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A mystery story is one of the most wonderful, exhilarating experiences in any form of media: following clues, interrogating suspects, finding the facts, and so on. However, this genre has a downside: Once you reach the end of the story, any attempts to revisit it garner diminishing returns. You already know whodunnit. Chinatown Detective Agency (CDA), the recently released indie game from General Interactive Co, attempts to fix that with middling results.
Chinatown Detective Agency is a 2D point-and-click adventure game, intentionally reminiscent of the old-school P&C titles — more specifically, the Carmen Sandiego games. It’s set in a futuristic Singapore and follows the adventures of private eye Amira Darma. Through a series of cases, she gets progressively more involved in the seedy underworld (and oft-seedy overworld) of the city.
Players follow Amira’s various cases, solving them with a combination of in-universe clues and real-world research. She covers everything from murders to thefts to corporate crime — all of which feels equally messy and dirty in this neon-drenched future city. I won’t spoil how the story goes, but the experience is a fun combination of cyberpunk and noir.
We’re back in the note-taking age
CDA has a great lead in Amira, a soft-spoken and direct detective who only lets hints of her past slip every now and then. She’s a new spin on the traditional noir detective, a combination of the scrappy resilience of a Phillip Marlowe and the professionalism of a Johnny Dollar. A dystopia is only as interesting as the common person who has to live there, and Amira’s level-headed way of viewing her world keeps the experience from feeling too grim.
The game’s similarity to the Carmen Sandiego series lies in the research. Whenever you need to find something out for one of the game’s puzzles — be it a location or fact — you have to look it up on the real internet yourself using the clues given to you. This can be everything from an image of a landmark to a historical fact to a list of poisoning symptoms. Your search history is going to be very interesting by the time you’re done playing the game.
I enjoy this kind of gameplay. I ate it up like candy, just like I did when I was a kid and played Carmen Sandiego with my mother. But if you’re not the type of gamer who has the patience for that, I don’t think CDA will make you a believer. It’s so engrained into the game’s whole identity that’s all it is: a puzzle/research-style adventure game, nothing more or less.
The game’s visual design is also striking. While Singapore in the game may not be a great place to live, it’s at least a colorful one. Amira visits various locations around the city, from civic buildings to shady corners, and no place feels dull or overly bright. General Interactive Co also put good work into the character design, especially considering the characters are pixel people. Some of the design choices are questionable: Police detective Justin Koh has dark, slicked back hair but his sprite looks like he’s wearing a blonde pompadour. But for the most part it’s good.
One other positive thing about the design: The game offers an alternative font option to help readers who may have trouble parsing its pixelly text. I was pleased when I saw this, as I was having trouble reading the text and I usually have no need of accessibility features. It’s a considerate touch, given how much of the game is text-based.
Speak up, Amira
When a game is as simply built as CDA is, the problems tend to stand out. The most noticeable problem is the inconsistency with the audio. The game features decent voice acting … sometimes. It drops out frequently, depending on the context of the conversation and who’s speaking. I couldn’t find any rhyme or reason to it: I can’t even tell if it’s deliberate or a bug. The game had audio problems from launch — some of them even game-breaking — but the fact I can’t differentiate between them says a lot.
Even after post-release patches, this problem remains. Even otherwise-voiced characters will become silent during cutscenes (and sometimes mid-conversation). It’s especially jarring when one-note unimportant characters are silent while the main characters are voiced — it makes the characters seem like they’re talking to no one. Since the game has so much dialogue, this problem is especially noticeable and frustrating.
While I find the game’s story enjoyable, I noticed one big problem a couple of hours in. Amira accrues several possible clients through the opening act, and eventually she is forced to choose between them. Whichever one she chooses, she’s locked off from her other options. This was my biggest problem with the game: An artificial form of replayability.
One “flaw” that all mystery games have is an apparent lack of replayability — like I said before, you know the outcome, so you theoretically have no incentive to revisit the game. I don’t necessarily believe that all games need to create replayability in order to be replayable. I’ve played every Nancy Drew game at least ten times, even though I know how they all end. But since CDA is a relatively short game, I can see why it would want to give players as much incentive to spend time with it as possible.
However, I think it would have been wiser if the player had had the chance to play all three storylines in the order they choose. Simply gating off each one of them feels forced and unnecessary. The game outright tells you, before the split, to save your game so you can go back and play each separate mission. What is the difference between that and just reopening the other questlines after the first one is finished?
Go on, look it up
Chinatown Detective Agency is made in the image of classic adventure games and never aspires beyond that. Meeting it on its own terms, it’s an adequate cybernoir mystery with a compelling lead and colorful scenery. If you’re not into that already, this game probably won’t tickle your fancy very much.
But if you are, you’ll find this to be a decently written and designed adventure. It’ll take a bit of research on your part, but I have the feeling that a lot of gamers out there will find that as fun as I do. Just know that, even weeks after its release, the game still has some sound problems that might make diminish your enjoyment.
Chinatown Detective Agency is currently available for PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox via Game Pass. Humble Games provided GamesBeat with a PC code for this review.
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