As befits the genre, our mystery begins with our detective’s peace shattered by a ringing telephone – a call from their supervisor, and a new case to investigate.
But what animal would a detective be? In the case of Philip Marlowe, as embodied by Humphrey Bogart, something ratty for sure. Just think of his eyes, like wet lumps of darting coal. Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp profile and curving posture, is undoubtedly a ferret. As for Hercule Poirot, picture David Suchet, with his glistening whiskers, and tell me he isn’t an otter. Columbo is a cat, and that’s that. None of these, you notice, are without fur – as though a detective required protection and private warmth, as well as the inclination to bristle against the world and its trouble.
What, then, to make of Frog Detective? He is, understandably, without fur. He is, by his own admission, “of average frog height” – though, given the fact that he strides on two legs, this plainly isn’t true. He sports a brown jumper and dun trousers, the outfit of a sensible dad. He talks on the phone. And he greets the world and its trouble with a smile from ear to ear. Or rather, considering his lack of ears, from eye to bulbous eye. Clearly, he isn’t much of a frog, not in traditional terms. But is he much of a detective? This question squats at the heart of Frog Detective: The Entire Mystery, which tests our star with three conundrums: The Haunted Island, The Case of the Invisible Wizard, and Corruption at Cowboy County. The first episode sprang onto PC in 2018, and spawned the follow-ups in 2019 and 2022, respectively.
Now all are stuck together, best consumed in a single sitting. The action unfolds in first-person (or first-frog) as you sleuth around various environments. You wield a magnifying glass, though it’s a minor detail and mostly for show – when it should really show the minor details. If you have come to this game eager for the sweat of investigation, the coffee-powered grind and the grilling of suspects, you will be disappointed; our hero could not leap into the mean streets of L.A. Noire and hope to clean the place up. Mechanically, most of your time is spent talking to other characters: sheep, monkeys, lizards, mice, and birds of all hue. You scribble their traits and needs in your notebook, and you pick your way through a cluttering of light clues. It recalls the feel of the nineties point-and-click: you didn’t always know the point, but you got clicking anyway.
A koala, adrift offshore, may need a magnet. A lobster may long for some toothpaste. In both instances, you are driven not by the pull of the story, or by the well-scrubbed look of the thing, but by the hops of logic that string it all together. When you remember the narratives of the great point-and-click adventures, games such as Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and Grim Fandango, it’s easy to forget that the fate of the free world, and of the afterlife, hinged on the most trivial of ingredients – balloons, betting slips, hair clips, and balls of tissue. This littering of objects provided the texture and the glue, but the stories rose above the rubbish. In Frog Detective, the rubbish is the story. The koala is hiding from the island’s resident menace (“No ghosts in the water”), and he requires the magnet to power a boat. Obviously.
This means that, instead of an overarching plot, you follow each comic kernel and wait for the warm pop. The developers, Grace Bruxner and Thomas Bowker, calibrate their jokes with kindness, and just enough random fizz. Those weaned on the internet, with its unnourishing ironies and its power to peel away context for the sake of a quick laugh, will snicker away. When one character decries books as being “without exception, factually inaccurate,” Bruxner herself pops up, like one of the Pythons interrupting a sketch, to make her stance clear: “There are contexts in which books can be very useful.”
The purpose of this interruption is, presumably, to reassure, to let us know that the game is firing off its whimsy from a place of care; though, I have to say, the result is that the laughter promptly dies off. Elsewhere, we get a dance competition, in which the assembled cast jig and caper on the spot. And there is a nice nod to Animal Crossing, in the figure of an improbable village mayor. A similar blend of affection and deep silliness ran through Chicory: A Colorful Tale, whose protagonist was tasked with painting a black-and-white land. That game was introspective, its hero daubed with doubt, and it drew near, now and then, to real darkness. Its gags weren’t as potent as the ones here, as liable to provoke such unexpected crack-ups, and its message was perilously close to schmaltz. But it left a mark. I don’t know that Frog Detective, with its arch and carefree air, will do the same. Maybe that is why he appears in Chicory: A Colorful Tale. Lounging by the water, he looks as if he were on holiday. I think he’s on the case.
Game: Frog Detective: The Entire Mystery review
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation, Xbox
Developer: Worm Club (Grace Bruxner and Thomas Bowker)
Publisher: Worm Club
Release Date: October 26, 2023