You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
Collar X Malice begins by introducing you to the X-Day Incidents – a string of horrific murders woven together by the group Adonis, and their warped sense of justice. Promising to purge the land of corruption and bring about a new Japan, this series of events began with a broadcast of four missing police officers, bound and blindfolded, to the people of Shinjuku. Despite it being a matter of urgency for the police, a month had soon passed with little to show for their efforts. Come May, a second video was uploaded, similar to the first. Again depicting the four missing officers, it proclaimed the time for judgement was at hand, and one by one, the officers’ body fell limp – each executed. June, July, August, these crimes continued to claim victims at an alarming rate. Shinjuku was in a state of panic, and on September 1st, the government put into action extreme measures; the Shunjuku Quarantine Act, and the repeal of the Swords and Firearms Control Law – leaving citizens of Shinjuku trapped and capable of defending themselves. In order to deal with the public’s unease and reports regarding X-Day, the special police department SRCPO was established – their job to listen to and assist with the ever-rising worries of the citizens.
As a member of the SRCPO, Ichika Hoshino (note her first name is changeable) – the protagonist of the story – is called out to a scene in Shinjuku Park. Waiting for her partner to arrive, she finds herself knocked unconscious and taken away to an unknown location. Unable to move, a cold voice echoes from the metallic collar now around her neck. Its message is simple, and its rules absolute. You are a test subject. You are to be monitored. The collar around your neck contains a lethal poison. Tell the police of your collar, and you will die. And its closing words – “Show us what justice means to you.” Still crippled from the poison, Ichika feels its grip on her – slowly but surely finding it more difficult to breathe. With hope of survival all but gone, her vision fades. “You there!” A flurry of footsteps approach. Unable to do any more, she lay still as three unknown individuals run to her aid – pulling her from the clutches of despair.
The Detective Agency
On the fifth floor of a rundown building lies a detective agency – or so it would seem. In reality, it houses a small collection of individuals, unified in their desire to solve the X-Day Incidents. These people serve as Ichika’s allies throughout the story, with a decision to be made as to who she will work with. The decision of who you work with isn’t necessarily presented to you as an obvious choice, but is ascertained through your choices and interactions with each character – as well as how your goals align with other characters. If you show a particular interest in the August case, you’ll probably find yourself with Sasazuka for the majority of the game. If you think looking for a possible mole in the police force is more important, you might find yourself partnered with the police force’s profiler – Shiraishi.
I find myself quite fond of this approach to route selection. In my previous experience with route-based visual novels, the choice is often presented as a clear cut selection – and more often than not, I find myself siding with the character I find the cutest, in oppose to whose ideals align with my own. This different approach allows for a deeper sense of empathy with the character Ichika spends most of the game with, and a genuine desire to see the game through to a positive resolution.
Bad End Night
Before you have so much as a chance to pick a route, the game presents you with a choice – your first choice in fact. After walking away from her own kidnapping intact, Ichika returns to Shinjuku Park to rendezvous with her partner. Obviously concerned with her disappearance, he asks what happened – and here lies a dubious decision. Do you heed the collar’s warning and lie, or do you call its bluff and explain what just happened? Allow me to inform you, it is no bluff. After explicitly being told not to talk about the collar, I found the choice somewhat amusing. Such an obvious way to score an early game over served only to whet the appetite of my ever-hungry curiosity. It was instantaneous, and it served to send several clear messages to me as the player. The decisions I make should not be taken lightly; Adonis is willing to kill Ichika; and perhaps most interestingly of all – bad ends are not necessarily a bad thing. It became clear to me they served a purpose in feeding the player information not available to Ichika, as minor as it may seem.
This idea amplifies as the game progresses and the actions leading to these bad ends become less apparent. Something as innocent as walking through a park at night could be all it takes to put you face to face with a killer. To be constantly on a knife’s edge, to know each decision is crucial, no matter how trivial it may appear – it provides a satisfying combination of dread and excitement whenever you’re made to choose. As much as this is a game where you’re driven to find the correct solution, it often nudges you towards an incorrect answer, and it’s difficult not to appreciate it.
Happily Ever Afters
While Collar X Malice finds strength in its bad ends, there is obvious satisfaction to be found at the completion of a well-written narrative. This is true for both individual routes, and for the story as a whole. For the individual routes, I feel the true payoff lies in seeing Ichika grow close to her partner – breaking down emotional walls to come to a deeper understanding of them, and what drives them to move forward. Couple this with a gripping and constantly-teasing investigation – providing only a partial truth in its conclusion, and you have both the overwhelming sense of satisfaction mentioned earlier, and a deep-rooted desire to play more.
Of course, no game stands in the light of perfection. Collar X Malice, while primarily following the standard visual novel formula, does try to mix it up. It does so by extending a certain arm of freedom to the player, in the form of investigative point and click scenes Phoenix Wright fans would feel familiar with, as well as allowing the player to choose where to go next if Ichika needs to visit more than one area of Shinjuku Police Station. These scenes definitely do break up what some may see as a significant wall of text, but they do so in a way that feels so scripted and mundane, I question why they bothered.
It might seem like a minor irritation, but it’s something that really became apparent to me as I found myself replaying a chapter. There was no benefit, no interesting quirk or quip from visiting one area first over another. Given how well thought out the choices given to you in the game feel, these non-choices almost seemed insulting. Similarly with the investigation scenes, the game highlights all possible interactions for you – and to progress, you simply have to look at each of them in turn. I can appreciate why this is the case in this example – streamlining the process to allow the player to progress onto the important information after – but again it comes across as lackluster.
Whilst discussing additional features on the standard visual novel formula, it should definitely be noted Collar X Malice provides its own positive contribution. This comes in the form of the life-or-death moments that rely on you properly timing a gunshot. To me, the gunshot minigame shows itself to be an interesting and unique way of presenting choice to the player. It’s fairly clear which is the “correct” choice in such a case – obviously you want to land the shot to move on with the story as intended. To simply do so however, would be an injustice to treasure trove of bad ends that lay just beyond bad reaction times. To experience all this game has to offer, it should become reflex to hit quick save whenever a gunfight is imminent. It is something I guarantee you will not regret.
Audio and Atmosphere
The audio, while feeling fairly generic and forgettable in isolation, plays a key part in building atmosphere where required. The music feels as though it was crafted in such a way to blend into the background and almost become unnoticeable for a vast majority of the game – where a casual and ambient atmosphere rules. Where it truly shines is in moments of crisis, or sorrow. The moments where your mind pauses for a moment, and takes in everything happening. In those moments, I found myself drawn into the world, flurried into a panic right where it wanted me to, waiting with bated breath on the next line. The soundtrack itself wasn’t what stood out to me, rather how it was used in the context of the game.
Lost in Translation
Script errors are commonplace when a game of this scale goes through localisation. With such a bulk of text, it is of no surprise if one or two spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors slip through the cracks. I wish I could say that was all there is for Collar X Malice. Somewhat to my dismay, the errors cannot be contained to the bounds of “one or two” – they infest the game to the point where I have to question whether the game was play tested at all. Such issues range from relatively minor unnatural-sounding sentences that make you look twice at what you just read, to characters calling the protagonist by her default name, to glossary entries being completely different to what is highlighted. To be clear, none of these affect the game to the point of it being unplayable, or illegible. That I still hold the game in such high regard can only speak for its strengths elsewhere – but the fact remains these issues should not be present. It feels as though you’re being pulled out of immersive world it so beautifully crafts around you, and I truly feel it a shame.