Have you ever hate-read a book before? It might have been recommended to you by a friend and you want to finish it out of courtesy, or you’ve invested too much time in the book or series to give up now. You know you’ve got to finish it, but by golly it’s a slog. That’s how we felt reading Hermitage: Strange Case Files, the new visual novel from Arrowiz. We had to get to the end for the purpose of a review, but we really didn’t want to.
What’s unusual is that it ticks so many of our boxes. We’re not huge fans of the books of H.P. Lovecraft, but we love his worlds and approach to horror. Creeping dread, tentacled beasts and unknowable horrors are right up our alley. We were drawn in by the prospect of playing a bookstore owner who is an amateur private inspector. There’s something appealing about searching a musty bookstore for clues. And it looked like we were playing as Dylan Moran from British sitcom ‘Black Books’: grumpy, smoking a cigarette, with black hair all over the place. Black Books vs. Lovecraft. It was scratching an itch we didn’t know we had.
We also love visual novels when they’re done right. At their best, they’re pulpy or subversive, and you are swept up in their narrative, only picking up the pad to delicately switch tracks. There’s the meta-game of collecting the endings once it’s all finished, too, trying to anticipate which path will lead to which achievement.
But at their worst, they can be more deadening than reading a bad book. Because they’re so often translated from a different language, the English can be substandard or the cultural differences can be stark. It might promise choice and give you none of it, like a Choose Your Own Adventure that’s given up on the ‘Choose Your Own’ bit. And the sunk cost is real, as you’ve invested in your choices and time, so it feels harder to put down than a book.
And so it is with Hermitage: Strange Case Files. It may be presented well, with interfaces ripped directly from Persona 5. It may have a fantastic, Lovecraftian core, with people being spiked so that they see hallucinations of horrors outside of time. It may even have a deductive side to it that adds an extra layer of control onto the reading. But Hermitage: Strange Case Files is a miserable read, and we’d have put it down immediately if it was made of paper.
Hermitage: Strange Case Files’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know when to stop. ‘Store Owner’, your character, likes to stand there with a cigarette in his hands, narrating like he’s Humphrey Bogart. He considers and thinks about everything. If someone walks into his shop, he’s thinking about their clothes, and who they might be. He’s considering their body language, the books they’re looking at. When they talk to him, he’s marvelling at why they chose that question, what their motives might be. And this runs for chatbox after chatbox, putting everything into stasis as he plays Sherlock, siphoning away your interest. Some of it is banal and obvious, occasionally it’s insightful, but you’ve lost attention by the time it wheels around, so it doesn’t matter.
It makes Hermitage: Strange Case Files impossibly long. It’s broken up into chapters so that you’re not being force fed the whole thing at once, but gosh is it a trudge.
It’s a dour read too. Store Owner doesn’t have a single drop of humour in him, and the story likes to gradually move into its terrors. It wants you to feel encroaching dread, and that leaves no room for levity. We’re not expecting a stand-up routine, but a dozen hours of people crying or being paralysed with horror starts to wear on you.
And then there is Store Owner, our own shop-bought Columbo. What a dickhead. There might be some culture clash here, but he’s a judgmental guy, completely lacking in self-awareness, who has very certain opinions about women, who is quick to complain that someone isn’t handling something particularly well, and who gets everyone else to do all the work. He’s a backseat detective, complaining and heckling at all of his witnesses, and he could absolutely do with a punch on the nose. We get the feeling that we’re meant to admire him as he stands there with a cigarette in his hands – everyone else certainly admires him – but we mostly wrinkled our nose up.
Outside of the length, Hermitage: Strange Case Files is also challenging to follow. There’s just enough mistranslations and odd phrasings that the flow gets disrupted. When there’s so much text, and it’s a little bit garbled, you can easily get into a hypnotic state of letting the text wash over you without quite understanding it. This becomes an absolutely huge problem with the deductive side of Hermitage: Strange Case Files.
Occasionally, you are put into a ‘Suspicion’ state. You are given a question by ‘Store Owner’, and you have to choose three pieces of evidence to answer that question. The evidence is accumulated passively by playing the visual novel. But the evidence you choose and the order of them has to be correct for you to progress. Get it wrong three times over and you will often receive a bad ending and a premature finish of the game.
But everything’s so poorly written. If you get stuck here, you’re completely forgiven: we did too. The question often has no relation to the answers. You are given hints that are meant to get you closer to the answer, but they often just confuse things further. Hermitage: Strange Case Files clearly thinks it’s hitting upon universal truths, but it makes so many logical leaps to get there, and its audience isn’t there with them. Simply to progress, we had to keep reloading saves and use trial-and-error.
There are moments where it almost feels entertaining. The Lovecraftian chills happen in such quick succession that Store Owner can’t say anything to slow it all down. We lucked into a few successful suspicions in a row. And the book shop premise starts paying off, as a strange gentleman delivers more second-hand books to the store, and we get to sift through them for improbable solutions to the game’s cases. But Hermitage: Strange Case Files can’t wait to ruin it all, as it just loves to listen to Store Owner talk, to wallow in its stodgy prose, and to make wild logical leaps that simply don’t make sense. We visualised a writer behind all of this, rather pleased with the cleverness of their work.
There’s a terrifying story at the heart of Hermitage: Strange Case Files. You see it in flashes, much like the hallucinating victims of the case see it. But to get there, you have to wade through an excruciatingly leaden visual novel. It’s long, it’s ponderous, and it’s miserable. You may feel an urge to stick around to see if the pay-off is worth it, but we’ve done the hard work for you: nope, it’s not worth it.
You can buy Hermitage: Strange Case Files from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S