NIS America has a long and storied history of bringing out some of the most unique and obscure titles to Western shores.  Yomawari.  Disgaea.  Void Terrarium.  Utawarerumono.  The list goes on and on.  As game companies go, NIS America is one of the greatest in that they bring something to the table that no other company does…unique diversity in a gaming landscape full of followers that always use the same format. 

Today there’s a new game in town from Nippon Ichi Software…Process of Elimination.  Like most NIS games, there’s a twist to the usual formula.  You’re getting a visual novel here, at least for the most part but there’s definitely more going on under the hood.  You play Wato Hojo, a detective-in-training who is following up on a case.  He’s got a bit of a backstory as well, but there’s no sense in telling you too much other than that he was involved in a traumatic incident as a child.  Wato dreams of being a big-name detective and all too quickly, he gets his wish, a chance to join the Detective Alliance, a group of famous detectives who work together to solve cases that no one else can handle. 

Things are pretty wild for the Detective Alliance as they’re hot on the trail of the Quartering Duke, a mad serial killer that has killed hundreds of people publicly and evaded capture.  Let’s be clear for a moment.  Process of Elimination is a brutal game, as you might guess from the title.  Those detectives fighting against the Quartering Duke are risking their lives and they definitely won’t always win.  The game never really shows the extent of the real violence (and it could and maybe should) but there’s plenty of blood and a whole lot of disturbing imagery. 

In terms of plot, Process of Elimination is mostly a kinetic visual novel.  There are choices so it’s not a true kinetic VN, but there certainly aren’t very many and the exposition is spectacularly long and drawn out.  You’re in for a heck of a lot of reading, so settle in.  There’s full voice acting if you’re into that sort of thing, but no English track and the Japanese one isn’t the best around.  It’s good, but not great and unless you know Japanese, you’re likely not going to wait for them to finish talking and artificially extend the game by hours.  Honestly, after the first couple hours, the voices got turned off for this review.  There was simply no need and they didn’t add significantly to the experience. 

While you’ll be reading a lot of backstory, you are also supposed to pay attention to what everyone is saying.  That’ll be tough because there are 14 main characters in Process of Elimination and each one has their own title as well as a pseudonym that they use based on famous detectives from books.  From Techie Detective to Gourmet Detective to Downtown Detective, each member of the Detective Alliance has their own specialty and quirks which you’ll get to experience at length through Wato, who is remarkably unsure of himself around all these professional detectives, some of whom also happen to be teenagers with strange abilities.  It’s a plot and situation that feels like it jumped straight out of a manga and into a game, but that’s possibly the most charming part of the game.

As you work your way through the story, eventually you’ll reach the Investigation portion of the game and that’s where things really take a turn.  In addition to being a visual novel, you’re actually supposed to do some detective work as well.  Gameplay shifts to an isometric strategy style and you’re in control of the Detective Alliance detectives as you work to solve a variety of mysteries.  The game is split up into chapters and each chapter has at least one Investigation in it.  During the investigation, your goal is to find all of the clues, research them in the correct orders and solve what happened within the time limit.  Fail and well, you die.  Of course there are no real consequences and you can just try again but since investigations are fairly long and complex, you won’t want to do that.  Moving detectives around the board is fairly simple but actually understanding what to do is not.  Unfortunately, the actual directions for investigating are so opaque, complex, and confusing that it’s hard to really understand what to do.  The first investigation leads you by the nose through it and by the time you get to the second one, you’ve forgotten most of what to do. 

Regardless, if you want to proceed, you’ll have to figure things out and that’s where Process of Elimination kind of falls flat.  Making it successfully through an investigation is difficult, partly because there’s a time limit and partly because the solutions are wildly unintuitive and involve moving characters in weird ways halfway across the mansion you’re in for no apparent reason.  To succeed in an investigation, you don’t even need to move everyone.  You can entirely ignore some characters and just use a handful and you get the same result.  On top of that, there’s even an option to move a character anywhere in the house at a cost of only a single turn.  How would you just know that?  Who can say?  Certainly not the game itself!

In an investigation, you can solve mystery points, investigate evidence squares, find word points, and avoid traps.  To do so, you’ll need to Move, Infer, Inspect, Analyze, and Assist/Boost.  If that sounds like a lot of jargon, it is.  Even just understanding what it all means is difficult, but basically your detectives have to reason out what’s happening, investigate the evidence they find, and share it with the group.  You move to different positions on the map and then the detectives manage all by themselves.  It’s a weird system that has all kinds of crazy potential, but it’s all squandered by the complexity of the system and the lack of clear explanation players are given.

This really should be the engaging part of the game, but it feels somehow tacked onto the end of the visual novel portions which are themselves full of tropes and silliness.  It’s genuinely hard to catch details because the story isn’t engaging enough and then you’re trying to recall what’s important in the rather opaque investigation.  Instead it’s simply a struggle to figure out what to do within the 9 turns and the game is both non-intuitive and hard to control.  It’s relatively simple to confirm a move by accident, leaving you high and dry when you should be making it to an evidence point by turn X or whatnot.  Even shifting floors is more of a hassle than it should be and some players will get incredibly frustrated by investigating.  This is made worse because the visuals in investigation look like a well-designed strategy game and you expect to be able to just jump in and play.  Sadly, that doesn’t work all that well after the first investigation (which you are led by the nose through). 

Eventually you’ll muddle your way through an investigation or two and then it’s time to reveal what happened.  Not every detective is exactly who they may seem and as you may have surmised, the title Process of Elimination applies to everyone in your party, so things might get a bit dangerous! You’ll have to make a handful of choices when it’s time to set things straight as well.  Make the wrong choices and you’ll have to try again until you get it right (oooooh, risky!).  If you paid close attention to the tens of thousands of lines of dialogue, you’ll have the clues you need to solve the case (spoiler…you didn’t).  The investigation system as a whole has a lot of potential, but honestly, it needs both streamlining and some clearer mechanics.  The same goes for the big reveal at the end of each chapter.  It sounds really interesting but by the time you get there, it’s not much of a surprise.   

That’s kind of the whole vibe with Process of Elimination.  It’s an almost but not quite game across the board.  The dialogue is almost but not quite engaging.  The investigations are almost but not quite fun.  The voice work is almost but not quite good.  The character designs are excellent…and they almost but not quite fit the plot and dialogue.  Even the music is almost but not quite catchy.  The entirety of the game is a case study in how to do things almost but not quite right. 

It’s hard to really explain the mechanics of Process of Elimination without giving too much away but it’s basically ¾ visual novel and ¼ investigation.  If you think of it that way and imagine the entire storyline being filled with anime/manga stereotypes and tropes, you’re probably on the right track.  It’s a pretty game with some excellent character designs that often don’t quite fit the content.  The backgrounds are pretty lackluster though and the overall vibe is surprisingly mediocre. 

There’s nothing else really special going on here either.  Read, read, read, investigate, rinse, and repeat.  That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the game had some gripping writing in it like Paranormasight, but it just never manages to shine.  It’s a shame because Process of Elimination looks like it would be really fun.  The visuals are very high quality even if the backgrounds are mostly a bit dull and the key story sequences are still images rather than animated.  The character designs are remarkably over-the-top, matching the dialogue, but they’re still well-done.  Even investigation mode looks really cool and that’s what’s irritating about Process of Elimination.  You keep thinking that if you just keep going, it’ll achieve its potential and it never really seems to, and for a game that takes around 20-25 hours depending on your reading speed, that’s pretty disappointing. 

Audio is only decent in the game as well. The full voice acting (Japanese only) is decent but it’s certainly not the best out there and the music is fairly decent but it’s used oddly intermittently.  If you turn off the voice acting in the settings menu and play with the just the music on, you’ll quickly find that a large portion of the game simply doesn’t have any sound.  The entire thing was designed to focus on voice acting and the sound feels like an afterthought with both effects and music sporadically triggering for key scenes only and then disappearing again, leaving players with, well, nothing.  As sound design goes, this is pretty painful. 

The whole concept of Process of Elimination had a lot of potential.  A murder mystery with teams of detectives and a bunch of hidden motives using an active investigation system couched in a visual novel for depth.  But all of the moving parts are rusty as hell and need polished and oiled, even though the game looks like it should be top tier stuff.  Process of Elimination just doesn’t manage to be all that fun or tell a story compelling enough to engage and that’s just not good enough to justify the $40 price tag on the game.  If you want to give it a go, but this is definitely not a title for everyone!

This review is based on a digital copy of Process of Elimination provided by the publisher.  It was played on a Nintendo Switch in both docked and undocked modes and played equally well on both.  Process of Elimination is available for Switch and PS4/PS5.