Review – Chinatown Detective Agency
One of the biggest reasons I loved becoming an adult was removing the need to do busywork or unnecessary research for things I wasn’t passionate about. Once I got to university, suddenly I was only studying what I wanted to study. If I was curious about a thing, I could look it up at my massive library, use the first high-speed internet that I ever tasted, or ask like-minded individuals around me for answers because it gave a sense of conjoined wisdom and community. So naturally, when a game decides to sit me down and say “you’re going to play a game, but I’m also going to need you to put in effort as a research assistant,” I balk. There’s clearly a concept going on here that might appeal to some, but, for me, Chinatown Detective Agency lost me almost immediately.
It’s crushing, it really is, when something so cool is ruined by something so mundane and frankly counterintuitive. The concept is great: near-future cyberpunk noir. You’ve got the technology that’s just beyond the current horizon, but not by much. You’ve got the shady individuals who’ve got too many fingers in too many pies, some whodunnit levels of murder mystery, and a protatonist, Amira Darma, who is an ex-cop with just enough secrets to hide to keep her compelling as well. It’s set in Sinagpore, against a dirty neon backdrop, and the whole thing sings of high praise and influence.
It’s like if Gemini Rue had a spiritual successor who was super influenced by Blade Runner, but also was roommates with a dude who exclusively sold neon paint. Then, having successfully grabbed my attention, proceded to add in a bunch of stuff that made me deeply resent the game.
So let’s start basic. Chinatown Detective Agency is an ambitious point-and-click puzzle/adventure game that wants you to travel the globe and juggle multiple ideas at once while attempting to put together a large scale conspiracy across several cases. Amira has to investigate different leads and clues that are helpfully cataloged in the Mission Log part of the HUD, which, in many screenshots, looks overcrowded and chaotic. You can, thankfully, minimize the cell phone and bottom interface to help give you the maximum screen space to appreciate the world around you.
As you move along, you’ll make contacts and keep notes about what’s important, which the game helpfully catalogs as long as it’s something you learned within the game. That seems cryptic, but we’ll come back to that. Additionally, you need to try and keep the game focused on what you’re doing, which seems very strange when you consider the different angles that the game is working.
You see, Chinatown Detective Agency also wants to work in these elements of time and money. Time is sort of flexible, because you can literally just tell Amira to wait someplace for a set amount of time in order to trigger certain events that happen in the mornings or evenings. Particularly, this is helpful when your cases take you outside of Singapore and you need to globe trot, as flights don’t want to leave whenever you want to leave. However, this does play directly into the money element, which is something that you need to be very aware of. Though it’s minor in the scope of it all, you need to pay rent, pay for plane tickets, and tip off informants in order to advance the game at points. This money comes from solving cases, so you have incentives to keep the game moving without miss-stepping too many times. Waste your days trying to figure out what to do next and suddenly you’ve missed your rent payment and it’s game over.
Time restraints are a bugger unto themselves, but it hits even harder in a game that actively tells you that it doesn’t have the answers. No, I’m not exaggerating: Chinatown Detective Agency tells the player that answers to some riddles and clues don’t exist within the game whatsoever. You need to have a computer, smartphone or Encyclopedia Britannica handy in order to look up things, starting with the very first clue where you get a quote from Herodotus. If you don’t know it’s Herodotus (because I sure as hell didn’t), you gotta type in the clue and get this historian’s name before you can move on.
You can brute force your way through these moments the same way you’d brute force through guessing someone’s favorite Wikipedia entry without ever knowing them. Therefore, research is an important aspect. This seems like it could be cool as an educationally driven game (I would love a modern Carmen Sandiego game), but it feels backwards for something that’s trying to drag you into a world. Oh yea, you’re in this dystopian nightmare of a world with robot assassins and remote hacking from foreign entities, but hit pause so you can look up famous cities of Japan on your busted iPhone 7 that you can’t upgrade until next December. Really immersive.
Additionally, for a game that’s asking you to take time outside of it, there’s no respect for the idea of pausing a case. You can only save Chinatown Detective Agency before and after a case is completed, neutering any chance of putting down the game mid case so you can take care of life. For something like the Nintendo Switch, the suspend feature is invaluable, but that’s also a handheld system. Playing this on the computer, which is distinctly in my home, and not a floating entity, I had to sit down and power through a case lest I stop and restart it because, I don’t know, my kids needed to go to the store to get stuff for a project we all forgot about.
It’s almost like a double handed slap, because you can’t pause the case, but restarting from the beginning doesn’t feel like a big deal since puzzles and progress aren’t tied to anything from the game itself. It’s like when I played A Normal Lost Phone or Home and instantly beat the game because I knew the secret. You can just fly through Chinatown Detective Agency if you know the answers because the game doesn’t care about itself.
It’s such a damn bummer, because we have all the makings and outlines of something truly grand. The voice acting, though it continually deviates from the written text, is performative and solid. The characters are varied and engaging, and I like that there are multiple endings and paths depending on who you partner up with. The money isn’t enough to make you harried about playing through, but it is enough to compel you not to fuck around too much.
But the two main weapons of the game are asking you to break the 4th wall in order to play and to do it on their schedule. It’s something that doesn’t vibe with the real life responsibilities of most gamers, particularly those who enjoy point and click adventures. Sure, we love the concept of getting lost in a game for hours, but we also understand the very real possibility that literally anything will drag us away at any point.
I’m not asking for there to be a “Save anywhere” system, that could be a bit slapdash and make some puzzles too easy. Also, I recognize that the cases aren’t too long, so I don’t think that asking players to do a case without saving is unreasonable. Yet it is for me, and I have to believe that I’m not the only one who is increasingly less inclined to jump into a game knowing that it may demand a scaling amount of my time. Jumping online to play something, fair enough, that’s everyone’s responsibility. But Chinatown Detective Agency is asking players to commit, unfailingly, with the penalty of wasting your own time. That’s a stopper for me, and I think that it should be for anyone else who has a life outside of their computer.
Beautiful pixel art with some detailed portraits, the game is wonderful to look at.
Pointing and clicking is fine, puzzles are good, Googling stuff on my phone in order to actually proceed with the plot is not ideal.
Great voicework with a forgettable but ambient soundtrack.
The second I turn away from a game it disappears.
Final Verdict: 5.5
Chinatown Detective Agency is available now on PC, Xbox One X/S and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Chinatown Detective Agency was provided by the publisher.