NIS may be know for their Disgaea series or various RPGs that encourage grinding and obtaining highly inflated stats, but they’ve also had a history with publishing adventure games (or rather, visual novels) for the console audience…not that many of them have gone west or even gained recognition beyond a small but dedicated fanbase. For their 20th anniversary, they made an adventure game in collaboration with a local television broadcasting station, with Kiyohara Hiro (artist of the Another manga) as the character designer. Tokushuu Houdoubu puts the player behind a video camera lens as Yuhara Ryou, a new member of the Special Report Division where they chase after the occult and supernatural occurrences.
Ryou is a diligent, extremely straight-laced greenhorn in the regular news department of his broadcasting station, sent to interview some high school students at a local orphanage. Instead of the pitiable orphans that would make for prime documentary material, he meets Watarai Kaede, a calm and mature-for-her-age girl who expresses no discontent at her orphaned situation but instead pulls no hesitation at criticizing the media for simply viewing them as tools to make a good story. Another high school girl then makes her entrance, lashes out at Kaede, and claims to have been abducted and modified by aliens. With insufficient material to direct a compelling documentary, Ryou agrees to listen to the hysterical girl and her absurd story of having a family prior to getting abducted.
Ryou’s boss, naturally, finds this to be a load of bull and pulls the guy from this documentary. Fortunately for Ryou, his investigation catches the eyes of the station’s Special Report Division, or the Tokushuu Houdoubu (Tokuhou for short), who forcefully take him in. The Tokuhou is a division with irregular late night broadcasts, direction documentaries on the occult and supernatural. Together with a producer with an eccentric personality and fashion sense, an energetic and bossy (but beer-loving) director, and a cool assistant director who is an ex-SP for a president, Ryou investigates the high school girl’s proclaimed alien abduction as his first documentary.
Tokuhou is a visual novel for the most part, with a few sections per chapter that can be considered ‘gameplay.’ Some ways into the investigation, Ryou will have to look through the videos he filmed and pinpoint what’s odd or out of place. You get to scroll through several frames of the ‘video’, and point your cursor at what you find to be of note, not unlike those sections in the Ace Attorney series where the player has to point out what’s contradictory in a shot of the murder scene with a witness’ testimony. Sometimes you have to do this with audio instead of video, and listen through a series of lines selecting one of interest. If you pick the wrong one you just have to do it again, so there’s no danger of getting a game over, but there’s a trophy for never making a mistake so if you’re aiming for those you might want to save and reload in case you pick the wrong thing.
A minigame happens at the end of each chapter, called Program Direction, where you have to select the correct image to show at the right points during the television broadcast of the fruits of Ryou’s investigation. Besides selecting the right image for the situation, you also have to do it at the right timing, which is after the countdown from 5 but before the cue ends.
The story is split into seven chapters, the first six of which are episodic with each dealing with a different supernatural case. The cases range from classic paranormal stories like ghosts in an abandoned house, to pure sci-fi concepts like cold sleep and human cloning. The first few chapters were pretty good, but later chapters gave the impression that they were running out of ‘occult’ material to use, with chapter 5 being the low point and chapter 6 going for a more grounded mystery approach. Most of the cases end on a good note, but leaves plenty of plot threads unexplained to maintain the mystery that comes with most occult documentaries. If you’re someone who seeks detailed explanations for why and how things happened, you’ll probably walk away feeling anything but satisfied from each case.
The last chapter half-heartily attempts to connect all the cases using a rather conventional plot development, and tries to elevate the setting into something more grandiose. Needless to say, it ruins the ‘romance’ of pursuing the occult, and at the same time proves to be unfulfilling for those wanting a clear explanation. It’s as if they pulled a reveal that screams “this is where the real plot begins!” and proceeds to resolve the story in the most anticlimatic way shortly after.
A strong point of the overall game is the pacing, with little noticeable downtime once each chapter’s plot kicks into action, but still providing a bit of room for the player to enjoy the interactions between the members of Tokuhou. Unfortunately, outside of a few chapters, it doesn’t do a very good job at executing the climax. In fact, it doesn’t put much weight into any of the events that are intended to be emotionally impactful, leaving the overall text on a shallow level.
There’s also a unique feature, where each chapter’s story branches into two at around the 2/3 to 3/4 point. This happens where the mystery has been clearly established, but Ryou has to decide which angle to investigate from for his report. The two branches end one roughly the same note so they seamlessly carry on to the next chapter, but there are specific details that differ. For example, one branch may explicitly show you how the perpetrator of the incident at hand is dealt with, and the other one will simply end with him “going missing”. There’s also something like in chapter 2, where one branch reveals the past of one of your team members while the other one only vaguely implies it. At the end it doesn’t matter, because you have to go through both branches of each chapter in order to achieve anything other than a bad ending in the final chapter.
The characters, for better or worse, are very normal. By ‘normal’ I really just mean 一般向け, being built with character traits that are targeted towards a general audience (as compared to, say, male or female otaku in particular). They’ve got their distinct personalities, sure, but they aren’t stuffed to the brim with anime tropes or quirks. If anything, they feel closer to character archetypes found in dramas. They’ve got a steady balance of likable and unlikable traits, and don’t develop all that much throughout the story with the exception of Kaede, who softens up compared to her initial impression. In terms of ‘depth,’ Tokuhou is more plot-driven than it is character-driven, so the cast probably won’t leave a lasting impression once you’re done with the game. The protagonist is capable when the time calls for it, but his overly straight-laced personality got on my nerves. Amongst the main cast, he ranks pretty low on my scale.
Music is average, with a few nice suspenseful tracks but others bordering on obnoxious. The art itself is solid and consistent, with not much to complain about other than the fact that few CGs actually leave an impression. The story is told in visual novel style with static portraits, which generally look good, but lack pose variations and seem kind of boring. You also see the entire game (minus program direction portions) through a scanline filter, meant to represent the interface seen on the display of a video camera. It’s not until the end when you unlock the gallery that you get to see the CGs in their unfiltered form. It looks distracting at first, but it’s easy to get used to. The user interface is clean-looking, although I have no idea why they didn’t stick with the typical console VN controls where triangle or up on the D-pad calls the backlog.
I don’t know what to say other than that it was okay. Nothing too bad, nothing too good, and even though I wasn’t particularly pleased with the direction the story took in the last chapter, it’s not like the rest of the game sparked enough in me to truly feel that it’s a shame. Tokuhou is the kind of work that you might enjoy while playing it, as it unveils its mysteries and brings forth suspenseful moments, but the lack of impressive scenes towards the second half dulls your enthusiasm for the story and ends without much substantial content to take away from. There are better mystery-oriented visual novels that introduce memorable characters and generally handle the buildup and execution of climaxes much more elegantly, but you could also do worse. At the end of the day, it’s an underwhelming but inoffensive game.
There were some tidbits I liked, like how Kaede is the easiest target when the perpetrator of a case needs a hostage since she’s a high school girl, but she also holds the second highest K.O. record in the game as she is a master of knocking out unsuspecting criminals with a pipe. Also there was an almost-romance between a popular (back in high school) and athletic bishoujo and a fat nerd, without being portrayed like a typical otaku fantasy. Kind of refreshing to see, although nothing really went anywhere due to plot reasons.