April 7, 2022

Andreas Betsche

Sleuthing Around The World in Chinatown Detective Agency

April 7, 2022 | Andreas Betsche

As private detectives, we investigate in the streets of a Cyberpunk version of Singapore, uncover a global conspiracy, and manage our detective agency. Chinatown Detective Agency, a detective adventure with a charming pixel look, tells an exciting story and offers some of the trickiest puzzles in the entire adventure genre. Still, it also suffers from glaring design flaws. Sounds like a complex case? Let the investigation begin!

It all begins in a shabby office down in Chinatown, Singapore.

In Chinatown Detective Agency (CDA for short), we slip into the role of Amira Darma, an ex-cop who has newly opened her detective agency in the heart of Singapore in 2037. The first cases soon arrive, which initially act as self-contained units, tell more or less small stories and bring us closer to the game’s various characters. What all this has to do with the intro sequence in which drones attack a jogger in the city centre remains unclear but becomes much more evident as the story progresses.

The city’s metro has seen better days.

Most cases in CDA begin with a phone call or email introducing us to the context, and then we meet contacts, collect clues, or solve puzzles. In addition, the game chases us nonstop from scene to scene, allowing us to explore Singapore and fly to several major international cities. The game isn’t stingy, with impressive panoramas, perfectly conveying the futuristic cyberpunk feeling. The game’s pixel art style, pleasantly reminiscent of old-school retro adventures, and the fantastic electronic sound are particularly impressive racks.

We are exploring the vibrant district of the City of Lions.

CDA’s strengths lie in the game’s story, characters, and settings. The developers have managed to tell a story away from the usual sci-fi clichés, which brings unpredictable twists and doesn’t suffer from the jagged narrative style. It even branches off sometimes, allowing us to experience different cases in other playthroughs. The story is told mainly in dialogues, which run automatically and rarely allow interactions in the multiple-choice style.

It’s great fun to listen to the (unfortunately only partially) voiced dialogues, which, with their authentic accents, fit perfectly with the game’s setting. In Singapore, we rush by MRT from Chinatown to Changi Airport, visiting the Civic District, the Botanical Gardens, and districts like Geylang or Toa Payoh, to name a few. Anyone who has ever been to Singapore will feel right at home, and everyone else will get a small travel guide entry for each location – fantastic! The other cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, Cairo, or Chengdu, are also well implemented but are by no means as extensive as the game’s capital and, with a few exceptions, serve more as short stopovers to progress the story.

Our investigations lead us to destinations around the world. Some are closer …

The puzzle design in CDA is somewhat unusual for the genre. Instead of relying on inventory or dialogue puzzles like most other adventures, the main thing in this game is to use your brain cells. So, we often have to crack codes, decode coordinates or solve smaller logic puzzles. The game offers the possibility to conduct “real-world research.” While in the beginning, most solutions can be found by simply googling. We later have to use a pen and paper regularly. This sometimes makes the detective work in CDA feel amazingly “real”!

… some further away!

However, this is where the game’s problems begin, as the puzzles can get quite frustrating. This is only secondary due to the (often relatively high) difficulty of the puzzles but primarily due to the strange decision not to allow free saving in the game. It only creates a save automatically after a case has been closed. If you break off a case or get stuck due to mistakes, you can start again from the beginning, listen to all the dialogues, and repeat puzzles that have already been solved. Unfortunately, that happens more often than you think.

This might require some research.

You can’t just stop and continue playing at a later point, but we also encounter some puzzles that are unsolvable because the game gives wrong information. For example, at one point, a number that would have led to the correct coordinates was missing, rendering it impossible to solve the case. Such errors are annoying but can be avoided thanks to the built-in help function.

The clock is ticking in CDA, and it’s always ticking. In theory, such a realistic time cycle should lead to the fact that one plans well and can miss things when it’s too late. In practice, one clicks on the wait function to wait again for a building to open, which is neither interesting nor engaging.

Amira has to pay rent for her office every month.

The game’s economic system seems similarly senseless to us because we always had enough money to rent our office and found it strange that all flights, no matter the destination, always cost the same price. So it seems the system hasn’t been thought through to the end when it’s a great idea to keep track of your finances, pay salaries to employees, or expand the office.

The development studio General Interactive Co. states that Chinatown Detective Agency is based on classics from the 80s and 90s and does skillfully live up to these role models in terms of atmosphere, story, and graphics. Unfortunately, unnecessary peaks in difficulty (lack of saving) and the somewhat clunky user interface with too many windows distract from the otherwise refreshing gameplay. Less retro would undoubtedly have been better here!

In Chinatown Detective Agency, we explore a vast amount of scenes.

After carefully examining the course of events and the evidence and thoroughly questioning the witnesses, our investigations show that Chinatown Detective Agency masterfully combines an exciting story with an unusual setting. The audio-visual presentation is very atmospheric with its neon-heavy pixelated style, and the voice actors offer outstanding performances, marred only by a few sound bugs. Those who aren’t afraid of challenging puzzles and can forgive the design flaws mentioned above can expect a narrative highlight that stays true to its predecessors in spirit, both for better and worse. Let’s hope that some of the game’s flaws can be fixed with further updates.

Chinatown Detective Agency is available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC (Steam). This review is based on a free review copy for PC.

Andreas Betsche

Andreas Betsche founded Virtual SEA in early 2016 after researching Cambodian mobile games for his Master’s thesis. He has a background in Southeast Asia studies and has worked and lived in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Since he has been actively playing games since the early 90s, combing both worlds in Virtual SEA brought together both of his passions.

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