As a direct sequel to The Silver Case, it will come as no shock that The 25th Ward is a fundamentally bizarre game. It plays around with fever dreamy, Twin Peaks-esque logic, with a profound disregard for how reality works. That’s all to say: it is very much a Suda 51 game. It’s also not too surprising, then, that The 25th Ward is rough around the edges; sometimes purposefully so, and sometimes not. Disorderly it may be, but dull it certainly is not.
Set four years after the events of The Silver Case, The 25th Ward takes place in a completely new planned community in Japan, marketed as a home for the super elite. Its residents are specifically chosen to help establish a city with absolutely no criminal activity or negative elements, kept utterly spotless, and where every rule is followed to the letter. The price for even minor infractions–taking your trash out on the wrong day, being rude to a neighbor, playing music too loud–is typically death, either by being shot or having your brains scrambled to the point of being a drooling zombie.
In the most basic terms, The 25th Ward is a visual novel, its storytelling told predominantly through text and still photos punctuated by point-and-click adventure game tangents. Scenes will stop to force you to look around, move through hallways, use a particular item, talk to a specific person in the area, or type in a password. The game is structured as a compilation of three separate stories based around the people who’re responsible for upholding the draconian law in the ward. Two of these tales, Match-maker and Correctness, follow the efforts of the presiding law enforcement branches of the ward: the Heinous Crimes Unit–essentially, a CSI team–and the Regional Adjustment Bureau. The third scenario continues the Placebo plot from The Silver Case, once again following hard-boiled reporter Tokio Morishima, now an amnesiac, as he loses his sanity investigating a mysterious death in the ward.
Compared to its predecessor, each of the scenarios feels distinct. Only Correctness was actually penned by Suda, and it has his jagged, pulpy fingerprints all over it, from the hard-as-nails, sailor-mouthed teammate to a string of attempted assassinations on an HCU detective playing out–for no rhyme or reason–like an 8-bit RPG. Non-sequitur discussions occur with the HCU’s coroner about his burgeoning snuff film addiction and perfectly normal conversations veer off into thoughts about how hungry characters are at that moment.
The other two scenarios were written by Masahi Ooka and Masahiro Yuki, Suda’s cohorts on The Silver Case. Their respective chapters are much more cohesive, purposeful pieces of work. Placebo, in particular, takes on an unexpected but beautifully twisted cyberpunk bent. Match-maker’s story wouldn’t be terribly out of place in one of Sega’s increasingly nutty Yakuza games, with just enough of the surreal involved to make the story unpredictable.
The very idea of the 25th Ward as a standalone, authoritarian dystopia disguised as utopia is enthralling, and all three scenarios manage to mine surprising depth out of the set up. Correctness is, at its core, a story about the mindset that creates crooked cops, while Placebo and Match-maker explore the specific societal factors that create crooked people. It’s far from being the first piece of fiction to tell a tale of how moral deviancy develops when the idea of what’s considered deviant behavior becomes ubiquitous, but it’s a very distinct way of telling it. It’s a game with some heavy thoughts on its mind, and those thoughts are exaggerated and abstracted to the extreme. Helping things out in that area is a singularly off-kilter synth pop soundtrack from longtime Suda collaborator Masafumi Takada, with some simple moody beats contorted around strange instrumentation and eerily hypnotic melodies. The visual style follows suit, with each scenario adopting its own particular stark, gritty art style, from Correctness’ black-and-white, under-lit shadows, to Match-maker’s abstract, bloody, police sketchbook style. It’s all perfectly suited for the kind of crazed psychotropic Law & Order stories being told.
The 25th Ward’s stories were originally released episodically, which makes it slightly easier to forgive just how sprawling the narrative is. Having said that, all three stories inhabit the same time period, each imparting information that helps fill in some of the blanks of the other episodes, though it’s not like the game tells you that going in. While I played each scenario straight through, a more fulfilling approach would be to play each of the episodes in each scenario sequentially (all three episode 1s, then all the episode 2s, etc.). Otherwise, the stories being told, while still comprehensible, are annoyingly confusing instead of fascinatingly obtuse. Without a doubt, however, the game’s biggest narrative weakness is its disregard for time. It’s a game that luxuriates in making the wrong moments last, hammering minute character details down into dust, while forgetting to elaborate on complex plot twists. A 10-minute stretch is devoted to the unorthodox way a character eats a fancy dessert; 20 seconds are spent explaining how a major character seems to miraculously cheat death.
The game also has a bad habit of slowing you down with its disappointing “puzzles.” They largely come in two flavors: elementary tasks, like memorizing a short series of numbers, or frustrating tests of patience. One such investigation requires you to narrow down which room a victim lived in, and provides 80 floors of a mostly empty apartment complex to explore. The very first room you go to gives a hint that the victim was in an even numbered corner apartment, and the next hint on the second floor tells you which rooms her favorite community groups met in. Narrowing down the target location seems like an impossible task, until you realize that the very first apartment on each floor gives new information, and after reaching the first apartment on the 5th floor, you’re simply told which room to go to, at which point none of the previous floors’ information even matters. I almost wanted to congratulate Suda on the A+ trolling, except there’s no telling if that was the intent.
More commonly, your progress is gated by the need to exhaust every menu option in a conversation until the story progresses, but more often than not, the action in the menu doesn’t correspond to what needs to be done. The “Look” function, in particular, performs everything from moving into another room to completing a character’s psychotic break and eventual self-actualization as a murderous sociopath. The amount of times “Look” actually means examining something can be counted on one hand. It’s a problem exacerbated by a localization effort that, on top of some frequent, cringeworthy typos, has a tin ear for how character dialogue works. Many of the game’s very grizzled, very adult characters occasionally drop into a very young millennial style of speech that occasionally threatens to break the game’s immersion. It’s a testament to what’s still on the screen that it doesn’t.
Despite a collection of problems, it’s easy to occasionally admire The 25th Ward’s ambitions. Where The Silver Case was a slog, punctuating long stretches of nonsense with blasts of pure horror, The 25th Ward consistently commands your attention with frighteningly relevant themes, bonkers plot twists, or even just the simple thrill of some beautifully rendered and twisted imagery. It’s a game that demands patience and forgiveness, but rewards those willing to put up with its problems.