There have been many great gaming detectives over the years, ranging from the more direct approaches of Blaze Fielding and Bruno Delinger to Chris Redfield and Aya Brea’s slightly more cerebral (or at the very least ‘less punch-y’) take on policework; then there’s Acquire’s (Tenchu, Way of the Samurai) DekaVoice for Playstation 2, which at first glance looks like it ripped off Atlus’ Radiou Kuzunoha series trademark style and then slapped some voice controls on top. These initial fears are thankfully easily dispelled by a quick Google search as not only did DekaVoice come out in 2003 - a full three years before Raidou - but also the voice command system actually works and is [gasps] put to good use.
The game is set in an alternative 1920’s-ish era where steampunk-like technology allows people to use computers and send digital photos from crime scenes while still allowing gangsters in sharp suits to shoot up cabaret bars and make their getaway in some delightfully stylish cars. It’d be easy to question this clash of ideas if the game’s style wasn’t as strong as it is, effortlessly unifying the more typical aspects of the genre with well-designed technology that fits in like it was always there. Everything’s bathed in warm tones and strong shadows with cool tones used for contrasts and highlights, which reminded of another very beautiful game, and red petals burst out of gunshot wounds instead of the usual garish blood spurts - a delicate touch in a game already filled with great ideas.
It’s time to tackle that unavoidable elephant in the room - that mandatory microphone. You issue voice commands using a push-to-talk system, with a light in the top-right of screen changing colour depending on whether it’s expecting a response from you, listening to your speech right now, or when voice commands are unavailable (this generally only appears if you try to talk when someone is already talking to you). The game is very good at explaining what it expects from you and lists all possible vocal commands when you encounter a new event (these commands are also listed in the manual) and I found in places several natural alternatives worked just as well as the expected commands (for example: ‘Hurry!’ instead of ‘Faster!’). The mic is sensibly not used to move Detective Hayward around or to urge him to fire his gun but for various situations where you’d expect someone to speak, such as issuing commands to your enthusiastic dog partner, Ryan, or when interrogating a suspect. On top of this are a few surprinsgly little touches that show Acquire really gave the idea their full attention, such as optional extra conversations with other people in the police station and the game expecting you to give direct responses to simple questions like ‘Did you rescue me?’ rather than passively watching a scene play out or selecting an option from a menu.
All this underlines what makes DekaVoice so special - it’s not a gimmick in search of a reason to exist, but a game that has chosen to integrate some extra technology into itself to try and improve the typical gaming experience. It’s a game you want to play just because it’s a good game, not because you’ve been duped into testing out someone’s voice recognition software. It also has the honour of being an action-adventure game that’s worth playing through more than once, as there are hidden items to find (including your doggy sidekicks private diary and AIBO parts to replace Ryan entirely with a robot equivalent) and the chance to improve upon your detective-ing score for each scenario. The only truly superfluous gimmick is compatibility with a real AIBO – allowing a connected unit with a special program downloaded to it to offer hints and general comments as you play – but I don’t see how anyone can consider that to be a real negative considering having AIBO support in a Playstation 2 game is really cool and oh dear lord I want an AIBO so bad.
Even with all this praise DekaVoice still isn’t the ‘killer app’ voice-controlled gaming needs to prove its worth as more than an interesting sideline in gaming history, but it is the first one I’ve played where the vocal interaction felt like an essential layer of design and not an unreliable alternative to button commands (SOCOM’s team orders) or a cart-before-horse attempt to find a use for the microphone the hardware R&D guys made (Seaman, Hey you Pikachu!). Good job Acquire, you gave yourself the nigh-impossible task of turning new tech into a decent game and came out on top on your very first go.
I’m very happy to report the official website is still online here - http://www.acquire.co.jp/deka/
And while a lot of the images are broken the official DekaVoice AIBO page (the AIBO program file is still downloadable!) is archived over here - https://web.archive.org/web/20050912203332/http://www.jp.aibo.com/dekavoice/index.html