hanako's previous title Long Live the Queen may be used to such a large difficulty curve, but others may have a tough time at first.

Your fellow minions are well-characterized, all of them having a lot more to them than it would first appear. Thaïs is easy to write off as a brat, but she's also got a talent for fashion design that rivals her talent for intimidating her fellow students. Mallory seems like a typical ingenue, but isn't quite as innocent as she seems (although she still gets adorably embarrassed at some of the more flirty comments from, say, Althea). Vonne masks her feelings about your previously ended friendship with her by being a standout, courteous sidekick. You get the opportunity to spend time with your minions on the weekends during the first semester, which is how you build their loyalty (a meter that determines how many actions they can perform for you in a row before having to take a break) and discover who the traitor is; it's also how you choose the girl you're going to romance. Or befriend: Mallory and Thaïs have more friendship-based paths since they're minors, and Rowan has a path in which you basically turn her into your personal slave (I like Rowan too much to do it, so no further details there).

The artwork is a pretty big departure from previous Hanako Games titles, but not at all bad. The CGs, in particular, have a kind of watercolor feel to them that looks really nice. I'd maybe say that a few of the sprites look a bit off...Rowan has a tendency to look strangely offended a lot of the time, although that could just be her admittedly rather antisocial personality. And Mallory maybe looks confused a lot. But that one suits her.

The soundtrack is enjoyable enough, but most of the tracks are short, and you may get tired of the constant looping. Still, I have a few favorite pieces of ear candy; the one that plays when a traitor is confessing her terrible sins to you stands out. And without wishing to spoil anything, the track for the final boss fight (yes there is a final boss in this game) is called "Attack of the Vampires", which in context absolutely cracks me up.

Once I got past the somewhat brutal learning curve, I quite enjoyed Black Closet. It's a very different game; I can't say I've really played another one like it. It's part mystery game, part puzzle solving, part romance. The characters are fun; the story is interesting; the gameplay is unique and well thought out. You may have a hard time getting the hang of things at first, but persevere; this game is definitely worth a playthrough.

Black Closet is available on Steam or directly from the developer.

Final verdict: The difficulty curve is possibly high enough to put some players off, but Black Closet combines unique and engaging gameplay with compelling characters and story to make an enjoyable game.

Black Closet is written and developed by Hanako Games and Spiky Caterpillar, and illustrated by Bramasta Aji, x-ren-x, Roman Hodek, and sarana. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I was not compensated in any way.

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