Friday, April 13, 2012

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: Police Connection (1993)

The PC Engine console was very successful in Japan, and consequently hosted a huge library of games in its home territory.  Some of the titles were unusual hybrids of video and board game, like Nihon Telenet's 1993 Super CD-ROM release, Police Connection:

Police Connection is really a 4-player board game on a video screen -- there are no action sequences, and the only difference from the real-world equivalent is the availability of CPU opponents.  This, unfortunately, is a big part of why this game doesn't work tremendously well -- if we don't have 4 human players available, we still have to fill out the roster with artificial intelligence characters.  There are 4 cute detectives to choose from:

The game features a CD-Audio, Western-influenced jazz score, and the detailed graphics are a hybrid of cute and serious.  Technically, the game doesn't access the CD drive much once play is underway -- it appears that the expanded Super CD-ROM system RAM is used to hold all of the relevant data, so the CD drive is free for music playback.  Most of the Telenet games had strong soundtracks, and this one is no exception.

Just in case we think we're in for an evening of family entertainment, the first case (of three available) makes it clear that we're not going to be looking for lost kittens -- a murder has been committed:

The game's problems become apparent as soon as it gets underway.  The interface is standard board-game fare -- each player, in a fixed order, gets to roll the die and move the number of spaces allowed.  If we enter a building or crime scene to investigate, the act of entering, exiting, and conducting any questioning there consumes two turns in total.  There are some special menu options available, like a Taxi that allows bonus moves per turn, and an Arrest item for use when the case is close to its conclusion.  

The biggest issue with Police Connection is that the design is ultimately linear -- while we can wander freely around the city to explore the available sites, we have to do so in the correct order, because if we don't have information gathered in one location we can't ask the right question in another.  There is no interactivity or choice involved in the questioning -- we simply walk in, automatically ask something appropriate, and then exit on the next turn.  At the beginning of the game, we waste several forced turns walking in to see the police chief, getting some basic instructions, and exiting the station.  Then we can visit buildings and locations at will, including the crime scene itself, depicted with a cute bloody chalk outline icon:

Understanding that a real investigation has to follow leads and develop ideas, the linear approach wouldn't be such a huge problem if not for the second issue: all of the computer-controlled characters follow exactly the same programming.  Their actions are not randomized, they have no distinct personalities or strategic predilections, and they all know a priori the optimal order for investigating the case, which they follow in a strictly scripted fashion.

The only variation in the CPU players' positions at any given time comes from random die rolls, and over the course of a game it tends to average out.  This is about as exciting as the competition gets -- while I have opted to move my character to the right after exiting the police station, everyone else is marching along a predetermined path to the left.

As a result, the game offers no interesting challenge unless there are 4 human players, because all we really have to do is follow the AI characters closely and hope that a lucky final die roll allows us to win the game at the last minute.  We can see everything the other players are doing -- including menu selections -- and the game slows to a repetitive crawl very quickly (especially for non-Japanese speakers like myself) as the same information gets provided four times.  Just because another character has discovered something doesn't mean our own character knows it, so there's not even any Clue-style advantage to borrowing information discovered by other players and sprinting ahead to the next relevant site.

If there were more of an actual investigative aspect to the cases, or some minigames where skill might be applied, or even a more efficient way to conduct the investigation than the path employed by the doggedly unimaginative AI, Police Connection could have been a different experience.  As it stands, it has the trappings of a traditional board game, but none of the charm or unpredictability.  I completely understand why this title never made it to the West -- beyond the amount of translation work that would have been required, and the rather graphic crime scenes, it's just not a great game.  (NEC actually did encounter some controversy over the nature of crimes depicted in the American title, J.B. Harold Murder Club, which was similar in theme if not in style.) 

Police Connection is one for the historical record, not necessarily suitable for actual play.

This is one I can under no circumstances recommend, but if you insist, you might find a copy for sale here.

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