Liar Trick Review – It’s All in the Eyes

    Title: Liar Trick -Psychological Crime Mystery-
    Developer: Anabasis
    Release Date: November 19, 2020
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Anabasis
    Genre: Visual Novel

Liar Trick is a mystery visual novel with gameplay focused on analyzing facial expressions to detect lies. The gameplay is a unique and interesting take on the detective genre; however, issues with the UI and the recently added English translation can add frustration to the experience.

Liar Trick is primarily based on the work of Paul Ekman, who posited that there are universal facial expressions that indicate particular emotions. By observing subtle minute changes in someone’s expression, it’s possible to tell whether they’re lying or being truthful. The gameplay mainly consists of watching a suspect’s face and identifying the emotions displayed, choosing which responses were suspicious and should be investigated further, and answering multiple-choice questions to solve the mystery based on the information you’ve learned.

Of course, facial expression analysis is simplified and fictionalized for the sake of the game, and Ekman’s theories are controversial, to begin with. But the developer obviously put a lot of research into this project and shows their work, citing several resources to check out if you’re interested in the subject.

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The focus on small details of facial expressions can lead you to lose sight of the broader mystery, but the extensive backlog helps. You can not only review past conversations but also click on shortcuts to jump to detected facial expressions when you’re trying to remember which reactions were suspicious. Solving the mystery is hands-off compared to the facial expression tutorials, even with the hints given in earlier episodes, so being able to work it out yourself is very satisfying.

The presentation is clearly the effort of a small team trying to do the best they can with limited resources, and they make it work. The stock music is unremarkable but fits the mood. The character art is mismatched; main characters have animated 3D sprites, secondary characters have 2D side images with a few variations in expression and poses. There are also minor characters with silhouettes or filtered photographs (just sticking with the silhouettes would have looked better). Photographs are also used for the backgrounds and as insets for items or actions, but there is no proper CGs.

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During group conversations, character images are placed around the scene, and the text box moves to each of them as they speak. Even if it looks a bit strange to have their head and shoulders floating in space, it does add a sense of movement that makes the scenes feel more dynamic than if they were just side images next to a static text box.

The text speed settings unexpectedly caused me a lot of irritation. The default speed displays the text gradually, but clicking before the line is finished displaying, rather than finishing the line instantly, skips to the next text box without giving you a chance to read the current one.

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It’s impossible to change the text display speed from the settings menu while you’re playing; the “Low Speed” and “High Speed” menu options are actually auto mode and skip, respectively. To actually change it, you have to return to the main menu screen, click on the Settings button (which takes you to a different settings menu), and change the dialogue settings from “Text Display” to “High Speed.”

Maybe the button labels are clearer in Japanese. However, it’s still a bizarre and unintuitive arrangement for some fundamental display options — and it’s a good example of how small UI design choices are invisible when they work smoothly but disproportionately frustrating when they’re wrong.

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Additionally, the settings menu is inaccessible during most investigation segments. Since losing all your life kicks you back to the main menu with a game over, you may end up having to repeat chunks of the game. You’ll probably also need to replay some segments to get points that unlock all the extra features, but without the menu, you can’t turn on skip mode. (There doesn’t appear to be any keyboard shortcuts.)

Skip mode doesn’t skip facial animations anyway, making any amount of replaying rather tedious. Adding an always accessible skip button that also works on animations and restarting a scene with a full life bar when you run out, rather than reload a previous save, would make the game run more smoothly.

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Unfortunately for a text-based game like this, the biggest weakness is the recently added English translation. It reads like a first draft, with many spelling and grammar mistakes, mixed verb tenses, and a tendency to stick too close to the original Japanese sentence structure and punctuation.

For example, the copious amount of quotation marks and brackets used for emphasis in the original Japanese are maintained in the English translation, where they often come across as scare quotes or just break the sentence’s flow in an awkward way. Occasional use of italics or different colored text would have gotten the same idea across while feeling more natural for some important points.

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Although the story’s still set in Japan, the English version follows the Ace Attorney strategy of localizing meaningful names. For example, the main character’s surname, 万目 Yorozume (literally “many eyes,” reflecting his investigative powers of observation), becomes Truth in the translation. This is a good stylistic choice, but it also feels half-finished. Some names are simply left in Japanese or “English-ified” a little (for example, あすか Asuka becomes Aska), and the inconsistency sticks out.

The text’s meaning eventually comes across, even with bad grammar, awkward phrasing, and inconsistency. Still, in a detective game like this where you have a lot of dialogue and need to pay close attention to detail, the extra work needed to parse each line can be exhausting if you play through more than a few scenes at a time.

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Liar Trick is interesting despite its flaws. The gameplay is unique, and with the amount of research and detail that went into it, it’s clearly a labor of love by the developer. It’s difficult to recommend to a general English-speaking audience with the translation in its current state. Still, fans of detective games and unusual visual novels should enjoy it if they’re willing to have a little patience.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Amy Scholl

Fan of unusual visual novels.