Review: Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files (Nintendo Switch)

The most niche - yet wonderful - detective-em-ups.

10 mins read

The Touch Detective series has always been a bigger deal in Japan than the West, and it is easy to understand why. When the original was released in Europe and North America, it was several months after Phoenix Wright landed, and (in Europe, anyway), a few months after the first Professor Layton. It was totally overshadowed by both, despite being roughly related to them in concept and execution. Both Phoenix Wright and Layton were detective-themed and had humour and charm in spades… and so did Touch Detective. However, it was a more deadpan and droll sense of humour, with a heavy dose of surrealism to go with it. I don’t see Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files, which brings all three Touch Detective games together (including the third, which had not been released in English previously), suddenly catapulting the series to mainstream success. But I am so glad it’s now on my Switch.

The Touch Detective games are, boiled down, very traditional point-and-click adventure games. You’ll move between a few areas on a map, gathering clues and collecting items that will eventually act as a key that will let you progress. In classic point-and-click style, it can become frustrating to progress when you feel like you’ve “clicked” on everything and can’t figure out where the trigger is. For one very early example, more than a few players are likely to get themselves lost when they’re told to hunt out a “fragrance,” and go looking all over for a bottle of perfume or flower, only to discover that the solution was a flower pressed into a book on the protagonist’s desk at home base.

There’s no indication or “tell” at any point that the book holds a flower in it. You’re going to find that by sheer luck when clicking on it. It’s not the only time you’ll do the equivalent of “button mashing” to try and investigate everything in an area hoping to find the right item, either. Anyone who grew up on old point-and-clickers like Myst, Broken Sword, the Syberia games, or Sierra’s as a brand, will not likely be bothered by what Touch Detective throws at them. However, there is a reason that point-and-click games aren’t really made like this any more.

Screenshot from Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files

Then again, I don’t think the puzzles are what will really put people off. Touch Detective’s art, storytelling, pacing and so on are all for a very acquired taste. Characters talk in flat, blunt statements, and the “crimes” that you’ll be investigating tend to be weird – you’re not tracking down murderers here, so much as dream thieves. NPCs are universally designed to be oddball and eccentric, with a Burton-like whimsical quality, such as characters with faces like from Munch’s The Scream. And, finally, you have a mushroom mascot character that follows you around.

In fact, that mushroom – Nameko – is perhaps the most perfect example of why Touch Detective is so totally tailored to Japanese artistic and aesthetic sensibilities. A Western player will likely go through Touch Detective thinking that Nameko is a bit of “weird” fun and a unique quality to the game. However, Nameko became a major mascot celebrity in Japan for a time. After “debuting” in the Touch Detective series, Nameko went on to get his own TV series, as well as iPhone games, a match-3 Switch game (which actually did come out in the West a few years ago), and merchandise. So much merchandise. For years, in one of the 21 stores in “Character Street” just off Tokyo Station, there was a Nameko store. This store sold drink bottles, charms, notebooks, plush toys, and so on.

To give you a sense of just how big of a deal this is – Character Street also features a Pokémon store, a store committed to Studio Ghibli, rival Rilakkuma and Hello Kitty stores, a shop for Snoopy stuff, and so on. These are all major celebrities within the highly lucrative world of mascots. My dream is to have a shop there for Dee Dee merchandise eventually….

A screenshot from Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files

Anyhow, the point is, that’s how significant Nameko was as a mascot. It was not a pop-up store but rather a permanent presence, essentially stamping the idea that this little mushroom was a top-20 mascot in Japan. Sadly that shop isn’t there any more. I went to visit during my first trip back to Japan post-COVID, and discovered to my considerable sadness that the store had gone. Whether the COVID retail dip or the fact that the Touch Detective and Nameko property has stagnated in recent years was what did it in, I don’t know. Either way, I was genuinely disappointed as my house has a fair bit of Nameko goods from that store over the years…

The reason that I’ve gone on for several paragraphs about this is to highlight that much of the fundamental appeal of the Touch Detective series is wrapped up in how much you can appreciate the extremely Japanese mindset, sense of humour, and storytelling traditions in it. Without that appreciation, none of these games are going to land with you, and you’d be better off dusting off Phoenix Wright for another round. On the other hand, if you can get along with the game on its terms, then you’re likely to really, really love it, because it is just that charming.

Rather than remaster the original DS releases, the developers have more-or-less kept them as is, and consequently, you’ll be playing them in a windowed format on Switch. This is okay, because you can change the frames around and there is one frame that is dedicated to Nameko. Because you’re essentially looking at a “blown up” DS game, the resolution does look a little fuzzy on Switch and this is one of those rare games that do better on the relatively low-grade screen of the original Switch rather than the crispness of the OLED model, which makes the fuzzyness all the more obvious.

A screenshot from Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files

However, the art direction is consistently gorgeous and very funny in the same way the dry, understated humour is. Touch Detective is not about over-the-top hyperbole, as the less-than-subtle Phoenix Wright is. Rather, it’s the kind of humour that gets you because it’s ridiculous, and yet just… there, in a very understated manner.

Then there’s the fact that even if you’re one of the relatively few Touch Detective fans to have played the original DS releases to death, this collection includes a game that you’ve never played, as Touch Detective 3 was never released in the West. That more than justifies the purchase in itself, but there are also some bonus Nameko missions just to further round out one of the better “collection” packages I’ve seen to date. Oh, and there’s an “Encyclopedia” section with a total of 498(!) pages of sketches, promotional art, character models, posters, boxes and more. There are no descriptions that explain any of this art, but flipping through it all is certainly a celebration of all the work that went into making the series.

As a 15th anniversary celebration of an incredibly marginal series here in the west, but a far more popular one in Japan, the Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files collection is just blindingly good value. Each game combines classically entertaining and surrealistically funny point-and-click mechanics with memorable characters and some delightfully eccentric moments. This is in so many ways a perfect example of the heart and soul of Japanese game development.

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Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

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