Once upon a vacation, I ventured through the artsy independent cafes and bookstores in Singapore’s Tiong Bahru district when I first came across Troy Chin’s comic, The Resident Tourist. I enjoyed these candid snapshots of life in the Lion City, expressed in the autobiographical series’s momentous and mundane moments.
A few years on, I discovered Red Sky at Dawn only because I followed itch.io on Twitter, and it was among the games that they feature every once in a while on their feed. The distinctive art style jogged my memory and I immediately researched the game, finding out that the same Troy Chin made it. The visual novel, published under the name DrearyWeary, is part of an arts exhibition called Textures: A Bottled City, celebrating the literature of Singapore. I was pleased to come across an interesting new detective game to play and review for VirtualSEA, eager to dive into the feeling and flavor of Singapore that the creator has successfully captured before.
Red Sky at Dawn is a murder mystery set over a few days in 1940s Singapore. You are Detective Leong, freshly assigned to Hill Street P.D., who quite literally walks into a courtroom crime scene one night. Eager to get in on the action and play in the big leagues, the former beat cop is partnered with a surly English sergeant. The challenge is to unravel a mystery man’s death while dealing with your partner, who seems to be haunted by ghosts of his own.
The most immediate comparison that comes to mind is the two Hotel Dusk games for the Nintendo DS by Cing. Both the DS games and Red Sky at Dawn take a melancholic romp through detailed locations and engage in simple but revealing conversations with NPCs, using musical cues to build up the mood and the tension in the scenes. DrearyWeary’s game comes with its own excellent cast of characters, action-packed sequences, and a set of well-paced narrative choices that could lead to major clues or red herrings.
The organic history embedded in Red Sky at Dawn‘s story also works well to help players understand the setting even more. All we ever hear about the era of war in the 1940s in video games is from a Western perspective, so it was a refreshing plot that painted a picture of political and racial tensions without waylaying the murder mystery as a whole.
And what a fascinating mystery it is. The player starts as a fledgling detective, and the game effortlessly allows you to discover important things on your own without overtly holding your hand through the puzzles – the downfall of many detective games. The best part is that there are many ways to go around the investigation with your surly superior, which affects your gameplay results definitively. Your reaction time during the action sequences and your ability to placate uncooperative interviewees could spell the difference for your case’s success. It’s incredible how many variables and consequences are at play for a game of this size.
Another interesting mechanic thrown into the mix is that some case details can change when you start a new game (a notable one being the victim’s cause of death). This way, every time you get a dead-end in your investigation, your next playthrough won’t be exactly the same. While this does lend towards the definitive design – the ending you get is the ending you deserved – replaying significant but long sections of the game, especially the beginning portion, does wear thin. Depending on how badly you want to tie up the mystery’s loose ends and how much information you collected on your old playthroughs, you should be prepared to see a good number of scenes once again.
In terms of aesthetics and interface, the experience is top-notch. Its static art creates impactful scenes like an anxious, page-turning adventure – a nostalgic feeling animation can’t capture. It’s a game that would feel right at home on a Gameboy or a Nintendo DS, especially with that sweeping soundtrack that gives a larger than life, cinematic feel to the experience.
Red Sky at Dawn masterfully balances minimalism and complexity. Stylish yet approachable, it’s the perfect whodunit to sink your teeth into for an afternoon – even if you don’t crack the case on your first go.
I’m a big fan of detective and sleuthing games. I hold on to the belief that a game can only be called a mystery if it makes players break out their trusty pen and notepad. However, great detective games are few and far between, but this Singaporean cop drama hit the spot. If you fancy yourself an armchair gumshoe, I urge you to give the brilliant Red Sky at Dawn a try.
Red Sky at Dawn can be played for free in your browser on itch.io.