I’m a huge fan of this little video game series called Ace Attorney. You might have heard of it; a plucky rookie lawyer named Phoenix Wright is tasked with defending the seemingly undefendable in court, and you must gather evidence and figure out how to use it in court to prove your client’s innocence. A lot of other stuff happens – cross-examining parrots, dealing with your traumatized childhood friend being the prosecutor you’re up against – but the basics of the game is investigate, present, win. Present the wrong evidence and you get penalized.
This keeps you from clicking around aimlessly and encourages you to really pay attention to what you’re reading. Sometimes, this means you’re a step or two ahead, and this can be frustrating, especially when it causes you to present the wrong evidence or make the wrong conclusion. However, it never takes away the enjoyment of the game. It’s just an extra layer of it.
I really wish this had been the case for Hauma, a noir-esque visual novel that follows Judith, a former detective thrown into a mysterious plot upon discovering her grandfather’s journal. Her investigation leads her all over the city of Munich to uncover the connection between the strange symbols and items she finds, her grandfather, and a holy relic, and mysterious people follow her and her brother, JB, as she gets closer and closer to the truth. Can she figure out how her family became entangled? Or will she die trying?
Hauma is a pretty standard mix of questioning characters to get information, point-and-click discovery, and investigation puzzles. There’s nothing wrong with those first two; the game does them well, and talking to other characters is never a chore. There are times when they’ll provide riddles or help you with a part of your investigation by distracting people. The point-and-click discovery can be a bit tedious at first, especially if you do things out of order and get a constant string of “I can’t leave yet” and “Hmmm…I don’t think so” responses, but it isn’t anything outside of the norm for its genre. It’s manageably annoying.
It’s the puzzles that are the real issue. A large portion of the game is spent trying to recover the hazy memories that show up in your items log, pair items together to make new clues and memories, and solve mini-puzzles that appear when you find certain items or riddles. The memories – at first – aren’t so bad; you have a cigarette made of scorpion skin that you can sniff to make most of them clear, and that leads you to the next thing pretty quickly. However, these memories start to become more frustrating to deal with when you have to start pairing items together.
Often, you will find yourself multiple steps ahead in this game, and that makes the puzzles rage inducing. You’ll see a connection long before the game asks you to match it with a memory, a clue, or an item and get absolutely nothing but Judith’s commentary of “try something else” and “hmmm…no”. I turned off the sound while playing after a while because the commentary became grating as I tried to figure out why I couldn’t match a painting to Judith’s memory of the salon room, despite another memory having the painting in it plain as day.
Sometimes, solutions to these puzzles are just nonsensical. A good example is when Judith is confronting MAP, and it asks you to tell him what you know. Instead of actually doing that – I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to figure out how to present the fact that I knew exactly who he was based on the evidence I had – the solution was to choose your pocket knife and threaten him. This happens often enough to make you start just aimlessly clicking and dragging to find anything that sticks so you can move on. It takes the fun out of the investigative element by being needlessly frustrating, bordering on an insult to the player’s intelligence by asking them to make connections and then using something completely different and unrelated to the task at hand.
While the actual gameplay is often frustrating and annoying, the story itself isn’t. Hauma has an amazing story full of mystery, history, and action that would give any Indiana Jones film a run for its money. It sets up so much intrigue with Judith herself, and you itch to know what her grandfather was involved in, what happened to her parents, and what lengths she’ll go to to protect JB, her only remaining family. From the start, you’re given a small clue in the form of a newspaper clipping that keeps returning throughout the game. There’s so much to love in the plot and the care that was put into crafting the story around a beautiful city with a rich history, and that’s what kept me pushing through the gameplay. I wanted to see it unfold.
There’s also the design of the game. It’s done in a fantastic comic style with great character design, and I loved looking at the artwork clues, particularly the Journey of Eternity painting in the House of Art. It’s also fully voiced, and voiced well, though having to sit through the same lines over and over during investigations can become difficult. It’s an overall beautiful – and solid – game in terms of appearance, sound, and story. This makes it all the much more unfortunate that it’s overshadowed by its lackluster gameplay.
Hauma is a fantastic detective story that has a lot of potential, but it’s hard not to wish the developers had taken a more traditional visual novel route. While gameplay such as choosing dialogue and point-and-click investigations are great, its puzzles were ultimately a letdown as they were often frustrating, nonsensical, and multiple steps behind what a player could deduce on their own. It’s easy to get annoyed each time an inescapable gameplay segment appears, because chances are you’ll be sitting there for fifteen minutes just clicking and dragging and praying something will stick so you can move on. If you don’t mind suffering for a good story, this might be right up your alley. Otherwise, it may be best that you let this case go cold.