Hermitage: Strange Case Files is a mystery-solving visual novel with a sinister gothic twist. You play as Store Manager, a character whose name is an excellent microcosm for the level of delicate mysteriousness and balance in the rest of the game. Store is the owner of a bookshop who, for horror-writing-based reasons, has never been seen outside of its premises. With the help of a range of kooky characters, Mr Manager will get involved with a horrifying grab-bag of paranormal cases, getting to the bottom of which will change the storyline of the game forever.
To solve the mysteries facing Store Manager you’ll need to collect leads – the sort of leads that help you collect evidence, not the sort of leads that help you collect dogs which would be a significantly cuter game and an instant 10/10 from me. You can do this through dialogue, TV news, forums and all the other sorts of things you can do without leaving a bookshop. God forbid the developers put themselves out by designing a new location in the game. Once you’ve scoured the bookshop for evidence, you’ll need to tie it all together in a tight bow, proving your assumptions by associating the narrative you’ve developed with the clues you’ve collected to put together a cast-iron case.
Hermitage: Strange Case Files is pitched as being narratively similar to the weird tales of H. P. Lovecraft, an excellent psychological horror writer and famously terrible person. The trailers also give strong Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney vibes, drawing similarities to the quintessential investigative adventure game. As you can probably tell by my descriptions of the above, I adore the works of Lovecraft and Wright, so a combination thereof dramatically piqued my interest. Unfortunately, I was left a little disappointed by the final product.
I think the crux of my disappointment is no fault of the developers but instead a key part of Lovecraftian horror – you cannot investigate it. The beauty of a Lovecraftian happening is that it is so incomprehensible, so horrific, so far removed from any human experience that the very suggestion of seeing it or experiencing it is enough to shatter the psyche or the observer, rendering them as a babbling, terrified mess. It’s like giving a human a glimpse of 4-dimensional existence or that scene in The Good Place where Chidi sees the time knife but rather than being played for laughs, the knife has got tentacles and is already penetrating your soul. If you break that down to something that’s just ‘kinda scary’, to a level so tame you can have a quirky bookshop owner called Store Manager investigating it with no real repercussions, it loses so much of its essence and charm. It’s not Lovecraft anymore. It’s just bad horror.
The other side of the coin, the investigation and Phoenix Wright-ness doesn’t earn the game any points back either. The game is slow, and I mean SLOW. It takes its visual novel-ness seriously. We’re talking tens of minutes of dialogue to read before you’re allowed to interact with the game and when you’ve finally battled through that, the interaction will lead you to tens of minutes more dialogue. The dialogue itself is fairly engaging and gothic, with some strong theming. But there’s so little gameplay it’s nightmarish to stay engaged. Even when the dialogue breaks to give you some response options, they’re often not genuine choices, you have to select all of them eventually, you’re just choosing the order in which you want to read the sections.
If you want to read a vaguely Lovecraft-esque novel where you can occasionally make a decision then Hermitage: Strange Case Files might be for you. However, if you want an involved investigative game to channel your inner Sherlock Holmes, or a compellingly creepy narrative about Old Ones and the terrifying other worlds overlapping our own then there are undoubtedly better options out there.