It's astounding just how much people take the days of Flash gaming for granted. The innovation of Flash lead to a creative explosion on the internet that lasted over a decade, allowing all sorts of people to make animation and games and spread them far and wide with ease. A lot of those young creators from the day still hang around, and a good few have made names for themselves.
Take the Super Flash Bros, who, for a significant period of the early 2000s, were considered mainstays of the world of gaming humor. Their Decline of Videogaming series perfectly encapsulates an era where people in the medium were starting to get more abrasive about how developers and publishers treated the playing public, and started to become far more aware of the constant barrage of clichés. They also made games, and they still do to this day. There was one particular game of note they did that ended up being revisited as a commercial release, and one we may see continue on as a series in the coming years. That game was Detective Grimoire, and it was a huge deal when it was first released.
Despite looking so very... 2000s Flash.
The original Detective Grimoire has aged better than you'd expect. Yes, it is butt ugly, but keep in mind that this was pre-2010 Flash gaming. Things were still very experimental, and few people complained much. After all, they were free games! And Detective Grimoire was a surprisingly complex project for its kind. The Ace Attorney series had been around for two years by this point, and you could definitely feel the influence. The difference is that instead of being a lawyer, you took the role of the gumshoe with some similar mechanics.
You're cast in the role of the titular Detective Grimoire, an investigator working with the police to discover the killer in a case at a local circus. A cynical clown is suspect numero uno, but there are other possible suspects. After all, the victim of the crime was terrible at his job, so everyone may have a motive. Once you're done investigating, you can piece together everything with Officer James, going through every detail and event to nail the real killer.
Text heavy Flash games weren't usually particularly good at the time, mainly because nobody had a good base to work with. The Super Flash Bros overcame this by copying the style of the investigation segments of the Ace Attorney games, giving you suspect profiles, clues, screens to interact with to find more clues, and discussion topics with every character. Good decision on the whole, allowing the creators to focus on the writing over trying to get the actual gameplay to be engaging. There was one new mechanic added where you have to stare down a suspect at the right time to uncover a secret, but it was abandoned in the next game for good reason. Not only does it make little sense in how it's implemented, it only serves to be a very dull QTE that feels out of place in a game designed around logic and reasoning.
The actual writing and atmosphere is surprisingly sophisticated. The music is properly moody and the designs and backgrounds do a great job at sucking you into the world. There are little details to make everything feel more lived in, and every character has their own interesting ticks to make them stand out. The costumed entertainer is a weird jerk, the mechanic's granddaughter has added back story related to her studies, the clown is constantly on the edge of losing his cool in a job where he ha to play a character, and so on. The stand out character is easily the head of the circus, a forgetful dope whom would leave his post early to catch a sci-fi show marathon.
Notably, the tone is all over the map. The game can't seem to decide if its darkly serious or weirdly wacky. This isn't too uncommon for Flash titles from around this time. All these different animators and designers pretty much did whatever they wanted, usually with little thought on how to make it feel like a cohesive experience. Part of the appeal was seeing something strange, like Kirby eating people whole or random jump scares seeping their way into an animation. There was a series of games around done in South Park style about a gritty, realistic story where a hitman kills people, to give you an idea of the culture that surrounded Flash games. It was do whatever because why not, so nobody really thought too much about how the final project felt. It was all about what sounded cool or interesting.
The ability to create new conversation topics by pressing people on clues or their thoughts on other people was definitely the stand out mechanic here, while the writing did the rest. There was a charm mixed with strong mechanics you didn't really see at the time that made Detective Grimoire a cult phenomenon for a good while, and it still occasionally gets remembered today for what it accomplished. Not surprisingly, the Super Flash Bros would want to eventually follow up on their success here and make a proper full game for commercial release. In 2012, the Bros, renamed as SFB Games, launched a Kickstarter with a Flash demo for their new project idea, a massively reworked Detective Grimoire game with a new style. Flash forward to 2014...
The new Detective Grimoire was a far cry from its confused predecessor. The art style was shifted to a very Secret of Kells look, with pale characters with striking color contrast. The world of the game traded out murky realism and decay for natural beauty of swamps. Most importantly, the game went for a comedic tone, with a hint of mysticism and tension under the surface. Detective Grimoire grew up and became something more inviting to wider audiences, but with a charm to it you'd expect to find in a high concept family film. It's also ridiculously beautiful.
This time around, Detective Grimoire is enlisted by Officer James to find Boggy, a swamp creature at a tourist attraction who may be responsible for killing the owner. The situation is ridiculous to Grimoire, and the people he meets there end up being even more ridiculous as the idea of a man being killed by a swamp monster. Besides Grimoire and James, we also see the return of the mysterious little girl who pops up to assist Grimoire for her own unknown agenda, though the game gives her a new definition that suggests she's something inhuman.
Right off the bat, the game captivates with that fantastic art style and the smooth, expressive animation. It's hard to believe that the same people behind the first Detective Grimoire made this. Adam handled the animation and design, while Tom did the programming and design work. The two make a great team and created a very complete little project here, with some help from an additional writer, a talented background artist, and a new composer. The backgrounds in this game are simply gorgeous, and the music is cinematic quality, capturing the mood and creating a fantastic atmosphere. Everyone involved really bought there A-game, and amazingly, it only took five people to get all the nuts and bolts in order.
The story proper is very well structured, building up revelation after revelation, with some solid twists. One significant thing about it that it does differently than the Ace Attorney games is that it's not nearly as open with what information is necessary to continue. The game expects you to piece together things yourself as you uncover information, giving you a very comprehensive list of info for every clue, suspect, and observation. At the same time, it never overloads you, and it's rather easy to keep track of the most important information. Finding the killer at the end of the game works the same as before, except the game doesn't ask you to name the suspect until you go through all the details on how the murder took place, then giving you the moment to reveal the killer upon realizing the most important part of the mystery. It respects the player's own ability to piece things together, but does give nudges in the right direction. In particular, there are moments where you have to arrange Grimoire's thoughts correctly to put him on the right path of questioning, which also helps the player know what to focus on.
Replacing the stare down mechanic are challenges, which have you interrogating a suspect on a particular topic, rewarding you with information as you answer correctly or produce the proper evidence or scenario when asked. Along with dialogue choices, you can also form sketches in your notebook by selecting different icons and options and organizing them the proper way. It's a neat little touch to add some personality to Grimoire, as he's portrayed here as a cynical, inquisitive doop. He's smart, but it takes him some time to put the pieces together. He gets a lot of great lines and comebacks here, partly thanks to the personalities he has to deal with.
There are seven main suspects in the case, not including the elusive Boggy, and they all manage to instantly endear themselves. Characters include an egotistical director, an avid protester who confuses reality for childhood memories, and even a strange old lady living in a tree house, among others. The voice cast is all rising talent in the field who do great work, especially Edwyn Tiong as Grimoire himself, but the most notable name would be the voice actor for the chef Mr. Harper and museum dwelling nerd Agent Folder, Arin Hanson.
Arin is another personality who found his early popularity in the age of Newgrounds and Flash dominance, creating the Videogame Awesome series and eventually becoming a let's player through the Game Grumps series on YouYube. He does great voice work, completely disappearing in his two characters, but there's a cosmic hilarity to know one of the best voice actors in the cast is mainly known today for sending confusing texts to a good friend about "the Facebook movie" and "MARK ZUCKERBERG." Arin still emphasizes that Flash age sensibility, a ridiculous personality creating ridiculous content just because they can. Most importantly, he also shows just how far those personalities have come since, the same as the Super Flash Bros themselves. It's not hard to see why he was contacted to do voice work on this game. The ties of the Flash community are still surprisingly strong to this day.
While the game has a ton of personality, artistic vision, and clever writing, the mechanics haven't actually improved very much from that original Flash game. There are a few overly easy minigames mixed in to find clues or open doors, the hardest being a very easy gear puzzle. They only require the most basic logic to figure out, and they add nothing to the experience either, outside putting together one footprint. If these segments were removed, little would change. The game is also very short, clocking in at around a little over two hours. The seven dollar price is pretty fair for the polish here, but it would have been nice to see one or two more cases thrown in. Still, as SGB Games manages to gather profits from their most recent projects, we may see a grander scale project in the future. Detective Grimoire ends on a promise for more, and there's a lot of directions they can take it now.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Detective Grimoire's 2014 appearance is just how much it improves on the original Flash game's foundation. If you ever feel like your work today is crappy and worthless, just look at these two games. In just seven years, the people who made a messy little Flash game made an artistic beaut that evoked a style that puts most other styles in games today to shame. You can get better, and who knows? You may just make something incredible.