Kara no Shoujo is a murder-mystery visual novel developed by Innocent Grey and first released in 2008, with its first English release coming in 2011 via MangaGamer. Now, from the fine folks at Shiravune we have an updated HD release with an updated title, The Shell Part I: Inferno. The Shell is an eroge, though I’d describe that as a tertiary element of the game. Even if you remove the explicit sex scenes, the game would still qualify for an adults only rating on account of its brutal depictions of violence and death.
So before we continue, a warning. The Shell Part I: Inferno contains graphic depictions and discussions of violence, sexual violence, and mutilation. This review will cover those elements of the game, but no graphic images will be shown. The Steam release of The Shell Part I: Inferno is censored by default, and a patch is required to access much of the game’s content unless you buy it on another store. This isn’t a title that makes much, if any, sense to play without the accompanying adult content patch, and so this review will be based solely on the patched R18 version. The patch is free and easily obtained from Johren.
The Shell Part I: Inferno’s story takes place in Japan in 1956. Just over a decade has passed since the end of WW2 and the shadow of that brutal conflict still looms over Japan. Our protagonist, Reiji Tokisaka, is a former police detective turned gumshoe. Reiji’s life has been defined by violence. Coming of age during the war, Reiji was sent off to fight on the frontlines. Then returning to a war-ravaged Japan, he joined the police force at a time where society was at its most fragile and violent. Five years into his police career his fiancee was the final victim in a string of grisly murders, and he left the force wracked by the guilt of never catching her killer.
To say Reiji comes with some baggage is an absurd understatement. To allay the concerns some readers may have though, he isn’t a perpetual drip. When we are introduced to Reiji he is living with some meaning in spite of everything. There is a palpable sadness hidden inside, but his exterior is friendly, witty, and determined. With the aid of excellent character writing the two Reiji Tokisakas fit comfortably into the narrative. He’s a man with a tragic past and connection to the cyclical violence that emerges as a theme in The Shell, but experiencing the story from his perspective isn’t just a constant dive into misery.
It’s always nice to have a protagonist who is a defined and concrete presence in the world and not just a vehicle for the player. The Shell’s narrative is elevated by Reiji’s experience and development within it. The Shell makes an effort to ensure you understand Reiji Tokisaka, to make sure you feel as he does, and to give weight to the experience and circumstances that define him in the narrative. There’s a moment in the story where Reiji is confronted with the realization that he is lonely, and it has a surprising impact on him. That loneliness is real, you as the player can feel it creeping up. People you care about have died, more are sure to die going forward, and you don’t know who is responsible or who you can trust. All that to say, The Shell doesn’t need to tell you how Reiji feels, it makes you feel it.
Screaming Bloody Murder
In the opening hours of The Shell Part I: Inferno, after the prologue which we’ll discuss later, you get a taste of Reiji’s daily life as he is pulled into the mystery surrounding two gruesome killings that could be the beginning of a new serial murder case. You’re also introduced to a majority of the cast who you’ll be endlessly worrying over. The character writing on display here is wildly impressive. Almost every character serves two purposes. You have them as they exist in the story, the concrete roles they play and relationships they form, and then you have what they represent within The Shell’s broader commentary. I’ll talk more about this later but it’s worth mentioning now just how impressive it is that the writers were able to construct these characters in a way that equally serves the narrative and the themes therein.
To illustrate a point I’d like to talk a bit about one of The Shell’s central characters, Yukari. She’s Reiji’s sister, the only family he has left, and you’ll be seeing a lot of her at the beginning and end of each day in the game. Yukari is a wonderful character, kind and considerate to others, and constantly doting on her less than put-together brother. She has an unusual but charming fixation on bugs, collecting snails, and other weird little critters. She’s a calming and pleasant presence to have around, and in The Shell that kind of gentle levity comes with inescapable anxiety.
In between segments of Reiji’s daily life, crime scene investigation, and boots-on-the-ground gumshoe work, the game will on occasion cut to a new point of view. The screen is stained with blood, the music shifts, and you’re reading the perspective of a killer in the act. Sometimes there are CGs in the background with stomach-turning depictions of the violence being inflicted, but even without those visual aids these scenes are gruesome. It feels odd to praise the writing here, it’s brilliant certainly but also horrendous. Bones snapping, organs bursting, and skin tearing, it’s brilliantly done and it’s also sickening. These scenes are hard to get through, and the horror is amplified by this nagging thought in the back of your mind. What if the next victim is Yukari?
Victims & Suspects
You’ll meet many characters throughout The Shell Part I: Inferno who add life and dynamism to the world and narrative, and add to the anxiety of each passing day. You have Tsuzuriko, Yukari’s best friend, a ball of energy who has excellent banter with Reiji. There’s Hatsune and Kyoko, two characters you’ll speak with at a coffee house called Moon World, both trying to live happily in the aftermath of violence in a way that mirrors Reiji’s struggles. These are just a few characters you’ll meet who could feasibly end up as a victim in the ongoing serial killings, and you’re forced to carry that anxiety as you go forward, never sure if the game is about to punch you right in the gut.
When you’re not worrying about a character you’ve gotten attached to showing up the next day as a cruelly mutilated corpse, you’re constantly suspicious of everyone with even the flimsiest of motivations or means to commit such an act. It’s difficult to know who to trust, and the paranoia driven by seeing these brutal murders unfold is incredibly affecting. There was a character, who I won’t name to avoid spoilers, that I was convinced was the killer. Everytime he would appear I’d be screaming internally: “it’s you, you bastard I know what you’re up to!”. He was completely innocent. Now you could read that as me being a piss-poor detective, but I choose to view it as a testament to the writing of The Shell. Everything is on the table, anyone could be a victim, anyone could be a killer. It’s nerve-wracking and enchanting.
The Shell has a lot to say. I’d say the subtext is even stronger than the text in this instance. In the days following my completion of The Shell I spent a lot of time thinking about what it had meant to say, and there is a lot to consider there. The most obvious and recurrent theme of The Shell is cyclical violence, and how a failure to reckon with the violence of the past and its impact on those left behind enables that cycle to continue. Everyone is trapped in The Shell, whether they realize it or not, and the story could best be described as each individual’s struggle for freedom.
The narrative takes place just about a decade after the end of one of history’s most brutal conflicts. In Japan, a nation that inflicted and was victim to horrendous violence, life is continuing as normal. There’s a dissonance present that The Shell plays with beautifully. Gently optimistic music plays as you wander sleepy Japanese streets, you have these funny lighthearted chats with a cast of charming characters, and then the illusion is shattered as people are murdered, mutilated, and left on display in those same sleepy streets.
The first question most people ask after encountering that kind of violence is simply “Why?”. How could a person do something so monstrous, why was the victim targeted, and why were they killed in such a brutal fashion? The Shell has a few answers to those questions, but the most compelling I could identify is that everyone is lying. This violence is ongoing and unstoppable because no one wants to acknowledge it, and no one wants to confront their passive participation in its root causes.
Ouba Girls Academy
As part of his investigation, Reiji Tokisaka goes undercover as a professor at Ouba Girls Academy, a private school dedicated to raising diligent and prim students. The academy is, in my view, a perfect crystallization of the hypocrisy and perverse social values that perpetuate the violence terrorizing its student body. Ouba Girls Academy is a lie, a pathetic denial of the realities of post-war Japanese society and humanity itself.
Students at the academy are taught to be submissive to authority, passive to others, and apologetic for any desire to deviate from the feminine ideal that the school’s governance upholds. Girls are forbidden to interact with any men outside of absolute necessity, including the teachers of the academy. There is an insidious paternalism and obsession with image present. Even as students begin disappearing the academy hesitates to take any action, especially any that might suggest the presence of corruption or turmoil.
The same attitudes that create the oppressive atmosphere of Ouba Girls Academy also lead to the butchering of its students. The killer deliberately targets women and girls, ‘punishing’ them for perceived sin or deviance, for not conforming to their imagined ideal of womanhood. It’s painful to see characters be brutalized for the crime of seeking their own identity, trying to escape in some way from the constraints put upon them. For some this is going to be a difficult experience, the game confronts issues that are still not settled to this day. There is a particular focus on motherhood and abortion that feels raw, and if you’re sensitive to discussion of those topics then The Shell Part I: Inferno could be a rough read. For my part I found it unsettling, but utterly compelling.
Time now to talk about the girl in the shell. Kuchiki Toko is The Shell Part I: Inferno’s main heroine, though heroine is a bit of an odd word to use with this game. Toko appears early in the narrative, hiring Reiji to find ‘the real Toko’. She then is present throughout The Shell’s narrative, serving as a confidant of sorts to Reiji to lesser or greater extents depending on your choices. She is the subject of the true ending route, and so I’ll be discussing that here but broadly and without spoilers.
Toko is an enthralling character, charming, ephemeral, and, as the game itself describes her, catlike. Cats are a recurring motif in Japanese fiction, representing many ideas or themes across the broader canon. Kuchiki Toko isn’t a cat, but perhaps she ought to be. Cats are to some extent free from expectations and the traps of history and tradition. The sadness at the core of Toko’s character is that she is her own person, she does not lack for identity except in her own mind. It isn’t that Toko can’t find herself, as much as she can’t find a place for herself in this world. Or, for a more cynical reading, the world does not have a place for her.
The true ending, and the route leading to it, is an exploration of Toko’s experience of loss and loneliness. As a reader you come to understand and appreciate her character, but you understand that she does not feel meaningfully alive. She doesn’t know who she is or ought to be, and she is a constant victim to the expectations and whims of others. I found the resolution of her story bittersweet, it is both a beautiful celebration of her freedom and a tragic reflection on the chains that bind her. I strongly believe that the game is worth picking up just to see this route and ending. It’s touching and thoughtful in a way that many stories aim to be but few actually achieve.
Gameplay (Or Lack Thereof)
Moving on to the more broad experience of The Shell Part I: Inferno. I’ve talked a lot about the story so far, but I haven’t explained how you’ll be experiencing it. This is a murder-mystery where you’re playing the detective. The routes you end up on and the endings you see depend on the choices and deductions that you make. Throughout the game there are interactive investigation segments where you’ll be clicking through crime scenes to gather evidence. You’ll then use that evidence along with a list of persons of interest to put together the pieces of the mystery and arrive at a culprit.
This might start to remind you of other interactive mystery titles like Ace Attorney, but in reality The Shell Part I: Inferno’s detective gameplay elements are incredibly light. Crime scenes don’t have much to find, usually two or three pieces of evidence that are easy to pick up. Putting the case together in your head is very engaging, but the mechanic to put it all together in game is very limited. You either get it right, get a bad end, or the game just tells you you’re wrong and forces you to reexamine the evidence. The framing of being a detective is great, it makes you think carefully and critically about the events unfolding, but its implementation as a mechanic is pretty lackluster.
The greatest flaw of The Shell is the diminishing returns of additional playthroughs. There are 15 endings to see, but by your 4th or 5th playthrough the mystery is dead and the tedium sets in. A lot of the time the choices you have to make are inscrutable and far too numerous. If you don’t head to the right map locations every day you can easily end up pigeonholed into a bad end or a route you’ve already seen. By the time I’d seen every ending my save screen was a mess of disconnected branching points and map screens; it wasn’t a great time. Once you’re on a route there is still enjoyment in seeing the story play out, it’s just getting there that gets droll.
The Shell’s visuals are strong but subtle. For the most part you’re looking at a relatively simple aesthetic, with grounded character designs and background art that communicates a concrete sense of place and personality. Where the visuals get interesting is in the more dissonant sections of the game where the peaceful atmosphere is shattered and tensions spike. There are many gruesome illustrations that appear during scenes from the killer’s perspective and during the crime scene investigation segments. These illustrations are incredibly well crafted, but the purpose of them is to make you feel sick and sad so it’s hard to compliment them all that enthusiastically.
There were illustrations of characters, who I’d come to know and appreciate, being tortured and dismembered in graphic detail. These were so unsettling that two of them forced me to take a short break from the route I was on. I guess I have a weaker constitution than I thought. To be clear, this is a strength of the game. I am offering praise here even though I am describing a way in which the game is sick and grim. It’s supposed to make you feel that way, it’s a good thing in the context of the narrative.
If I were to offer a criticism of The Shell’s visuals, it would be character designs. Characters are relatively plain looking, only really standing out in CGs. There is a purpose in that simplicity though, it’s grounding and humanizing in a way that more elaborate designs can’t really achieve. Personally I found it added to my experience overall, but I could see how some people might find it dull. I think there might be something of a perverse (not in the way you’re imaging) expectation of novelty in character designs. There are ideas like ‘charm points’ that you see pretty often in visual novels, and I think you have to disregard these if you’re telling the kind of story that The Shell is trying to tell.
Songs & Screams
The Shell Part I: Inferno has one of the best OSTs I’ve experienced in a visual novel, and it is mixed into the narrative flawlessly. When the game transitions to the killer’s perspective you’re hit with these horrible eerie strings that crawl up your back. It’s genuinely uncomfortable to listen to in those moments and that’s amazing as far as I’m concerned. In the game’s more gentle moments there are tracks like Lilac and Moon World that have a soothing charm to them. They provide a comfortable landing from the peaks of tension and lull you into an admittedly false sense of security.
I’d also like to mention a track titled The Egg of Neanis that plays at the opening of The Shell. It’s an incredible piece of music and I think it perfectly captures the tone of The Shell, being at once beautiful and haunting. Outside of the music the game does make use of sound effects fairly often throughout. I mentioned before the sounds of bones being crushed and guts being spilled, those are certainly worth praise though I’d prefer to never hear them again frankly.
The Shell Part I: Inferno features full voice acting for dialogue, including Reiji the protagonist (woah). Some of the voice work on offer here is impressive, some is more average. I felt that Reiji’s VA did a fantastic job covering a broad range of emotion, particularly shining in moments of intense grief and stress. Toko’s VA too does really well at putting across the character’s ephemeral nature, the voice work combined with her narrative create a wonderfully captivating character that The Shell just wouldn’t be the same without. The rest of the cast is strong and there are never any huge misses in the VA department, but I feel those two performances are really worth highlighting here.
The Shell Part I: Inferno VS Kara No Shoujo
So what exactly is the difference between The Shell Part I: Inferno and Kara no Shoujo? Well, not a lot. This isn’t a remake, it retains all of the original charms of the initial release but with some new bits and bobs added on. You have a new, in my opinion high quality, script that I think adds some clarity in parts that may have been otherwise lacking. The prologue was added, which was missing in the MangaGamer release. As mentioned above Reiji is voiced, which he wasn’t in the original. Visuals are updated to 720p, which is technically high definition. The other notable change is the simplification of investigation scenes; in the original release you had a limited number of clicks before you were booted out of an investigation, those limits are removed in this release. I think removing these limits has only improved the game. It’s already enough of a slog to work through the cavalcade of choices and branching paths to see everything, no need for the additional tedium that has been excised in this release.
I would like to talk a little more about the scale up to 720p. Obviously there are limits to how much you can upscale older releases, but this really should have been brought up a few more notches I think. For the most part playing full screen on a 1440p monitor was fine, character and background art was still delightful and I noticed no tearing or blurriness in the actual art. Menus and UI elements are a different story, they are woefully blurry and it’s frustrating to see. Text is fine for the most part, perfect at full screen on a 1080p monitor, but there is a little blur present on anything higher. I hope that future releases of the sequels have a little more work done on them to maintain visual fidelity on modern equipment.
As An Eroge
Last, and indeed least, let’s talk about the eroge elements of The Shell Part I: Inferno. Off the bat I’d say if you’re looking for an eroge, play anything else. The Shell’s tone and narrative make for a poor backdrop for eroticism I think. There are twelve sex scenes across the game, which took me around 20 hours to complete so I’d say that’s pretty light. On the CG side there are, by my count, around 44 CGs that could be described as HCGs, maybe more if you’re particularly disturbed. Most of these CGs are part of those aforementioned sex scenes, but a few are also just sprinkled about elsewhere.
I’m of two minds when it comes to the eroge aspect here. On the one hand sex is a pretty integral part of The Shell’s narrative and I think shying away from it would undermine the seriousness of the narrative. On the other hand, in a narrative that is in some way a criticism of the objectification and control women and girls are subject to, it’s a little weird to then have the game do that. Sexual interactions between Reiji and his students are particularly off-putting in the context of the story. I think these elements would have been a lot stronger and more narratively appropriate if framed through the lens of female sexuality rather than male desire. Reiji is the point of view character, but sexuality as a narrative theme is more tied to the female cast and so their experience of it is relevant in a way Reiji’s just isn’t. All in all it’s not terrible, it’s not great, it’s just there. Oh, and as this always comes up, mosaics are retained in the Shiravune release.
The Shell Part I: Inferno is a stunning experience. I was absolutely captured by the narrative and the themes it was drawing on and exploring. The writers know how to elicit some powerful emotion out of the reader, whether it be terror, grief, or occasionally relief. The music is masterfully crafted, lifting the entire experience beyond the already incredible high set by the narrative alone. The only significant negative for me is that tedium that sets in on additional playthroughs, but that feels like a minor gripe when weighed against everything I got out of The Shell. It’s worth playing through blind a few times over to experience the highs and lows of Reiji’s life as a detective, and then even though it’s difficult you have to get to the true ending to see The Shell deliver on everything it builds with its narrative.
THE SHELL PART I: INFERNO IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
If you are looking for another visual novel, you may enjoy White Album: Memories Like Falling Snow. We have also covered a wide variety of visual novels both original to English and localized from Japanese, which you can check out here.
Thank you to Shiravune for providing a Steam review code for The Shell Part I: Inferno.
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A man described by critics as “pretty normal” and “memorable in the abstract”. He has committed his life to the consumption of anime and games, against the advice and wishes of his family and friends. Now writing about his passions, hopefully for your enjoyment.