The year is 1844 and all hell is breaking loose in Cholmondeley, New Bretagne. Miles Fordham and his partner Bill Leger are two detectives tasked with investigating a robbery at a florist: a simple enough job in normal circumstances, but when Bill is brutally murdered it’s up to Fordham to navigate the “Chum” and get to the bottom of the case. Steampunk technology mingles with the haziness of laudanum and the soot of chimney tops as Fordham’s search for justice takes him all over town, in an alternate Victorian-style historical era.
With Lamplight City, Grundislav Games continues the trend of solidly enjoyable point-and-click games with a retro aesthetic that the likes of Wadjet Eye have been quietly pumping out for over a decade. This isn't a mere homage though: the graphics are closer to the likes of Beneath A Steel Sky and LucasArts’ earlier output, and this new title has a few refreshing tricks up its pixellated sleeve. For one thing, there’s no inventory. Clicking on a thing and then using that thing to click on another thing? Not required here. It sounds bizarre, but it’s actually liberating — Fordham is a detective, so it makes sense that “he” rather than the player would know that something in his possession would be a good fit in solving a puzzle.
Furthermore, the fully voiced cast includes two protagonists: Miles is the typical private dick who does all of the questioning and legwork, but Bill remains in spirit form in Miles’ head as a wise-cracking associate urging him on to solve his murder. This is a smart move from the developer, as not only does it provide an overarching story which weaves through the numerous other cases that Miles is assigned, it also means that Bill can become the mouthpiece for anything which Miles examines during his investigation. For those of you who aren’t fans of their hero waxing lyrical about everything they see and touch — while in earshot of anyone else in the room — this is a neat workaround which also makes a lot of sense in the context of the wider narrative. Furthermore, Bill’s sarcasm is often hilarious and provides a nice contrast to Miles’ weary and often dour countenance.
The city of Lamplight is split into four separate boroughs, though this doesn’t really have a huge impact on the story since navigation is a simple case of clicking the icon on the map of your desired location. Following Bill’s death, Miles resigned from the force and is working with Upton, an amiable lady in the police department who is feeding him information on interesting cases to keep his mind occupied and crime rates down. Like other flawed detectives before him, Miles relies on drugs to help him function — in this case, to help him sleep. Adelaide, his put-upon wife, provides the grounded centre for his world and from whom he hides the fact that Bill is very much alive in his head. It’s also refreshing to see an interracial couple portrayed in video games, and race, privilege, upbringing and the assumptions made by people in the 19th century are all touched upon numerous times throughout the game’s running time.
Each case sees Miles visiting various estates, shops, free houses and seedy locations around the city, where the populace is struggling to cope with the speed at which steam-powered technology is developing. The details for assignments develop as you uncover more clues — in your first case, what appears to be a simple case of attempted murder turns out to be something far more sinister, and your presumptions about the parties involved will likely be turned on their head.
To solve a case you need to have enough evidence to wrap it up when you speak to Upton. A handy casebook automatically adds the clues, suspects and testimonies you collect from people as you talk to them, as well as highlighting outstanding tasks. When you think you have made enough of a case to lay a charge against a specific character, you can do so — but if you’re wrong, you may end up pointing the finger at a perfectly innocent person. Similarly, push a character too far and you may find yourself stonewalled and unable to question them further. Lamplight City lets you make mistakes like this and still continue, though the outcome of these mistakes may not be realised immediately.
This isn’t a typical point-and-click, and the way the dialogue feeds into the clue system and general case-building mechanics is more reminiscent of the Phoenix Wright games. Here, too, the characters are generally likeable — or well-acted at least, for the less pleasant people you encounter — and you’ll soon get into a rhythm of picking up on clues from one location which lead you back to question an earlier suspect further. Though light puzzle elements are also included for variety, the story remains the highlight and each individual case not only feels strong as a standalone mystery, but as a developmental arc for Miles’ worsening psychosis over Bill’s death.
If you follow the tried and tested formula for point-and-click adventures, scour every location for clues and grill each character for information, it’s unlikely you’ll struggle to make the right call when it comes to deciding on a suspect. Like an episode of your typical US procedural, almost every case throws out red herrings for early suspects before pulling the rug out with a left field motive and a surprise villain. Almost all of the twists feel faithful to what has come before thanks to tight writing, while a bright and breezy interface lets you right-click to skip repeated dialogue, and double-click to jump to exits to speed up your investigation. That said, the pixel-art animation is so good, you probably won’t tire of watching characters take off jackets or sit in chairs.
With a homely charm which is rarely seen in modern PC adventures, Lamplight City is the perfect way to fill an evening or two. It’s the video game equivalent of reading a good thriller by a fire, glass of whisky in hand. It won’t be a tricky challenge for the experienced puzzle-solver, but the story alone means that this slice of alt-Victoriana is still worthy of a place on your digital shelf.