If you had told us in January that an FMV murder-mystery title would become one of our most memorable experiences on the Switch this year, we’d have looked at you as if you were one of The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story’s prime murder suspects. Directed by Koichiro Ito (scenario designer for Metal Gear Solid V) and produced by Junichi Ehara (NieR: Automata) at Square Enix, it somehow slipped our notice for a while like a clever killer skulking about in the night, but we’re ecstatic to have finally caught this culprit.
The Centennial Case revolves around Haruka Kagami, a mystery novel writer, and Eiji Shijima, a scientist studying the cellular ageing process. After a skeleton is unearthed at Eiji’s ancestral home, he asks Haruka to travel with him to investigate the mysteries that surround his family, while he himself searches for a fruit passed down in his family that can halt the ageing process.
Things go quickly awry at the Shijima estate, thrusting Haruka (and by extension the player) into the role of murder detective. These murders don’t happen only in the present; through creative plot devices — such as Haruka reading about a murder which occured a century prior — cases from different decades play out like episodes from a Netflix drama with above-average production values. The revelations of these historical crimes provide context to the main narrative with a nice, blood-stained bow.
We won’t spoil any more than that. All the excitement here comes from uncovering the mysteries and solving the murders for yourself – trust us.
The Centennial Case features a small cast of Japanese actors and actresses taking on several different roles. For example, Nanami Sakuraba plays both 28-year-old Haruka Kagami in the present and 17 year-old Yoshino Shijima from a different time period. An actor playing the victim in one decade might well be the culprit in another, and this is true of the entire cast. All cast members give admirable performances in each of their various roles. Not once did we find ourselves confused as to who was who.
[Author's note: my wife is Japanese and knew the whole cast quite well. Square Enix surprised her at the impressive amount of talent they had wrangled together here.]
The gameplay loop of The Centennial Case consists of three phases. The Incident Phase showcases the events surrouding a murder. During this phase, dialogue choices appeared that allowed us to choose Haruka’s response, but this had no discernible effect other than keeping us engaged with the narrative. Often, prompts to collect clues – pressing the 'X' button – appeared as well, but these distracted us from the story more than anything. Plenty of more notable clues went by without a prompt which rewarded us for paying rapt attention. Luckily, we could pause, rewind, or skip ahead at any moment.
And pay attention we did because the murders committed are wild. An early case features a monster that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Scooby-Doo. Resourceful killing contraptions and red herrings abound to distract you from uncovering the real culprit. It’s all a bit campy in the best way possible, especially because the cast plays it straight, though we found — quite ironically given the detective work at hand — that a little suspension of disbelief was required to hurdle some questionable leaps in logic.
The next phase, however, is where our main criticism arose. After the incident occurs, it’s up to Sakuraba’s character – whether Haruka or someone from a different decade – to piece together the clues in the Hypotheses Phase. This plays out as a simple matching minigame where we had to drag notable clues from the right-hand side of the screen and drop them onto a hexagonal grid. Symbols adorn each tile to make this easier, and we could rewatch all the scenes at our leisure, but the process had all the charm of a tedious jigsaw puzzle. We usually had an idea of what happened and who the suspect was, but we still had to drag and drop tiles for 20 minutes before we could move onto the conclusion.
Following this, we entered our favourite phase – the Solution Phase. Here, a dramatic musical score builds tension as Sakuraba’s character speaks to the gathered suspects, revealing clues before declaring the murderer. It was up to us to choose from the hypotheses formed to deduce what had happened. We sometimes found the description of the hypotheses too vague, with several choices almost indistinguishable from the others, causing us to make a frustrating mistake.
When a mistake was made, humorous or admonishing scenes occurred before the game booted us back to the Hypotheses Phase. Fortunately, we could fast forward back to where we screwed up. There are no alternate endings or divergent paths here – we had to uncover the singular line of reasoning to advance the plot. This added a bit of tension to our choices, so that when we chose correctly we felt like absolute geniuses.
Our reward, which we adored, was when the villain (there’s only one per case) stole the spotlight once revealed to give an over-dramatic explanation of their motives, drip-feeding us more mysteries that we craved answers for. After each Solution Phase, we couldn’t wait to move onto the next incident the same way we can’t help but watch just one more episode of a hit TV series, despite the tedium that awaited us in the Hypotheses Phase.
The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is more like watching a campy murder-mystery drama than playing a video game, and what gameplay there is often kills the story’s pace. While we enjoyed our time with it all the same, you’ll have to ask yourself how interested you are in watching what amounts to a decent Japanese TV series with mediocre interactivity. For us, we won’t let another FMV murder-mystery developed by Square Enix escape our notice again, though we certainly hope they rework how we uncover the culprits.