A few years ago, I wrote a post called Solving the Portopia Serial Murder Case. In it, I detailed how I spent a fair amount of time examining the English fan translation of the Famicom version of the adventure classic, Portopia, and figuring out how to complete the game efficiently. After playing through it several times and taking detailed notes, I created a walkthrough which I made available to download.
Now, in 2023, Square Enix has released a new version of this hugely influential title, but with a twist: rather than the text parser input of the PC original or the menu-driven gameplay of the Famicom version, this new edition serves as a tech demo of an AI-driven input system which Square Enix is calling NLP, or Natural Language Processing. Allegedly, NLP is able to recognize a wide array of commands typed or spoken and utilize them to control the game. In theory, this could revolutionize the way graphic adventure games are played.
Sounds really cool!
…Unfortunately, the system doesn’t quite work as advertised. I didn’t even know SE was releasing a new version of Portopia until I read an article about how bad it was. But it’s a free download on Steam, and I love Portopia, so of course I had to investigate it for myself.
Well, they were right. It’s not great, especially at first. But I was determined to wrestle this game into submission until I figured it out, and I did!
The main problem is that game requires the player to use some fairly specific verbiage in order to make things happen, which seems contradictory to what NLP is supposed to be. In fact, that’s kind of the problem with the old text parser style, but this is somehow even less responsive and more arbitrary, as it seems to change the rules on the fly.
For example, if the player is questioning a suspect, one would think asking for their alibi would be as simple as typing in “what’s your alibi,” or even simplifying it down to the most likely effective verbs and nouns, like “ask alibi.” But instead of picking up on those essential keywords, the correct way to ask is, “ask for his/her alibi” or “what is his/her alibi,” with pronouns and everything…
…except for, you know, sometimes when “ask alibi” does work.
If you want to look at something, the word to use is usually “investigate.” But “check” can also work…
…and sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes specific nouns must be used when you would think it wouldn’t be necessary…
Then I encountered times when using someone’s specific name doesn’t even work, but a pronoun does!
Since neither the game nor its online menu give you any such specific instructions as to proper verbiage to use — other than to keep in mind that you are always speaking to Yasu, your assistant, and not directly to the other characters — it gets frustrating pretty quickly, especially since this is being advertised as an AI language recognition “preview.” (If this is a preview, I’m not sure what their future plans for it are.) “Natural Language Processing” certainly implies that the game should be able to recognize a multitude of ways to say the same thing, but that is clearly not the case. As it is, it just feels like an over-complicated text parser.
The “NLU Visualizer” kind of helps. As you can see in some of the shots above, it seems to tell you how close to the “exact” command you are. I’m not clear on what the percentages and the other phrases are — if it’s data collected from players, or if it’s the “best” commands for the situation. But it can help the player learn how best to communicate to the game…problem is, I would think it’s the AI that should do the learning, not the player.
That being said, however, once you do get the hang of how the game wants you to communicate, it becomes a decent update to this 1983 granddaddy of the graphic adventure genre. It features photorealistic environments and freshly-redesigned anime-style characters. The storyline and sequence of events are largely unchanged from the original — so much so that you’ll find that the walkthrough included in my article about the Famicom version will still help you get through most of the game. A few tweaks in this new version may prove troublesome (you have to smack Komiya twice to get him to talk this time, instead of just once — poor guy), but for the most part, they obviously didn’t want to mess with this game that is so iconic and beloved (at least in Japan). All this to say, the game CAN be finished.
Which brings me to another point that I find significant: this is the first time since its initial release 40 years ago in 1983 that The Portopia Serial Murder Case has been officially released in English. And it’s FREE on Steam. Anybody else realize that that’s a pretty big deal? Anyone? Bueller? Yasu?
Anyway, I’m very happy that Portopia finally got an official English-language release, but I’m hoping that this NLP tech will improve now that the game is out in the wild. If they can do so, then AI language processing really could change the adventure game genre into a much more dynamic and free-form style. Although PSMC23 appears to be a misstep right out of the gate, the potential for it to be a significant milestone in gaming history is there. I look forward to Square Enix updating it and making it much more intelligent and accommodating (and for all i know, by the time you read this, perhaps they have) and hopefully they will realize the vision that I think they had for it.
…what’s that? You want another walkthrough? Well luckily, there’s already one out there, and I didn’t have to write it! Find it here: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=2966548785https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=2966548785
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