Chinatown Detective Agency tries to make old new again with its Carmen Sandiego-esque approach to adventuring. Travel the world to solve riddles, discover clues, and nab the bad guy. While its atmosphere is on the darker side as it’s set in a cyberpunk near-future, the characters add enough levity to ease the tension while it tactfully maintains an air of gravity. Unfortunately, the whole venture falls apart with surprisingly poor execution, both technically and in terms of gameplay.
Amira Darma is a former INTERPOL agent who has put her successful life behind her to pave a new path as a private investigator. Soon after hanging her shingle, she meets a few new clients who are exotic in their secrecy and intensity; no milk runs for this gumshoe. Each mission seems more serious than the last. Fortunately, Amira’s connections and talent attract equally skilled compatriots who help her solve nefarious puzzles and navigate dangerous situations.
One of the most appealing aspects of Chinatown Detective Agency is its Singapore setting, a unique place for games that hasn’t been used much, with a fascinating history. I have some background with Singapore, and I’ve been a few times, so I was excited to see if the game could truly capture the country’s feel, and it delivers in that regard. From the factoids at each location, to the slang, to the accent, this is an authentically Singaporean experience. Too bad we can’t try the food!
The writing’s capable, as several of the characters boast a degree of charm and the game rarely drags from being overly verbose. Near the end, the writing starts to feel rushed, forcing players to make significant leaps in logic that don’t intuitively make sense. While it’s a short experience, clocking in at around seven hours, the pacing and flow of the narrative felt right, up until the last quarter or so, as it reached the crescendo.
Sound writing aside, Chinatown Detective Agency is a frustrating, odd experience. Where to begin? What most players might find alarming is the lack of a competent save feature. After each case, the game auto-saves, but at no point during a mission can players manually save. After completing the two-hour prologue, the game announces that manual saving is enabled — and why does it wait in the first place — only to fail to disclose that saving can only occur at the very start of a mission before a case is taken. This means that if players want to read emails or travel someplace around Singapore, they can, but once a case is actually taken, they cannot save. If your cat catches on fire or your house gets stuck in a tree, you will have to close the game down and lose your progress. Practically, this means that if a tough puzzle — typically at the end of a case — takes you a while and then you’re primed to go out or dinner’s served, your only recourse is to leave the game open or close it down and sift through the slow dialogue all over again.
I’m not sure what the logic is because almost every modern game allows saving at any time or, at the very least, at save points. There’s simply no excuse for this. Clicking around to walk through a small room isn’t any easier, either. Amira can get stuck on furniture and walks slowly, which isn’t normally a cause for concern, but if players have to retry a mission, this is just one more irritation.
Clicking on windows that pop up, such as to review evidence or re-read previous dialogue, can be a chore, as well, as closing them may take a few clicks. At one point, I even got soft-locked and had to come back to the game after a few days, presumably once the problem was patched. Character dialogue doesn’t always match the voice acting, and some lines are skipped entirely in a single character’s string of dialogue. If I’m really nitpicking, some of the audio is delivered at different volumes or sounds slightly muffled, suggesting it was all recorded in different environments.
As far as actual gameplay in Chinatown Detective Agency is concerned, each case generally has one or two puzzles. The cases are brief, so the frustrating saving debacle isn’t insurmountable, but they also lack impact. Each puzzle requires players to do some Google searching, which is a refreshing approach to adventure gaming. But as the game has so many other problems, I started to question if I could find the actual answer as the riddle was presented or if the developers themselves would present a correct solution. In fact, during one challenging puzzle, I paid a comrade to just provide the answer, and the response she provided was in the wrong order.
If I’m being fair, though, when a difficult puzzle is solved, it’s an exciting, refreshing moment. Some of these noodle-scratchers felt great to solve and made me feel smart, while others lacked imagination or sophistication. How many times do I have to solve a Morse code puzzle in a game? Though, during some of Chinatown Detective Agency’s puzzles, I felt like I learned something, and that’s huge praise for any game.
Graphically, Chinatown Detective Agency looks great with its hybrid of pixelated environments and realistic portraits. On the other hand, sometimes the pixelwork doesn’t deliver puzzles well, which is itself a significant deterrent to finding the solution. Maybe that was the point, but it was a frustrating problem to overcome. Audibly, Chinatown Detective Agency had some classy piano pieces, and the voice acting was generally well-delivered, but the aforementioned blemishes remain.
Unfortunately, I simply can’t recommend Chinatown Detective Agency. I wanted to love it, the premise is up my alley, and the setting immediately won me over. But it’s so bogged down by technical issues and design decisions that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Amira’s a likable protagonist, and some of the puzzles will stick with me, but the problems eclipsed any enjoyment I could have experienced.