Master Magistrate – Early-Access Review

Assume the mantle of magistrate to uphold law and order in a town where the cherry trees bloom all year round.
Solve crimes and pass judgment with a colorful cast of samurai, detectives, inventors, and brigands in a Japan on the edge of modernization!

VNDB page, Steam page, ShiraVN Discord server

Master Magistrate is the murder mystery detective visual novel set in the late years of Japan’s Edo Period. Developed by the indie studio Irodori and released in the year of 2017, it quickly attained popularity and became a hit amongst Japanese fans. They praised the great direction sense, well-crafted scenario, immersive atmosphere, and fascinating soundtrack, amongst other aspects.
Hobibox have attained publishing rights for the Chinese and English versions of the game, wishing to bring this experience overseas. They have committed themselves to provide a high-quality product, hoping to turn a new leaf and redeem themselves for not so fruitful past endeavors.

The game consists of the main story (total of four chapters), in addition to branching character routes/endings. Supposedly, the fourth chapter is as long as the first three combined, and in turn, the sum of the individual routes is as long as the fourth chapter. Honestly, instead of referring to them as chapters, Hobibox/ShiraVN should’ve just called it the common route. As it is, it’s easy to be mislead into thinking that the character routes and endings are just some kind of bonus.

The Early-Access version was released on Steam at a reduced price, including the game’s first three chapters for up to 20 hours of gameplay, roughly equivalent to one third of the full game. Early Access might seem like an odd choice, but I’d say the discounted price is worth the risk. Hobibox have already vowed to release the remaining parts in early 2020, including Adult DLC. That is to say, if you’re not interested in 18+ content, it’s very easy to avoid it.

ShiraVN is in charge of the English localization. They are a team under Hobibox‘s fellow DMM subsidiary DMM GAMES. They are unknown and have no proven track record, so to ease people’s worries, I’d like to talk about the elephant in the room. No, this won’t be a repeat of Your Diary. Yes, they’ve actually hired native speakers this time around. However, there’s still a number of issues that while not grave, would go a long way towards polishing the script. Overall, I’d say it’s decent, with some room for improvement.

Jeez, I’m sorry, okay?

In this game, you play as Shimei Ooka, the newly appointed Magistrate of Nakamachi. Not only do you do detective work during the investigation phase, but you also play as this sort of “Judge, Jury and Executioner” figure inside the court. To assist you in your trials and tribulations are the Shinsengumi, the special police force assembled by the shogunate, and other members of your office.
Amongst these characters are the five heroines: Rimu, your childhood friend and inventor; Sakura Toyama, your officially appointed overseer and daughter of Kitamachi‘s Magistrate; Shino Okita, the taciturn genius swordsman of the Shinsengumi; Ayaka Yamanami, the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi and the office’s dorm mother; and Koume Kawai, the game’s first semblance of a “defendant” and who later acts as the office’s clerk.

This is an aspect that I was incredibly fond of – the heroines are all capable women who excel at their roles. This is not to say that they are perfect though, as they too are human and have their own flaws and moments of personal growth.

But yes, for once, the heroines aren’t mindless, soulless creatures who orbit around the protagonist. Rejoice!

Be sure to check your friends’ rooms now and then to learn more about them. Hands off those drawers, though!

It’s no wonder that the game was praised for its atmosphere. There was a lot of care put into accentuating the characters’ individuality and personality, be it through the detailed character design, voice acting, or interactions with the protagonist and the other characters.

The same care was put into the side characters. Every single side character is voiced (including males) and bar one or two personages with annoying tics that have me looking for the mute button, I felt the voice acting was pretty spot on. The characters’ designs reveal a lot about their personalities, and their clothing matches their occupations to a T.

Nothing is perfect, however. Some sprites are more polished than others, and the difference is even all the more striking when certain side characters are standing next to the heroines. It feels like the different styles clash with one another. Even from an objective standpoint, you can easily go from “okay” to “pretty good”, depending on the character. Still, I’m glad they went through the effort to give every individual character the chance to shine.

Ignore everything I’ve said so far. The BEST character is the talking land mackerel and there’s no contesting this.

Other secondary characters worth mentioning would be your pops Tadashige, Magistrate of Kitamachi (we know what happens to mentor figures in these type of games), and Yoshiaki Nagai, the Chief Minister, second only to the shogun. Nagai is an old crook who only exists to make your life more difficult and to make constant unreasonable demands. He exists a bit as a plot device to stop trials from dragging on endlessly. He also reeks of “Final Boss” vibes.

The pacing of the story is an important aspect to be addressed. The first chapter is rather slow. Not only do you (and the main character) have to get accustomed to the setting, but there are introduction scenes for each and every character of this expansive cast. The first trial is also quite short and exceedingly easy, as you’re being introduced to the game mechanics. I was very disappointed as I was under the impression that the murder mystery was not the focus and not much more than an afterthought.

The second chapter begins with slice-of-life scenes that felt a bit too long, but are important in the way that they give you a chance to interact with the characters outside the “action” scenes. One such interaction would be this section’s fanservice scene, which is a tad long-winded and features some nice eye candy topped with slightly unsavory comments. In a way, you could say that this game suffers from partially being a dating sim – it just has to give you enough interactions with the heroines, but I feel that doesn’t belong in this genre.

At the very least, there isn’t a myriad of H-scenes disrupting the flow.

The pace quickly picks up with the advent of the second case. It is much more engaging as the envolving plot ties nicely with the setting and the murder mystery itself. For example, Rimu, your childhood friend with a knack for machines, invents what is essentially a fire extinguisher. It is explained that before, the only solution to putting out a fire in a home was to demolish the building itself. Now they can just put the fire out! I would like to see these kind of technological advancements have more of an impact on the trials themselves, however. Just like in Great Ace Attorney, where you are introduced to the concepts of photographic evidence and luminol tests.

Yeah, pump that hose, baby! Technology is awesome!

The third chapter is more of a character-driven story, nearly entirely focused on Sakura. In her own journey of self-growth, she learns to toss away her pride, quit chasing after her father’s shadow, and carve her own path. How exactly? Well, I’ll leave you to find out for yourself. With that being said, however, this chapter is pretty good. The character interactions are more meaningful, there are numerous twists and turns, the trials are more challenging, and the stakes are higher than ever before. Solve a mystery, only for others to take its place. What a ride.

In conclusion, I can only say the game only gets increasingly better. If you’re already enjoying the game at the start, you’ll be sure to come to love it even more. The Early-Access version ends at a bit of a cliffhanger, but it feels like a pretty good stopping point. To be completely honest, I wasn’t too excited about the game at first. Now, however, I find myself to be anxiously looking forward to the rest. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend playing all of it now if you’re not willing to wait a couple months (plus any unforeseen delays).

Art is definitely one of the high points, be they backgrounds, event CGs, chibi art, or the manga-like scenes.

As for the art, I’ve already gone over the character designs but there’s a lot more than that. The game features over 200 CGs, about 45 of those being HCGs. Just like with the sprites, backgrounds easily can go from “bland/serviceable” to “good”. Once again, they put a lot more effort into the backgrounds you see most often.

Every single location in-game has its own background CG. This can be particularly helpful for a more immersive experience, but certain objects don’t blend in as naturally, as they are made to scream “click me!” during the investigation phase. The chibi art featured during the more comedic scenes are adorable, but the highlight are the monochrome, manga-style CGs during the action and murder retelling scenes. They look pretty damn cool.

Honestly, these CGs are downright awesome. I wish I could show them all off.

The gameplay is one of Master Magistrate‘s high points. If you’re used to Ace Attorney games, the concept should be familiar to you. You initially have the investigation phase where you can move between locations, examine the screen for clues, and interview witnesses and potential suspects. While the game doesn’t necessarily hold your hand, I never felt lost. These portions never felt too long or too short either, and you almost always learn valuable information. I do appreciate how there’s plenty of items to interact with, even if they don’t provide clues, especially since I’m the type that likes finding every secret. As a note, you can also visit the rooms of your friends back in the dorm. Come a new investigation phase and there will be new items for you to interact with. Hands off those drawers though, you pervert!
You can review your clues at almost any time, including character profiles. I check this every time there is a possibly contradictory statement, or just to remind myself of the characters’ names. There are just so many to remember off the top of your head.

This is menu is accessible at any and all times… except when it’s not.

During the trials (there can be multiple per chapter), you’ll be presenting your evidence and questioning the witnesses and potential suspects all at once. You inquire about a certain topic, and each character gives their statement. You’ll have to listen to them one by one, press a contradictory statement and present the adequate piece of evidence to support your claim. There will also be times when two characters clash and argue with each other. It can get rather unruly, and eventually, you’ll have to interrupt one of them and present evidence. I’d say that there is a big flaw here since you can’t review your clues during the interruption prompt. How am I supposed to make an informed decision if I can’t even do that?

You must use LOGIC to point out CONTRADICTIONS. Wait, where have I heard that before?

Towards the end of the trial, you’ll be arguing down the culprit, Danganronpa style. Many times you’ll be having to pick the correct choice and/or present evidence. Do this enough times, and the culprit will eventually break down and confess.

The first trial is super easy and extremely short, as its purpose is mostly to serve as a tutorial. By easy, I mean that the incorrect choices are so blatant that it’s almost as if they are mocking your intelligence, consisting of ad hominems or emotional arguments (X is stupid, X is lazy, Y wouldn’t do that, and so on). That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing, however, as once again, the sole purpose of this first trial is introduce you to the game mechanics. Still, as someone who’s very familiar with this type of gameplay, it proves to be very frustrating.

Thankfully, the cases that come afterwards are significantly more challenging.

Silence! Silence in the courtroom! Oh, what the heck.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the scoring system.  Frankly put, I don’t like it. Here’s how it works: you get a hidden score depending on whether or not you got the correct answer, displayed in terms of percentage. If you get it wrong the first time, you’ll get never those points back. However, you don’t lose points for wrong answers.

This means that getting an answer wrong once or 50 times is the same in terms of score.

Another issue with a percentage-based score is that it can effectively tell you how long the trial is going to be, or how close you are to the end. Let’s say that you got the first answer right, and you go check your score by pressing the button next to the textbox. If your score is at, say, 5%, you know that there’s a total of 20 questions. It can really break the immersion so I’d recommend not checking it during the trial.

Actually, I’d recommend not paying attention to the score at all—you’ll have more fun that way.

The fact that you can get as many answers wrong without repercussion is a serious flaw that takes away most of the tension from the trial, in my opinion. Remember that one time when you were playing Ace Attorney (or any game for that matter) and were sitting at 1HP, thinking to yourself “Oh crap, I gotta get this one right or I’m screwed!“? You’d proceed to review every single piece of evidence, desperately rebuilding your theories from scratch in a make-it-or-break-it situation. I just don’t feel that same tension when I can just spam present evidence to move things along.

There is no Game Over screen to kick your butt and motivate you try harder next time.

You can also save at any time, but I guess it depends more on the player whether or not they’ll go as low as to savescum to get an awesome score.

I swear I got this on my first try, cross my heart!

Thankfully, the score has absolutely no bearing in the gameplay or story. All it does is unlock bonus illustrations and they are worth the trouble as they do look pretty nice. So here’s a word of advice: during your first time doing the trial, care not for scoring and just enjoy/do your best at your own pace. Then, reload an earlier save and aim for 100%. That or you could simply click “START” back on the main menu – it essentially works as a chapter select menu.

For the adult content, you won’t be seeing any of it until after the common route. I’m rather pleased with this choice, as I find H-scenes to be disrupting elements during murder mystery detective type of games. The 18+ content DLC will be released with the full version at a price. I feel that this is the right way to go as there’s two overlapping audiences here: the usual visual novel/erotic games crowd, and those who come from an ADV-style, murder mystery game background (such as the AA series). There are a few fanservice scenes, but most are rather subtle and don’t really detract from the experinece.

The type of everyday scene that you’d be comfortable watching in your living room’s TV. Grandma approved!

To finish things off, I’d like to say that despite some grievances, I was overall pleased with Master Magistrate. It’s the type of game that starts rather slow, but gets increasingly better. I would say that the payoff is worth it. Just like me, I hope you can find yourself immersed in this world, enjoying the expansive cast of characters and gameplay mechanics. It will surprise in more ways than one, showing that an indie game can be just as good or better than many professional games.

Keeping the future in mind, I can only hope that this game is a great success, as there are plenty of titles in DMMGAMES and Hobibox‘s catalogs that I’d love to see localized some day. For example, Ryuukishi07‘s Iwaihime, Jooubachi no Oubou, and ChronoBox, to name a few. Although it’s important to keep in mind that these two companies are mostly publishers, not developers.

Your Diary is also being retranslated little by little. To me, it seems that Hobibox is doing whatever they can to repair the damage done to their reputation. Instead of becoming another SakuraGames, they opted to mend their ways.

The end result is a healthier market and a happier consumer, so I leave them with my best regards.

Thank you for reading, see you next time!

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