London Detective Mysteria review – Best Boy Detectives Club

The quick elevator pitch for London Detective Mysteria would be to say that it’s a combination of detective fiction and romance, with analogues for a handful of famed literary detectives as your potential love interests. As intriguing as “cute detective boys” sounds in its own right, the magic here runs far deeper: an effortless blending of the romantic and mystery elements, the playful way the game channels its inspirations, a genuinely likeable cast, a heroine who’s plucky and full of life, and a truly stellar localisation job all combine to make London Detective Mysteria one of the best otome games I’ve played in a long time.

The Game is Afoot

It all starts with Emily Whitely, a 16-year-old girl trying to juggle her coming of age and the responsibilities that come with being the sole living heir to a noble household. A chance encounter with the Queen sets Emily on course to join Harrington Academy, a school famed for its detectives course.

It’s here that she meets the likes of Herlock Holmes, William Watson, Sara Marple, and Kenichirou Akechi—all of whom have some familial connection to the famous detectives who share their names. But some in Emily’s class have closer links to the criminal world than that of the law; the clumsy Lupine, for instance, calls to mind the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, if only in name.

Emily’s own interest in detective work stems from both her natural curiosity and the death of parents when she was a child. She witnessed the attack herself, though couldn’t identify the assailant, and has made uncovering the truth one of her life’s goals. This forms the central mystery that runs through London Detective Mysteria, and it only gets more intriguing as you get closer to the truth and the game starts to show its hand. Each different route ties into this main plot in some way or other, and only by playing through all of them will you finally get a true picture of the situation.

Open and Shut

At the same time, the game is peppered with a wide variety of different cases that Emily and her classmates are called on to investigate—or, after being explicitly told to stay away, decide to investigate nonetheless. Sometimes they’re as simple as looking for a lost pet; other times they’ll be trying to catch the elusive Jean Lupin—son of Arsene Lupin—or the infamous Jack the Ripper. Whatever the case, they all work to give London Detective Mysteria a neat episodic structure akin to a police procedural, with each chapter being having its own mostly self-contained plot while also building up to something bigger.

These cases are also the one area where London Detective Mysteria might disappoint, if you’re expecting some sort of mind-bending detective game. The tools for such are in place, chiefly through the ability to save snippets of dialogue as clues and then refer back to them at any time. In practice, though, the game rarely calls on you to draw on your skills of observation, and when it does the answer is always clear as day.

For me, that’s fine—I never even considered that there’d be a investigative element until a tutorial hinted at such. So long as you come in knowing that you’re getting a classic otome visual novel, where your choices are more about influencing the direction of the story and getting close to your preferred boy than playing detective, you won’t be disappointed.

Lady of the House

At the heart of all this is Emily Whitely. Far from the helpless maiden or the blank slate you often see in an otome heroine, Emily is punchy and strong-willed, always liable to take matters into her own hands. She’s also kind and caring, going out of her way to befriend even those who her peers deem impossible to connect with. She’s fiercely driven to solve her parents’ murder, but also to use her position as a noble to be a force for good in the world. She can be clumsy, she can be naive, and she’s liable to get herself in over her head, but those are just parts of what make her as complex and relatable as she is.

Most of all, she has agency. Even when she winds up in a precarious situation in need of rescue by a man, it’s her agency that gets her into those situations and her agency that means she simply sits back to await her inevitable rescue. By the same token, it’s that agency that makes her moments of vulnerability believable and emotive; they’re not just the latest episode of a helpless heroine being helpless some more, but a genuine shift in mood—and even then, her fiery character can still be seen. London Detective Mysteria is, first and foremost, Emily’s story, so it’s only fitting that she be the agent at the centre of it.

Stolen Hearts

Still, it wouldn’t be an otome game without a handful of handsome boys, and this is another area where London Detective Mysteria absolutely shines. The five main love interests are all so likeable and interesting, and awarded such depth, that it’s hard for me to pick favourites. Whichever character you pick, London Detective Mysteria gives its utmost to make its cast as complex—and, by extension, as human—as possible. Archetypes, in terms of both otome tropes and the original characters Mysteria‘s cast are based upon, are just the jumping off point. What follows is a series of deep dives into humanity and emotion, as much for their own sake as to enable the heart-melting romantic developments that come with them.

Even Holmes Jr., who at first seems like a by-the-numbers tsundere—an archetype I can’t stand, generally—blossoms into a complex picture of a son trying to step out of the shadow of his famous father. His standoffish nature, a product of his unorthodox upbringing, is something he’s grappling with more than anyone would realise, and the writing constantly walks a line between making him a stand-in for Sherlock Holmes and someone who fights to break away from the traits that would make him such.

Or take Lupin Jr., the archetypal gentleman thief with an overabundance of charisma and confidence. Until you get to know him, and see how much of that is a facade, and how he, too, is trying to be his own man instead of simply the son of a famous thief. Though it fits well, his charm is still a mask used to protect a rather fragile heart.

Jack Millers might be the best example. He’s presented in marketing materials, and even in the game’s own opening movie, as being the infamous Jack the Ripper. I have little patience for the deification of Jack the Ripper—a man whose only claim to fame was killing sex workers—so, needless to say, the idea of him being a romance option in a game made me very suspect.

But the characterisation of Jack Millers handles this about as well as it possibly could. More than anything, his route is an exploration of the disastrous social climate surrounding the East End in the 1800s—the gross inequality, the poverty, the child labour, and the seeming lack of care from anyone outside that cycle. It explores the impact that the Whitechapel murders had on a community who had little reason to trust the police to protect them, and the conditions that allowed such horror to take place in the first place—not to defend the killer, but to at least try to understand what enabled him.

And, in case you’re still doubtful:

Spoiler warning!
Jack Millers isn’t actually Jack the Ripper, despite the game wanting you to think that from early on. The Jack that you can romance is someone altogether very different from the Ripper: a boy who knew nothing but doing whatever it takes to survive, but who has so much more to offer the world, given the chance.

Time and Place

Indeed, this sort of social commentary runs throughout the whole of London Detective Mysteria, not just Jack’s route. The Victorian setting isn’t simply set dressing, but a means to reflect on—and challenge—many of the injustices that were simply treated as normal. Emily’s strong-willed nature regularly puts her at odds with the era’s idea of what was right and proper for a noblewoman and serves to reject that in favour of something more egalitarian.

Through characters like Akechi and Kobayashi, we get a glimpse of the day’s attitudes towards foreigners, especially those from Asia. And, like Emily, the way the reject those assumptions and assert their humanity challenges those attitudes. Through Jack, we see the consequences of poverty running as rife as it did, and how that impacts on the lives of a city’s most vulnerable, but we also see a path toward change.

Too many period pieces dredge up all the ugliest parts of history purely for the sake of adding “colour” to their world: “Look how grim everything is and how unforgiving this world is,” they cry, without doing anything to challenge those ideals. London Detective Mysteria can be uncomfortable, but that discomfort always stems from a desire to see a better world.

Found in Translation

A huge part of what makes all of the above work as well as it does is the localisation, which is one of the best I’ve seen. The saying goes that a good translation should read as though it was originally created in the target language, and that’s a mantra that London Detective Mysteria‘s localisation team seemingly lives by.

Japanese and English are very different languages in how they treat things like emotion and character (among many other things), so a too-literal translation often ends up stilted and, somewhat ironically, at odds with the tone of the original. By contrast, Mysteria‘s script takes the creative liberties necessary to convey the original’s intent to the fullest. The writing is sharp, with a sense of wit befitting a game so heavily inspired by Sherlock Holmes. It’s florid, but not to the point of becoming unwieldy, and each and every character’s personality shines through their dialogue. Little touches like an old-fashioned “to-night” and “to-morrow” bring the period setting to life, and the way the Cockney accent is rendered in text is a stroke of genius.

The end result is a visual novel where every line is a joy to read, and where every character seems to jump out of the screen. Gorgeous artwork helps too, of course, but make no mistake: it’s the quality of the writing that really makes London Detective Mysteria stand out, in terms of both the original Japanese story and the English translation. Whether it’s the detective element or the romance that catches your interest—and especially if it’s both!—this is a game you don’t want to miss.

Score: 5 stars
  London Detective Mysteria
Genre: Visual Novel / Otome Game
Developer: Karin Entertainment
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platforms: PlayStation Vita (reviewed), PC
Release Date: 18 December 2018 (Vita) / TBC (PC)
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.