I always thought I was a fabulous Detective. I guess it’s a side effect of the endless true crime stuff I look at – but I think I have an eye for detail, you know. A good sixth sense. The ability to spot the small, inconsequential something that turns out to be oh so momentous.
This is of course complete nonsense. Much like playing Back 4 Blood won’t prepare you for a zombie apocalypse in the real world, binging true crime documentaries hasn’t taught me much that I can apply to real life, with one exception (yell “Fire!” and not “Help!” when you’re in danger, as that tends to attract help; you’re welcome), and that became abundantly clear as I stepped into Singapore’s underbelly and into the footsteps of Amira Darma, a rookie private investigator who , as so often, involved in something she hadn’t quite expected.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the eponymous Chinatown Detective Agency does exactly what it says on the tin, with a perifuturistic look at a neon-soaked Singapore serving as a stunning backdrop for a sea of corrupt businessmen and seedy politicians. As an ex-cop, Amira planted some early cases from collegial ex-colleagues, but from there she builds her own client list of the damned and desperate and everything in between.
And I like Amira. Calm and capable, she embodies all the things we’ve learned to associate with PIs without ever feeling like caricature, her voting – at least if you get voice work – and dialogue landing exactly as they should. Coupled with an intriguing caseload and a natural wanderlust, she was someone I enjoyed getting to know.
Interestingly, however, Chinatown Detective Agency isn’t quite the traditional point-and-click adventure I was expecting. Sure, you’ll get those Monkey Island vibes happily clicking anything on the screen in front of you, but Amira’s detective work goes beyond spamming your interaction button until you accidentally hit the solution. Sometimes she has to choose the right dialogue for the character to open. Sometimes she is under pressure to quickly explore her surroundings before the abuser storms back into the room. And sometimes she does what the rest of us do when we’re at a loss: she turns to Google.
To be clear, I’m not talking about some crazy in-game browser looks and behaves like Google; Chinatown Detective Agency includes an on-screen button that takes you out of the game and directly into your browser of choice. It’s such a simple thing, admittedly, but my word is that it’s effective. To give an early and non-spoiler example, one of your first missions has you unraveling a secret message hidden in a book and finding out who wrote it, but all you have is a single line . Type it into Google — to be fair, it’s a very unique phrase — and boom, there it is: the author.
So it’s to the developer’s credit that the detective work Amira has to do is all in the real culture and history. It would have been easy for the Chinatown Detective Agency to go back to their near-future premise and invent a bunch of faux sci-fi stuff and force you to use a fake browser, but instead we’re tasked with making that philatelist too Become furiously analyze stamps from real, faraway places.
gimmick? For sure. That’s fair I think. But it’s also an interesting and fairly novel concept – and that’s not often said by video game critics, let’s be honest.
The problem is that I didn’t get my review key until after the game released, which means almost every time I type a search string into Google, a handy Chinatown Detective Agency guide to the puzzle in question pops up instead. And while you’re told “one of the key mechanics of CDA is that the player has to figure things out for themselves,” turns out that’s not the case completely true as it is backed by a – useful, of course, if Google/your internet is down I think – tipping system where you can pay your friendly librarian three hundred dollars to either give a hint or tell you the solution. I’ve used both and found them to be equally worth Amira’s money.
Unfortunately, most of Chinatown Detective Agency’s other features — a flight assistant that somehow always charges you $550 whether you’re leaving next month or hopping on a last-minute flight in the next half hour; an in-game calendar/clock that a “wait” button instantly makes redundant; a tedious loading screen for mass transit systems when you need to move around the city, and; A point-and-click mini-game for shooting pesky culprits that was so rare that I kept forgetting it existed – it lacks both sparkle and purpose.
If you can make your peace with the other lightweight or frustrating mechanics, Chinatown Detective Agency introduces you to a memorable cast and takes you to some striking locations.
Also, the fact that Amira has to use her own income to travel and pay rent and utilities for her job sure sounds like it adds an interesting wrinkle, but it doesn’t I’m afraid. Within a handful of tasks and a few “Snap!” Card games presented as “hacking” mini-puzzles, Amira had $20,000 in her bank account and I googled “what do private investigators really earn and how can I become one” in her very real web browser.
However, the Chinatown Detective Agency’s greatest crime isn’t the cases that fall in Amira’s path, but an irritating backup system. At first it’s sold as an intentional mechanic – you’re not allowed to save at all until tutorial cases are completed, and even after that you can only save between missions – but the fact that some missions can fail, forcing you to restart is an unnecessary one Frustration when it’s an accidental mistake because the cat spilled tea over your keyboard or your four-year-old yells at the top of the stairs that no, it’s not actually bedtime.
The problem is compounded by CDA’s shaky stability. Even after the 1.0.14 patch, I continued to encounter numerous glitches, mostly in the audio area – the most persistent being spooky footsteps from the environment following me even though I’d left that area ten minutes earlier – and twice the game crashed, the first of which occurred before autosave was unlocked. To be fair, the developer says they’re “working on a new update to allow manual saves mid-missions” and “give [the team] some time to make it happen” – but that doesn’t help the people who have it now, does it?
Aside from those minor – or major, depending on your personal point of view – irritations, there’s a lot to enjoy about Chinatown Detective Agency, and the story is well worth the drive. Personally, I’m a little tired of the fondness for retro pixel art, but if you can put up with the other lightweight or frustrating mechanics, Chinatown Detective Agency introduces you to a memorable cast and takes you to some striking locations. What a crime, then, that such a promising premise doesn’t get along with them quite enough.