The first couple of hours in SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair are rocky to say the least. This is a visual novel that makes itself hard to love, for a variety of reasons. But once the wheels started turning and we understood what it was trying to do – well – it was neither broken nor despairing.
You play Raiko, an aloof and introverted teenager who has been invited to a mountain retreat for a Halloween party. You wouldn’t normally go, but you’ve been convinced by your best friend, Nobara, to show your face. It’s a huge hotel that’s off-season and empty, and you plus another nine others are going to rattle around inside it as you watch horror movies, tell ghost stories and sleep over.
And if you’ve watched any horror movies, you will know what happens next. You start getting picked off, one by one by an unseen killer. It becomes a race to solve the case before you get Michael Myer’d, and a gaggle of hysterical, panicked teenagers don’t help matters. You become an amateur detective, solving the case as it unfolds.
For our money, SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair isn’t a particularly attractive game. The whacking great letterboxes on either side of the screen take up too much space and make SHINRAI feel retro, like a relic from the ‘90s. But this is only five years old, and it’s already looking a bit worn around the edges. It’s subjective and dismissive of the amount of work that’s gone into it, but we found the characters and environments to be a little bit sketchy and loose. The organ-led audio is also on the hokey side.
But the larger problem with SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair is its characters, at least initially. They are an unlikable bunch; you’re almost willing them to pop their clogs. There’s Kotoba who is a pervert, choosing to say things like “my cajones are twitching and my cock is itching” as chat-up lines. And there’s Hiro, who’s unbearably arrogant, looking down on anyone who won’t benefit him in some way. There are only a few characters that we’d classify as likeable and the majority are hateful.
It’s when SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair is in its teen movie phase, within the first couple of hours, that the obnoxious cast is a problem. You’re meant to be mingling at the party, getting to know each other, and you’d probably want to do anything but. There isn’t enough happening to distract you from this cast of bozos, and the longwinded dialogue meant that we had a final score in mind that was well below the one we finally gave SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair. It was a genuine slog to get through.
But SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair has a good reason for painstakingly laying this groundwork, as you need enough information about the suspects before the killings start happening. And you never know, hating the odd character might be a good thing.
It’s when SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair enters its Columbo phase that things get a whole lot better. The hateful characters start kicking their various buckets, and the remainder show a more human side. Meanwhile, the pace ratchets up several notches. SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair stops being a dumb teen movie, and instead becomes convoluted in a good way, producing twists and revelations that will sidewind you unless you are paying a superhuman amount of attention.
SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair has a pattern of presenting you with a terrible situation – most often a death – and then giving you control of the crime scene. You get to scan a scene with your cursor and chat to several witnesses, before making some conclusions. If you choose the right evidence in response to a question then things progress.
SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair is so good at constructing red herrings that it’s actually hard to see the truth from the fish. By the time you reach the end of the game and make your final deductions, it’s entirely possible to have a solution that actually works – but is wrong. We were sold down the river by a few pieces of evidence and had to backtrack to find the real answer. We’re still not completely convinced that the right answer was better than our wrong one.
Ultimately, the developer of SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair has clearly had a lot of fun with post-it notes and pieces of string on a noticeboard. This is a precise and convoluted plot, and it’s fascinating that such a juvenile teen drama can drop its disguise to reveal a clever, more mature deduction game roughly halfway through. You just need to wade through the abrasive characterisation to get there.
SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair is a game of halves. It’s half visual novel, half deduction game. In theming terms, it’s half teen drama and half slasher movie. When it’s at its wordiest, the intolerable characters just won’t stop talking, and what pours from their mouths is hateful. You are almost willing them to die, and die they will.
But when the blood flows and a detective is needed, SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair becomes far more accomplished. If you have the stomach for it, there is some great stuff waiting for you at the end of this visual novel. You just have to wade through some disgusting innards to get there.
You can buy SHINRAI: Broken Beyond Despair from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S