My parents were prolific readers, and among their collection of books was a large library of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. I read these detective stories voraciously, and I've loved a good mystery ever since. When I went to Play NYC 2017 and discovered Ghosts of Miami (developed and published by Pillow Fight) - a visual novel that mixed detective and romance themes - I was immediately interested.
Ghosts of Miami is (unsurprisingly) set in Miami, Florida in the 1980's at the height of the drug crisis. You take on the role of Chelo Martinez, an unlicensed private investigator who specializes in finding missing persons. Unfortunately for Chelo, business has been terrifically slow and times are hard. That changes very quickly.
The opening movie immediately sets the tone of the game and shows off all of the flashy style and flair of 1980's Miami.The game opens with you speaking with your landlord, the proprietor of a small grocery store. Her daughter has gone missing, and your landlord comes to the realization that this is the kind of gig that's right up your alley. You'll venture out into the surrounding area looking for clues that will hopefully lead you down the right path. I tracked the missing daughter for several in-game days before I ultimately failed; she was found on the streets alive but badly beaten. Despite my best efforts and careful consideration of the facts, I had come to the wrong conclusion in the end.
One of the more interesting quirks about the game (as compared to some other visual novels) is how it is split into "Cases". Cases can be considered like chapters in a book; each case is completely independent and can be replayed at will. This is great for situations where you want to try again (or head down one of the romance routes), but this also presents some difficulties towards the end of the game. The fifth and final case can only be unlocked in a certain scenario, and the "true ending" for that final case can only be achieved when you've met the right conditions. Unfortunately, those conditions are dependent on your choices in previous Cases.
The split into Cases works somewhat like the Episodes of Telltale's The Walking Dead adventure games on a smaller scale. The one critical thing it misses is some kind of screen that indicates which choices you've made. I ended up resorting to taking manual notes to try and work out the problem towards my goal of getting the "true" ending. This could have been handled better by some kind of tracking
Visual novels often have multiple endings, and in the case of games with a romantic element, you can expect multiple relationship opportunities. Ghosts of Miami is no different. You have the choice between five different characters (or none): two men, two women, and one non-binary choice. I'm not as personally fond of pursuing a same-sex romance in a game like this as I have a difficult time putting myself in the character's shoes, but there are a lot of people who will appreciate having these options. Chelo is never quite forward about her romantic preferences, although her narrative descriptions of characters nonetheless hint at an affinity for both sexes. Considering that even a more liberal area wasn't as welcoming to LGBT persons in the 1980's, her lack of forthcomingness on these matters is understandable.
The romances in the game also felt a bit underserved. Making a choice to go on a date means that you have less time to investigate a case, but even if you take the option to focus on your romantic life, you go on a handful of dates at most. In terms of the narrative, it felt like the core of the game was a focus on the investigations and the romance was secondary to that. That's perfectly fine with me, but if you're here looking for a deep and complex love story you might be better served by a different game.
Ghosts of Miami definitely deals with adult themes - sex, drugs, and rock n' roll are rife throughout the story. However, some visual novels have even more adult themes in them. This is not one of that kind of visual novels, and you're barking up the wrong tree if you're here looking for lewdness of any sort.
Attempting to attain a different ending in Ghosts of Miami is helped along by a fast-forward feature which you can access by pressing the tilde key. This is practically a necessity when it comes to skipping past text you've already read on a second or third playthrough. A well-designed visual novel will skip text that you have previously seen and slow back down to normal speed on new dialogue, but this game just skips all text regardless. If you care to hear the new bits of the story you'll have to manually stop after you've made a choice that has led you down a different path. Unless I've somehow missed a "skip text unless you haven't seen it" option, I think that this is an area of the design that could have been done better.
When it came down to the Cases themselves, one's inner detective truly has a chance to shine. There's very little in the way of "Adventure Game Logic" - the type of writing and puzzles where you need to be able to follow some strange line of thought from the writer. Each Case made sense and the clues are there for you figure things out if you're smart about it, and do be careful - they're mixed in with plenty of false leads and red herrings. Chelo's dialogue on the matter can help guide inexperienced players to the correct conclusion, and even if you fail you can ultimately take a crack at solving the case again.
Mechanically, Ghosts of Miami is a passable visual novel despite the issue with the fast-forward system. The in-game casebook makes keeping track of conversations, clues, and contacts a breeze. The game ran very smoothly for me with no issues whatsoever, and I had no issues save for one crash in an extremely specific situation.
As a guy who fell in love with '80s music after playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City the first time, Ghosts of Miami is an absolute treat. I enjoyed most of the tracks save for the club music which I found personally unappealing. The art is similarly lovely with all of the pastel colors and oversized hairstyles you would hope to see in 1980's Miami. The character sprites were well-done, and the CG drawings were a bit less crisp due to a different artistic flair. A few animated scenes (such as when Chelo suffers an injury during a particular case) were great. Hands down, the best bit has to be the opening movie which shows off the main character, her romantic interests, and some of the lovely scenery.
I beat all five of the game's cases and achieved the true ending in just over four hours. I had to spend some time on top of that looking up guides as I personally couldn't figure out what exactly needed to be done to progress to the last area; it just didn't click in my head what I needed to do. Even when I had some indications for those things, I ended up having to replay a few times to tweak my relationship points and choices in hopes of heading down the correct path. I feel it's also important to note that I read rather quickly and I skipped a lot of dialogue I had seen before on repeat playthroughs. If you read at a slower pace and/or reread dialogue you're likely to get more time out of the game.
Ghosts of Miami made for a good visual novel with a couple of mechanical flaws (mainly in the fast-forward and Case systems). I enjoyed my time with the game more than not. If you're looking for a good visual novel with an '80s flair and a hint of romance, then Ghosts of Miami just might be a game worth checking out.
What do you think of Ghosts of Miami? What's the best mechanics you've seen in a visual novel game? Let us know in the comments below!
Ghosts of Miami mixes a detective story and romantic themes in a colorful and vibrant setting, but a couple of mechanical flaws make it slightly tricky to experience repeat playthroughs.
- Compelling Story & Challenging Cases
- Multiple Endings & Romantic Options Enhance Replayability
- Vibrant Art Style
- Fast Forward Doesn't Recognize New Dialogue
- No Way To Track Choices You've Made On The Menu