Black Closet, by indie developer Hanako Games, is a hybrid turn-based tactical/visual novel with rpg elements. The player takes the role of Elsa, the student council president at St. Claudine’s, a private, all-girls school for wealthy young women who cause all sorts of trouble. When this trouble leads to scandals that could harm the school’s reputation, the student council is called in to restore order. The council’s advisor, Miss Talmage, makes it very clear that if the council cannot keep the reputation of the school intact, Elsa will be blamed and subsequently expelled from school.
As student council president at St. Claudine’s, Elsa commands the rest of the council members, known in the game as minions. These five girls each have their own unique personalities and set of skills with which to complete student council missions. Unfortunately, one of your minions (randomly determined at the start of a game) is a mole and traitor. The mole will purposely fail assignments and set you back, and one of your first tasks is to discover which of your minions is working against you. How you then deal with the mole will affect the story line for the rest of the game.
I’ll admit I was a little skeptical that I would enjoy a game where I controlled a group of queen bee, spoiled rich girl types as they rule over their boarding school domain and awkwardly work out their romantic interests towards each other. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how fun and addictive Black Closet can. Hanako has always created games with strong female characters that defy traditional archetypes, but the company insists their games are not just for girls. You certainly don’t need to be a girl to enjoy Black Closet, and anyone who likes a good strategy game that makes you think will enjoy this one.
The meat of the game is played out as you are given cases to solve and assign your minions various jobs. Cases could be anything that might cause a scandal or hurt the school’s reputation such as widespread cheating, theft, pranks, harassment, drug-dealing, or plotting to intentionally lose the school’s big basketball game. Each day you can assign your minions to a different task to help solve a case. Your girls might simply talk to a suspect or search an area, or they might try stalking or harassing someone. Each case is different, and there are often multiple ways to go about resolving an issue.
Each of your minions has four attributes: social, intimidation, observation, and stealth, and various tasks use different attributes. Part of being a successful president is learning which tasks should take priority, and which minions should be assigned to each task. In some cases, you may have already used your minions with high social skills to question girls in your case, but you still have suspects from which to get information. Do you risk failing the task with your less social minions, wait another day to use your high social minions again, or try a different approach, like harassing a suspect into giving up information?
When you do successfully solve a case, you will be rewarded with stat points that can be used to permanently increase a minion’s attributes. Each case will be scored based on how long it took you to solve it and if you lost any karma or reputation during the course of your investigations. Stat increases are precious, and good players will learn how to raise their minions’ attributes effectively.
There will be some tasks in Black Closet that have requirements too high for your minions to normally complete. In these cases, you might consider sending your minions off to the supply closet to bring back a single-use item that will boost an attribute significantly. A minion might not be able to find clues when searching a scene on her own, but armed with a magnifying lens she might have a better shot. Item use in the game can be a lot of fun as the developers have put some entertaining tools in the supply closet. I can only imagine the reaction of a school girl when two members of the student council show up at her room with a riding crop, a pair of high heels, some candy, and a small animal decoy.
During the course of an investigation you might find enough evidence to outright solve a case, or you might get lucky and have a suspect confess and promise to behave. Sometimes, however, you have to assign disciplinary actions in order to get a student back in line. As student council president you have the authority to put students in detention, hand out suspensions, or even expel students. Some strong-willed troublemakers will sulk through detention and go back to their villainous ways, but students will also take notice if the council is too heavy-handed in its actions. Harsh punishments from the council will result in a loss of karma, and if your karma ever drops to zero, the game is over. Alternatively, if you don’t solve enough cases or take appropriate disciplinary actions, the school’s reputation will be lowered. If reputation drops to zero, the game is also over.
During a normal play through of Black Closet it is nearly impossible to keep both karma and reputation high. There are simply too many cases for the council to handle at times, and part of succeeding as student council president is effective damage control. Learning when to take a reputation hit to preserve karma, and vice versa, is vital to winning this game. Another dynamic in the game is minion stress, generated after performing most tasks. If you don’t give your minions a day off to recover, they will burn out and call in sick. Good players must also recognize when a case will require too many resources to solve and back off, especially if multiple other cases could be solved instead.
Fortunately, the student council doesn’t work on the weekends, and that is a time for everyone to reduce their stress. It’s also a time for you, as Elsa, to have some sort of social life. During the weekend the cases are put aside, and the player can pursue a romantic storyline with one of the minions. This plays out much like a VN, and is somewhat independent of the case-solving tactical play of the week. While I have never been a big fan of VNs on their own, I didn’t mind it so much here as an addition to the normal game play. I also thought the writing for Black Closet was really good, and the developers have done a nice job of creating unique characters that aren’t complete stereotypes. I also appreciated that players have the option to skip some VN scenes if they have been through them in previous plays of the game.
Players of Black Closet will definitely have to go through the game several times. Yes, the replay factor of seeing the story for each possible romance is compelling, but there is a simpler reason for playing this game many times: you won’t be able to beat it the first time through. Actually, most players won’t be able to beat Black Closet the first few times they play the game, but losing is not so terrible. Part of this game’s appeal is trying to master the techniques and learn how to solve cases in the most effective manner. The game is challenging but also a lot of fun. Hanako has found a great balance with Black Closet, really improving from past releases. Some older games have been fun to play but have been too easy. Others, like Long Live the Queen, have required such precision that there was no enjoyment to be found at all in the game.
Overall, Black Closet is a really solid game that successfully joins tactical, roleplaying, and visual novel elements. Hanako has been making games for a long time and continues to improve its releases. Black Closet is definitely one of their finest games, and once you do get in to this game, it’s hard to walk away from the computer. Too many times I found myself awake far too late promising to quit after just one more case, one more week, or just…one…more…turn.