Chinatown Detective Agency review: stylish cyberpunk meets history homework
It's only easy if you know the answers
Have you ever encountered something that you know some people are going to absolutely love, but others will hate to their very core? What's a good metaphor for that? If only there were a food product that had built an entire brand around the concept. I guess we'll never know. But Chinatown Detective Agency, a beautiful, pixely, point and click puzzle game set in a cyberpunk future Singapore, has what I predict will be a pretty polarising central feature, and that is real time historical research.
The game will already turn off a certain percentage of players by being a slow-paced point and click detective game, of course. You play Amira Darma, who recently quit the police to start the titular agency. She wears a cool dress-down suit and I think we would be friends. The story involves setting up your business, including helping out influential weirdos with their particular boneted bees, and then, as you become more established, moving into some cool cyberpunk AI stuff, and so on.
There's a lot to love about the world and characters of Chinatown Detective Agency. Singapore itself is traversed via a restrained number of subway stops, each location on the map having a couple of buildings you might need to go to, but you can also fly to other countries to chase down a lead. All the locations are cool futuristic versions of places you know by sight now, and they all look different at night, too - I can recommend waiting around in Athens, for example. Even NPCs will usually have something interesting or funny to say. A poem about durian fruit, or a reference to military service that tells you something about the world.
There's a surprisingly light touch to the world-building, which I enjoyed in a genre where writers usually can't help but explain everything. If nothing else, there'll be a book in a library that explains the whole history of the setting (because otherwise you wouldn't appreciate all the work they put in!). But here a casual conversation, or seeing robots involved in most jobs, or spotting a bulletin about the Australian election, gives you all the edge pieces of the puzzle you need. This means that the chips of character dialogue need not be overly doused in the bitter vinegar of exposition, meaning they can all bring their own flavour to the fore.
I had a soft spot for Rupert Zhou, a smug, always-smoking fixer for the ultra-rich, because he was funny and relaxed; Sergey, a hacker who was my first hire when I expanded the agency, will be forever in my heart. Even your hint system is a friend, a peppy librarian who loves codes. These and other key characters are voiced (superbly) for important scenes, drawing you further in to a completely 2D world.
It's weird that a key part of the game - a USP, even - is literally throwing you out of it again, but for my money it works. At any point you can hit a button at the bottom of the screen (next to the ones for your world map or flight booking) to open a browser window on your actual computer. You need to do this quite a lot because it's usually the only way to solve a puzzle. You will find yourself learning about the history of Buddhism, cuneiform languages, and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. At one point I found myself punching codes into a virtual verision of a WWII enigma machine.
This is that aforementioned Marmite (ah! There it is!) issue. I actually found it very satisfying using reverse image search from screencaps of the game, putting in the right combination of words into museum catalogues, and staring at a morse code alphabet. But on the other hand some people, even those who love point and click games, are really going to hit a brick wall with it. I found it made me feel like I was doing something material as a detective.
Even so, Chinatown Detective Agency can be frustrating. It's possible to get most of the way to a solution and then have to make liberal use of your library-based tipline, because yes, at first glace you worked out the numbers correctly - but you didn't take into account sexagesimal calculation, you big silly. There were a couple of times when I, who had happily spent half an hour looking over a map of the Ottoman Empire, threw up my hands and cried "Oh, come on!" at a solution. It's unavoidable, but sometimes it does feel like doing homework.
There are a couple of polish problems as well. I really like the display, which shows Amira's phone along one side, but it doesn't scroll text messages properly, so just defaulted to my 'do this next' quest log instead of engaging with those moments. Sometimes the VO gets a bit out of sync with the on-screen script, and at one point a line meant for Amira had clearly been recorded by the actor for another character entirely. Much of the time you'll be asked to go somewhere or meet someone at a certain time, and occasionally if I arrived to early or too late it would break the game logic and force me to reload - usually fine, but sometimes a drag in a game that only autosaves at the end of case completion.
On the whole, though, I think Chinatown Detective Agency is pretty great, and one of those new modern point and click games you can show to people who think point and click just means 'use fish with screwdriver'. It's a different take on tired cyberpunk settings, it has a great cast, and it sets its puzzles in a new and interesting way. Most especially I want to praise the writing again, because it's so deft, but knowing, and I think I found something to make me laugh on every screen. God bless the durian fruit guy. Make good art, buddy.