Just in time for Halloween ‘Giiku Games’ are releasing a detective visual novel set in a creepy old bookshop called Hermitage. The basic premise of the game is to use the store’s Lovecraftian book collection to solve mysteries presented by various characters who find themselves at the same shop. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Let’s blow the dust off some old tomes and hope we don’t find a true horror classic such as ‘Fly Fishing’ by J.R. Hartley in the XboxEra review of Hermitage: Strange Case Files.
The story revolves around a character called Store Manager who for some mysterious reason has no life outside the Hermitage building. He lives upstairs and never seems to leave the property but manages to make several friends, such as Scarlet, a moody Lawyer; Justin, an amateur detective; and Neko a hacker on the run.
Patrons regularly end up in the shop suffering from some kind of problem ranging from having vivid historic hallucinations to being kidnapped and put through failed body modification surgery. There is always a supernatural element to these issues and using the knowledge gained from rare supernatural books regularly dropped off at the shop by a man known as ‘The Deliverer’ as well as clues gathered by the characters who can actually leave the building the store manager sets out to solve each case. While this is going on there is also an overarching case that everything seems to be connected to, but I will leave it there so as not to spoil it for anyone who wishes to take the game on themselves.
Stylistically the game is well presented, the main character smokes a lot and the graphic novel style animation makes this look pretty cool in the same way as a black and white film did in the nineteen forties. An entwined jazz soundtrack certainly adds to the ambiance of the surroundings and gives the setting a certain feeling and tone. Every book in the shop would smell of stale smoke and be yellow from nicotine but let’s face it if you are in the Hermitage that is the least of your problems.
Five different cases are presented over five chapters with a remaining sixth chapter to tie everything up. Gameplay takes the form of reading.
Lots and lots of reading.
I know this is a ‘visual’ novel but at times it felt more like, well, just a plain old novel. After talking to a character or two in the shop one of the friends of the Store Manager generally snoops around somewhere and talks to some other people. Every now and then you have to make a key choice such as lying or telling the truth but these are very few and far between.
You get to choose odd lines of dialogue or pick a part of someone to study closely but that is about it. After being awarded clues from these interactions you can consult the books in the shop to cross-reference the data and are awarded with more depth to the clues you already have or different clues entirely.
Watching TV in the evening, reading newsgroups on the internet, thinking about things, or texting your friends can also reward you with extra clues and knowledge that ties in with what is going on. Over time you create a nice relationship diagram that links everyone together and is very well designed.
After long periods of reading conversations, you are presented with a question (known as a suspicion) and have to select the correct three clues from your collection to answer it and draw a conclusion. You only get three chances at each one of these and if you fail to identify the correct clues you will go on to see a bad ending and the game ends. If you select the wrong key choice that will also mean that you cannot continue the story and will lead you to a bad ending. This is one of those games where you need to save multiple times if you are to avoid reading the same text over and over again.
After making my way through the first chapter I essentially hit a brick wall with chapter two. I was unable to select the correct clues from my evidence book no matter how hard I tried and it was only after reloading numerous times and eventually starting the chapter again that I realised I had not consulted the books in the shop enough times and was missing one section of one clue. This meant that I would never have the clue available to me when presented with the question and would continually fail it.
If this was a one-off annoyance, I could have forgiven the design but continuing through the game, the selection of clues required was sometimes so obscure and to me non-intuitive that even Sherlock Holmes himself would probably rage quit a playthrough partway through the third chapter.
The difficulty of the game is totally thrown off by this and results in a very frustrating experience for the player.
The developer is clearly a big fan of Lovecraft with large amounts of his background and stories appearing throughout the game but it just seems wasted here. The cases became more and more obscure as I worked my way through them and although I enjoyed the one involving lots of cats, by the time I got to the last chapters I no longer really understood or even cared what was going on.
There were parts of the experience that I enjoyed such as the top-down exploration of certain buildings and the old skool way of going up and down the stairs that reminded me of nineties computer games but these things were few and far between. Even the end of chapter battles were off balance and could either be beaten by potluck or kind of petered out.
After losing several hours of play to the aforementioned restart during chapter two, I also experienced a glitch where after failing to prove a suspicion, another thirty minutes of play was lost. In terms of accessibility, the game had nothing extra to offer.
Hermitage: Strange Case Files really leans into the novel part of the detective visual novel. It looks very stylish and creates a moody atmosphere but most of the time is spent reading conversations with very little interaction, so if that is not your thing this is likely not the game for you. There is just not enough actual gameplay available within this title so it is fair to say that it will be a must-play for diehard fans of the genre only.
After playing through, I’ve decided I am not one of them.
Played on Xbox Series X