One of the most difficult genres of media to translate to a visual novel is, in my opinion, shounen manga/anime.
Many have tried, to be sure. The closest we’ve come to a successful translation is with the Sunrider series and that is more due to really nailing (no pun intended) what makes the mecha subgenre so much fun. However, what they usually miss is the core spirit of what makes shounen so widespread and arguably the most mainstream form of both anime and manga. For me, all of the genres intangibles come down to a particular ‘It’ factor that a series either has or it doesn’t, and it’ll determine how successful it will be. That ‘It’ factor can best be summed up with atypical narrative cycle good shounen excels at: Anticipation, Execution, and Resolution AKA Build-Up, Climax, and Resolution.
One of these days I’m going to go through why this works better as a narrative cycle than a narrative arc, but all you must do is watch a good shounen series to see the evidence. Good shounen can make you anticipate a confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, make that fight worth watching and then provided a worthwhile resolution to the fight. This is why, despite the growth of anime talent, my standard for fights in anime is still the fight between Kenshin Himura and Hajime Saitou in Rurouni Kenshin. This is a fight that was twenty-three episodes in the making: a build that would be unthinkable in today’s media landscape. Saitou’s low-key introduction paves the way for a brutal psychological game that pushes Kenshin to the limit before they finally cross swords in the most brutal fight up to that point. And all of it, ALL of it, served to ignite the biggest storyline of the franchise: the Kyoto arc.
It is a master class of the narrative cycle that keeps people watching shounen and understanding how it works is key to properly translating a shounen narrative to a visual novel. This brings us to Phantom Ban Detective Agency by Obento Mori. If the main character with the aviator shades and ‘prickly attitude’ wasn’t a big enough hint, this is taking more than a few pages from the books of shounen manga. The question with the demo is if it can successfully grasp the first part of the cycle: Anticipation.
The demo the game is very contained. Our protagonist Riley visits her friend Allie as she prepares for a swimming meet and discovers that she can see Phantoms: supernatural beings that interact with this world through the darker impulses of humanity. From there she meets Dameon: a ESPer wannabee detective who I will not dignify calling a chunnibyou because I know who Gundham Tanaka is and Dameon’s not that far gone. Although Dameon warns her of the dangers of fighting untrained, Riley joins him to find out who is responsible for unleashing the Phantom on Allie. End scene.
So, does this build up Anticipation? Sort of in small ways. I left the demo wanting to investigate further into the world and confront the source of the Phantom. The demo never gets into how exactly one beats a Phantom, but it does confirm that you can physically fight them. This detail wouldn’t be included unless Riley was going to physically fight the Phantom, which gives the mystery some decent weight in relations.
More importantly, I want to see what avenues fighting the Phantom and solving the mystery opens for Riley. We get some foreshadowing into her past, but remember: the best thing about the fight between Kenshin and Saito is that it set up the eventual throw down with Makoto Shishio. Riley’s fight and eventually solving the mystery should ideally do the same: setting up a bigger mystery for her to tackle once she survives…because let’s not kid ourselves here, there’s no way the game will canonically end with the main character dead. So, there is promise here that can be tapped into to make for a rewarding series overall.
Keen readers have already deduced the big problem here: I don’t give a crap about the cast. Riley is okay, but standard issue for the genre. Swap the genders and you have every bored-yet-cares-about-their-friends, overpowered Yuji Everymoron from the last twenty years of anime. There is nothing to make her distinct from the jump and with a concept this straightforward, that is needed. For now, though, we just have the potential of her being more than just a typical shounen lead and we’ll have to wait and see what the full release will do with that.
Dameon, on the hand, is a bit more problematic because that’s where the plot holes come in. See, Dameon’s shtick of being an egotistical brat and only relying on himself to fight against the darkness only works if the darkness he’s fighting is in his head. When the threat of a Phantom attack is real and the only person seemingly fighting it is this dork, then we start having to ask questions. Cue the music:
- Why isn’t Dameon’s knowledge more widespread?
- Is there some secret organization keeping this knowledge secret and, if so, why aren’t they immediately informed when the Phantom attack happens?
- If there is some secretive organization keeping the war against Phantoms and the supernatural hidden from the rest of the world, did they train Dameon to fight them which is why he has the knowledge he has?
- If they didn’t, did Dameon train himself?
- When did Dameon realize he had ESP? Because depending on when he figured out he had ESP, it stands to reason he’d be able to figure out which people around him could and could not see Phantoms. He could figure it out Riley’s abilities, so he must be able to tell who can see them.
- On that note, is ESP an ability that comes and goes? It’s hinted that Riley may have seen the Phantoms before now, yet for all intents and purposes, she has never physically seen one before the events of the demo. So, why now?
- Is it just now maturing?
- If so, do you have to be a certain age for your ESP to mature and make Phantoms visible?
- If so, I refer you back to Points 3, 4, and 5. Either Dameon trained himself or he didn’t and if he did and which is which is key to how this entire thing works. So, which is it?
- Why doesn’t the Phantom attack Riley or Dameon?
- Does it not realize they have ESP?
- Can it tell who has ESP and who doesn’t?
- Does it have any sort of survival instinct? Because if it doesn’t, then there is no need to fight one, which negatives Dameon’s warning to Riley about fighting them.
- ‘Allie Wett’? Really?
This is why good shounen usually tag the protagonist with someone who is their emotional opposite who could bring gravity and knowledge to the situation that the protagonist can’t. The best example I have for this is Bleach with Ichigo and Rukia. Ichigo was the hotshot proto-badass who we wanted to see save the damn day and Rukia was the proven veteran who tried to keep him from going in over his head. Older shounen works tried their best to strike a similar balance with their leads: Yusuke and Botan, Vash and Wolfwood, those are the main ones that come to my head at the moment. However, the point is to give the audience some ground to hold onto as the main character pushes to surpass whatever odds are laid out in front of them.
No such balance exists here and it’s to the story’s detriment. Ironically, most of the story’s issues can be addressed just by flipping Dameon’s character: making him more serious and withdrawn than the Large Ham he currently is. Even if they wanted to keep the finer points of the story’s lore and history away from the demo, having someone to push against Riley’s desire to help her friend out of clear experience instead of childish ego would go a long way in building expectation for the larger mystery and eventual confrontation. Instead, we’ve got what we got, and it forces the rest of the narrative to work that much harder since you can’t take anything seriously between the two of them.
And this isn’t even touching the fact that this is also supposed to have a romance element to it. Let’s just let that one sit in a corner for now.
I realize this is going to come off as harsh. I also want Phantom Ban Detective Agency to be a legitimately good series, because that is what it is setting up to be. And everything else about the demo is enjoyable. The presentation is good, bordering on great in certain scenes. The elements of a strong mystery/supernatural shounen series are also there waiting to be exploited, but the biggest roadblock in its path are Riley and Dameon…and these are the two that are supposed to be the support beam for the entire damn thing. The development team need not get too crazy with them, but one of the two must change. Either Riley becomes a more unique protagonist with something more notable than her aviator shades or Dameon gets pulled back to Earth PDQ or this one is going to end up being a sit.
If you’re interested in Phantom Ban Detective Agency, please give the demo a shot and leave the developers some constructive feedback of your own here. JP3: OUT.