‘Chinatown Detective Agency’ review: a frustrating, neon-soaked beauty

VSopyrighted gene sequences. Pervasive monitoring. Edible-gold-flecked water. Chinatown Detective Agency is a LucasArts-style adventure game that forgoes pixel-hunting moon logic for Carmen Sandiego-inspired detective work, set in a noirish, cyber 2036 Singapore – one with too much terrifying state oversight for the ‘punk’ suffix to find any real footing.

Things start strong, with gorgeous pixel art vistas that evoke a remarkable sense of place. An early case sees you overlooking botanical gardens at dusk, while the metropolitan skyline looms as if primed to devour this last holdout of natural beauty. Pulsing retrowave nests softy under the ambient din of the city – skilful audio mixing that helps to offset some jarring differences between spoken and written dialogue, although this is thankfully mostly frontloaded.

You play as Amira Darma, sole proprietor of the titular detective agency, nestled away in a rented, run-down space above a strip of restaurants. Classic, comfy point-n-click meta-humor starts here, with Amira joking about the conceit of such a recognisably noir detective agency existing in 2036, all dusty books and metal filing cabinets. “Didn’t think I’d see the day cloud storage would cost more than actual physical storage.”

Chinatown Detective Agency.  Credit: General Interactive Co.
Chinatown Detective Agency. Credit: General Interactive Co.

After a dramatic drone-assassination in the first minute, things slow down for a while, with simple stakes and puzzles to ease you in. Amira’s first task is locating a library book, and it’s here the game’s approach to many of its puzzles first reveals itself – one that’s admirably experimental but fundamentally flawed. You’re given a hint for the book. “Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing.” Spoilers: It’s a Herodotus quote. I know this because I used the huge button at the bottom of the screen to open up a browser tab and googled it – exactly as the game intended I do.

The first few times the game pulls this trick, it’s novel – absorbing, even. Researching the cities that house landmarks depicted on rare stamps is easy enough, but identifying post cancellation marks by working out the language spoken in a then-colonised part of the world, for a cash bonus, is far more involved and ingenious – even if this same ‘case’ structure makes you feel more like a courier than a detective the third or fourth time the game repeats it, and even if Amira’s funds turn out to be far less of a concern than the early hours suggest.

Chinatown Detective Agency.  Credit: General Interactive Co.
Chinatown Detective Agency. Credit: General Interactive Co.

The story here, of returning antiques from private collections to their countries of origin, is easy to get on board with, and the historical context for these antiques is a fun, enlightening read. Inventive, sure, but not quite inventive enough to support an hour or so spent booking in-game flights and googling city names. Worse, this particular case – a very early one – is about as creative as the game gets. It gets more time-consuming, sure. Using the Fibonacci Spiral or The Enigma machine to solve cyphers certainly aren’t easy puzzles, demanding concentration, but they also conveniently exonerate the game from containing the solutions to its own mysteries. Every alt-tab pulls you out of the game’s world and into our own, and every solution based on some real-world cipher or piece of geographical trivia is another the game doesn’t have to create from its own fiction, world, or characters .

That’s not to say that all these puzzles miss the mark. Googling poisoning symptoms to identify which strains a lab assistant should analyze a strand of hair for made me feel like a clever sleuth, however briefly. But here’s also where a feeling began to creep up on me: If the game gives me a quote, or some trivia, or a crossword puzzle to solve for a lethargic watchman on a graveyard shift so I sneak into a factory, and then fully expects me to alt-tab so I can search out the solution, how is this meaningfully, functionally different than stopping to google a strategy guide? It’s to the game’s credit that the story conceits often obscure how banal this is, but it’s a thought I never managed to shake.

Chinatown Detective Agency.  Credit: General Interactive Co.
Chinatown Detective Agency. Credit: General Interactive Co.

Still, if the puzzles never made me want to quit outright, the save function nearly broke me completely. The game autosaves after every ‘case’, each of which is usually fifteen to thirty minutes, depending on the puzzles. You’re informed early of this, and that you can apparently manually save between cases, but if this option exists, I couldn’t find it. It’s certainly not in the settings menu. Amira will occasionally get dragged into single shootouts. Click on the suspect’s legs or arms before the timer runs out, and you win. Take too long, or accidentally kill them, and you lose – and get thrown right back to the start of the case. There aren’t enough swear words in the language sometimes.

But I didn’t quit, because Chinatown Detective Agency‘s writing kept me going. Conspiracies and plots overlap and tangle with such forethought that they seem to have a life of their own, like the snake sanctuary of USB wires under my desk. Amira and her comrades are likeable, determined, and just the right amount of goofy for the genre. Sometimes, the game throws up beautiful, odd poetic phrases. Droids “move with the grace of greased ballerinas”. Sometimes, a student in a library reads you a poem about Durian fruit. It nails the tone.

And, it goes without saying, it’s refreshing to see a cyberpunk-adjacent game where Asian culture is the foundation, rather than a holdover plucked from the genre’s costume box without thought or examination. This is a thoughtful script, deeply skeptical of oligarchies and colonialism, and passionate about the accessibility of information, and the beauty of travel and cultural legacy, rather than some aimless, neon-tinged rage at vague notions of authority. That’s not to say it’s a manifesto, either. Like all good sci-fi, it asks questions, then explores the answers.

But the question Chinatown Detective Agency asked most was this: How can any mystery really exist in an age of such abundant information? What place is there for the Carmen Sandiegos and the stakeouts, the fingerprint dusters and magnifying glasses, the grand libraries, when everyone has access to google, and surveillance is total and unceasing? Chinatown Detective Agency doesn’t quite find that place, but it’s not for lack of heart or ingenuity.

Chinatown Detective Agency launches on April 7 for PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.

The Verdict

An engaging plot, likeable cast, and funny and insightful writing save an otherwise uneven and frequently flat series of puzzles that over rely on search engines and not enough on the game’s strongest elements – its world and storytelling.

Pros

  • Likeable characters, absorbing dialogue, interesting plot
  • Innovative puzzle approach does an admirable job of attempting to make you feel like a detective
  • High replayability based on a few key choices

Cons

  • Frustrating save system
  • While ambitious, the ‘real world solutions’ approach to puzzles ends up pulling you out more than bringing you in
  • Over reliance on internet searches means very few puzzles and solutions arise naturally from the world, characters, or plot

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