Chinatown Detective Agency Review

April 26, 2022
Also on: Switch, Xbox Series, Xbox One
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Google Noir

I had been keeping a close eye on Chinatown Detective Agency, the latest release from Humble Games, for several months. With reading detective novels and playing adventure games being two of my favourite pastimes, I was eager to see if the game could live up to the expectations I had for it. 

Did it? Well, yes and no.

In the game you play as Amira Darma, a former police officer who has just opened her own detective agency in, you guessed it, Chinatown. Like all good detective stories, what starts out with a few open and shut cases leads to a double-crossing conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of society. Along the way you meet interesting characters, solve problems, travel the world and generally act like the Private Detective you always could have been if your dad hadn't made you do a damn computer science degree! (sorry, that got too real for a second).

To the casual observer, Chinatown initially seems to be just another pixel-art retro point and click adventure, but it has a big twist: the "cases" in the game require you to use real-world sleuthing skills to solve in-game puzzles. Throughout the game, you need to open your real-life browser and use your Google-Fu to progress in the game. This isn't a fake in-game internet either, you are dumped into the endless digital ocean that is the World Wide Web and left to find the answers yourself.  

For example, in an early mission you are given the task of identifying several postage stamps so you can return them to their countries of origin. To do this you are given pictures of the stamps and a browser window, that's it. You need to use your powers of deduction and the clues in the pictures to find where they come from. Granted, this isn't the kind of thing that would make everyone excited, but for amateur sleuths, it's about as close to real-life detective work as you can get.

You’ll need a good Google game to solve some of the cases

The presentation is great – the game is set in 2037 Singapore, a world that we’ve not seen in pop culture before. In addition, many of the cases involved travelling to other locations around the world and each one has been reimagined as a cyberpunk city of the near future.  The writing is also top-notch, with professional Singaporean voice actors really bringing the excellent and authentic dialogue to life.

But while it’s clear that a lot of work has been put into the world and the story, some gameplay aspects really aren't that fleshed out. For example, as a small business owner you are required to pay your rent each month. The game handily tells us that if you don't have enough money to cover the bills the game will be over, but at no point did I come anywhere near to not having enough to pay.  Likewise, there is an in-game clock and events such as meetings and flights require you to be somewhere at a certain time, but there was never any need for time management or any risk of missing an appointment. I would always just press the handy wait button for the appropriate amount of time to move the game on. While I appreciate adding things like deadlines and bills could add a touch of reality to the game, in actual fact, it just makes the game needlessly finicky.

The neon-soaked world of 2037 Singapore

Worse than this, however, a couple of bizarre design choices combined with numerous bugs throughout the game have colluded to make playing Chinatown an extremely frustrating experience.

In one mission, for example, my character needed to crack a computer in a lead's office while she was out of the room. There is a timer in the corner telling you how long you have before she returns, but when the counter reached zero she didn’t come back. I was left wandering around unable to do anything to continue the game.  

In normal circumstances, this would be a minor annoyance fixed by simply reloading the last autosave, but in this game, the developers have decided to do away with manual saving between missions. This meant the only way to continue was to go right back to the start of the mission and do everything again.

But even beyond making bugs more annoying than they need to be, the save system makes no sense. Like many people, I play games sporadically in my spare time and I rely on the ability to jump in and out at my leisure. But if I needed to stop playing this particular game mid mission, I was left with the option of losing my progress or leaving the game running until I could come back to it. It’s a problem I haven’t had to worry about since the days of the SNES and there's just no reason for this problem to still exist.

Hacking a computer: just another routine case for the Chinatown Detective Agency

I have to be honest here, it feels like I'm unfairly ragging on the game by highlighting all these problems, but that's probably because I can tell that the game was made by people who really cared about what they were creating. They have developed a rich world full of interesting characters, a great storyline and a really fun gameplay mechanic, but I just hope that the bugs will be fixed with enough time to stop the game from fading into indie game obscurity.  

Ultimately whether or not you can persevere past the bugs and quirks to enjoy this game is going to be down to how much the unique premise of searching in the real world to solve in-game problems appeals to you. 

If you're the kind of person who likes pub quizzes and finds yourself deep in a Wikipedia wormhole at 3am in the morning I think you're going to love this. But on the other hand there are going to be a lot of people who will think the game is like doing homework for fun.   Then again, I can almost guarantee you that the devs knew this as well, and if you're in the former camp it's a real treat to play something that rewards independent research and puzzle-solving.

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Chinatown Detective Agency has unique and interesting gameplay which is hampered by bizarre design choices and numerous bugs. Updates are coming though, which should hopefully realise the game's potential.
Iain Blank

PC gamer with an Xbox controller. As long as they keep making games I'll keep playing them.