Disclaimer: Unlike most of the games on this website, Sarawak is not a game from Southeast Asia. Now and then, we take a look at how game developers from all over the world incorporate the region of Southeast Asia into their works, for example, in Writhe or Sumatra - Fate of Yandi. This time Sarawak is a game made by a UK-based studio.

Can a game take you halfway across the world? In Crowleyfornia Studios’ debut title, Sarawak, readers-slash-players chase mysterious family secrets in gorgeous, paperlike scenes.

With an influx of indie visual novels and interactive fiction in the market today, creators are finding ways to set themselves apart from the crowd. Sarawak blends the worlds of a Hercule Poirot detective novel and the city-hopping narrative adventure 80 Days, but does it effectively bring players from Oxford to Kuching? Read on to find out. 

Story

Any story that opens with a dead body upon the steps would reel anyone in. However, I found myself roped in with the excellent writing of the story.  The prose is beautiful and efficient – concise enough to never feel like a dragging novel, but robust enough to deliver the protagonist Mia’s personality and emotions through each scene. The game’s pace also helps deliver the story, allowing players to experience a setting alongside the little errands and puzzles they have to run.

A stranger’s death starts off Mia’s international adventure.

While the game explores a traditional murder mystery with a Dead Man’s Message spurring a globe-trotting adventure, Sarawak explores Mia’s internal, emotional state aside from the external. It draws upon the themes of the darkness that exists within humans. The mystery itself is not complex but satisfies those looking for a short story that allows you to ponder its meaning.

Sarawak is also a stellar example of video games as travel writing. The first half of the game puts me in the shoes of Mia, a tourist herself, experiencing Oxford as she untangles the mystery of Professor Samson, and the second half, in which she roams through Sarawak – a Malaysian state located on the island of Borneo, rich with natural resources and culture. The exploration of settings in the game feels lively (understandably, Oxford more so than Kuching given the game developer’s origins) and gives the impression of a love letter to these beautiful cities.

The Bodleian Library as represented in Sarawak.

However, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that Sarawak’s central focus involves drug trafficking. It was interesting to feature the famed Assembly Building and a fictionalized version of the Borneo Gazette. Still, more details about the city could have been explored further with Sarawak’s history, culture, and nuances of everyday life, as the Oxford section has. There was a fair amount of detail researched about Kuching and its tourist attractions, but what was delivered was a skeletal detail of the city, aside from a passing mention of its street food. I hoped the game’s characters would have some more profound connection with Sarawak beyond getting arrested there for their crimes. I expected to learn more about Sarawak during Mia’s trip here, but the worldbuilding was too bare bones. After all, the game was named after the place. Perhaps if the story leaned more into ornithology and anthropology themes, players who wouldn’t know much about Sarawak would be able to learn more about the state.

Gameplay

The scrolling screen gameplay for a narrative game is effectively used in each scene. It’s interesting to interact with the art on-screen while solving problems. While many narrative games choose static art with varying degrees of elaborateness, Sarawak chooses minimalistic scenes that integrate essential story details and puzzles.

There are puzzles in unexpected places – think on your feet.

The puzzles themselves are simple – nothing hair-pulling-hard – but they are wonderfully integrated into the art and story. The short segments are akin to the Mystery Case Files series in how they pushed the narrative forward. The variety of puzzles is appreciated, but most of them are pretty straightforward and may even be solved without much thought. On occasion, you will find yourself thinking out of the box, much to the delight of those who are already enjoying the story on its own.

An interesting gate puzzle for an interesting character.

The game is trying to relay a straightforward story. There are choices to make, but in the end, the story plays out in the same way. While it’s fair to allow a player to choose their response, it’s not meaningful in terms of gameplay. Choices that matter, however small, would have made for a more dynamic experience.

Sarawak definitely succeeds in storytelling through mechanics and makes each moment count. The game urges the players to pay attention to the story, still having them at the edge of their seats. A playthrough should last about an hour for most players and shorter even for those who are swift readers.

Audio & Visuals

Sarawak’s paper-like graphics and bold color palettes that the chapters come in make for an attractive game that won’t bore its players. The vector illustrations accompany the narrative as you scroll down to the next puzzle, decision, or point of conversation. The way the words and music smoothly flow with the story through visual presentation is executed very well.

Enjoy the sunset at the Waterfront.

Music cues were available in some sections, but the game also left some scenes devoid of sound. Overall there was a lack of sound design, which is increasingly essential in interactive novels. Some scenes became flat, where a little bit of background music or environmental chatter would have resulted in a more immersive experience.

Summary

Crowleyfornia Studios set out with the goal to blur the line between game and book in this narrative experience. They have managed to accomplish this with style, resulting in a game that definitely has the charm of a paperback mystery thriller and an interactive novel’s ingenuity. All it needs is more polish to tighten and package the whole experience. As this is their first game, Sarawak is a solid title that exposes the team’s talent and promise. Interactive novel fans should look forward to their next projects.

Sarawak is available for PC and Mac on Steam and itch.io. Mobile and Nintendo Switch releases are scheduled for later this year. This review is based on a copy of the Mac version provided by the developers.

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