The puzzle mystery genre has always been one of my favourites. There is a certain charm to figuring out exactly what to do in any given situation and figuring things out yourself is as rewarding as defeating the hardest boss in a Soulsborne title. Chinatown Detective Agency is an indie title that deviates from the norm, yet feels familiar, as it carries everything that makes an excellent noir-based game but includes its own brand of intrigue.
By just starting Chinatown Detective Agency up, the entire atmosphere is delivered in a striking unique way. You are Amira Darma, and you are a private detective. In the opening conversation of the game, General Interactive gives just enough information to not overwhelm the player, but really detail the character and game’s setting. Amira is a former police officer with a chip on her shoulder, and she has no desire to return to police work. The voice acting is fantastic, and eerie hymns round out the rest of the pixelated atmosphere with a dressing that is tasteful in design.
The world feels real, and in a cyber-noire type title, certain aspects of realism help really round out the story. Accents of main characters are diverse, and really add depth to the dark landscape the player finds themselves embroiled in.
The player is tasked with many cases that have multiple directions, Chinatown Detective Agency also warns the player gratuitously, you are basically on your own and must figure out what to do next with the help of a cryptic hint in the corner under the case icon. The HUD of the title shows necessary information and allows for reading of the most recent conversations. This small feature has helped me immensely in many of the cases, as small words can provide new looks at old information regarding the current task faced. When hitting a dead end and not knowing what to do next, this is a lifeline, but one the game expects the player to use.
The gameplay is simple but provides a huge amount of depth. This is a point-and-click adventure, so players will be tasked with surveying surroundings to move forward. Sometimes, clicking around for clues on a given screen can feel arduous, but the mechanics work very well here, and the 2.5D styling gives the player more space to work with.
“The world feels real, and in a cyber-noire type title, certain aspects of realism help really round out the story.”
There are many small mini-games in Chinatown Detective Agency that assault Amira on the road to solving a case: there are hacking segments that play out like a memory match game, there are code deciphering moments that demand the use of separate notes, and there are even areas where the game shatters the fourth wall to demand usage of the real-life internet. The internet is as much of your friend in the game as it is in real life. This is the best feature in Chinatown Detective Agency.
While on the Chinatown Detective Agency’s first case—to avoid spoilers—the player receives cryptic quotes from a famous book, and demands they insert ‘keywords’ into a console to advance the case. I slammed my head repeatedly against this for a good 5 minutes, attempting to find the right word to throw at the console. This is where I used the internet and typed the quote in, and to great effect the findings moved the story along. A novel design choice, and I felt like the new age Sherlock Holmes figuring out the internet can help.
Many storyline aspects are not rushed or skimped on, instead there are many likeable—and detestable—characters that Amira meets. In one instance, bribing a librarian to obtain information is used. This small segment is LOADED with detail, and the librarian herself says how she isn’t paid enough, so the bribery creates a friendship that Amira must revisit in the future. Of course, in-game money is necessary to continue opening the door on this friendship and the help it provides, a realistic aspect to strengthen the binding of Chinatown Detective Agency.
“Chinatown Detective Agency has many novel ideas in a title that embraces the mystery and puzzle aspects of games with the deftest of hands.”
As the beginning case ends, there are multiple directions the player can take to finish things up. More mini-games, such as shootouts, greet the player, and continuously warn of what can happen during these segments. This adds heavy weight, and the tension feels like choices and decisions truly matter. A detective must not make mistakes.
The player has a bankroll they must maintain during gameplay. After each case ends, the title auto-saves, and advances the storyline. But if for any reason, the player drains their bank account, it’s basically game over. So, making multiple attempts that cost cash can derail investigations. Even using the subway costs $2 and it is necessary to visit certain locales.
Another small gripe I have with Chinatown Detective Agency, is the internet aspect. While it is incredibly fun, I have concerns that typing the words on internet search engines may lead to game walkthroughs in the future. This can spoil the player and give way too much information instead of the small guiding hand that is intended. Also, when replaying a case to determine differences in choice, the player must trudge through repetition of what was once compelling dialogue, as skipping these instances is not possible.
Chinatown Detective Agency has many novel ideas in a title that embraces the mystery and puzzle aspects of games with the deftest of hands. The rewarding feeling of solving a case is fantastic and exploring the game world and the many locales feels organic. The great writing, world-building, and character development is not to be overlooked during investigation, as all these elements together grease an already well-tuned machine into running at the best of its ability. A detective game truly well done.