Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X
April 7, 2022
Humble Games, WhisperGames
General Interactive Co.
I am more conflicted about Chinatown Detective Agency than I have been with a game in a very long time. It’s a mystery story that relies on your own investigation skills, which is an incredibly effective mechanic, and has gorgeous character illustrations and detailed pixel art. I wanted to love it, and I will sing its praises where it’s due. But I was let down in a number of small ways, and while its achievements do much to make up for what it lacks, it can’t reach its full potential as a fantastic mystery adventure game without some fixes.
Chinatown Detective Agency stars Amira Dharma, ex-cop turned private eye, who has opened up her new agency. She needs to solve her client’s problems, travelling the world to do it, while keeping enough money in the bank to keep her agency open. The game is set in a futuristic Singapore, but the course of the game takes you to major cities all over the world. There’s no real chance to explore the other cities, unfortunately, but there’s some imaginative futuristic scenery of the various locations you can visit. It’s almost entirely voice acted, but the quality of the voice acting is a bit hit and miss, with some characters sounding like they are a voice actor trying very hard to make their character memorable.
Comparisons have been made to Carmen Sandiago, the iconic globe-trotting educational game series that sees you chasing down a world-class thief by chasing her down to various cities. Like that game, Amira has a finite cash flow and sometimes a time limit, meaning it’s possible to fail missions if you get too many guesses wrong or take too long to get there. But that’s where the similarities end — Chinatown Detective Agency follows a main overarching adventure, and while Amira can do some limited globe-trotting for other clients in between, the game soon brings the initial mystery back into focus.
“The main story… doesn’t seem like it’s using Amira’s private-eye status to its full potential.”
What I enjoyed more than the main story was the in-between clients, of which there are only three, and sadly you can only choose one of their storylines to complete. I wanted to do them all, because in my mind the advantage of having a private eye as a protagonist is being able to accept strange, even petty, missions that may not even involve a crime. But the main story, which focuses on working with your ex-police buddy to solve a series of murders, doesn’t seem like it’s using Amira’s private-eye status to its full potential, really. She may as well still be a cop. I would have liked more choice of clients, and more time to work for them. With that being said, the overarching story that did exist was a perfectly exciting thriller that had plenty of interesting puzzles.
Visually, the game is stunning. The character illustrations in particular are very impressive, and the major cities you visit around the globe have had some interesting visual flare put into them. It all rather follows the “the future is neon” trope, where every city is done up in lights (even the Giza pyramid is lit up), but it’s very pretty nonetheless.
SEO ruins everything (maybe)
“What sets Chinatown Detective Agency apart is the fact that it expects you to do your own research in real-time.”
While point and click games featuring detectives or futuristic settings have been done before, what sets Chinatown Detective Agency apart is the fact that it expects you to do your own research in real-time. There are no heavy-handed in-game clues that point you towards the correct answer. You must use the limited information your client gives you and do your own research to find the answer. For example, one early puzzle presents you with a book quote, and it’s up to you to find the author of the quote on your own. That might seem easy, but the puzzles can get pretty tough.
This is pretty fun to do, and the success of finding the answer through some clever Googling is satisfying indeed. Not only did you find the answer by yourself, but you found the clues too! You don’t need to be a master at online research, but you might just learn a thing or two about how to do it better. Some puzzles require more advanced searches for online tools and decoders, which when discovered can truly make you feel like a master detective. And if you really get stuck, you can use some of your hard-earned cash on a hint or even the solution.
But I worry that this may be the game’s biggest weakness as well as its strength, for one big reason: search engine optimisation, or SEO. Search engines like Google can be smart enough to see through what you’re searching for – you might be searching something very specific, like latitude co-ordinates to a quote from a book, but if enough players search the same things, Google may begin showing results for walkthroughs of the game rather than the intended clue. There’s no way to know if this concern is real or not before the game is played by a larger audience, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it began ruining some of the puzzles that require incredibly specific search terms.
Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the puzzles was marred by a handful of bugs and glitches. At first, it was simple dialogue bugs — misspellings or voice lines that did not exactly match the written dialogue. These bugs are common enough in dialogue-heavy games, so I thought nothing of them. But it soon became clear that Chinatown Detective Agency needed a serious playtest: I found unfinished sentences, rooms that didn’t load correctly, dialogue that didn’t trigger, and even one instance where I was literally given an incorrect clue. The most egregious of these bugs have thankfully now been patched out by the developers, and it’s good to see a fast response. But these bugs should have been caught before launch, and it stained what would otherwise have been tense moments of investigation.
The game’s other major downside is its implementation of the save feature; or more accurately, the lack of one. The game will only allow you to save in between missions, which is presumably designed to make sure that you can’t simply turn back time if you fly to the wrong city or waste too much time. But missions can run quite a long time, so it’s a major inconvenience. Something like a suspend save, that would save your game temporarily until you resumed play next time, would have been a good compromise, but there’s nothing like that here. This was especially infuriating when encountering glitches that prevented progress, which meant a lot of time lost when the only option was to reload the mission.
- Real-world investigation is a fantastic idea and is satisfying when you get the answer
- Fantastic character art and pixel work
- Cases are mostly engaging
- Watch out for various bugs and glitches!
- Can't save mid-mission
- It could have used more clients to choose between
Chinatown Detective Agency’s main draw, the real-world investigation, is a great idea that worked very well for the most part. It will be interesting to see if it can survive the internet’s aggressive SEO algorithm, but I still think it’ll be a fun time for any mystery game fan. Unfortunately, multiple bugs and glitches that should have been caught before launch ruined a lot of my experience, along with a truly annoying inability to save mid-mission. The good news is, the developers have already been very active in fixing many issues with the game, so the grievances I have with the game may very well be temporary.