Detective Grimoire is a stylish game. In fact, it’s stylish enough to make me wonder if it can stand on that alone. In pop culture, style often dominates over substance. Audiences were dazzled by John Cameron’s Avatar, in spite of the fact that its story was just a gussied up Dances with Wolves. Lady Gaga is beloved and her music is meticulously produced, but her lyrics aren’t exactly incisive (I’ll direct you to a line from G.U.Y: “Love me, love me, please retweet”). Bioshock Infinite was released last year to rave reviews and commended for its stunning graphics, but some critics felt unfulfilled by the game’s message, wondering if the storywriters even knew what message they were trying to convey. Detective Grimoire is not a blockbuster or a platinum singer or part of an enormous franchise, but despite its humbler beginnings, it’s got a lot of style. But is that enough?
Its aesthetic can only be described as Cartoon Network meets IFC. The characters are drawn with clean lines, bold features, and bizarre proportions—yet they are immediately endearing. This includes the man that doesn’t have a head so much as a very tall neck with a face scribbled near the top. The backgrounds are nothing short of gorgeous. Though they were painted digitally, they have an organic watercolor-like quality that fits perfectly with the foggy swamp setting. In the abstract it might seem like the characters would clash with their surroundings, but somehow it comes together, surreal and appealing all at once.
Here’s the setup: A murder has taken place at the tourist attraction known as Boggy’s Bog, named for the creature who supposedly dwells there. Because of some odd footprints and slime found at the crime scene, Boggy is the prime suspect. It’s up to Detective Grimoire to uncover the truth. As the player, you tap around the environment to find clues, interview suspects by presenting them with relevant items or profiles, and solve a few puzzles along the way. Child’s play!
No, really…a child would be able to figure most of these out without much assistance. Even the humor feels like it’s geared towards kids. There are points where you have to piece together nouns and phrases from a list to create a logical sentence. It becomes a Mad Libs-like exercise as you make Grimoire say totally nonsensical stuff: [That little girl] [is too stupid for] [my beard] [to be so smart.] “A smart beard? How positively amusing!” is what I imagine a third grade focus group is saying as they chuckle and polish their monocles. My imagination is home to some badass focus groups.
Though the difficulty level remained ridiculously easy throughout, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of fun regardless. The art and the story sucked me in right away—and the story has a lot of depth. The voice acting is really excellent, and a nice change of pace from most text-heavy games that choose to spend their budgets elsewhere. The soundtrack is also great, and ended up being a lot more hair-raising than I was expecting. On a separate note, I didn’t realize how realistic the sound effects were until I entered a room in the game and frantically turned around, thinking that an axe-murderer had opened the door to my apartment. I was embarrassed to admit it, but the game had me good and spooked.
Overall, I only had a few technical problems with Grimoire. The developers could have done a better job with sound mixing, given that different characters would sometimes speak to each other at noticeably different volumes, and that the background music occasionally competed with my interrogations. To the developers’ credit, however, you can fiddle with the levels in the options menu. Something else distracting was the “ding-a-ling” noise that would chirp whenever I learned a new piece of information—which was all the time. It was weird to feel like I was being rewarded for not really doing anything, like the doofy kid at the karate tournament who gets a medal for just showing up.
Aside from my sound issues, I wish that the characters were more fleshed out. The only backstory I got was always directly related to the mystery; in other words, not quite enough to make the characters feel real. There were definitely a number of missed opportunities for character building, like during the moments when I presented someone with the wrong clue. Instead of having interesting retorts, they just respond with a variation of “I don’t know what that is.” All the characters have personality, but that’s not enough to create a full person.
Part of me wants to call Grimoire a top-notch kid’s game and leave it at that, but I think that’s selling it short. The game might not be challenging, but it is entertaining—and it’s not a cheap or lazy kind of entertainment. It’s earnest. There’s a lot of heart in this game, and that’s evident in the style. If they made the player’s choices a little tougher, dug into the characters a little deeper, it might have had the substance it needed to be great. Still, Grimoire proves that style is not as superficial as it might seem. Sometimes when a game gets polished enough, you can see the hand that polished it in the reflection.
Is it Hardcore?
The puzzles are easy peasy and you can beat the game in an hour or two, but the story, art, and atmosphere all make it worth your while.