Chinatown Detective Agency is Carmen Sandiego for the cyberpunk generation

Chinatown Detective Agency — or its “Day One” demo, anyway — presented me with something I’ve not experienced in gaming for quite some time: an honest-to-goodness sense of mystery and discovery.

There’s nothing quite like solving a good mystery and knowing that you’ve put in the legwork to answer everything yourself. Classic adventure games for home computers used to absolutely nail this feeling — so long as you weren’t following a walkthrough, of course — but today’s games tend not to put up too much of a fight from a cognitive perspective. (There are exceptions, of course; we’re talking generally — mainstream, big-budget “adventure games” are no longer a thing.)

Chinatown Detective Agency

With this in mind, the prospect of a Singaporean-developed cyberpunk-styled adventure game that promised to challenge the player with using “real-world research” to solve its problems was immediately intriguing — though I didn’t quite know what it meant. So there was only one thing to do: download it and find out.

Chinatown Detective Agency casts you in the role of Amira Darma, a young woman who used to work for the police force but has now, in the year 2032, set up shop as a private detective. She still has contacts on the force who help her get some initial jobs — and as she investigates her first few cases, she uncovers several distinct threads that the full game promises to tug at in much more detail.

Gameplay of Chinatown Detective Agency unfolds a single case or mission at a time. Amira is given a goal to accomplish, and perhaps a lead or two to get started. From there, it’s up to you to follow those leads and determine what you need to do next — but the interesting twist on the usual adventure game formula is that Chinatown Detective Agency sometimes requires you to do a bit of research outside the game itself — or manually solve clues that some modern games would probably take care of for you.

Chinatown Detective Agency

Take the first case of Chinatown Detective Agency, for instance, in which you’re attempting to track down a missing person after he supposedly absconded with a lot of money that didn’t belong to him. You’re left with a clue that seemingly relates to a book, but there’s no attribution as to who the quote is from, so just going along to the library isn’t much help. What you need to do is, quite simply, Google the quote and find out who it’s by, then enter the author’s name into the library’s computer once you’ve figured it out, and take things from there.

Elsewhere in the same case, you’re presented with a coded message and what appears to be a cipher for the code. Rather than the game just taking care of decoding the message for you, you’re expected to sit down and figure it out, one letter at a time. And it’s an absolute pleasure to do so; it really does feel like you’re doing some genuine investigative work — or, at the very least, participating in your own little detective drama.

Many of Chinatown Detective Agency’s cases involve locations outside of Singapore, where Amira calls home. Once again, you’ll often need to research pieces of information — often from partial clues — and determine where you need to travel in order to find the evidence you’re after. Sometimes there are bonus rewards on offer if you can track down specific pieces of information — a cast that involves returning valuable stamps to their country of origin provides you with extra reward money if you can name the cities in which they were mailed using just a partial cancellation mark, for example.

Chinatown Detective Agency

This is where your Carmen Sandiego-hunting skills come in; making use of your real-life geographical and cultural knowledge, you can start off some interesting research that will eventually lead you to the answers that you seek. And these research-based puzzles have clearly been designed in such a way that the optional objectives are tricky but by no means impossible; you just have to think carefully and be extra-observant when it comes to the Web results you’ll encounter. There’s a strong feeling of “alternate reality game” to this side of things — and just like that sort of experience, it’s kind of thrilling to feel like you’ve solved something other people might have missed.

Each of the cases in Chinatown Detective Agency’s Day One demo kicks off a distinct narrative thread. The first involves what appears to be a large corporate conspiracy; the second revolves around the heir to a powerful religious organisation rebelling against the sect’s teachings and exposing the truth of them to the world; and the third involves the exploitation of the poor by the rich when utility companies plan to start charging subscription fees for basic human rights such as clean water.

Being set in the relatively near future, the cases in Chinatown Detective Agency are pleasingly and/or depressingly plausible — particularly the latter one — and thus it’s immediately compelling to involve yourself with these investigations. And, of course, all the more satisfying when you successfully unravel the clues you’re presented with and discover something that, if not the whole truth, then will certainly point you in the direction of your next move.

Chinatown Detective Agency

The Chinatown Detective Agency demo ends hinting that the full game will involve Amira picking one of these three distinct “routes” to focus on at a time, but there is, of course, every possibility that they will all intertwine with one another by the end of everything. The setup we have so far is intriguing and believable and the characters are interesting; doubtless there’ll be plenty to discover about Amira’s past along the way, too.

There are a few minor niggles with the demo version that it’d be nice to see ironed out before the final release — and presumably this is why the demo was released so early.

First is a relatively minor presentational issue: the game makes use of pixel art and a pixelated font, with detailed portraits for conversation scenes. These all look great — rather reminiscent of past Shadowrun games, which I suspect is deliberate. Apart from the text, that is; it hasn’t been scaled cleanly, and thus some “pixels” of the font appear uneven at high resolutions, and “shimmer” somewhat when scrolling. Hardly a dealbreaker in the grand scheme of things, but it should be a relatively easy fix by using integer scaling on the text.

Chinatown Detective Agency

Second is perhaps more major: the game’s save system, at present, only saves the game when you complete a case. All the cases in the Day One demo are fairly short in length, so this might not seem like a massive problem, but when you fail a case for some reason — as you can do in the final case of the demo by missing an important appointment — you’re sent right back to the beginning of the case and forced to watch all its introductory dialogue sequences again. Some of these can be skipped over with some rapid clicking, but others — such as a lengthy text message exchange between Amira and a prospective client — cannot.

There’s not really a compelling reason to inconvenience the player quite this much when they make a simple mistake, and again, this should be a fairly easy fix — implement a manual save system so that the player can save any time they want, and also an autosave any time they change location. While many classic adventure games allowed players to back themselves into “dead ends” by missing important clues or doing things in the wrong order, we should have moved past that sort of thing in this style of game by now; hopefully this will be addressed in the final release.

For now, these issues aside, Chinatown Detective Agency is looking immensely promising — and any classic adventure game fans should definitely give the demo a go over on Steam. The full game is set to arrive in late 2021 — wishlist it now to stay up to date with the latest developments, and I’ll see you on the streets of Singapore in 11 years’ time!

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Pete Davison
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