VN Game Den was provided with a review code for Master Magistrate.
As someone who got into visual novels with Ace Attorney and loves murder mysteries in general, I’m always on the lookout for that sort of story. That’s one of the reasons I was so intrigued when I first heard about Master Magistrate, marketed as a “samurai detective visual novel.”
You play as Shimei Ooka, a newly-appointed magistrate in feudal Japan. Several characters are loosely based on historical figures, although knowing the historical context isn’t necessary to enjoy the story. As magistrate, your job is to investigate crimes with the help of the Shinsengumi (essentially a police force), bring potential suspects to trial, and determine the truth. The majority of Master Magistrate is presented in a familiar ADV style, with the player viewing the world from Shimei’s perspective as other characters appear as sprites.
It isn’t long before you have your first case, however, and this is where light adventure game elements come into play. You’ll choose locations to visit, question characters about various topics, and inspect each crime scene for clues. Once you’ve found all the evidence you need for the case, the story continues, and since the cursor changes color over areas you can inspect, it rarely results in pixel-hunting. Twice I found myself stuck, but one was simply because I hadn’t thought to investigate a particular area and the other was because I didn’t realize I had a new dialogue option available.
If you like inspecting everything in the environment, don’t worry, you’re free to investigate other areas as well during these sections. For the most part, there isn’t a lot of new dialogue, with the one exception being when you visit the other characters’ rooms. These change from chapter to chapter to reflect the passing of time, and inspecting them is a nice way to learn more about the supporting cast and see how each character makes their space their own.
After you’ve gathered evidence and discussed your findings with the other characters, it’s time for the trial. Since Shimei is the magistrate, you listen to the testimonies of all characters involved and then decide whose testimony contradicts the evidence by presenting the evidence in response to their statement. One feature that makes the trials in Master Magistrate stand out from those in similar games is that characters can begin arguing with one another, after which you need to choose who to interrupt with conflicting evidence.
Occasionally it falls into the trap of requiring you to pick a specific piece of evidence even though you know it will lead to another, and sometimes the contradictions don’t lead smoothly to the next line of questioning, but for the most part this system works well. Now, there is no penalty for choosing the wrong answer; you can try as many times as you need. Instead, Master Magistrate rewards you by unlocking concept art and other bonuses based on your “score” for each trial. Of course, since you can save at any point, there’s nothing to stop you from reloading if you want to ensure you get a perfect score.
It’s always satisfying to figure out the right piece of evidence to peel away a layer of lies and step closer to the truth, but the best part is that the story is compelling. Some of the cases have pretty interesting mysteries on their own, but the overarching story of Shimei and his friends at the magistrate’s office is where the plot really shines. There is a growing conspiracy at the heart of the story, and even when one important part felt predictable to me, Master Magistrate had many more twists and surprises to keep me guessing. Tense moments are also heightened through the use of black-and-white images to depict action scenes—an unusual design choice that works in the game’s favor.
The overall tone is more serious than something like Ace Attorney, although it isn’t without its funny scenes… usually in the form of familiar visual novel tropes like Shimei accidentally walking into the bath during the women’s bathing time. That’s the level of fanservice you’ll get in the all-ages version of the game, although there is a free 18+ patch available from the developer’s website that adds romance routes for the heroines with numerous sex scenes and additional CGs beyond those in the main story.
The cast of characters is strong, and Shimei himself is a good protagonist who questions what it means to be a magistrate and how he should handle tricky situations as the story progresses. Some of the major supporting characters might appear like stock visual novel tropes at first, but they develop well over the course of the story. Even at points where a character’s behavior seems off-putting, it all makes sense later on down the line. And let’s not forget the strange moment when Shimei’s inventor friend and assistant Rimu invents the fire hose, as shown in one of the many CGs.
Overall, Master Magistrate was a delight to play. I wanted to find the truth behind each case, I loved the deeper conspiracy that gradually showed itself, and it all culminated in an epic conclusion. While the story is fully complete, with all loose ends wrapped up, I can’t help but hope we get to revisit these characters someday in a sequel to solve new cases and unravel a new mystery.
You can purchase Master Magistrate from Steam.