I’m always happy when I get approached about reviewing a game, so I’m grateful that Caty and Marty from RockTheClock, creators of the game under discussion today, got in touch to ask me if I’d take a look at their demo.
The Cold Case of Noella Bejerot (beh-zher-oh, I think – sound it out with French pronunciation and you’ll be golden) is a murder-mystery of sorts made with a lot of love. The demo’s available to download for free here; the final game will be releasing, I’m told, later this year, although a fixed date hasn’t been set yet. You can play through the demo in probably around half an hour to forty minutes; I’ve spent about three hours in total with it playing around with various things to make sure I’ve seen all there is to see. The full game, according to the press page linked above, will feature four possible endings and over forty unique backgrounds, so I imagine this demo as being an introduction or prologue, the first of perhaps four or five chapters.
For the sake of reversing the usual order of reviews, where the verdict goes at the end, I’m going to come out now before any of the details and say that I can see a lot of promise, but CCNB (as I shall call it for brevity) is not a perfect game. This is by the developer’s own admission on their blog – it’s their first game, created through self-taught programming and a lot of learning experiences creating all the elements and getting them to cohere together. You can tell this is a project with passion behind it, and I hope they’ll learn and make more, better games in future. I think there’d be no point in me doing a review of the demo if I were planning to just entirely omit flaws to learn from; I’ll try to present the to-be-improved with the this-is-already-good as fairly as I can. (This must be why I don’t often do ‘proper reviews’, especially where the developer has actually invited me to look at their game and doubly especially where it’s so obvious that this is a real labour of love for them: I don’t like delivering criticism!)
That said, let’s take a look at the details of CCNB and see what we can find!
So what’s it about?
Well, let’s quickly recap the plot of this introductory section before diving into the nitty-gritty: CCNB begins with its heroine, Grace Sinclair, freshly kicked out of her home by her dad after she’s dropped out of high school. Without a penny to her name, she walks to the bus station and persuades the driver to take her… somewhere. Hopping out by a convenience store, she decides that she simply has to eat, so she decides to steal a pack of her favourite gummy bears (but not before talking to the cashier and scoping out the register, reassuring herself that she won’t be doing any serious damage to someone’s livelihood).
As it happens, somebody robs the store, taking the money from the register, just as Grace is in the process of liberating the bears; she’s taken in as a witness, but initially thinks she’s the one being arrested! Fortunately, investigating detective Delilah is a forgiving sort; in fact, when Grace puts together a few clues from the scene to deduce the likely identity of the robber, Delilah is so impressed that she offers Grace a job and allows the little wandering scamp to stay at her apartment, since she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Delilah doesn’t have the authority to simply employ someone, though: Grace is tested by Delilah’s superior, head detective Lem Yasui, who takes her to investigate a murder case.
Grace investigates the scene of the crime, but not without difficulty: she suffers from a condition which causes her to pass out at the sight of blood, so the player must strike a balance by deciding how many clues to make Grace examine closely. Too few clues and the crime will remain unsolvable; too many and Grace will be unconscious, which doesn’t really help anyone. She comes up with a theory about whodunnit by investigating witness accounts and evidence she can find at the scene, but it turns out Lem was kind of messing with her and even he wouldn’t actually point the finger at someone without forensic evidence. So the gang hotfoot it over to the lab, where technician George explains a buncha clues and we’re able to pin the blame firmly on one of the suspects. Lem, who says Grace’s reasoning is a bit shaky but that she’s come to the same conclusion he would have, is suitably impressed and takes her on as a… junior detective, or something like that.
As the demo wraps up, Delilah reveals to Grace that the convenience store robbery was actually perpetrated by some randomer, so Grace didn’t in fact solve the crime after all. Delilah realises that Grace just got lucky, and reasons that maybe this isn’t the job for our heroine after all… but Grace pulls out the puppy dog eyes and Delilah lets her stay. Besides, it’s too late: Lem knows that Grace didn’t solve the crime, and as a karmic punishment he (rather unprofessionally, in my opinion!) assigns Grace to be his very own partner.
The plot of the demo therefore serves to set up the rest of the game, establishing Grace’s position as new detective on the block at the police station (or detective agency, I’m not sure which; more on that later). Lem will be keeping his watchful eyes on her, and presumably Delilah’s position and reputation will also hinge on how Grace copes. We’ve got a new status quo in place, so I expect the rest of the game to consist of perhaps a couple of standard mysteries to solve along with the eponymous cold case, which I imagine might somehow disrupt the harmony of Grace’s new situation. We’ve not yet actually had any mention of Noella Bejerot or of her cold case, but the game’s trailer features Grace calling her dad to mention that the department’s given it to her pretty much just to see if she can solve it, since nobody else has been able to in sixteen years.
We’ve got a fairly neat premise, then: it’s Ace Attorney-style crime-solving (without the courtroom, though, at least so far) with a couple of twists in the form of our main character, who faints at the sight of blood, dropped-out and got kicked-out, and may or may not actually be a prodigy detective or may just have got lucky. We also have an interestingly flawed supporting character in the form of Delilah: despite obviously being competent at detective-ing (I’m well aware that’s not the right word, but I like it better), she evidently has a soft spot for apparent prodigy kids, with Grace being the third one she’s tried to convince Lem to hire. Done right, Delilah could present an interesting dichotomy as someone who’s both untrusting by profession and perhaps too trusting by nature.
I’m also 99% sure that something is up with Grace’s dad. At the start of the game, he’s just kicked her out (because she dropped out of high school, although she’s stated to be twenty years old – high school must be different in America!), but we don’t actually see him. She knocks on the door, but no response. Later, she tries to call, but nobody answers, so she leaves a message letting him know that she’s OK and not to worry (and in the trailer she’s leaving another message, with the implication that she’s ‘missed him’ several times recently).
All of this just doesn’t sit right with me: we don’t once see him or hear him speak, she’s never able to get hold of him, and for some reason she’s quite happily calling to make sure he knows she’s alright – it plays as if she’s just ringing from a friend’s house to keep a worried father in the loop rather than the actual situation, which is of course that he threw her out of her home and hasn’t picked up the phone since. I’d be more upset if I were her. I can’t remember whether it’s clarified that this is the first time he’s thrown her out or not, but neither scenario makes sense; if it’s the first time, why isn’t she much angrier/ more scared/ more reluctant to reach out to him (or the opposite, more desperate for him to let her return), and if it’s not the first, why isn’t she just done with him and why does she care that he’s kept up-to-date with her wellbeing? Calling it now: he’s either going to be one of the bad guys or he’s secretly already dead, or something.
Okay, so how does the game actually work?
You’ll probably have gathered a rough idea of the gameplay by now, but just to recap: CCNB plays as somewhere between a visual novel and a point-and-click adventure-mystery. Most of the demo is spent in dialogue, with the plot unfolding through conversations and the occasional bit of third-person narration, plus a couple of click-to-find-the-clues set pieces. The element of novelty to these is the aforementioned caveat that Grace can’t willy-nilly look at every bit of evidence, because she’s likely to pass out if she does, so the player needs to make some attempt to judge which bits of evidence are most important. A loss to this mechanic is a bit unsatisfying, though: you just get ‘Grace fainted! Game Over.’ and must reload a save.
I like the concept, but I have some concerns for how it might be implemented; in the demo, there are just enough clues that Grace could faint if she looks at all of them (or looks more than once), but any combination of three or four is more than enough to be getting along with. If, however, the full game demands that the player only select the correct clues to examine, a decision they’ll have to make based purely on first appearances (which may not give a proper indication, this being a mystery and all!), this could very easily lead to a player not getting the right bit of evidence and not being able to progress through no fault of their own.
I am sort of hoping that this feature might get used smartly at some point for story-important purposes, though: perhaps Grace is unable to solve a particular case because there are just too many pieces of evidence for her to get a decent idea without fainting, which could provide an interesting avenue for the story to go down. Ace Attorney has had cases be unwinnable by design, and it’s usually led to intrigue and novel plot developments, so perhaps that’s something CCNB might use for dramatic effect too. (I’m sure other VNs have done the same thing, but AA is the one I remember the most!)
I hope that the full game also improves a bit on the way that multiple-choice problems are currently implemented. The first choice in the game (Grace has just been kicked out and must select a direction to walk in) is very much an illusion of choice rather than an actual decision, since three of the four options will have her just say something to the effect of ‘this way’s no good, better try a different one’. It isn’t entirely pointless, as it serves to establish that, although there are friendly places around her, she doesn’t feel able to approach any of them; it’s still a bit disappointing mechanically that the first multiple choice is functionally reduced to following a single path.
Similarly, during the cases Grace is asked questions about how the crime was committed and who did it. The first part (when Grace deduces who might have robbed the store) is literally impossible to fail, as Grace will outright say ‘no, that doesn’t sound right’ and refuse to give a wrong answer; you’re actually unable to make a mistake in that sense. I’d have liked to see a bit more variance in how the game deals with Grace either giving wrong answers or coming to the right answer despite the player not picking up on the right clues, for example. As it is, you can fail the later part (the murder case) by giving an incorrect answer, but this will just cause Lem to say ‘that’s not right’ and you’ll get a game over, forcing you to reload a save. I think this could be handled in a much more interesting way, and I hope the full game might find some new and fun ways to approach the problem.
There’s definitely promise here, and I will definitely be interested to see the direction the story takes in the full game, as well as whether the gameplay introduces any new elements to keep things interesting.
Are the characters interesting?
They’re certainly all memorable, from protagonist Grace and her new colleague detectives to one-off appearances like the bus driver and murder suspects. The demo only has time to give a limited amount of depth to each of them, so at the moment we don’t know much about most of their personalities beyond broad archetypal strokes (Lem is a moody detective, George is a family man and forensic whiz, the bus driver drives a bus, that sort of thing), with a couple of exceptions.
Grace is already a character with interesting flaws, most obviously her inability to look at blood and her bizarre relationship with her father – again, if that doesn’t turn out to be some sort of plot point, I’ll be very surprised. She’s also someone who’s able to rationalise stealing extremely easily; I think it’s supposed to come off as her being desperate, but it made it a little bit hard for me to relate to her, especially since she decided to steal some yummy gummy bears – a treat, in other words, rather than something that would actually sustain her if she were starving. There’s no option not to have her ‘sneakily sneak the gummy bears’ either, so you can’t play Grace any other way.
Delilah also has a level of depth, actually: she’s a detective, but she can’t help but bring potential whiz kids under her wing. I hope this facet of her personality is explored to its full potential in the main game, rather than have Delilah be impressed way too easily just this one time as a contrived excuse for the plot to get Grace into the police department. She also has some sort of peculiar insecurity about her age; I’m aware that being insecure about one’s age isn’t all that peculiar, but she is very outspoken about wanting people not to think she’s old considering that nobody else ever mentions it and she looks only a little older than Grace, who herself looks like she could be younger than her stated age of twenty.
What does the game look like?
CCNB has a pretty distinctive art style, which often works in its favour but which I suspect will not be to everyone’s taste. (You can actually see some of the backgrounds being drawn in this devblog post, which is pretty cool!) Sprites are sort of vaguely animesque: characters have big eyes, exaggerated proportions and funky hair – and technician George really looks like Edward Elric to me for some reason, even getting a short joke of sorts in there – which makes them distinctive and expressive but might not appeal to everyone.
Delilah in particular has very noticeable Anime Hair and extremely large irises, and for some reason is very focused on trying to make sure nobody thinks she’s old despite the fact that her character sprite really does not look very old at all. The backgrounds are really good for the most part, but there’s some occasional disparity of scale; most noticeable for me was in the first scene when Grace (a twenty-year-old, remember) stands before the front door of her house, which is about three times the size of her.
The art style is certainly cohesive throughout, at any rate, which is nice to see. One little kink that I spotted and which could do with being ironed out is that there are some obvious sprite flips when characters face the opposite direction: Grace in particular has this really noticeably because her hoodie has words written on it.
What does it sound like?
One of the marketing points for CCNB‘s demo is the fact that it comes ‘fully voiced’. I’m pretty impressed that a production of this small scale was able to get every character voice-acted, although I suspect that none of the voice work was done by a professional. That’s not to say that it’s badly done; I’d say it’s hit-and-miss for me, with a couple of characters being pretty well-acted, most being passable and one or two being, er, noticeably sub-par. (There’s also one character – the bus driver – whose voice work is either really on-point or, like, so bad it’s good, and I’m very confused at the fact that I can’t tell which it is. Either way, I enjoy him.) Again, though, you wouldn’t expect it to be amazing given that it’s a developer’s first game and appears to have been made on very little budget, and I will say that the quality of the audio itself is decent throughout.
I do hope the full game fixes one thing, which is that not everything is fully-voiced; in some scenes, usually ones where Grace is examining items, instead of reading the line as it appears on screen she’s just given vague noises. She makes one of these vague noises every time the dialogue advances, though; this can result (especially when clicking quickly through the pages) in rapid-fire strings of ‘hm, yum, ah, oh, yes!, uh, aw’, which isn’t hugely enjoyable.
Oh, and there’s a line where Delilah’s eating a gummy bear as she’s talking and I’m pretty sure the VA was actually eating a gummy bear during recording. It just sounds… so unbelievably gross. On my first playthrough, I skipped several subsequent lines of dialogue just to make sure I wouldn’t have to hear any more icky chewing noises; I appreciate the commitment to realism, but that was definitely taking the art too far for my taste!
There is a bit of background music, too. I’m not sure whether it’s original; it’s fairly generic and not really all that noticeable, which certainly isn’t the worst crime for background music to commit.
How’s the writing?
I will say this: if you’re not a fan of ‘quirky’ games, then the writing in CCNB will probably not be for you. For my own tastes, it’s got enough heart and enough genuine good intention behind it that it avoids crossing the line into being forced or overly saccharine, although that’s not to say it isn’t occasionally a little bit awkward.
There are a few aspects to the writing in this game, so let’s start with the characters and dialogue. I already mentioned that not all of the voice work is on point, and I think that as a general point the dialogue could have done with a proper good proofread before recording; I know from experience that lines that look fine written down can be really hard to say naturally out loud, so it’s a fine art trying to write something that’s intended to be spoken or acted. For the most part, it comes across fine; I suspect there are just a couple of points where the voice actors weren’t helped by the diction in their lines.
Characters are written reasonably distinctively, however; I think I’d be able to tell a Lem line of dialogue from a Grace one just from the tone, if that makes sense, and that’s certainly commendable. I think Delilah in particular may be trying a little to hard to have speech patterns that distinguish her from others, though, as she calls people ‘dear’ and ‘hun’ a fair bit and I’m not sure why. Is it because she’s old? That is a running joke, after all, but it just comes across a bit more awkwardly when it’s voiced aloud than it probably did when it was just on a page. Lem, on the other hand, refers to Grace as ‘darling’ at one point and it feels pretty much in character for him because he’s kind of a condescending jerk to her.
As for the writing on a broader, less specific scale (the plot and whatnot), again I think it might have benefited from having a few beta readers to point out things that just don’t quite seem to make a lot of sense – small issues, but ones that the game would benefit from fixing. I’m not sure exactly why Grace wants to get a bus in the beginning, for example; the police arrive absurdly quickly at the scene of a crime (as in, Grace takes a pack of gummy bears off the shelf at the same time as the cash register gets held up, and the police arrive while Grace is still in the process of removing the gummy bears); and perhaps the one that I noticed most, I think there must have been a neater way to resolve Grace’s issue than to have Delilah (a reasonably high-ranking police officer) instantly offer her (a total stranger) a job and allow her to stay at her apartment for the night. Again, it’s sort of mitigated by the fact that Delilah’s ludicrous levels of trust in people she’s just met is an established character flaw, but I just couldn’t accept that one.
I think I’m right in saying Delilah’s a police officer, by the way. Certainly, she enters the crime scene with some people who are Definitely Police Officers, but Lem, who’s her boss, introduces himself as the head of ‘Burns Detective Agency’. Can you be a detective for your own firm as well as a ranking officer at a police station? I’m not sure. It’s another of those little things that could have done with some ironing out, or perhaps it’s just me.
I do like a lot of the little bits of flavour text describing items, scenes, or people; the only thing I’d say on that is that the lines will repeat exactly if you look at the same thing twice (even if you’ve since discovered something else which allows you to use it differently). There is a function that lets you skip bits of text you’ve already seen, which is a nice little quality-of-life addition and which I appreciated when doing multiple playthroughs!
All of my little nitpicks aren’t really huge problems, to be honest, but that when added up might start to detract a little bit from the overall experience. I’d still say that the overarching premise is a decent and interesting one, and I think the writing shows enough promise that I’m very interested to see how the rest of the story plays out. I think the story overall could be very enjoyable!
What about the writing in the actual murder cases?
I was pretty impressed and entertained by the murder of Jonah Mort, the case in the demo. It’s well thought-through and rather neatly put together; I won’t spoil the whole thing, for those who want to play it themselves, but it manages to achieve what I think must be the goal in a murder mystery, which is that things start unclear and gradually reveal themselves through deduction until the player has a nice little ‘aha!’ moment.
One thing I would pick up on, which actually isn’t really to do with the case’s writing at all so much as how it’s been implemented, is the fact that it’s possible to skip this (the main case of the demo, remember) entirely by going straight to Lem and admitting that you don’t know who did it before even looking at any evidence or testimonies. In fact, story-wise this might be the correct course of action because, as it turns out, not even Lem could solve a case without going to forensics first. Even if you look at all the evidence and make the correct deduction you’ll still have to go to the lab and piece it together again; in fact, whether you give the right option, a wrong one, or just say you’re a failure and you can’t do it, Lem will give the same response by saying you’re not cut out for the job (Delilah then comes in to chide him for teasingly making Grace try to solve a case without even going to the lab).
Doing the ‘Mort skip’, as I’ll call it for future speedrunners, does result in lab technician George having absolutely no dialogue options with you, though, as his role is to talk to you about what he’s found on the evidence you brought him; this can make the case unwinnable except by sheer guesswork, since you can’t back out to go investigate more. It’s an interesting scenario, to be sure, but I think the game would benefit from not allowing you to progress unless you’ve got at least the bare minimum evidence to make a deduction.
The case is pretty solid if you take the time to actually do the investigating, though. There’s a neat little red herring in the form of a piece of evidence that points pretty squarely to one of the suspects, so you might think you’ve got it solved, but you’ll then discover another, even more damning bit of evidence that pins the blame very firmly on someone else. I’d have liked perhaps a bit more discussion and reasoning on each new revelation, seeing the characters throw ideas around and change their hypothesis as new pieces of the puzzle fell into place, but that could well be something we’ll see more of in the finished game.
And how about the overall user experience?
CCNB plays fairly standard-ish-ly for a game of this type: click to advance the text and make decisions, with a few shortcut keys for ease if you want ’em.
There’s a quicksave and an autosave, both of which are handy in a pinch, as well as more than enough slots for your manual saves. You’ll probably only need a couple, but it’s nice to be able to revisit bits (as well as to keep backed up for potential game overs, which generally kick you out so you’ll need to reload a save file).
You’ve also got functions allowing you to adjust the music, sound, and voice volume levels; these were a bit temperamental for me, sometimes working just fine and sometimes doing nothing at all!
I found CCNB to be pretty sturdy for the most part, though. I didn’t get any glitches or weird situations, no bugs or unexpected behaviours; it all played largely as I was expecting it to, which is one of those things that you don’t notice at the time but appreciate when you then come across a super buggy build of something elsewhere and think ‘gosh, I wish this was as smooth as that other thing that I now feel bad for not fully appreciating’.
This has ended up being a way more comprehensive review than I was planning, so, er… sorry about that, if it was too much and you’ve buggered off, or you’re welcome, if you’re still here and you enjoyed it all! I think I must have been enjoying getting in-depth with the game, so take this overly detailed and frankly a little bit rambling review as something of an endorsement.
Overall, I would recommend giving the demo a look. It’s under an hour, after all, and I think there’ll definitely be an audience (myself included) who’ll be intrigued enough by the story to want to play the full game and find out more about the twists and turns. I think it’s clear, looking back on what I’ve written, that there are quite a few things I would point to as perhaps needing a little bit of improvement, but my general feeling about what I’ve seen so far is a sort of fond attachment. It’s hard not to find the game’s style and spirit endearing!
If CCNB sounds like something that might not interest you, why not go and download the demo for free here? Even if this particular sort of game isn’t your cup of tea, the developer’s blog is well worth a read just to get a picture of the love and effort that goes into projects like this one, and I hope I’ll get the chance to discover more of these projects of passion soon. The world needs people to keep creating stuff just for the love of creating stuff!