In life, there’s nothing quite like a good mystery. As long as it doesn’t come to harm us, coming to the truth can be a rewarding experience that helps us understand the world around us. Or, at the simplest level, finally, get out of that escape room you’ve been stuck in with your family for the past hour. This love for solving environmental puzzles and coming to interesting conclusions is what makes detective games so intriguing, as the raised stakes and immersion lead us to games like Disco Elysium or Life is Strange. Perhaps I’m cheating by including one of my favorite games ever in that category, but I digress. This is what led me towards my interest in Humble Games and General Interactive Co’s Chinatown Detective Agency. But does this neon-Singaporean mystery come to its deserving fruition? Find out in my review of Chinatown Detective Agency!
Chinatown Detective Agency is exclusively available on PC through Steam.
An Escalating Mystery
Chinatown Detective Agency puts players in the shoes of ex-cop turned private investigator Amira Darma as she begins her term as the founder of the Chinatown Detective Agency. She isn’t starting from the bottom, though, with a bit of help in scoring cases through her friend in the force Justin Koh. Unleashed upon the streets of future Singapore, Amira’s mystery quickly unravels in a story full of twists, turns, and death as she discovers a truth that tests your thoughts on society’s future.
While the mystery of Chinatown Detective Agency takes center stage, where the game shines its strongest is character writing. While delivery perhaps could’ve been more refined, the writing allows each character to remain compelling while cementing their own identity. Whether it be the headstrong determination of Amira in her quest or the mature, diplomatic nature of a character like Keenan Iyer, it’s easy to distinguish and become captivated by each character’s motivations and ideals. This is surprisingly true of the game’s antagonist, though due to its role in the story, I’ll be keeping tight-lipped.
The mystery itself is great, too, offering plenty of options to go about the end goal. As one example, early in Chinatown Detective Agency, you’re given the choice of three separate contractors you can go full time with. Though the game also lets you take on the first missions from each so you can know who suits you best. From what I saw, this has a diverse effect on the game as a whole, offering up variety to the earlier game and changing up aspects of the later game despite leading to a similar conclusion. While there were only a few choices here and there, the few present held a strong impact on the story and freshened things up.
But despite that effort, some faults plagued the plot as a whole. The biggest example of this centers on voice acting. I’ll head into more detail on this later in the review, but the main thing I want to focus on is the lack of voice acting for minor characters. Now trust me, I’m understanding that this sort of thing is expensive and likely can’t be fit into the budget of an indie studio with just one project under its belt. At the same time, though, it damages the immersion and enjoyment of certain characters when one character can be speaking out loud and another strictly through text.
Despite these issues, though, Humble Games’ Chinatown Detective Agency serves multiple complex characters amidst a sprawling mystery. For a mystery point-and-click adventure game, being able to nail that aspect is crucial.
Unraveling the Spiderweb
In the event you’re familiar with the idea of point-and-click adventure games, which most of you are, Chinatown Detective Agency will seem run-of-the-mill. Hunt for items or pieces of information, piece them together and use them to progress. It’s a tried and true formula, though General Interactive Co has freshened it by adding a real-world component. If that’s confusing at first, it was for me too. In essence, various puzzles laced throughout the game will require the deciphering of certain puzzles that use things such as real-world cryptography to solve. These could be different looking numbers or ways of encoding information.
To my surprise, this proves to be quite revolutionary in the earlier stages. That added immersion of needing to go beyond the game itself to seek your answers gives it an added plausibility to the real world, even if the setting of a futuristic Singapore doesn’t exactly scream modern-day. In the end, though, it does help to serve the plausibility. With that being said, the real-world component didn’t always work as well as you might hope. A few puzzles that were laced throughout required excessive digging to the point of frustration. I understand there needs to be some difficulty in the solution, but sometimes it felt a little too hidden away on the far reaches of the internet if you weren’t already somewhat aware of cryptography as a whole.
Though going beyond that unique feature, other key aspects can, unfortunately, feel a tad underdeveloped. The money system, for example, allows you to purchase flights to other countries for quest purposes or to get your own assistant, and that can be nice, though the costs for such things can be so minuscule that you have zero fear of going broke or getting a game over of sorts. Provided you aren’t taking several real-life hours to solve one puzzle (combined with not restarting), you won’t need to worry in the slightest.
But while there are issues, Humble Games’ Chinatown Detective Agency offers a rewarding gameplay loop that satisfies in its 10 hours, especially for my review. It can be tough to make a gameplay loop like that work, so you have to appreciate what they made work so well.
As Chinatown Detective Agency is a futuristic Singapore after all, my review saw plenty of future pixel-art Singapore with strong set pieces and an overall great vibe. General Interactive Co has done a great job at capturing a world that’s equally hopeful and bleak at the same time. While the fancier aspects are given a much stronger focus, the more run down and negative aspects are made to draw more attention naturally, leading to some great world-building that properly shows our technology-driven future will be far from the ideal (as our current day shows).
What I was less impressed with was the audio design, being nothing more than serviceable. It’s not often I have negative things to say about a soundtrack, and while the current one here works, it fails to draw tension during tense moments. Instead, a slew of chill tracks headlines the entire 10-hour experience. I’m happy that at least the music in Chinatown Detective Agency didn’t get tiring during my review, but it’s hard to understate how much more could’ve been done. You may also recall my mentioning of character delivery being off, and I wasn’t kidding. It almost feels like some characters didn’t want to record their lines that morning or weren’t aware of the conversation’s tone. Again, it’s a shame, given the wasted potential. Instead, it exists as purely serviceable and nothing more. That is enough for some, though admittedly, I’ve been too spoiled to ignore it.
While I don’t typically like ending off my reviews on a negative note, the polish of Humble Games’ Chinatown Detective Agency was simply too poor to ignore. I’d even go as far as to say the issues led to a point of hilarity in some scenes. As one example, conversations involving several main characters would often result in one speaking and the rest talking through just text. Beyond the hilarity, though, some systems would break entirely and require complete restarts of missions due to the save system disabling itself during cases. Sure, once you have the answers, getting back to your previous point isn’t a big deal. The hour or two I took extra to make it through those issues were one to two hours of complete frustration. This isn’t even touching on the barebones options menu, though you all likely get the point.
Verdict: Chinatown Detective Agency tells a fairly great detective story but finds itself marred by underbaked design decisions and abysmal polish. Amira Darma’s adventures and relatability carry through to the end, but that path is unnecessarily impeded by omitted or bugged voice lines, convoluted puzzle solutions, and a money system that feels tacked on. While those only mildly interested in point-and-click narrative experiences should likely steer clear, Chinatown Detective Agency brings just enough for the rest of us to investigate further.
- Great pixel art
- Unique real-world aspect
- Good dialogue writing
- Branching choices
- Chill synth tunes
- Some characters missing voice acting (both intentional and unintentional)
- Underbaked gameplay systems
- Simply serviceable audio design
- Abysmal polish