Despite some visual delights in its cybernoir, pixel-art vision of Singapore and some strong characters, Chinatown Detective Agency’s let down by lightweight mechanics and bugs.
I’ve always thought I’d be a fabulous detective. I suspect it’s a side effect of the endless true crime stuff I watch – but I reckon I’ve an eye for the details, you know. A good sixth sense. The ability to spot that small, inconsequential something that turns out to be oh-so consequential after all.
It is, of course, complete bollocks. Much like playing Back 4 Blood won’t prep you for a real-world zombie apocalypse, bingeing true crime documentaries hasn’t taught me much that I can apply to real-life bar one exception (shout “Fire!” and not “Help!” if you’re at risk as that’s more likely to attract assistance; you’re welcome), and that became abundantly clear when I stepped into Singapore’s shadowy underbelly and into the shoes of Amira Darma, a freshly-minted private investigator who, as it so often goes, ends up embroiled in something she hadn’t quite been expecting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the titular Chinatown Detective Agency does exactly what it says on the tin, with a peri-futuristic glimpse of a neon-soaked Singapore serving as the striking backdrop to a sea of crooked business people and shady politicians. An ex-cop, Amira’s funnelled some early cases from collegial ex-colleague, but from there she builds her own client roster of the damned and the desperate and everything in-between.
And I like Amira. Calm and capable, she embodies all those things we’ve learned to associate with PIs without ever feeling like a caricature, her vocal delivery – when you get voice work, anyway – 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, though, Chinatown Detective Agency isn’t quite the traditional point-and-click adventure I was expecting. Sure, you’ll get those Monkey Island vibes from clicking gleefully on everything on the screen in front of you, but Amira’s sleuthing goes beyond spamming your interact button until you accidentally hit the solution. Sometimes, she needs to select the right dialogue to get the mark to open up. Sometimes, she’s under pressure to explore her environs speedily before the perp waltzes back into the room. And sometimes, she does what the rest of us do when we’re stumped: she turns to Google.
To be clear, I’m not talking about some wanky in-game browser that looks and acts like Google; Chinatown Detective Agency includes an on-screen button that will tab you out of the game directly into the browser of your choice. It’s such a simple thing, granted, but my word is it effective. To give an early and non-spoiler-y example, one of your first missions has you unravelling a secret message hidden in a book and you need to discover who wrote it, but all you have is a single line. Pop it in Google – to be fair, it’s a very unique phrase – and boom, there it is: the author.
It’s to the developer’s credit, then, that the sleuthing Amira has to do is all couched in real-life culture and history. It would’ve been easy for Chinatown Detective Agency to have fallen back on its near-future premise and invented a load of faux sci-fi stuff and force you to utilise a pretend browser, but instead, we’re tasked to become philatelists that furiously analyse stamps from real, far-flung places.
Gimmicky? Sure. That’s fair, I reckon. But it’s an interesting and pretty novel concept, too – and that’s not something video game critics get to say very often, let’s face it.
The trouble is, I didn’t get my review key until after the game had been released, which means almost every time I stuck a search string into Google, a handy Chinatown Detective Agency guide for the puzzle concerned pops up instead. And even though you’re told, “one of the key mechanics of CDA is that it requires the player to figure things out on their own”, that turns out not to be entirely true, as it’s supported by a – useful, granted, if Google/your internet is down, I guess – tip system whereby you can pay your friendly librarian three hundred bucks to either offer a hint or flat-out tell you the solution. I used both and found them each to be equally worth Amira’s money.
Sadly, most of Chinatown Detective Agency’s other features – a flight assistant that somehow always charges you $550 whether you’re flying out next month or jumping on a last-minute flight in the next half hour; an in-game calendar/clock made instantly redundant by a “wait” button; a dull mass transit system loading screen for when you need to move around the city, and; a point-and-click mini-game to shoot troublesome perps that happened so infrequently, I kept forgetting it existed – lack both polish 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 places.
The fact Amira has to use her own earnings to travel and pay rent and utilities on her workspace sure sounds like it might add an interesting wrinkle, too, but it doesn’t, I’m afraid. Within a handful of assignments and a couple of “Snap!” card games presented as “hacking” mini-puzzles, Amira had $20K in her bank account and I was Googling “what do private investigators really earn and how can I become one” into her very real web browser.
Chinatown Detective Agency’s biggest crime, however, is not the cases that fall Amira’s way, but an irritating save system. At first, it’s sold as an intentional mechanic – you’re not allowed to save at all until the tutorial cases are done, and even after that, you can only save between missions – but the fact that some missions can be failed and force you to restart is an unnecessary frustration if it’s an unforced error because the cat’s tipped tea over your keyboard or your four-year-old is screaming at the top of the stairs that no, it’s not bedtime, actually.
The problem is only compounded by CDA’s shaky stability. Even after the 1.0.14 patch, I continued to encounter plentiful glitches, chiefly around audio – most persistent were ghostly ambient footsteps that followed me around even though I’d left that area ten minutes prior – and twice the game crashed, the first of which occurring before auto-saving was unlocked. To be fair, the developer says it’s working “on a new update to allow manual saves in the middle of the missions” and “give [the team] some time to make it possible” – but that doesn’t help the people who have it now, does it?
Those small – or big, depending upon your personal view – irritations aside, there’s a lot to enjoy about Chinatown Detective Agency, and the story’s just about worth the ride. Personally, I’m a little tired of the penchant for retro pixel art, but 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 places. What a crime it is, then, that such a promising premise doesn’t quite do enough with them.