Dry Drowning Review
Less Raymond Chandler, more Chandler Bing
Half a century in the future, a city aspires to become the most technologically advanced settlement in the known world. It comes at a cost though: the population of Nova Polemos is tightly controlled based on an individual’s contribution to society. Echoing the dark shift in real-world global politics towards nationalism, those considered to be a drain on resources — such as immigrants and the poor — are not welcome in the ambitious city. All communication is monitored and internet usage is transparent to the government in order to protect the safety of the populace.
Studio V’s debut title paints a bleak portrait of a dystopian future which meshes aspects of eastern and western culture in both its aesthetic and gameplay. In a detective agency situated among the high-tech streets and rich civilian housing, you play Mordred Foley, a private detective who has recently been released from prison. A murder case he tampered with sent two innocent victims to their deaths and relieved him of his freedom, but when the hallmarks of that same murderer reappear, Foley sees the opportunity to finish the job and find out who the real killer is.
It was a night like any other...
Dry Drowning is a visual novel whose gameplay reminds me most of Phoenix Wright, if the lawyer had just gotten out of rehab. It’s utterly humourless for the most part, but the seriousness with which it takes its dialogue provokes entirely accidental laughter at times. Cliches and clunky metaphors fly from the mouths of its cast like bats swarming from a cave (see, I can do it too); within the first half an hour, you’ll have read “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”, and “I’ll leave you love birds alone”, delivered with no trace of irony. Get a banality bingo board ready, because you’ll soon be ticking off squares like a maths prodigy on Adderall.
Somehow though, the pulpy grimness is magnetic. Foley is a refreshingly unsympathetic protagonist, single-minded and relentless in the pursuit of his goal. His partner Hera, a musical genius with the soft skills Foley lacks, is particularly put upon at times. Neither of them are likeable, but they still shine morally brighter than most of the inhabitants they end up questioning. For a supposedly enlightened and intelligent city, Nova Polemos plays host to a lot of douchebags.
The murders themselves are generally interesting, if ham-fisted. The ties to mythology are so on the nose and all over the place that you can envisage the developer smirking as you play. Aside from the mythical etymology of the lead character names, there’s a murderer whose codename is Pandora, a cop named Freya, a murky tech giant named Hephaestus who creates a drug called Morpheus… you get the picture. Holographic recreations of the bodies are served through your virtual headset, AquaOS, which also gives you more information about specific objects and points of interest in a location. It isn’t clear why dispatching a clean-up crew is a more pressing need than preserving evidence other than hammering home that this is The Future, but still, it fits with the game’s style.
The lies have it
As with Phoenix Wright, you will need to scan each area carefully to make sure you find everything you need — although in many cases, the game won’t let you progress until you do — and from there the game funnels you down a path to the final suspect in each chapter. In a quirky mechanic, Mordred has a psychic ability which causes an animal mask to appear on the face of a person when they lie during questioning. This is by far the most enjoyable part of the game as you wait to see what nightmarish visage a suspect will end up wearing, be it a demon horse, a psychotic wolf or a Lovecraftian mound of eyes and mouths. When a liar is revealed, the game switches to “Living Nightmare” mode which lets you attempt to pick apart a character’s untruths by using the evidence you’ve accumulated up to that point. Guess incorrectly three times and it’s back to the last checkpoint with you, a not particularly tough punishment given the generosity of its save system. Binary choices are also fairly frequent and have an impact both on subsequent chapters and the game's three possible endings.
In later chapters, another line of questioning allows you to go over specific parts of a suspect or witness’s testimony to ascertain more details. This mode is less critical, but helps you tease out inconsistencies. It’s all procedural stuff, none of which is likely to overly tax anyone who has been paying attention to the story, but there is a compelling satisfaction in presenting evidence to help slowly destroy a mask of lies. There is also the opportunity to go back into the past, dredging up details of Foley’s cases from years ago and potentially using evidence there to help solve crimes in the present. Along with some other more superficial distractions — such as a bright and breezy puzzle game which feels out of place amidst the gloom — proceedings are rarely dull.
Yet for a visual novel, while Dry Drowning presents a suitably dark and stylish neo-noir setting for its cases with pseudo-photorealistic avatars layered over opulent and futuristic surroundings, its writing has been given far less attention. It swerves from overwrought and flowery imagery in the vein of Max Payne to drab, functional dialogue that leaves you with no sense of a character’s personality. Great writing can carve out the sense of an individual in just a few sentences, as the recent Night Call demonstrated, but the people Foley talks to feel like nothing but expository cyphers, a mere means of getting information to solve a case.
It also doesn’t help that typos are frequent and jarring. This is a visual novel after all, not an audiobook, and the atmosphere the game tries to cultivate is too fragile to withstand spelling errors that bring you crashing back to reality. That’s a shame, since there are potent themes touched upon that deserve more thorough exploration than they receive here. The ruthless iron control of a government which controls all information, the use of civilian data to manipulate the population, the moral and ethical bankruptcy of a society that casts out its weak — all of these themes would make for interesting stories on their own, but Dry Drowning skims over them to focus on the more straightforward task of solving murders with almost soap opera-like plotlines. They are engaging on their own terms, but it does feel like Studio V didn’t fully know what to do with the heavier aspects of its world building.
For its faults though, Dry Drowning does provide an enjoyably trashy twenty-hour experience. If you don’t take it as seriously as it takes itself and instead consider it to be the equivalent of an undergrad’s attempt at writing a B-movie sci-fi murder mystery, it’ll be an engaging and often unintentionally hilarious experience.
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