JP title: シグマハーモニクス
What happens when you cross a JRPG with an Ace Attorney-esque visual novel / deduction simulator? They give birth to a baby called Sigma Harmonics.
And while that sounds fantastic on paper, it’s unfortunately not that amazing in practice. Which is a shame.
Sigma Harmonics was a game released back in 2008 for the Nintendo DS — it was a title that instantly grabbed my attention with its unique visuals and interesting setting, accompanied by a surprisingly good soundtrack composed by Masashi Hamauzu of Final Fantasy 10 and 13 fame. (seriously, just listen to this or this). Hamauzu’s tunes really set the initial mood of the title and got me immersed and ready to plunge into a mystery-solving, time traveling adventure.
The game stars Kurogami Sigma (voiced by Ono Daisuke), young member of the Kurogami family, a bloodline of magic-users (well, people that possess special powers, to be more specific) that protect the world from demonic beings known as ouma. In fact, they even have a so-called Large Clock at the center of their family mansion that is used to imprison ouma and keep them from causing harm to the world. Sigma is accompanied by Tsukiyomi Neon (voiced by Hirano Aya), a girl who actually has the power to fight ouma face-to-face by using her magical cards and a skill called 神降ろし (kamioroshi) — a kamioroshi basically allows a divine spirit to take over the body of Neon, who then gains special powers and even changes her appearance and personality based on the spirit being channeled.
The two mostly spend their days in peace, going to school and hanging out together and all that jazz. One day, however, shit hits the fan when the Clock is damaged,he ouma imprisoned escape and turn the mansion and the city into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It all happens in the blink of an eye, basically. Obviously dumbfounded, Sigma and Neon hurry back to the Kurogami family mansion and confront their trusty butler, only to be treated as complete strangers. As it turns out, what actually happened was that the ouma that escaped managed to completely screw up/rewrite the timeline and altered the past, resulting in the hellish present our heroes now have to live in. Why? Because in the altered past, the entire Kurogami bloodline had died out due to the harmful influence of the ouma, and without them, things took a dark turn in the present.
So, the two decide to take matters into their own hands and take off to the past to figure out how the Kurogami line died out. This basically means that you’ll spend most of the game solving murder mysteries in which ouma influenced (semi-mind controlled) members of the family turn on and kill each other. Admittedly, this sounds intriguing as hell, and serves as a very solid start to initially hook the player. I mean, the game definitely radiates a nice, unique atmosphere for the most part. The soundtrack also helps in this regard. However, it’s the execution that ends up being severely lacking. But more about that later.
In each chapter, you explore the same mansion and solve a different murder mystery concerning the exact same people (because you’re dealing with alternate pasts). The reason for that is because the first time you solve a mystery and defeat the ouma responsible for the altered past, the timeline still doesn’t quite revert back to its original self, so you have to constantly go back to several alternate pasts and solve their respective murder mysteries. You can probably guess how this can get tedious. You explore the same mansion every time, and although you gain access to new rooms in later chapters, it doesn’t really make the experience any less dull. While the murder’s circumstances are different each time, they always concern the exact same people. This leads to most chapters really blurring together, especially when none of them are really that outstanding in terms of content or suspense. There are some unexpected twists here and there, but nothing that really make you go “whoa, that’s awesome” like in a good Ace Attorney title. Instead, the reaction the game got out of me was more along the lines of “really? I mean, really?” — certain revelations kinda feel like the devs pulled it from their rear-ends just to make things more unpredictable.
First off, this is a JRPG/crime-solving hybrid primarily because it has random battles and an actual battle system, during which you control Neon and defeat ouma. The combat system, while very unique and fresh, also felt rather simplistic. I think there might be a screenshot of it somewhere around here, but it basically goes like this: you have three deck of cards, with each card representing a combat action such as “attack forward”, “use healing spell” or “attack to the left side” or even “use protection buff” and so on.
The three decks all have a respective gauge corresponding to them (think of these as three separate ATB gauges from Final Fantasy) — once a gauge is filled, you can select a card if your choice from the corresponding deck and slide it into the slot in the upper half of the screen to activate it. This is basically how you give commands to Neon. How fast the gauges fill up depends on what background music is played during battle, which is something you can freely change. Different songs affect the filling-speed of each gauge in different ways. So, for instance, if you want to unleash a barrage of attacks real fast but don’t care much about healing, select a song that speeds up the gauge of the deck containing”attack” cards.
Aside from changing the music, you also have the option to switch Neon’s class mid-battle by performing the above-mentioned kamioroshi. She basically has three classes — a default one, a sword-wielding one and a handgun user, each specializing in certain types of attacks. What’s interesting about this is that it doesn’t just have a combat-related role. As I have previously mentioned, it is not just Neon’s appearance that is altered with a class-change, but also her personality, which actually affects story dialogues as well, as each of the three classes/personalities have different ways of talking. My favorite one ended up being the sword-wielder version of Neon, who’s somewhat of a kuudere with some very cute speech habits. For instance, while inhabiting this personality, she invents nicknames for every character, and, just to give a few examples, ends up referring to the maid Yuriko as “Yuri-Yuri”, Yoshiko as “Yocchan” and so on. So if you enjoy listening to slightly differently written dialogues, make sure to change up Neon’s class before watching flashbacks and see the conversation between her and Sigma (as they comment on the flashback they’ve just seen) play out in different ways, with slightly different nuances.
In any case, for a while the combat system is fairly enjoyable and is definitely a novelty. However, most of the battles are quite easy, especially when Neon’s HP is regenerated after every combat encounter. Still, there are a select few fights that pose a challenge and you really have to be quick about changing songs and selecting the appropriate cards, sometimes going as far as casting a random spell just to buy time for the other, more important gauges to fill up (because the ATB gauges, much like in FF, continue to fill up even as Neon does her combat or spellcasting animations). Most people seem to hate the battle system but I didn’t mind it too much. It was a nice distraction between all the tedious clue-collecting… which brings us to the next point on the agenda.
So, how does this game actually work? You basically run around the mansion in each chapter (engaging in random battles from time to time) collecting clues that you can, at the end, use to solve the mystery, and thus, through the power of TRUTH and DEDUCTION SKILLS, weaken the influence of the Great Ouma responsible for the messed up timeline and instigated murders. At this point you send in the cavalry (aka Neon) to kick its weakened ass, and the chapter ends. However, it is entirely possible to screw up the deduction, and the game will still let you proceed even if Sigma comes to a nonsensical conclusion. This, however, also means that the Great Ouma will remain powerful and defeating it in combat is going to be tough as shit. The clues in question are actually little mini-flashbacks showing certain key scenes from the past shortly before or during the murders took place. You listen to these past conversations and pick up on details that could potentially help you solve the case (the most important pieces of information are stored for later use, much like pieces of evidence in Ace Attorney titles).
The problem is that in order to collect clues and watch flashbacks, you have to look for them. A lot. With a system that’s not exactly user-friendly at all. You bring up the menu, select “Search” (this already takes a few seconds…) and start hunting with the stylus for points of interest that can be interacted with. You do this in all the rooms, in every single corner of the house. Every time, you bring up the menu, select Search, enter Search Mode, look around, if you find something that’s great, if not, exit the menu, continue on to a different room/part of the house, then bring up the menu again, select Search, enter Search Mode and now I’m on the verge of suicide. The best word to describe non-battle gameplay in Sigma Harmonics is, therefore, “tedious”. Tedious as fuck, to be more specific. The interface and menu system is slow and cumbersome, making exploration without a walkthrough an absolute chore. So in all honesty, just use a guide so you already know which rooms you need to go to in advance.
On the bright side, you do have access to special abilities that, while finite in the number of times they can be used (they’re basically cards that you use up), automatically reveal where a required clue is located on the map. Or you could just use a walkthrough. Even still, there are certain minor clues that can’t be found via this method and you still have to comb through every nook and cranny to unearth them. Again, your best bet is to consult a guide.
As you explore the manor, you will also encounter special boss monsters (called Karma) that semi-randomly wander around the hallways and rooms and, if you do end up crossing paths with them, they are usually so powerful they kill you in a matter of seconds. They’re basically the equivalent of The Reaper from the labyrinths of Persona 3. Evading them actually made exploration a bit more fun for me, since at least it gave me something semi-strategic to do. You can use some of your above-mentioned abilities to either temporarily stop their movement, or exchange places with them and use that to your advantage to quickly get close to rooms you need to investigate. In later chapters they might even appear in pairs (sometimes closing in on you from both directions), so you have to pay a bit more attention to how you go about exploring the manor and make use of the finite abilities mentioned above. Sadly they become somewhat less of a threat in later chapters and I even managed to regularly defeat them, but at least they spiced up the exploration gameplay a bit, so there’s that.
Once you have all the required clues collected, you begin the deduction, which plays out on a chessboard sort of thing — you basically have black orbs surrounded by multiple smaller white orbs (see screenshot above). The black orb represents a mystery — you have to select the relevant clues/pieces of evidence from your repertoire and place it on the small white orbs to dispel the mystery in the center. You do this with several black orbs, and the end result, if you do everything correctly, will lead to a successful deduction.
You can, however, very easily mess this up. I will admit it: yes, I solved the mysteries with the help of a walkthrough. I know, I know, shamefur dispray and so on. I’d make a terrible detective. But Sigma Harmonics seemed considerably harder than your average Ace Attorney game, to the point of being potentially frustrating. Here’s where it gets tricky. You have to place your clues onto the white orbs in the right order, in the right position according to logical connections. A wrong step and you’re fucked. Well, not really, because the game still allows you to continue even if you come to a wrong conclusion, but still. Although I used a guide myself, I can kinda see these deduction bits posing a considerable challenge to the average gamer — this is the kind of game where I can see people getting out pen and paper just to organize all the info they have in the right chronology.
Maybe I just suck at being a detective, but by the time I got to the end and had to do the deduction, I’ve already forgotten certain key details or nuances that I’ve seen before in flashbacks. I think part of it could be caused by the fact that you always solve murder cases in the same mansion, about the same people, so it’s *really* easy to mix things up. Like I said, all the cases kinda blurred together in my mind.
Anyway, if you want to tackle this without a guide (and may God have mercy on your soul if you do), take *very* detailed notes of everything, and think very carefully about how you use your clues, and collect every single optional hint during each level. The problem with the latter is, of course, that you have to collect said hints with the aforementioned Search Mode mechanic, which is a major pain in the ass. Again, while I can’t really judge this as I’ve just rushed through the thing with a walkthrough, I suppose if you enjoy complex deductions, you might find the game’s challenge to be a positive thing, so I won’t fully dismiss its value. The bigger problem here is that the mysteries themselves just aren’t that interesting, so I never felt the need to put in the effort and tackle them without a guide. (by comparison, I do play Ace Attorney games without outside help as much as possible because each case is fascinating, different and colorful).
As for the storyline… as I’ve said, it really grabbed me at first, and the major reason I soldiered through the kinda-sorta boring murder mysteries was because I was curious about the overarching plot with Sigma, Neon and the altered past, and how it would all end. But in the end, I found the story somewhat confusing and hard to follow at places, and its conclusion rushed (90% of the key story developments are crammed into the last chapter) and not as satisfying as I hoped it would be. And even after beating the final main story chapter, while I understood most of what had just transpired (Sigma’s true identity was an interesting enough twist, I guess), I still had a handful of questions left in my mind.
The thing is, a large chunk of backstory is told through the in-game (and optional!) glossary/encyclopedia, which kinda just screams lazy design. I mean, c’mon. Please tell me a story the proper way and don’t make me read through a dictionary.I would’ve preferred actual cutscenes and more narrative, because there’s really not that many of these — instead, you spend most of the game time running around the mansion and doing the Seach Mode tango. So many things would’ve deserved a more thorough explanation instead of a brief sentence or two: I mean, we could’ve had long, dramatic moments, more flashbacks (slice of life moments with Sigma/Neon? Yes please), maybe a tear-jerker scene here and there, hell throw in some romance as well if you want to. Just give me *something*. Something more than Neon dropping a line about how much she liked eating donuts together with Sigma. Wow thanks, character development masterclass. So yeah, the plot only really kicks in at the last chapter, and even then everything is over way too quickly. You know what, I’ve just realized what I’ve been trying to say this whole paragraph. This game should have been a pure visual novel, focusing just on the story and characters instead of wasting your time with its questionable mansion exploration gameplay. That’s it.
I mean, there’s really just a true lack of in-game cutscenes and dialogue outside the boring murder mystery flashbacks: instead, the game expects you to read all the glossary entries. And you know what, I might even have been fine with this, because after reading each entry, Neon appears and chimes in with her own comments, which is something I enjoyed quite a bit and consequently always looked forward to reading the entries to hear her thoughts.
No, the other, *bigger* problem is that these glossary entries have to be unlocked. By the end of the story I still didn’t have all the entries unlocked even though I cleared every chapter with an S rank — I’m not even sure what you’re supposed to do to unlock them, but at that point I was too frustrated to care. Instead, I just read some posts by Japanese bloggers to get a better idea of the plot and get answers to some of my remaining questions, because, as you might have guessed it, certain unlockable glossary entries apparently have some key plot info in them. So at that point I just went “fuck it, I’m done” and decided to consider the game “finished” in my mind.
So, Sigma Harmonics — what’s the verdict? Honestly, I desperately wished for it to be so much better, because it held some great potential, but it just didn’t quite work out in the end. I’ll admit, though, I had some moderate amount of fun as well. The battle system, albeit simple, was fresh, the soundtrack was great, and Neon was a cute enough heroine that I liked having her around, especially with her different personalities. However, it’s all bogged down by often repetitive and tedious detective gameplay, a somewhat confusing plot that isn’t fleshed out as much as it should’ve been (not talking about the glossary, but actual cutscenes and character development), and overall meh murder mysteries. I was entertained — and intrigued — enough to finish the main story, at least, so there’s that, and I might even go back to collect some of those accursed glossary entries later, when I’m bored and have nothing better to do.
Ah, dammit. I wanted to write a much harsher final paragraph than this, but ended up deleting it. Does Stockholm syndrome work with video games? Because my relationship with Sigma Harmonics might just be that. It’s not a very good game, but at least it tried to be a brave little pioneer with a heart of its own — it’s a shame that with all its pioneering, it kinda tripped over itself and fell head first into the mud.