Title: Legal Dungeon
Release Date: February 25, 2021
Reviewed On: Switch
Now and then, you get a piece of media that jams a wedge in any attempt to classify it into a particular genre. Often you can get around this by putting it into multiple genres, but really, that’s not a proper solution. Otherwise, you end up with literal instances of Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the self-proclaimed “detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic.”
Trying to pigeonhole things is how you end up with people debating about what constitutes a visual novel instead of just enjoying games with a particular style of presentation. This is why I am not going to try to describe the genre of Korean developer, Somi’s 2019 title Legal Dungeon, which has just been ported to the Nintendo Switch by Playism. But it’s certainly a hell of a game.
In Legal Dungeon, you take on the role of the “fresh out of college” Lieutenant Jane Blue at the Central Police Station, around the town of Salem. You’ve been assigned “Team Leader” in charge of the fictional CIS, Criminal Investigation System. When crimes occur, the police conduct a preliminary internal investigation, after which the Filing Officer submits a report to the Prosecution Office with their “Investigation Verdict.” As Team Leader, you are the one responsible for completing these verdicts.
If you’ve played Papers Please, you may have an inkling of what to expect here. In Legal Dungeon, you are presented with an investigation file, a series of documents compiled together, that could total anywhere from fourteen to forty pages long, or more, with your role being the one to read through and assess all of these facts before making a verdict of indictment or non-indictment.
This means most of your playtime is going to be spent poring over and reading through case files, each focusing on a different crime. How does interactivity work, though? It’d be rather insane just to be slapping a yes or no answer on these things, especially since you could just pick one with no thought.
Using the CIS, you’ll have to fill out a database of facts by dragging and dropping relevant color-coded sentences into requisite boxes, such as dates, times, details about the case, specific laws, and so on, some of which are very well hidden and require some careful thought. It can be a mess on the switch when using a controller because you need pixel-perfect grabs sometimes, but at least the title is touch screen compatible.
Once you’ve done all that, it’s time to “enter the dungeon.”
Within this little space, our protagonist Jane Blue will perceive a theoretical head-to-head with the suspect, using the investigative file’s statements to break down defenses and prove various arguments. This is where you’ll actually encounter the game’s loss condition. In these battles, your goal is to reduce a suspect’s health to zero or grant mercy. However, Jane has a limited amount of health herself. Making mistakes will cause you to lose health, with a loss forcing you out of the CIS. Don’t worry; you’ve got time. Well, that is until later cases give you a narrative relevant time limit.
These mechanics work well, but a couple of cases where the text you need to use isn’t actually highlighted. Both of these instances I found actually led to negative and dissatisfying endings, but having those pieces of text highlight would have saved some unnecessary bother.
Once you’ve completed your dungeon battle, with the outcome of sending the prosecutor a particular verdict, you’ll witness an epilogue screen showing the outcome of the case, how the trial went, as well as the verdict and consequence. If you recommend indictment, your Performance Level will increase, and you’ll gain some coins for your troubles. These coins can be used to decorate the UI of the CIS. If you don’t, you’ll get no coins, and your Performance level will go down.
If your verdict matches up with the actual court case, if one is necessary, to begin with, your Legal Execution Level will go up. Either of these levels drops too low, and you’ll receive a game over.
Notice how this system is skewed towards pushing for criminal trials? This appears to be a reference to how certain countries use crime-solving rates and numbers to justify excessive force and arrests in the name of “safety” and “justice.” In this fictional national police system, there is a point system where different crimes are worth different points, and getting more points will impact your job performance when it comes time for a promotion or pay bonuses.
This is a key part of Legal Dungeon’s narrative, which treads an exciting line and makes for a compelling tale. I’m going to need to spoil a few minor details, so skip over the next paragraph if you want to avoid those.
The story is told entirely through text boxes of character dialogue, with a few recurring characters, and silent, but implied to be speaking, Jane Blue. There are no portraits; there is merely a hierarchical ladder, rising or falling to the ‘level’ of whoever is speaking.
Promotion hungry officers sit at the bottom, who want to rise to the top alongside the wealthy, egocentric individuals with all the power. And they’re ultimately willing to do anything to get there, or at least, not lose the comparably little but still existing power they possess. The police officers, even seemingly good-natured at times, perform atrocious acts bastardizing the very law they’re supposed to follow.
And even our protagonist Jane Blue becomes entangled in this toxic workplace web that pushes for indictments for reasons other than moral justice. Further, no one likes it when you rock the boat, and there are a number of endings where you lose your job because you don’t act the way they like, and if you follow the rules they set, you ultimately follow in their footsteps. The truly satisfying endings are when you reject the system set before you.
Several cases have secret endings, which will test your deduction skills to their very limits. If you do so, you’ll be rewarded with events that will turn cases upside down or outcomes that will take your breath away in both positive and negative ways. Special mention goes to the secret ending to case 2, in which Jane becomes so fed up with the system she files a leave of absence, which contains the reasoning, and I quote, “screw this, I’m outta here.”
Finding these endings doesn’t require too much in the way of legwork to set up either, as you will have access to a handy flowchart allowing you to toggle cases between resolutions you have found with the flick of a switch.
Legal Dungeon is a title that takes the mystery-solving detective drama and quite literally deconstructs it into its base form of putting clues on a whiteboard for you to solve. On top of that, it supplies a narrative with copious cynicism that makes for a non-standard and extremely compelling experience that is so unique.
Legal Dungeon will be a standout in my mind for an unidentifiable but significant amount of time. I’d highly recommend it for fans of detective dramas, unorthodox adventure titles, and puzzle game players who like their stories with extra intrigue.
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