REVIEW: Chinatown Detective Agency is a mystery worth solving

There are many adventure games that put you in the shoes of a detective and task you with solving mysteries. Chinatown Detective Agency is the rare game that actually makes you feel like a detective. How it accomplishes this is simple; it makes you do real detective work. Rather than solving puzzles using only in-game tools, Chinatown Detective Agency sends you beyond the realm of your Switch display. A retro throwback to Carmen Sandiego and 90s adventure games, you’ll need to go online and use your favorite search engine to acquire real-world information and solutions. The experience is inventive, challenging and unlike anything else done these days.

I can't wait for phones to look like this again in the future.

I can’t wait for phones to look like this again in the future.

Chinatown Detective Agency takes place in Singapore in the year 2037, although you will travel to countries around the world throughout your adventure. The game imagines a Blade Runner-like dark cyber world full of drones, AI, and the endless complications that new technology introduces. At the same time, the graphics and aesthetics are resolutely lo-fi, in homage to the inspirations of the creators. The pixelated graphics and your in-game phone and email account all look like something out of an 80s sci-fi movie. This dichotomy between old and new creates a lovely blend of nostalgia and aspiration futurists.

The holidays in 2037 are off the hook!

The holidays in 2037 are off the hook!

The graphics never feel primitive or outdated either. Their style is rooted in the past, but a clever application of light and shadow makes this game a treat to explore. Animation is limited, but the characters and background locations have been drawn with a level of skill that makes for some truly stunning landscapes. All of this is enhanced by a cool, jazzy soundtrack and the atmospheric sounds of bustling sci-fi towns. It’s a great place to hang out.

I have a feeling this guy might not mean what he says.

I have a feeling this guy might not mean what he says.

History and world-building are two of the fields in which Chinatown Detective Agency really shines. Again, the game is set in the near future, but it’s very much based on real-world events. Each location you visit comes with a bit of optional knowledge about the city’s history. Some of these events are real while others are imaginary, but even the most fantastical ideas don’t seem too far-fetched. Like some of the best works of science fiction, the writing goes just far enough to be exciting (or scary) without sacrificing plausibility. The game also doesn’t shy away from discussing issues like war, genocide, or the recent pandemic; it all helps to add texture and make things look real. It’s a well-done hybrid of hard-boiled crime fiction and modern concepts like AI sentience and cyberterrorism.

The morgue is an underrated setting for a cute encounter.

The morgue is an underrated setting for a cute encounter.

The story focuses on private investigator Amira Darma. A retired police detective, she has her own story, strengths and weaknesses that you will discover while playing. So does the cast of characters that surrounds Amira, both her clients and the friends she makes along the way. They don’t all have important roles to play, but they come across as well-made, three-dimensional human beings. They also represent a variety of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes towards the world. Combined with your globe-trotting adventures, it gives a refreshing perspective that we don’t normally get in video games. Large sections of the game are performed by authentic talent representing the characters’ different ethnicities and backgrounds. All the actors do a superb job, and it’s clear that a lot of care has been taken to do justice to their voices.

Officer, please, I'm just trying to get a snack.

Officer, please, I’m just trying to get a snack.

case in Chinatown Detective Agency are what you might call “bite-sized”, usually consisting of two or three key locations and puzzles to solve before things end. It might be a little shocking at first if you expect each case to contain a full arc on its own, but most of them will eventually blend into the larger story. The shorter nature of the cases makes it easier to pick up the game for a little while to solve a puzzle or two when you can’t commit to a longer session. Puzzles make up the bulk of these cases, deciphering clues in order to figure out what to do next. Often the answer will be a place you need to visit, either by train to Singapore or by plane to another country entirely.

After careful consideration, I managed to deduce that it is in fact a stamp.

After careful consideration, I managed to deduce that it is in fact a stamp.

Again, these puzzles are all related to actual knowledge of the real world. Fact-finding on the Internet is strongly encouraged, if not mandatory. You might feel like you’re cheating at first, but it’s an integral mechanic of the game. It’s more than just a trivial test, and the answers won’t be as straightforward as expected. Sure, you can research the source of a clue online, but what you do with this information is something else entirely. Sometimes just knowing what you should be looking for is the headache in and of itself.

The types of puzzles you’ll encounter include riddles, numbers, historical and literary references, and more. (Anyone who’s been to an escape room should feel right at home.) Some of them will definitely require some out-of-the-box thinking, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t figure something out right away. If you’re really stuck, you can always call your contact Mei Ting for a hint, or ask her to give you the solution directly. If you stick with that, it can be extremely satisfying to discover the answer for yourself. (The Switch’s screenshot feature is also useful here, allowing you to easily follow along and zoom in on evidence.) If you get the answer wrong, you can usually fix it and try something else. Sometimes you will be forced to start a case over from scratch as punishment for failure. This can be tedious, but since business moves quickly, it’s not too cumbersome.

Flights in this game are about 200% less painful than in real life.

Flights in this game are about 200% less painful than in real life.

The game is fairly linear, but there are two key aspects that help open up the world a bit: time and money. An in-game clock keeps track of time, with each minute of play lasting about a second in reality. Time often comes into play when planning flights to other countries, or when making appointments and meeting clients. Don’t worry too much about having to sit at the airport while waiting for your flight. A “wait” option in the menu will allow you to speed up to 48 hours until you need to do something.

Shit.  That $6,000 could have bought me... a gallon of gas.

Shit. That $6,000 could have bought me… a gallon of gas.

As for the money, you’ll get paid for these instances, with the occasional bonus to go beyond that. Most of the time you will be spending money on plane tickets, but sometimes you may have to bribe someone or even pay bills. Each month, an e-mail will inform you of the amount you owe for your rent and your utilities. If you run out of money and can’t afford to pay your bills, it’s game over.

The systems of time and money in Chinatown Detective Agency both feel a bit half-baked and are probably the game’s weakest points. They’re both interesting concepts, but it looks like they have the potential to go a lot further. Instead, they fade after a while, almost never affecting a case significantly. You are free to ignore the day/night cycle, never needing to sleep, and you can wait at the airport for hours without any consequence or effect on gameplay. In the meantime, you’re very unlikely to run out of money unless you really struggle and end up flying twenty times around the world looking for a lead. The time and money systems are in place to give the player a sense of urgency and an incentive not to brutally force puzzles with trial and error attempts. In this regard, they mostly do their job, but they could have been developed and incorporated in a more interesting way.

The same can be said for another mechanic introduced by the game; expand your office space and hire new employees. When the concept first appears, it looks like it will truly open up the gaming world and allow you to run your own personal PI Tycoon-style game on the side. Sadly, that’s not the case, and it really feels like an afterthought. I would have liked to see more of these aspects to help flesh out the world and gameplay, but the only real meat in the game is the main story and its mysteries.

Did I mention that there are occasional firefights in this game?

Did I mention that there are occasional firefights in this game?

A number of technical blunders also detracted from the experience. Sometimes music or sound effects come on at the wrong time, or a voice line doesn’t play when it’s supposed to. It’s disappointing considering how engaging the otherwise scripted scenes are. The save system is another quirk, only allowing you to save your game between cases, not while one is in progress. Presumably, this is so you can’t save right before guessing a puzzle to try and game the system, but that’s unnecessarily restrictive, even if the cases are as short as they are. These small failures are for me signs that the game could have spent a little more time in the oven.

No, thank you, Amira!

No, thank you, Amira!

Or Chinatown Detective Agency excels in its setting, characters, and unique approach to puzzles. With more time and an expanded budget (it was funded on Kickstarter in 2020) I think it could have reached much greater heights, but as it stands it’s still a little science thriller -Tight and engaging fiction. The puzzles are rewarding to solve and often genuinely educational in an entertaining way. The mysteries are intriguing and the game isn’t afraid to explore captivating themes. Expect to encounter commentary on class struggle, corporate monopolies, political oligarchs, cultural appropriation, and other real-world issues that are extremely relevant to our times. The game’s unique approach and perspectives on these topics are much appreciated.

If you’re a fan of old-school adventure games, die-hard detectives, future noir settings, or geographical puzzles, Chinatown Detective Agency absolutely worth the detour. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see Amira Darma take charge of a case. I think she could have a bright future ahead of her.

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