With a name like The Last Case of Benedict Fox, you might expect some sort of detective game, and that assumption is partially correct. Benedict is indeed a detective of sorts, one with a demon intertwined with his soul. In this early 1900s Lovecraftian-inspired Metroidvania you’ll delve into decaying memories, solve puzzles and fight shadowy entities. There’s a lot to love about The Last Case of Benedict Fox, but there are also a few problems that really hold it back.
Benedict and his demonic companion arrive at a crumbling mansion to find the still warm body of Benedict’s estranged father. To solve the mystery of his parent’s death, Benedict must venture into Limbo through his father’s corpse, essentially traversing his patriarch’s mindscape which conveniently takes the form of sprawling Metroidvania. It’s not easy to navigate, though: limbo is a complicated place full of twists and turns and secrets, The game’s Metroidvania design is frequently excellent, which in turn makes progressing through the grimy world thoroughly satisfying. A puzzle solved, an ability gained or an item found often yields a eureka moment as you realise what it will help open up. A flashlight means you can finally push through the strange dark tentacles blocking some doorways, a special bullet allows you to open a portal through waterfalls of goop and a strange lockpick makes quick work of creepy demon mouths that sealed pathways.
But The Last Case of Benedict Fox can be obtuse when it comes to telling you what to do, or more precisely when it doesn’t tell you at all. Obviously, the Metroidvania genre tends to favour exploration over objective markers and hand-holding, but the best of them still use clever signposting to nudge players in the right direction. That’s just not the case here, though, and that can lead to frustration as you try to find a way forward. On top of that the many junctions, pathways and routes can force you into the map screen far too often, damaging the flow of the game. I’d highly recommend turning on the exploration help options to compensate. What this does is change the generic question mark icons on the map to more specific markers that indicate what that doorway or path needs to open it. This helps a lot in the later game when you acquire something new and don’t want to hunt all over the map for what it can unlock.
It’s not helped by many of the objectives failing to make much sense. Important items are often found lying about in nooks and crannies, with no reason for them to be there. Finding them is less of a eureka moment more of a, “oh, finally.” moment. I don’t mind admitting that I resorted to some online guides a couple of times because I genuinely couldn’t figure out where to go next or what I was missing. Those guides frequently led me to some dingy corner that I had missed where an important plot item was hidden away.
Limbo might essentially be a hellscape, but it’s a beautiful one. The Last Case of Benedict Fox certainly does not slouch in the art department, boasting a well of stunning scenery, from dark and grimy tunnels to light, bright areas. And because you’re in someone’s mind, there’s a lot of opportunity for environmental storytelling, throwing in extra little story wrinkles that help flesh out the world and plot. And it’s important to pay attention to that stuff because the narrative does want you to do some work. While it doesn’t require as much piecing together as Dark Souls or something like that, getting the full picture will take some effort. It’s a tale worth exploring, though, slowly revealing a world filled with secret organisations and strange magic. Though Benedict and his gravelly-voiced companion are not the most fleshed out, their odd relationship is engaging enough to keep the whole thing moving along.
One of the key tools in Benedict’s quest is the Conundrum device. It resembles a pocket watch but inside of it are four rotating rings, each with different of the same symbol. Using this device you can translate symbols into numbers and vice versa, and then send out a pulse which can unlock doors, containers and other things. A lot of the game’s puzzles involve deciphering these symbols or taking a sequence of numbers and translating them into the correct symbol. It’s based on real numbering systems and in The Last Case of Benedict Fox it forms the basis for some really solid puzzle design. Honestly, using the Conundrum device with the diary up on screen (which lists all the variations) makes you feel kind of smart for a few seconds like you’re genuinely figuring out some ancient script. One of my favourite puzzles involves having to quickly work out a symbol’s correct number value and then picking out the right answer from a giant rotating ring before it can reset.
The rest of the puzzles feel almost as fun and rewarding to solve, whether it’s the special tarot card doors where you need to match up specific words
Now we get to the bad news. All of the exploration and the puzzle solving is filtered through the game’s worse elements: its controls and its combat. The controls feel sluggish and cumbersome and the animations feel clunky and disconnected from the world. That can make regular jumps awkward, especially since the gorgeous art design can make edges hard to judge. Benedict’s strange companion lends him the ability to double and even triple jump, a tried and true staple of platforming that The Last Case of Benedict Fox somehow messes up. To actually use the double jump you have to wait for a purple marker to appear on a nearby surface. This already feels strange, but the real problem is that it will sometimes fail to show up at all. I died probably a dozen times by leaping confidently and then mashing the button to double jump, only to splat onto the ground because the marker didn’t appear.
In combat, Benedict has a simple attack that charges up his flare gun which you can unload into an enemy with a meaty, pleasing bang. Again, there’s a slow and sluggish feel to the controls, though, with a distinctive pause between hitting attack and Benedict actually following through. By far the biggest issue in combat is how the block button sometimes doesn’t register properly, leading to poor Benedict getting smacked in the face. It’s even worse in the early stages of the game when you don’t have a lot of health to spare.
To put it bluntly, combat feels crap. It’s slow, clunky and never seems to flow nicely. Enemies can stun lock you or trap you in a corner leading to even more frustrating deaths, or the block will fail to work or the game just seems to decide you’re going to get hit no matter what. On several occasions I died because I walked through a doorway and was instantly hit by an attack I couldn’t see, throwing me backwards into a river of goop. Thanks, game.
The point is that between falling to my death or just failing basic jumps and dying in the middle of fights, I spent a lot of time feeling like I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. Deaths felt unfair and unearned, a cardinal sin in a game like this where you spend so much time either fighting or making your way through the environment. This is the first game in years where I often found myself screwing up simple jumps because I couldn’t double jump or I couldn’t quite make out the edge of the platform.
Perhaps the best, or worst, example of this comes during one of the game’s very few boss sequences where you have to outrun a huge beast. In this section, you have to leap over obstacles, block incoming debris and perform some platforming, and the entire thing is a frustrating mess because the controls just aren’t up to the job. It took me half a dozen tries to get through because each time the double jump wouldn’t work, or the block didn’t register or I failed a simple jump.
Speaking of dying, The Last Case of Benedict Fox has a little Dark Souls influence in it because whenever you fall victim to an enemy or the double jump doesn’t work you might leave behind your Ink. Don’t worry: you can get it back by revisiting the site of your demise. To keep Ink safe you can stop of at Anchor points which also let you refill your items and act as a fast travel point. You can actually fast-travel whenever you like, but doing so outside of Anchor will result in your Ink being lost.
Ink is important because you can jump back to the mansion and hand it over to the mysterious Tattooist who will enthusiastically tattoo it directly into Benedict’s skin in an agonising process which leaves him screaming in pain. The tradeoff is worth the torture, though, because Benedict’s sweet new arm bling boosts his companion’s abilities, which also typically unlocks new parts of Limbo to explore. Some of these new abilities can be used in combat, like a demonic grasp that can yank a shield out of a foe’s hands. They feel terrible to use, though, like how the grab has an incredibly slow animation and you can’t choose where to throw an enemy.
Benedict’s gear can be upgraded, too, by picking up currency and certain items. I like that the game squirrel’s these away, though, with most of them being easily missed. Other games that offer upgrades tend to make them quite obvious, which can result in it feeling like a predefined curve, whereas here if you want a better gun or a better knife you need to go look for the right items.
Thankfully, the overarching mystery at the heart of the game and the slowly unravelling story of Benedict is a lot of fun to uncover. It makes you work for it too, hiding a lot of extra details in the environmental storytelling or in optional side-missions. Benedict, his companion and the world are all engaging enough that I’d be happy to see sequels that flesh it out further, especially since the game ends in a way designed to set up more adventures.
The Last Case of Benedict Fox is a tough game to recommend, and yet I think for the right people it may be a case worth taking on. It’s just a shame that the clunky controls and the dull combat really hurt the rest of the game because there’s a lot to like. The puzzles are generally fun to solve, the world is interesting, the story has some cool ideas and it looks terrific. Hopefully, a couple of substantial updates may be able to improve the overall feel and do justice to everything else.