Back to the future (via murders and music)

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Poisoned drinks, deadly falls (preceded by a malicious push), heavy candlesticks swung at the back of someone’s head, jealous lords offing innocent princes… murder’s been a popular plot device for about as long as people have been telling stories, which has the unfortunate side effect of making even a well written tale feel a little predictable and familiar before its even begun – so how about throwing in a novel twist? How about solving murder mysteries through time? This is what Sigma and Neon (read that as “Ney-on” rather than the English “Knee-on“), the stars of Square Enix’ 2008 DS “Mystery RPG” Sigma Harmonics and firm friends possessing complimentary supernatural powers (as well as mysterious pasts) must do when they find history suddenly rewritten, the grand demon-sealing clock housed in Sigma’s ancient family residence destroyed and the spirits once trapped by it now running amok.

It’s obvious this is a game with a very clear idea of what it wants to be – projected financial returns be damned – the instant it boots up and you realise the game expects you to hold the DS vertically, like a book. Normally this sort of “inventive” thinking causes me to sigh the sigh of someone who already had her fill of “quirky” DS features about an hour into the handheld’s launch day, but honestly I can’t think of a better way to play a slow burn tangle of murder mysteries than as if I’ve got my hands clasped around the latest page-turner (however wrist ache is sadly a very real issue as the handheld’s weight isn’t evenly distributed when held this way). The unusual positioning also brings a different set of expectations along with it: Seeing as you can’t reach any of the buttons this is clearly not going to be an intense action game, and the way the screens are used at times more as portrait frames, two people facing each other across a divide punctuated by a plastic hinge and your own thumb, than split halves of a single image gives the impression of two people standing apart but talking together in a way one continuous scene doesn’t, as if they really are facing each other across the room. It makes these people feel slightly more real, but that in turn only makes you more acutely aware of how unreal it all is, as if you’re secretly peeking through a window into another world.

Which isn’t all that far off what the main cast themselves are doing, really.

Unlike many time-travelling tales our heroic duo aren’t trapped in the past or caught in a Groundhog Day style loop but sort of stood to one side of it entirely, able to observe but not intervene in whatever form the past currently takes via “Soul Shadows”, floating tablets found within the Kurogami mansion allowing them to witness key fragments of prior events and then use this information to piece together how this blighted family – Sigma’s past relatives from a few decades earlier – were unknowingly manipulated by powerful spirits into murdering each other over and over again, disrupting Sigma’s present in the process to disastrous effect. Sigma Harmonics trick is that not only are these Soul Shadows scattered around the mansion, they’re also scattered through time as well, with different pieces of the puzzle accessed in the hours close to the fatal moment either offering more context or creating further suspicion for every seemingly innocent bystander. After watching these story-shards unfold the questions surrounding significant people – victims and potential murderers alike – as well as inanimate objects that may hold the key to the mystery are turned into “Seals”, which are then used at the climax of the chapter to piece it all together and work out who was the culprit this time. To keep this information gathering session from unravelling into utter tedium your area of exploration is limited – or if you prefer, “streamlined”; some rooms are shown as greyed out and clearly inaccessible on the handy minimap before you’ve gone anywhere near them and you’re not allowed to wander far from the places you need to be in the well-meaning name of “freedom”. It’s the same with time: As Sigma and Neon are operating from the chronological sidelines of broken histories that should never be you’re not trying to keep up with one ever-moving event, concerned you’ve wandered into an empty kitchen at 9:47 while someone’s busy having a vital conversation upstairs in that very moment, here you have just a few pre-set periods you can visit (and revisit), allowed to search rooms and consider the facts for as long as you wish to.

After the evidence gathering comes the next natural step: Working out whodunit. Sigma Harmonics asks player to switch to “Reason mode”, a grid dotted with an unfurling series of questions and problems that must be answered using the Seals gathered during your exploration, for this. Impressively Sigma’s line of questioning will evolve depending on how you respond – and after all that hard work you aren’t guaranteed to come to the correct conclusion either.

And it doesn’t matter.

You can progress anyway, the spirit always revealed regardless of who you thought they were influencing (as a penalty the boss – more on that soon – will be more difficult to defeat the further from the truth your conclusion is) – and more games should do this. Far from making your effort worthless, the next chapter rolling in no matter how little you understand or uncover, this system means you have real space for honest personal input, mysteries not constrained by binary “Automatically fail if you haven’t found the hidden note/Win if you did” or grinding to a halt just because you couldn’t work out the significance of some apparently minor conversation or because you knew that dialogue was important but you linked it to the wrong item/person during Reason mode. Naturally the solution Sigma comes to if you don’t piece it all together correctly is far less satisfying (and may even be wildly off-base) than the extended Sherlock-style explanation he blurts out to if you get it exactly right but you do feel listened to, and you do feel like as caught up in this deadly thriller as much as any of the characters within it.

Once the chapter’s over you’re awarded a rank that makes it perfectly clear how close you were to accurately solving the murder, and in keeping with the game’s reality-hopping theme you’re free to replay previously cleared storylines at absolutely any time you like (obviously this stops whatever else you were doing) either just for the fun of it or to improve you rank – something you’ll need to do if you hope to unlock the final chapter…

Brains alone aren’t enough to re-tune reality, and as such this reasonably wordy murder mystery also contains a smattering of good old fashioned card based magical brawling tied to yet another variant of Square’s evergreen ATB battle system. Far from feeling shoehorned in boss and random battles alike (as well as the ones that occur when the sinister foes that sometimes patrol the halls catch you) not only back up the drama of ancient seals being broken and demons on the loose, but perhaps even more importantly than that underline the fact that Sigma being smart and right all the time (or as smart and right as your conclusions make him) isn’t the only thing standing between a broken world and success – he needs Neon there to physically fend off these monsters, him “conducting” the battle music out of harm’s way (this effects the speed each of Neon’s three gauges fill up) to help her out, even if his deduction’s utterly flawless. The fights themselves are simple but lively affairs, using three small (and swappable) decks of cards to activate unusually restrictive commands (such as “attack to the right”, “attack straight ahead”, “All-area attack” and more) to help her dispatch the opponents shown on the radar. Throughout the game she also gains access to new “jobs” – actually channelled spirits – that only only give her new abilities to wield and outfits to wear but (temporary, and optional) shifts in her personality too, which outside of battle can have a significant impact on your wider investigation.

Considering this is coming from the company that published Unlimited SaGa (and all the SaGas before it) it may sound a little too simplistic but these slimmed-down skirmishes suit the screen orientation and Sigma Harmonic’s chosen genre well. You just wouldn’t want a deeply involved JRPG battle system in a murder mystery that only leaves one stylus-holding hand free, so this thoughtful compromise allows the game to have enough strategy to keep things engaging without taking the focus away from the plot or becoming too much for the limited control scheme to handle.

For a game as thoroughly ignored and perpetually cheap to buy as this is Sigma Harmonics has an unexpectedly premium feel to it: There’s vast swathes of spoken dialogue, beautiful one-off event graphics and so many character portraits they are at times used in rapid succession to show someone’s animated reaction to a scene, no words necessary. The prerendered backgrounds used when walking around (exits and working doorways always helpfully marked with a clearly visible arrow) are detailed and atmospheric without obscuring anything you need to see on the DS’ portable screens, and murder scenes are unpleasant rather than overtly gory, displaying a strong monochrome image from an artistically interesting angle enhanced with an attention-grabbing shot of colour rather than a close-up celebration of physical violence and leaking fluids, a stylish window into a reality slightly out of sync with itself. The game’s refreshingly different in ways that have clearly been included only because they’re relevant to the tale being told rather than for gimmick’s sake, and in spite of the constant retuning of history the game never loses its grip on the plot, the tight focus on a small recurring cast giving a story with deliberately little stability a sense of continuity amongst the inevitable chaos, even during the part that can only be described as a Gundam/grand cathedral organ crossover (best witnessed for yourself, that one). It’s also – and sadly – proof Square’s wildly experimental one-offs didn’t stop in the late Nineties, we just stopped paying attention to them.

[I wouldn’t have been able to buy this game without your support – thank you so much!]

3 thoughts on “Back to the future (via murders and music)

  1. I remember being really interested in Sigma Harmonic and Blood of Bahamut when they got announced, and a bit miffed we got neither of them. At least BoB has a fantranslation now, no such luck for SH.

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  2. I guess nowadays this would have gotten a Western release, but somehow I can’t fault them for not giving it a chance over here.

    It does sound interesting, a bit like Danganronpa maybe (though I didn’t like that game all that much), and music by Hamauzu, too? Ha, if only this had gotten a Western release, I would have been one of 100 people to buy it and could sell it for a fortune now. :P

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