The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Maritime Express is a murder mystery visual novel that combines the concepts of early youth detectives (Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars) and confined space thrillers (Murder on the Orient Express). This brief game only lasts about three hours, but it was three very engaging hours. This suspenseful tale contains heavier themes that might be triggering for some, but it’s counterbalanced by moments of kindness and comedic relief. It also ends satisfactorily while leaving open the possibility of new adventures.
The aesthetic is inspired by 8-bit style games of this ilk, like the original Famicom Detective Club games (recently remade on Nintendo Switch) or from the years 1992 Fantastic Star Adventure for Game Gear. The mysteries of Ranko Togawa the delicious pixel art features expressive and unique character portraits and a tasteful color palette for the locations. The game is pleasant to the eye and the text is reasonably readable. The chiptune-style music is also quite pleasant to listen to, and the atmospheric tunes correspond well to the planned scenes.
The mysteries of Ranko Togawa is a kinetic visual novel, which means there is only one linear path to a single ending and no ability to make choices – like reading a short novel with pictures. Although kinetic visual novels generally lack interactivity, The mysteries of Ranko Togawa The interface has a cell phone icon at the top of the screen that is worth clicking when you see an exclamation mark on it or hear the notification chime. Not only does the phone allow you to save, load, and change your menu background, it also provides access to group chat logs and character profiles when they are updated. 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 small planet.
Astute readers will notice that I said clicking on the phone icon was worth it. This is due to the fact Ranko’s mysteries Togawa is intended to be played primarily with a mouse, although I did use a keyboard shortcut to advance the text. I have 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 at the same time elegant and functional.
Now on to the real meat and potatoes of The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express – his history. Protagonist Ranko Togawa is a brooding sophomore at a hyper-elite international girls’ school in California. His school was selected to participate in the maiden voyage of a revolutionary new submarine train, the Marine Express, which travels the ocean floor from California to Japan. At the start of the trip, as she trekked the route with her enthusiastic best friend, Astrid, Ranko hears a scream from one of her classmates. The two girls discover with horror that one of the teachers has been stabbed to death in his cabin! Looks like we have a mystery in our hands. Ranko takes it upon himself to investigate as she doesn’t think adult chaperones are competent enough to do much. I found this story full of suspense with an engaging pace. I was also captivated by the colorful cast of the characters and enjoyed seeing how they all played with Ranko’s personality; I especially liked the jokes between the optimist Astrid and the cynical Ranko.
The developer is Spanish, so the game was originally written in Spanish. I mention this because the stiff prose and awkward wording of the English script reads as if directly translated from Spanish rather than smoothly localized. 1564 Studios mentioned that they are updating their efforts in English, so hopefully future efforts will improve. That being said, there are cases where the confusing wording actually works in favor of the game. Since many students come from other countries and are learning English as a Foreign Language, their fluency in conversational English phrasing and the vernacular American would naturally be a little awkward.
I’m not normally 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. The English script is approximate, but the story remained engaging and the characters always 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 good localization. It would encourage me more to check out future hypothetical episodes of Ranko’s adventures.