The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express is a murder mystery visual novel that combines the concepts of precocious youth sleuths (Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars) and confined space whodunits (Murder on the Orient Express). This brief game is only about three hours long, but it was a thoroughly engaging three hours. This suspenseful tale contains some heavier themes that could be triggering to some, but it’s counterbalanced by moments of cuteness and comic relief. It also ends satisfyingly while leaving open the possibility of new adventures.
The aesthetics take influence from 8-bit style games of this ilk, like the original Famicom Detective Club games (recently remade on Nintendo Switch) or 1992’s Phantasy Star Adventure for Game Gear. The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa’s delightful pixel art features expressive and unique character portraits and a tasteful color palette for the locations. The game is pleasing to look at, and the text is reasonably legible. The chiptune-style music is also quite pleasant to listen to, and the atmospheric tunes fit their intended scenes nicely.
The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa is a kinetic visual novel, meaning that there is only one linear path to a single ending and no opportunities to make choices — akin to reading a short novel with pictures. Although kinetic visual novels typically lack interactivity, The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa’s interface has a cellphone icon at the top of the screen that is worth clicking on when you see an exclamation point on it or hear the notification chime. Not only does the phone allow you to save, load, and change your menu background, but it also allows access to group chat logs and character profiles when they update. Checking your phone adds a measure of interactivity in an otherwise non-interactive form of visual novel, and that’s why I liked it more than, say, Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet.
Astute readers will notice that I said clicking on the phone icon is worth it. This is because The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa is meant to be played mainly with a mouse, though I used a keyboard hotkey to advance the text. I tried playing this game with a gamepad, but the UI is not optimized for it, and none of the buttons did what I needed or wanted. Regardless, the interface is simple to use and is both stylish and functional.
Now, let’s get onto the real meat and potatoes of The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express — its story. Protagonist Ranko Togawa is a surly sophomore at a hyper-elite, all-girl international school in California. Her school has been selected to partake in the maiden voyage of a revolutionary new submarine train, the Marine Express, that travels the ocean floor from California to Japan. Early in the journey, while looking over the itinerary with her enthusiastic best friend, Astrid, Ranko hears a loud shriek from one of her schoolmates. The two girls discover to their horror that one of the teachers was stabbed to death in his cabin! It looks like we have a mystery on our hands. Ranko takes it upon herself to investigate because she doesn’t think the adult chaperones are competent enough to do much of anything. I found this tale suspenseful with an engaging pace. I was also taken by the colorful cast of characters and enjoyed seeing how they all played off of Ranko’s personality; I especially liked the banter between optimistic Astrid and cynical Ranko.
The developer is from Spain, so the game was originally written in Spanish. I mention this because the stiff prose and awkward phrasing in the English script read as if it were directly translated from Spanish rather than smoothly localized. 1564 Studios has mentioned that they are making updates in their English language efforts, so I hope future endeavors show improvement. That being said, there are instances where the muddled phrasing actually works in the game’s favor. Given that several students are from other countries and learning English as a foreign language, their command of conversational English phrasing and US vernacular would naturally be a little clumsy.
I’m normally not into kinetic visual novels, but I liked The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express. Being able to check Ranko’s phone gave the game enough interactivity that I didn’t feel disconnected from it. The English language script is rough, but the story remained engaging, and the characters still displayed delightfully colorful personalities. The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express is a cool little game that would be even better with a proper localization. That would further entice me to check out hypothetical future installments of Ranko’s adventures.