Fresh off the high from the spectacular Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, I’ve been in the mood for more mystery. So the recent release of The Mysteries of Ranko Togawa: Murder on the Marine Express, a short murder mystery visual novel from 1564 Studio, caught my eye. The title brings to mind Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a story I enjoyed, and with the affordable $4.99 price tag, I figured why not give it a shot?
Next Stop: Murderville–Population: You
The premise of Murder on the Marine Express is that the girls of the elite St. Joachim Academy are on the inaugural voyage of an underwater train connecting the west coast of the Americas with Japan. It’s a luxury experience replete with fine dining, entertainment, and oceanic sightseeing. But what should be an idyllic trip soon turns horrifying when a murder occurs. And with the train at the bottom of the ocean and still days from its destination, the survivors must face the reality that they’re trapped with a killer. It’s up to plucky high school student Ranko Togawa to catch the culprit before they strike again.
While Murder on the Marine Express borrows the isolated luxury train setting from Christie, the character dynamics are more Mean Girls. The students of St. Joachim are largely stock characters. You have the athletic jock, the shy girl, the cliquish bullies, and many others. It’s an international group too, and characters frequently reference things related to their homelands. For example, Astrid Larsson, Ranko’s Swedish best friend and sidekick, loves Bloomins, a fictionalized version of the Moomins.* Murder on the Marine Express has a large cast for its 4 hour runtime, and I think the stock approach is effective at making the side characters distinctive and memorable.
Ranko herself is curmudgeonly with a strong sense of justice. She frequently clashes with resident bully group the “Wild Cats” when they go after her or her friends and has a burning desire to bring down the killer. While I admire her wit and integrity, Ranko can also be annoyingly self-righteous. Even before she has much evidence, she’s quick to jump in with accusations on the thinnest of premises. She also puts everything on herself. I warmed up to her as the story went on, but I would have liked it if she were more willing to express doubts about her own theories or share responsibility and leadership with her friends.
I’d say the humor was my favorite part of Murder on the Marine Express. Astrid’s bright energy is infectious and she and Ranko go back and forth with teasing and jokes. Haifaa, another of Ranko’s friends who’s obsessed with ninjas, is good for a laugh too. You can even pull up the social network MariNet and see online chats between the girls on Ranko’s phone. Many of these are quite silly, ranging from riffs on famous people or places to wordplay to inane pop culture debates. They continue throughout, which does seem a bit off-tone given someone was just murdered, but I didn’t mind since I had fun with them.
An Ungainly Enigma
Unfortunately, the writing in the English version of Murder on the Marine Express comes across as if 1564 Studio skipped the editing process. The language is frequently stilted and unnatural, and the script badly needs a look from someone with a strong mastery of conversational English. While I could always understand what the characters meant, I found Murder on the Marine Express grating to read. I think hiring a skilled English editor would allow 1564 Studio to greatly improve the experience of their English language player base. I will note that Murder on the Marine Express got a simultaneous release in Spanish, 1564 Studio’s primary language, so the Spanish version is probably better.
The storytelling is also somewhat ham-fisted and marches from plot point to plot point with minimal nuance. After the murder, Ranko is eager to solve the case, but most of her early deductions are guesswork based on hearsay, and no matter what she says, others go along. I can see this for Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express because he’s already established as a world-famous detective. In fact, the owner of the Orient Express enlists his aid to solve the case. As far as we are shown, Ranko is an ordinary high school student. It makes sense that close friends would trust her, but pretty much everyone agrees to answer her questions with minimal resistance, and the teachers’ reaction to Ranko breaking into the murder scene to investigate with a killer on the loose is a feeble “please don’t do it again.” This allows Ranko to find the evidence she needs to crack the case, but it’s not very believable. I would have preferred that Murder on the Marine Express either established some reason for the others to trust Ranko’s leadership or else put more resistance in the path of her investigation.
I didn’t love Murder on the Marine Express’s treatment of the puzzle element either. The game invites you to try your hand at reconstructing the events, and there are enough clues to piece together the most plausible scenario if you pay attention. However, Ranko is so busy running here and there that her evidence gathering is haphazard and her deductions are filled with flimsy assumptions. There are some twists and turns, and I would say I found the conclusion satisfying, but the mystery is ultimately rather straightforward. I’m more impressed when a mystery can make reconsider the context of evidence in plain sight or combine ideas in nonobvious ways, and while Murder on the Marine Express has a dash of this, I thought it could have been more clever.
Art, Sound, and Extras
I quite liked Murder on the Marine Express’s art and music. The charming pixel style focuses on big, striking characteristics over intricate details, and it works well with the colorful cast of characters. And the art, along with music reminiscent of MIDI, takes me back to the days of the old school adventure games I played growing up. It’s a fitting aesthetic for a story that aspires to be a classic confined space murder mystery.
The presentation is impressive too. The menu is designed as Ranko’s smartphone. Besides game controls like save/load and settings, you can access the aforementioned MariNet chats as well as a list of contacts. Each name has a portrait and a brief description so you can keep track of who’s who if you get mixed up. You can even change the phone wallpaper to one of 10 different themes. It’s a small touch, but it helps with the immersion.
Ultimately, I had mixed feelings about Murder on the Marine Express. I liked the aesthetic and found the characters and humor enjoyable. However, the mystery was underwhelming, and the stilted English made the text tiring to read. If you like silly humor, keep your expectations measured, and can tolerate the unnatural English (or read Spanish), Murder on the Marine Express might be worth a look, especially given its competitive $4.99 price. But if you’re hoping for a well-written and clever mystery, you should look elsewhere.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested the Bloomins were a reference to the Smurfs when in fact they are a reference to the Moomins.