Tales of the Neon Sea is a cyberpunk noir adventure in the form of a classic pixel art point-and-click game from Chinese indie studio Palm Pioneer. The developer has teamed up with publisher Zodiac Interactive, and the game is slated for release this summer for PC and consoles. A demo will also be available at PAX East in Boston from April 5 to April 8.
Tales of the Neon Sea draws its inspiration from sci-fi classics as well as modern China. The studio is based in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, which has rapidly changed in the past few years. It’s a city that boasts a historical fortress wall that dates back to the country’s final imperial dynasty alongside huge skyscrapers and enormous LED walls.
“As lovers of sci-fi, we grew up on genre staples such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, each with their own variation on an alluring and terrifying cyberpunk future,” said Palm Pioneer producer Tian Chao in an email via a translator. “At the same time, growing up in China during the ongoing economic boom has given many of us the feeling of actually living in such a world of towering skyscrapers and hazy neon streets! Even Denis Villeneuve, director of the recent Blade Runner sequel, referenced Beijing during the design of that movie. This gives us a unique perspective to inject into the now familiar cyberpunk vision.”
These influences are seen throughout Tales of the Neon Sea, which has a retro pixel art aesthetic. It’s a detective story set at some indeterminate point in the future that explores ideas like the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. It features the touchstones of the genre — crowded city spaces awash with neon signs and pops of color amid the squalor. But players shouldn’t expect a gritty plunge into a dystopian cyberpunk world. Chao describes the game as “light-hearted, humorous, and quirky” even though it plays with some serious topics.
Palm Pioneer started in 2014 as a mobile studio, developing games like Fairy in Wonderland and Xnooker. However, the team wanted to tackle a project on PC and consoles as well as design a game with more puzzles.
Tales of the Neon Sea is the latest Chinese indie game from Zodiac Interactive. It previously published the charming platformer Candleman: The Complete Journey from Chinese developer Spotlightor Interactive.
“Zodiac Interactive is a relatively new publisher, and while a big part of our strategy is to help Western games access the massive Chinese player base, we also work to identify unique and exciting Chinese projects to take in the opposite direction,” said Zodiac cofounder Mitch Chapman in an email. “Tales of the Neon Sea (originally known as Mr. Mist) caught our attention with its vibrant and evocative art style. As hardcore gamers ourselves, the old-school point ‘n’ click gameplay brought back memories of genre classics.”
Chapman says that the indie scene in China is still maturing. It’s developed a reputation for cloning other games — just look at the platoon of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds clones on the mobile marketplace, for instance — but some developers are trying to buck that trend.
“While the financial risk of indie development can be a barrier to many, but those who do make the jump are working to tear down the negative preconceptions attached to traditional Chinese game development,” said Chapman. “As a result of the above, it can be difficult finding studios that meet our requirements. Many devs are learning as they go, in an environment not traditionally suited to indie games and without any source of government funding or assistance. Finding a title that rises above the others and offers a truly unique experience can be a hard task, but hidden gems certainly do exist.”
Chapman points to an increased interest in PC games as a turning point for the development scene. Chinese players have outgrown free-to-play browser games and are now looking for more premium experiences.
“To give you an example, in 2014 there were less than 2 million Chinese Steam users,” said Chapman. “Today, this figure has exploded to over 32 million! Indie developers are embracing a freedom of design previously not possible and trying their hands at all kinds of games and experiences. ”
As a publisher, Zodiac doesn’t feel constrained to any one genre. Its main challenge is localization and making sure Western players can appreciate games from Chinese developers.
“The differences can occur with visual style, humor, and creative decisions, and it’s true that these elements can sometimes present challenges,” said Chapman. “Humor, particularly, tends to not translate perfectly in all cases. As a publisher, however, it’s our job to ensure that these unique aspects serve to entice Western players, instead of turning them away. Games like Tales of the Neon Sea present an exciting challenge for us, as the quality of the localization is a key factor in ensuring the entire experience comes together as intended.”