As a long-time follower of Suda51, The Silver Case worked on me. I always felt a little sad that he had moved away from adventure game development following the cult success of the excellent Killer7, so I was thrilled to have the chance to finally experience Grasshopper Manufacture’s debut in English. I’ll be the first to admit that it was not a particularly inviting or accessible title, but I did enjoy basking in its bizarre take on what it meant to enter the 21st Century.
I was equally excited to get my hands on The 25th Ward, previously released in 2005 to Japan’s DoCoMo mobile phone platform, and long since unavailable. It’s certainly one of the most unlikely localizations and re-releases ever published, and I was thrilled to see how the esoteric final chapter of “Kill the Past” would put a lid on this bizarre series. Set in 2005, six years after the violent conclusion of The Silver Case Incident, the government have voted to create a 25th Ward within Tokyo to serve as a fascist city-state in which citizens’ daily lives are controlled down to the minutiae. At the center of this state stands a massive apartment complex that reaches 80 stories into the sky, constructed to house the ward’s residents. It’s within this complex that a string of grotesque, yet clinical murders have been carried out methodically.
This mystery, which is seemingly an allusion to Ballard’s High-Rise, quickly drew me in. However, I did not like The 25th Ward. In fact, I disliked it so much it’s got me actively rethinking what I liked about The Silver Case — no doubt one of the worst things a sequel can do.
It’s not like The 25th Ward is a great departure from its predecessor. The command interface is ever-so-slightly improved from the prequel, as it had been simplified for its initial release on an ancient phone platform, but the core game is unchanged. The Film Window System is back, allowing the player to serve as a voyeuristic presence to the game’s wordy story; you’re given an inventory, which you barely use; and sometimes you’re given a password, then asked to enter it straight away. It’s another Silver Case game, all right.
The plot is quite similar, too, though it’s divided between three viewpoints as opposed to the The Silver Case’s two, with each playing out over 5-6 chapters. There’s the main plot, Correctness, which follows the 25th Ward’s New Heinous Crimes Unit as they investigate a new string of violent incidents and end up embroiled in a war with the Post Office. Then there’s Matchmaker, which follows the Regional Adjustment Bureau (a government-sanctioned assassination group) as they…also investigate the same string of violent incidents, and leave some bodies in their wake. Finally, there’s Placebo, a continuation of The Silver Case’s story with the same name, which centers on freelance journalist Tokio Morishima and his turtle Red as they once again find themselves in over their heads in the story’s multi-sided conflict.
Correctness and Matchmaker are very, very similar yarns. The New Heinous Crimes Unit and the Regional Adjustment Bureau are both made up of antisocial, misanthropic agents who trade barbs with each other before heading into the field for some good ol’ fashioned homicide under the guise of investigation. As both groups investigate the same crimes, their methods feel identical in all but name, and The 25th Ward does little to explain why the NHCU and RAB are diametrically opposed. Placebo, on the other hand, is the most coherent and (arguably) well written of the three stories, no doubt due to the handiwork of returning scenario writer Masahi Ooka. Like the prequel, Tokio is the most human and likeable character in the 25th Ward.
Regardless of whether any given scenario is well written or nigh inscrutable, there’s an overarching tone of cruelty that permeates the story — one that simply feels mean-spirited rather than a means to deliver a message. Matters are not helped by an awkward, profanity-laden localization content to drop frequent ableist slurs. Grasshopper Manufacture have an abysmal track record with female characters, and The 25th Ward arguably contains their worst portrayals to date. The story immediately begins with the explicit, violent deaths of two women — a sex worker, and one of two women NHCU detectives. With the tone set, we see more and more women — a fair share of whom are sex workers — killed over the course of the plot. The only woman who survives the main game is Kuroyanagi, a competent detective who’s needlessly cruel to other characters to the point of being completely unlikeable. A woman with power is a total bitch, right?
Things come to a head in the Correctness chapter “Boys Don’t Cry,” in which protagonist Shiroyabu is marked for death by seven assassins. Ambushed each time he tries to draw money from an ATM, the player is forced to puzzle out a faux turn-based RPG battle which ends in an act of extreme violence. It starts out funny, if not obtuse and a little annoying, but then the sole female assassin turns up. To vanquish her, the player must select “get horny,” at which point the battle text describes Shiroyabu jumping on the woman and thrusting until she goes limp and cries. A flippant description of Shiroyabu leveling up is displayed. The 25th Ward finds this forced act of interactive rape to be a grand display of comedy, and I felt sick to my stomach. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Shiroyabu is never punished for this heinous crime (ha ha), and instead becomes a heroic martyr.
Even Placebo isn’t devoid of toxicity, as a central plotline revolves around a murderous trans woman who’s been bumping off cis women in a fit of jealous rage. My alarm bells were already ringing by this point, but then her origins are explained in a cringeworthy story scene that conflates sex and gender, stating that masculinity and femininity are not social constructs, but decided in the womb, and that transgenderism is the result of a birth defect. Even in 2005, even in Japan, this level of transphobia would’ve been incredibly whack, and it made me want to throw my PlayStation out the window. The strongest story is Yuki, a bonus chapter added to Placebo for the 2018 release that follows a schoolgirl with psychic powers as she banishes an evil spirit with the help of Tokio Morishima. It’s subtle, kind of touching, and has almost nothing to do with anything that came before it, thematically or tonally. I guess that’s a good thing.
The 25th Ward wants nothing more than to shock, and it does, but it’s a hollow shock — one devoid of any meaningful message. If anything, the final takeaway from The 25th Ward may be that nothing really matters. Folks, I’m over 30; I already know that nothing matters, and I don’t need a labyrinthine, rape-happy adventure game to tell me that. Skip the game, but maybe pick up the soundtrack instead.