You are a new transfer student to Fujisawa Academy, an unseen blank avatar with no particular name or gender beyond the one you choose for yourself at the start of the game. Like a bad teen fan fiction, your entire personality can easily be summed up as "sarcastic and horny", while your sole skill of note is the ability to force people to tell the truth via magical powers of poorly explained origin, egged on by an invisible fox demon. Naturally, things are not entirely what they seem at your new school, and it takes all of five minutes before you're dragged into investigating the titular seven mysteries – are these enigmas genuine occult phenomena, school rumours run wild, or an intriguing mix of both? Welcome to Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa.

Unfortunately, what could have been another excellent Death Mark-like supernatural adventure ends up more akin to a particularly bad run of old Scooby Doo episodes, although rather than pulling off Old Man McCready's rubber mask to reveal the truth, you instead force your way into a schoolgirl/boy's mind and undress them against their will via the medium of a poor man's Bejeweled-style minigame. While the obvious lack of consent is never addressed by the game, you can at least tenuously scrape some vague comfort from them officially and conveniently all being "eighteen" years old (please take the time to perform your own Dr Evil style air quote action here), presumably to avoid any outrage at a game encouraging you to remove lingerie from girls wearing panting, mid-coital expressions with tears in their eyes.

The visual novel portions of the game are where you'll be spending most of your time and have all of the basic features you'd expect of the genre. There's the ability to create a quick save/load point at any time, text history logs, an auto setting that saves you from having to jab a button (or the screen – Kotodama can be controlled entirely by touch) to move text boxes along, and a not-fast-enough fast forward option to skim over any previously encountered text. All spoken dialogue is in Japanese, although in a few places no written English translation is provided – most of the time this means missing out on a little flavour chit-chat, but at other points you are left staring at a blank text box. An overview "map" of any plot branches you've witnessed so far is conspicuous by its absence and grows to be a real hindrance on further play-throughs.

Although certain decisions are critical to not only your progress but your very survival, the game often only gives you one "choice", making it almost feel like it's just checking you're still there and haven't already fallen asleep with your Switch in hand. This is especially insulting during your mystery investigations as working out the truth involves nothing more than clicking on every location to exhaust all options before having the only possible answer (which was already offensively obvious as anyone who's not a major character is drawn in a noticeably less detailed way) handed to you on a plate by your marketably cute fox-spirit companion, Mon-chan. Phoenix Wright this ain't.

The tone of these mysteries varies wildly, running along a sliding scale that starts with "I just wanted to play the violin in peace" and escalates all the way up to "My girlfriend committed suicide (complete with a special "event" image of the freshly-deceased girl in situ) and I don't know why". As you'd expect from a game that sees no problem in combining any of these themes with an 'undress-the-schoolgirls' puzzle minigame, both the more lighthearted as well as the deadly serious moments are handled with all of the grace and tact of the world's largest bull in the world's smallest china shop.

As an example: An early scenario with a serious twist has you tracking down a "white wolf" (a stray dog, in reality) who it turns out has been beaten to the point of bleeding by a student as a way for her to relieve her pent-up stress and frustrations. Your response, after going to the trouble of mind-stripping the truth out of her (without her knowledge or permission – but hey, boobies!), is to keep your mouth shut about the whole thing. Yep. Bar internally describing her as (and this is a direct quote) "COMPLETELY MENTAL", later on you appear to do or care nothing about her or the truth you force out of her. Even if we ignore the plot entirely and try to look at this mess from the game's other "angle" – it's just not sexy.

Speaking of not being sexy, The way Kotodama has you find the truth is by playing a match-the-colours puzzle minigame, "peeling layers, like the lies falling away". And by layers, they of course mean clothes. All of them. Now, puzzles have been mixed with boobies since at least Taito's Gals Panic hit arcades way back in 1990 – that's nothing new or exciting – but it is a problem for Kotodama when a twenty-nine-year-old game did it so much better.

The puzzling is a simple case of matching three or more of the same colour orb either vertically or horizontally, aiming to increase your target's [ahem] "happiness" to its maximum before you run out of moves. Your grid of orbs are split into columns and prodding one of them sends that orb straight to the top of the pile, hopefully causing the rest to fall into a combo-creating place. As there's no timer here, it's impossible to overfill the play area, and only very, very, rarely does any mild interference from the character you're disrobing occur; the only pressure comes from the moves limit which you can top-up with a "challenge" – poking the person you're stripping (of course you can prod their boobs) – in the hopes of getting a good reaction and an extra few turns. If you take a short while to find a matching cluster of orbs the game will show you a happiness-increasing move without any prompting from you, perhaps fearful that you might lose interest if you're not able to make underwear fall off teenagers fast enough. It'd be nice if the issues with the puzzle segments stopped there, wouldn't it?

Let's pretend – and we will have to pretend – that there is no issue with the quality of Kotodama's puzzle game design. Let's also say we absolutely believe all of these schoolkids are legally adults. Let's even go as far as somehow setting aside that rather thorny issue of consent to the whole ordeal of being forced into a "mind rift" and then mentally stripped naked. The bottom line is that Kotodama tries to be sexy, and it's actually anything but.

For a game that's trying to sell itself on the promise of undressing attractive girls there's remarkably little attention to detail here – the reactions and wiggle animations they display as you "increase their happiness" suffer from being painfully generic and personality-free, almost as if the girls are just interchangeable blush-crying meatbags meant as nothing more than a boob delivery service. Not that you're in any danger of seeing anyone's bare chest in any case; your "reward" for tolerating this sorry excuse for a minigame is the sort of image that reveals nothing more than some bare shoulders and exposed clavicle, like a Victorian gentleman's sauciest illustrated postcard. On the rare occasion you undress a guy, you'll find that of course their reactions and reveals are no where near the same level as the girls, coming across as little more than a weak attempt to pre-empt any complaints about the game's treatment of its sexualised schoolgirls with a painfully half-hearted "But look, we can't be sexist if there's a guy in baggy boxer shorts here too!" defence.

Should you somehow yearn for more of this low-quality puzzling, "Fantasize mode" – accessible straight from the title screen – allows you to play the puzzle section of the game at any time, using any girl (or guy!) you've already stripped. If for some reason you wish to subject yourself to this ordeal on more than one occasion, defeating them rewards you with a different set of underwear to relieve them of next time. Yay.

Then the game really throws itself under a bus with – gasp – the truth behind the truth: a mysterious supernatural B-plot that has you ejected from the credits sequence and sent back to the very beginning of the very first day until you finally uncover the Truthiest of all the Truths over several repeated runs through the game. For all of Kotodama's faults, the first time this happens you do sit up and take notice; this is where a good visual novel would rip out the rug from under your feet and send you hurtling down a twisted path that gleefully unravels everything you thought you knew. Not so here.

The immediate variations to the plot are painfully small and thanks to the lack of any chapter or scenario skip it takes far too long to reach any meaningfully different content – assuming you don't run into a gaming-ending decision before then anyway. Most infuriating of these are the "dead man walking" scenarios the game is happy to put you in, letting you play for chapter after chapter only to reach yet another fake ending and be flung back to the very beginning once more, unaware of which chapter your silent error even took place in, never mind what you need to do differently. Imagine a high school version Groundhog Day but without any of the wit, charm, or powerful observations on the human condition. At least you can see that animal-beating schoolgirl's bra again though, right?

Conclusion

Kotodama could have been a perfectly fine mystery school adventure if it didn't leave you blindly groping in the dark through repeats of repeats for a tiny morsel of fresh content. Failing that it could have been a decent brain-teaser if only it had the depth of even the most casual of free-to-play phone puzzlers. It could even have been an actually erotic visual novel if your lead's "People I've met but without their clothes on" fantasies ever went anywhere, real or imagined. Kotodama is in every way too much of not enough; the individual elements do not work well on their own nor gel together to form something new and there is no unique fusion going on here, nor even a basic feeling of quality to the individual elements. Pick whichever part intrigues you most about this title then seek it out elsewhere.