The Chrono Jotter reminds me of a recurring dream I have. I’m back in school. History class, specifically. The teacher has asked me a question but I have no idea what the answer is. Everyone stares at me and falls silent and I’m left there with nothing but the ticking of the clock. Suddenly finding yourself back at school would be bad enough. Being back at a school where all your friends are trying to murder you, though? That’s a lot worse.
That’s how The Chrono Jotter steps up the game. It’s a cheery high school drama that’s occasionally interrupted by someone having their trachea sliced up by a kitchen knife. The pairing works pretty well too and The Chrono Jotter avoids most of the worst excesses of the genre – though the gameplay lets the side down a bit. The shoddy localisation only hurts it further.
A Bloody Lottery
Visual novels live and die on their writing, so let’s start with a deeper dive into The Chrono Jotter’s plot. The game opens with our protagonist, Ibuki Ran, trapped in a small underground room. Not the most promising start for our hero. She’s in the midst of fighting off an ‘illness’, while all her thoughts are bent on finding her girlfriend, Sakura An. Once she escapes from the tiny cellar, she finds herself in an old school. She then bumps into some colourful characters who cheerfully inform her that their favourite pastime is brutally murdering each other. Turns out they all draw lots on who is the murderer and who is the victim and act accordingly. I prefer Euromillions, personally.
This may sound a little eerily familiar, but the twist is that once the murder is solved, the victims pop back to life. This is quite the clever twist, as it allows the casual murders to become part of how the characters interact. Brutal murders lead to tender moments and dark topics, most notably suicide, can be approached in a direct fashion. While it doesn’t quite dig into the deep topics as well as it could, the actual writing and premise is good. Characters interact with each other well, with only occasional cringeworthy lines, and their conflicts feel grounded and interesting. I couldn’t think of a character I disliked, which is rare for the genre.
There’s a strong theme of mental illness, obsession and dependency throughout. While it can lean into glorification of mental illness at times, it generally feels respectful. I found myself getting quite emotionally invested towards the end. That said, while the spirit of the writing is good, the line-by-line writing is awful thanks to some of the worst localisation I’ve ever seen. Typos and awkward sentences are common, potentially hinting at a Google translate situation but there’s more. Character names (and even genders) are frequently wrong or change unexpectedly. One whole line is completely untranslated. It adds to a frustrating jankiness, that takes a bit of effort to work through.
Notebook Time Machine
The Chrono Jotter also has a few interesting notes in the gameplay department. For one, when you begin you’re asked to make some bizarre choices that build your stats in three areas: Insight, Dexterity and Charm. These are used in skill checks to open up options throughout. Refreshingly though, these don’t lock you out of chunks of the game thanks to the Backtrack system, which allows you to zoom back in time. It has a use in solving murders but it also allows you to retry skill checks and take different dialogue options. Might hurt replay value, I suppose, but I appreciated being able to experience a complete story. Quite often visual novels feel like a book that someone’s arbitrarily snipped pages out of.
That said, while the backtracking adds a certain frisson to the murder investigations, the actual gameplay is a little thin on the ground. If you’re expecting to scream ‘OBJECTION!’ at someone, look elsewhere. We do the full investigation routine, poking at set areas and listening to Ibuki chinwag, but we don’t do anything with it. Instead, when the clues are gathered, Ibuki herself will talk through the relevant questions. You get a handful of small multiple choice questions and then Ibuki just deduces the murder. At one point, I had no idea who the killer was until Ibuki confronted them and they confessed. Guess I’ll never be a private detective. It feels quite dissappointing to not put the pieces together ourselves.
Still, The Chrono Jotter wormed its way into my heart regardless. I think a decent reason for that is because the art is lovely. Every character looks visually distinct and appealing and their reactions change appropriately to match their tone. None of them felt over-the-top or embarassing. The settings too are nicely drawn and it has a brought, colourful feel to it that contrasts well with the brutal murder scenes. It really adds to the feeling of subtle cosmic horror that underpins things.
Noting The Supernatural
I can hear the gameplay side of my brain screaming in disagreement, but I really do like The Chrono Jotter. It has a layer of nice character writing drizzled on top of an expansive feeling world. Things do get exceedingly bizarre at the end, but there are hints throughout that there are supernatural things going on. Ibuki jots down the ones she remembers in her notebook and reading them is great. As a dedicated binge-reader of the SCP wiki, it scratched all the right itches.
The localisation issues do make me sad, though. Every time I ran into a janky sentence or a blatant typo, it made me wonder if The Chrono Jotter is better in its native language. It certainly made it hard to get into at first. Still, if you look past the jankiness then you’ll find The Chrono Jotter has a decent amount of depth. It’s far from the strongest in the genre but it’s a solid punt at something new and it made me glad to play through it. Still not going to play the lottery, though.