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The title screen to chinatown detective agency. A woman in a suit is pointing a gun superimposed against a background of a neon skyline, with other hard-boiled characters around her.

Chinatown Detective Agency Review – Admirable Work in a Dysfunctional System

While not all the the offbeat spots in Chinatown Detective Agency can be written off as thematic, its intention may well be clear enough to win you over.

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Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title by Humble Games.

Chinatown Detective Agency runs a hot-and-cold case. Its miniscule cursor fights against its enabled-by-default accessibility options. Its native slang bumps up against some inconsistent acting choices. And its mission to empower the player's gumshoe ambition is undercut by how the game itself minimizes to the taskbar every single time I tab away to do some digging.

But there's enough in Chinatown Detective Agency that I'm simply not seeing elsewhere. That, right or wong, is wholly built with this game in mind.

And I'll be knocked on my back if that isn't worth a look.

The Facts

Chinatown Detective Agency, by and large, plays out like a thirteen-episode miniseries of a detective story. Each “case” on offer takes anywhere from half an hour to fifty minutes to play, each largely self-contained but building in turn a context for the next. There's even three “story arcs” in the game, fleshing out the rough shape of a single-season drama you might binge in one weekend (or a particularly long Saturday).

And each of those cases follows a regular structure, plus or minus a few hooks. Most will see you trotting the in-game globe, with a home focus on the spiderweb that is Shanghai. On approaching your story-appropriate destination, the game will try to trip you up with one of two or three puzzles per case, Sometimes they require just a nudge of lateral thinking, but more often the challenge is in interpreting the intent of a vaguely-cryptic puzzle, allowing a solution to slide oh-so-satisfyingly into place.

The unique hook here is that many questions will rely on information that simply isn't in the game itself. Rather, Chinatown Detective Agency expects the player to regularly pull out their favorite search engine and decipher what real-world dynasty a given coin was minted in. This isn't always the case – often the exact question to ask is painfully obvious, and certain puzzles are more narrative or perfectly solvable with a close look. But there's enough a variety in there to add an extra layer of indentification on top of the puzzle itself, and really, isn't that the half the job of P.I. work?

Besides, it has to be said that I pulled out a physical notepad and a pen for some of the puzzles in this game, if only to not lose my place mid-cipher. Properly challenging or just tedious, you pick – but it's not often that you say that these days.

Chinatown detective agency - letter replacement puzzle

The Crusty Underbelly

That said, I don't think the test of time has been kind to the format of Chinatown Detective Agency, even over ten months. Unfortunately, for the game's search-engine-focused puzzles to really work, they have to be focused on specific, esoteric pieces of trivia and minutae. And, more often than not, searching for that specific minutae in 2023 will suggest a good half-dozen guides that simply give away the specific answers you seek in the form of an SEO-optimized blog post.

You see, there's nothing that Information Age people love to do more than explain things to you.

(Self included.)

Chinatown detective agency - interrogation

This isn't always the case – there's a set of visual puzzles early on that don't betray a specific question, and in that way encourage actual research to the point that I wasn't actually confident in my answer. And that instance, having to make well-informed guesses with a calculated level of certainty?

That's gumshoe work, baby.

It's a shame – and not even completely the developers' fault – that the arc of the Search-Engine Optimized Internet took some wind out of these particular sails. Depending on your reading, that may even feed into the game's themes, what with being a near-future cyberpunk story with a heavy skeptecism of information control.

Or it may just be an unfortunate side-effect of the game having any measure of success.

Neon-Hazy Skyline

But none of that can take away from this game's atmosphere.

I mean, just look at this:

Chinatown detective agency - skyline

As much as the moment-to-moment puzzle work, I was taken aback by this game's stylized visuals as underscored by a mellow synth soundtrack. The tri-tone interface is one thing, gleefully throwing back to 1980s silver-screen tech and its extrapolation from the PalmPilot. But this game gets pixel art in a way that's so hard to nail down.

It's definitely not perfectly accurate to the SNES or Genesis' golden age of pixel art – its ability is well beyond those constrained systems. But rather, Chinatown Detective Agency aims to enhance that look with an ever-so-slightly neon glow, letting the underlying clear lines go fuzzy under their own light. Pull lead detectove Amira Darma out of this setting, and she'd look right at home interrogating LucasArts' own Guybrush Threepwood. It's the thick atmostphere, that extra layer of embellishment that makes this a natural time-displaced cousin of those classic point-and-click adventure titles.

The Murky Truth

I covered Chinatown Detective Agency in brief about two years ago, sucked in and blown away by the strong showing in its opening chapter. So much so, in fact, that I roped fellow creator CapsuleJay into playing it for his followers. It stood out to me in a cascade of other independently-driven cyberpunk games embracing the genre's roots.

And I stand by that, even in the face of its foibles. Especially in the face of its foibles.

I can't help but love those ups and downs, the attempts at player choice that end up often false, the now-neutered reliance on digital tools, and everything between. And, as written, it's skeptical of anything corporate, simultaneously hopeful and hesitant of the future, but most of all wary of how our past will dominate our future.

The execution isn't all there all the time, sure. But it's rare to see the core conceit of a game play so perfectly into the very conceit of the genre it plies its trade in, intentionally or not.

Cyberpunk exists to show us a broken future. And while I don't think that all of Chinatown Detective Agency‘s shortcomings can be written off as thematic, its intention is clear enough to win me over. To want to put it in front of other people as an example of a game that, regardless of its absolute value, remains admirable in how it plays to its own thesis. A game that understood the assignment, and even if it loses marks on execution, gains them right back for inviting you to take its ideas more seriously.

And there's absolutely something to be said for a story that makes you want to be generous toward it. That's got to count for an awful lot.

Geek to Geek Media Score: The Most Enthusiastic 3.5/5 I've Ever Given

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Chinatown detective agency - neon billboard threat

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