Hermitage: Strange Case Files

Hermitage: Strange Case Files

If you're alone in your dwelling for extended periods, this might fill the time.

hermitage

Visual novels are an interesting concept that can either deliver a great mixed media experience, or fall a little flat.  It all depends on how much you like reading, and whether the story is engaging from the beginning.  The latest one to release over here is Hermitage: Strange Case Files, and has been doing well enough in China since it came out there in 2018 that it’s been given a fully localised translation so that fans of the genre can enjoy it on the other side of the world.  It’s not just a straight read-a-long though, it wants you to play detective and use clues to deduct the answers and figure out what’s really going on.  Does this make it more like a Sherlock Holmes style sleuth ’em up, and can the additional gameplay elements lift this above other titles of the same vein and make an impact with a Western audience?

You know you’re in for a different type of story when it starts off by focussing on a local high school art class and the trouble one of the students is getting into.  It’s not as straightforward as tracing a Renaissance Master’s work to get an A, or swiping some oil paints; the girl (Cecile) is having visions and strange thoughts of things that she can’t possibly know.  Seeking answers she ends up at the Hermitage book shop where the Store Manager (that’s his name throughout) listens to her tale and decides to investigate.  It’s not long before he’s discovering the fingerprints of Lovecraftian horror all over the events, and prepares the girl for supernatural battle to free her from the lure of the creeping dread.  This is just the start though, and before too long he’s roping in the help of other investigators and meeting odd characters that drop into the shop, as well as stumbling on a much larger set of events that are destined to change the city forever.  Will he be able to gather enough evidence and make the right deductions to stop the inevitable happening?  Maybe, if you’re helping him pay attention throughout.

The core gameplay loop of Hermitage: Strange Case Files is the structure of a day.  This is typically the Store Manager having a conversation in the shop with one of the antagonists, then moving on to another part of the town to examine a location, then maybe another conversation at the book shop, before retiring to the apartment above to watch TV or browse the internet or review the clues gathered during the day before starting the next.  Going through this cycle teases out various pieces of evidence and sets up being able to confirm suspicions and solve the case.  With the vast majority of each day being made up of text scrolling across the screen, it’s up to you as the player to understand what’s happening and keep up with events to put the puzzle pieces together.  Each suspicion is deduced by submitting three pieces of evidence, and there are three chances at getting them all right, otherwise you’ll affect the outcome of a case.  Nail it all and it’ll be a good outcome, get them wrong and there’ll be a bad ending.  You’re not told which is which, so there may be a bit of subjectivity in play on whether you think it’s gone the right way or not.

With five cases to work through that get grander in scale, Hermitage: Strange Case Files does layer on additional activities that can be used to pull out more details or add context.  I liked the idea of being able to examine certain characters and get the Store Manager’s view on them.  Examining them can only be done once, so there’s a bit of pot luck on whether you’ll get anything useful for doing it, yet it’s an idea that could have been used to augment what you’re absorbing from the text.  In the conversations there’s the chance to ask questions from a list, yet all can be worked through so it’s unlikely you’ll miss anything, though at least there’s an element of branching dialogue alongside it with decision points that punctuate crucial points of the story.  It’s not shy at switching up the gameplay later on either and adds some top down stealth-like sections which feel a bit jarring to be fair, but at least there’s variety.  Mostly though you’ll be spending your time keeping up with several different main characters, Cthulu mythology and lots and lots of reading.

Changing the pace and adding different mechanics into the mix makes it feel like it’s doing something different, but Hermitage is never really able to get away from the fact it is a visual novel, and for me the story was very padded, and that’s noticeable when it’s 95% of the activity.  It’s an interesting enough tale that’s elongated by a desire to be verbose, and it’s easy to zone out if you’ve not been grabbed fully.  I often felt like the Store Manager would deliberately use 100 words when 10 could have done, which isn’t a bad thing if it flows well.  Speeding up the crawl has the benefit of you getting an overview of what the characters are doing as you’re skimming it, though it’s possible to just hold down a button and skip through it all.  Sure, you’ll spend less time with it, but you’ll miss all the key pieces of info to pull together the suspicions.  Unfortunately some of the interactive elements were a bit patchy, with options for examining characters pulling ones from previous scenes into the current – making them completely out of place and irrelevant to the discussion.  Worst of all was during the final full case the game took control of the suspicion and deduction and I had no control of the selections, meaning I failed to solve it without even having an input.  You’re already unable to work through figuring them out at will, even though they are always available at the touch of a button, so to be stripped of the chance to figure out the final “big bad” at the only correct stage was massively frustrating.

A massive plus point is the art style and how it handles the 2D transitions and interactive spaces.  They’re well detailed and add tone to the settings which you might not expect.  Hermitage: Strange Case Files opts for some 3D work as it builds the tension, and in particular during the final boss confrontation, and I’d like to say it compliments the rest of the style.  I can’t though, it seemed unfinished and for me actually lost some of the impact of what it was building to.  There are several boss “fights” and all manage to get across what’s needed with the standard presentation, why a decision was made to change this for the final reckoning and make it look worse I don’t know.  With no voice acting it’s a surprise that the audio design is as good as it is, and sound punctuates what’s going on from knocks on doors and ringing phones, through to punches and gunshots where they crop up.  There’s a real mixed bag to what they’ve gone for in style and atmosphere, and mostly it actually works.

Hermitage: Strange Case Files is going to have a very particular audience, and I don’t think I’m part of it.  I can appreciate what they were going for, and the amount of effort it’ll have taken to write several novels worth of text to support the story, but it just didn’t grab me.  Feeling it was more of a chore, I was powering through at the end and not really picking up on the nuances with all the characters, and the issue in the last case with it taking control away was annoying.  Then it turns out it wasn’t the last case, but the next was simply dialogue for what felt like an age, and was the point I felt the game had given up any pretence of being an investigative thriller.  Fans of the genre should give this a go, but anyone who’s on the fence might just bounce off it.

A PS4 review copy of Hermitage: Strange Case Files was provided by Arrowiz’s PR team, and is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch for around £15 depending on platform.

The Verdict

5Mediocre

The Good: Art style | Looking for clues in the conversation

The Bad: Taking control of actions and making it fail | Too much text

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Matt

Co-founder & Editor at Codec Moments

Gamer, F1 fanatic, amateur DJ (out of practice), MGS obsessed, tech geek.

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