I don’t want to judge a game by its demo, so don’t mistake this as a full preview of Chinatown Detective Agency. Instead, this’ll be an opportunity to talk about the past (what caught my eye), the present (what the demo does), and the future (what I’d like to see).
The cybernoir, pixelated glow of the city streets in Singapore, 2031, calls out to me, especially compared to the traditional glow of London’s skyline, reflected in the Thames. I liked the way each frame goes the extra mile in telling a story, like the presence of the homeless in that London scene, separate from the city, but huddled around their own fiery trashcan lights, the distance between them and even the reflection of the city telling an entire story in a single shot. I also like the game’s single-screen interface, which foregrounds the investigative structure and calls back to both the classic investigations of Carmen Sandiego and those of the modern MMORPG The Secret World.
The demo, which will carry over to the full game, provides players with access to the first three cases, which conveniently introduce you not only to the basic mechanics of moving about the city (and world) but to the types of stories you’ll be solving. (The inclusion of voice-acting, especially in interrogations, is a welcome addition.) There’s a criminal case involving embezzlement, a personal matter that deals with a rich but guilt-stricken man who seeks to divest himself of his inherited wealth, and a political conspiracy that begins with the all-too-plausible tale of a public water trust executive’s plan to distribute utilities by subscription tiers: the rich would of course buy “crystal clear” water, while the poor would be stuck with a “basic” plan that far exceeds the level of currently acceptable toxins.
Similarly to the recent Sherlock Holmes games, you’ll unlock and select locations on a map so that you can hack into locations, investigate crime scenes, and interrogate characters, but where it stands apart is that the answers to many puzzles must be found externally, and codes–like a book cypher–must be manually cracked. The prevalence of Google makes this a bit too easy sometimes, as when you need to figure out what book a quote originated from or to track down the local name for the Yangtze River, but credit to Chinatown Detective Agency for finding trickier visual puzzles to decode, like a series of stamps from countries around the world and their partial cancellation marks. After closing one case–and you can notably fail some of them if you don’t figure out where you need to go fast enough–you’ll unlock the next, earning cash based on your level of success, all of which helps to fund this ex-cop’s investigation of an overarching terrorism plot.
My impression is that after this opening prologue, players will have a more non-linear approach to the remainder of the game, which would fit with the open-ended way in which it allows you to book travel through HORUS to destinations like Istanbul, London, and Shanghai–i.e., you can very much go off-course. Some missions already hint at this, whether that’s the way you can shoot the wrong target (or in the wrong place) in the Shootout mode, or in how you can fail a mission by not getting there in time, but if we’re dealing with external investigations, the game needs to have a similar freedom internally.
That’s why I’m also hopeful that the game’s mini-games are either minimized or made far more complex. Hacking and augmentations are a vital part of the cyberpunk scene, and I like the idea that you’ll have to buy the right tools (or make the right bribes) to proceed in some cases, but if it’s going to be dumbed down to something like “solve this 3×4 Concentration grid,” then that’s insulting. I have no problem with puzzles being solvable entirely within the game, but I want them to be as original as the research I’m being asked to do outside of it, and if there’s a concern about balance or gating players from key story points, then there’s no reason hints can’t be bought (for in-game money, not actual cash) or, if there are mechanically taxing puzzles, why a manual save system can’t be included.
At any rate, I’m hopeful that the final version of Chinatown Detective Agency plays out as much like one of those real-world puzzle/scavenger hunts, and I’m only partially saying that because I’ve spent most of the last fourteen months quarantined and minimally traveling. I want an investigatory version of The Amazing Race where I’m not just booking travel but solving crimes along the way, and getting exposed to the culture and politics of this 2031 future. Here’s hoping!