If Chinatown Detective Agency were a film, it would start with a title card that said “SINGAPORE… in the not-too-distant future” because it suffers from a chronic lack of imagination and has to fall back on cliché to make up for it. It’s an adventure game that thrusts you into the shoes of Amira Dharma, formerly of the Singapore Police Force and now striking out on her own as a private detective, and I suppose you could say that Chinatown Detective Agency’s addiction to cliché is at least a little fitting since this game is supposed to be mixing cyberpunk with noir. Cyberpunk has obviously been done to death already, and mostly by people with far less imagination than even the developers of Chinatown Detective Agency, but noir wouldn’t be recognisable unless you throw in a few well-worn story tropes. Anyway, it’s a sound enough premise for a game, backed up by some pretty good pixel art and animation that, while a little hit and miss in places, do succeed in bringing this future version of Singapore to life in an appropriately cyberpunk-y way. A few years back I played through Technobabylon (which is another cyberpunk-set adventure game where you play a detective) and had a reasonably decent time with it, and at first glance there’s no real reason why the same shouldn’t be true of Chinatown Detective Agency.
However, this initially positive first impression lasted only as long as it took to get to the first location in Amira’s first case, which made me enter a dark room and grope around for the switch to turn the lights on. This might sound fairly innocuous to you, but thanks to relatively recent experiences with similar puzzles in both Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders I started to experience the adventure game equivalent of PTSD. I don’t like anything that reminds me of those games, and while Chinatown Detective Agency’s take on it is ultimately pretty inoffensive (the light switch is right next to the door, and the game only does this once) it was a decidedly dire portent for the rest of the six-ish hours that Chinatown Detective Agency took me to finish.
Okay, let’s get the good bits out of the way first. The deck is by no means stacked against Chinatown Detective Agency. On its side is that not-unattractive pixel art aesthetic, some decent ambient music, voice acting which occasionally blunders into first-take quality but which is on the whole perfectly serviceable, and a cool cyberpunk UI that I was initially pretty taken with. I still think it’s a good idea, in principle. On the left hand side of the screen you have your phone with the various contacts you’ve picked up in the course of solving the various cases that come your way, along with a scrolling list of text messages they send you. In the bottom right is a pop-up menu containing your next objective (you’ll never be stuck wondering what to do next in Chinatown Detective Agency) along with a summary of any pieces of evidence or persons of interest who are relevant to the case you’re currently working on. And at the bottom are a set of buttons, one of which is an interface for Chinatown Detective Agency’s fast travel system — fittingly, this pretends to be the Singapore transit system complete with subway map, and when you click on one of the stations on the map to travel there a pair of train doors closes over the main play space while the area transition happens. This is a really neat touch, and in general is an extremely player positive thing to do; after going through all of the LucasArts adventure games I’m very appreciative of games which minimise the amount of time-wasting that happens as you wait for your character to walk from place to place, and thanks to Singapore’s fast travel system Chinatown Detective Agency should have virtually none of it.
The catch, though, is that having come up with some fairly good ideas for how somebody should interact with the game, Chinatown Detective Agency proceeds to almost totally ignore them. The phone is basically not used outside of scripted events where you have to call someone to progress the current case; there’s an NPC who functions as an in-game hint system who can be phoned at any time, but you’ll get a generic “Huh, this number isn’t in service” message if you try to call anyone else. The objective pane is useful, but the evidence tab is sorely underutilised and the “persons of interest” tab isn’t used at all, as far as I can see; I checked it several times and at no point during my playthrough did it have any information in it. And while the fast travel system is definitely a very useful thing to have while you’re inside Singapore, one of the big problems with Chinatown Detective Agency is that nearly every single case you take requires you to travel outside of Singapore via one of the worst-conceived mechanics I’ve ever seen: its flight booking system.
The way this works is almost exactly the way it sounds. At the bottom of the screen, next to the subway fast travel button, is another button that opens up the Horus booking system for international flights to a selection of other cities dotted around the globe. But, unlike the subway, booking a flight isn’t just click-and-go; for some extremely dumb reasons that I’ll get into in just a moment Chinatown Detective Agency decides to simulate the process of booking and boarding a flight on an aeroplane to a degree of verisimilitude that’s pathologically annoying — just like the real thing. You select your desired destination from a dropdown list and then click the “Search” button, which presents you with a selection of four flights that you can take that day. The passage of time is an important factor for some cases in Chinatown Detective Agency, and so the game tracks this with a clock and calendar in the top left corner of the screen. Unfortunately for some reason this flight booking website from the technologically-advanced cyberpunk future is too stupid to realise that offering you a flight that departed twelve hours ago is a waste of time, and so you have to cross-check to make sure that 1) you’re actually booking a flight that departs in the future and 2) that you actually have enough time to take the subway to the airport. But you can’t get there too early; for reasons that will only ever be known to the developers, they have decided to enforce the standard airport procedure of only letting you check in for your flight three hours ahead of the departure time. If you get there ahead of the check-in time you need to bring up the Wait menu, click on a stupid little button to increment a wait counter by the number of hours required, and then click “Wait”. And even this isn’t instant, as waiting even a single hour will take several in-game seconds.
Given the amount of flying you have to do in Chinatown Detective Agency, I found having to go through this time-wasting process of searching, booking, travelling and waiting every time I wanted to go somewhere absolutely infuriating — and not just because Zak McKraken also did something very, very similar, because Zak McKraken’s implementation of international flights was somehow less annoying than the implementation in Chinatown Detective Agency. I make every effort to avoid getting on an aeroplane in real life in large part because the whole process is just massively aggravating and something I can very much do without, and I’m absolutely astonished that Chinatown Detective Agency chooses to replicate the negative parts of this experience for no good reason. It does have a reason, in theory, because time management is supposedly a big part of Chinatown Detective Agency. Not only do a lot of cases hinge on your showing up at a certain location at a specific time, but you’ve also got rent to pay; after each in-game month you have several thousand dollars of rent and bills deducted from your bank account, and if you miss two months of payments in a row it’s game over.
The idea is that you can avoid this unfortunate outcome by solving cases quickly for their cash reward, keeping your finances in the black, and so by making international flights have a significant cost in time as well as in money Chinatown Detective Agency disincentivises brute-forcing those puzzles that require you to identify and travel to a specific destination. Except in this case it’s just adding in one shit mechanic to enable another shit mechanic, which itself is built on top of a pyramid of shit mechanics, as thanks to Chinatown Detective Agency’s core conceit there’s basically nothing to either the time or money management aspects of this game. Even now, a week after I finished it, I’m still having trouble processing just how dumb the fundmental premise of Chinatown Detective Agency’s puzzle-solving gameplay actually is. This is an adventure game where you don’t pick up items, you don’t have an inventory (the evidence interface is for visual reference only and you can’t use anything in there in gameplay), the conversation interface is incredibly basic, and where you can’t even interact with most things on screen for more than the usual inconsequential flavour text. In short, it is an adventure game that has removed all of the usual adventure game elements save for clicking on a 2D background to move your character around. Instead of these traditional (yet tried-and-tested) mechanics, the primary tool that Chinatown Detective Agency expects you to use to solve its puzzles is, uh…
No, that’s not an errant link that’s somehow slipped into the review, nor am I making a snide reference to some in-game cyberpunk Google equivalent. It’s actually Google. Modern-day, real-world Google. (Or Bing, or Duckduckgo, or whatever internet search engine you want to use.) Here’s an example of a simple case in Chinatown Detective Agency: you’re at a party, and after 2-3 minutes of visual novel-style exposition (that the game doesn’t actually do all that badly!) you sneak into an executive’s office to get some damning evidence from their computer. Standing in your way is the computer’s login screen, and since the password security practices of the cyberpunk future are yet another thing that appear to have regressed since the 2020s you get the following password hint underneath the password entry box:
Longest river in China (local name).
Another adventure game — a better adventure game — would probably have some item in the office that yielded this information, or perhaps if you weren’t time-constrained you could go to another location such as a library to look this up. It’s still not a very good puzzle, but it at least maintains the internal fiction that your in-game character is solving this problem using the resources available to them. That’s too much work for Chinatown Detective Agency, though; instead, what you’re supposed to do here — and for the avoidance of doubt, this is something that is explicitly tutorialised and the in-game “Web” button the bottom of the screen does the first two steps of this for you — is minimise the game, go to google.com, and type in the literal words “longest river in china local name”. The first search result is the Wikipedia entry for the Yangtze along with its Chinese name. You maximise Chinatown Detective Agency again and put that into the password box. Congratulations! You’ve solved the puzzle. And I do hope you enjoyed this process, because you’re going to be using it for every single puzzle in the game.
It would be somewhat understating things to say that I have some problems with this approach to an adventure game. First and foremost is that, while I don’t want to be all “my immersion!”, it is very important for an adventure game, whose strength lies at least partly in its narrative, to not break kayfabe and insist that you use the actual real-world internet to solve its puzzles. This goes double for Chinatown Detective Agency, whose main — and indeed only — strengths are to be found in its aesthetic and its atmosphere. After having spent all of this time on that charming pixel art, on the animations and the world backgrounds and the music, after having put a greater-than-zero amount of thought into a somewhat cyberpunk-appropriate UI, why on earth is Chinatown Detective Agency directing me out of the game to spend anywhere between one and ten minutes staring at one or more pages of Google search results? Videogames are supposed to be about escapism, but every time I hit Alt-Tab to minimise it breaks immersion, yanking me away from this cool-looking (if clichéd) cyberpunk world the developers created and dumping me into the most mundane of everyday scenarios: asking Google for answers to general-knowledge questions.
This brings me on to my second complaint, which is a little more specific to me: I am a professional software engineer. Contrary to what you might expect, this doesn’t mean I know how to code everything in my language of choice. If you asked me to sit down and write a program from scratch that did more than print “Hello world!” I probably couldn’t do it — unless my computer had an internet connection. Because while I might not have that much built-in coding knowledge, I don’t actually need it to be a good software engineer; what I do need is the ability to come up with the appropriate search terms to frame whatever question I want to ask Google in such a way that it will return relevant information, and then to quickly sift through that information to find the actual answer to my question, and then just enough general coding knowledge to adapt that answer to the piece of code that I’m currently writing. In short, my actual job description isn’t really “professional software engineer”, it’s “professional Googler”.
And this poses two particular problems for Chinatown Detective Agency. One is that, even more so than most people, I am sick to death of Google. Correctly phrasing search queries and trawling through search results isn’t novel or fun for me, because it’s literally my day job. Of course I’m going to have a particularly visceral reaction to a game that made it the major gameplay predicate. It’s true that there’s a certain scavenger hunt thrill to turning up the right search result, but that’s where we run into the second problem with Chinatown Detective Agency’s Google puzzles: they’re too easy. About half of them work as in the above password example: the game gives you a string of text, you minimise the game and go to Google and put in the string of text, and then you take the first search result and paste it back into the game. The other half are slightly more elaborate and ask you to solve geographical puzzles, or ciphers, or delve into ancient history or mythology. These would probably have been slightly better if I didn’t have a special interest in every single one of these areas — but even if I didn’t, it’s nothing that I couldn’t get from playing a Paradox mapgame, or Civilization, or Assassin’s Creed. All of the background I needed to solve the most difficult mythology puzzle in the game was contained within the two highly regrettable hours I spent watching Gods of Egypt. The most difficult cipher puzzle hands you a set of Enigma machine settings and expects you to go off and find a website that simulates an Enigma machine – I’m not sure I’d call it a puzzle, at this point, as you just put the settings and the ciphertext into the machine and get the plaintext out of the other end. It was only the stamp-collecting puzzle that slowed me down for more than five minutes, and even that just required a switch to Image Search and some slight tweaking of my search terms.
(As a quick aside, it’s not like Chinatown Detective Agency even facilitates the Googling of its puzzles particularly well because it won’t let you copy and paste text from the game into Google. You need to take a screenshot of the clue text and then manually transcribe what you see, and it’s this that’s the main time sink in solving the puzzles.)
So from my perspective, farming out all of the puzzle solving to Google isn’t so much a brave new approach to adventure games as it is Chinatown Detective Agency just not wanting — or not being able to — put the required information into the game where it could be discovered in a slightly more organic context. There’s absolutely nothing about any of the puzzles that wouldn’t work without Google’s involvement. Perhaps one of the locations in the game could contain a working Enigma machine, or a book on Egyptian mythology, or a stamp museum. Yes, if we’re being so dogmatic about things being done in-game then it is a little absurd that Amira can’t just call this information up on the cyberpunk internet instead, and I do think making an entire fake internet a la Hypnospace Outlaw is very much beyond Chinatown Detective Agency, but coming up with some hand-wavey reason why this isn’t possible — cyberpunk Google requiring you to have a chip inserted into your brain so that they can beam advertising to you while you sleep, or something — is a hell of a lot better than the constant context-switching, immersion-breaking shifts to real-life Google, especially because it short-circuits other gameplay mechanics such as flights and the passage of time.
Because it’s all very well coding the passage of time into your game, and it’s all very well having a few mechanics that rely on the passage of time, but something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the developers of Chinatown Detective Agency is that having time pass while you’re playing a game only matters if you’re actually playing the game. If you are not — if, for example, you are spending half of your time with the game minimised so that you can type things into Google — then these mechanics aren’t really as relevant as they should be. And if your non-Google gameplay consists of simply clicking on nodes on a map to travel places and then typing the answers you’ve Googled into into text boxes then there isn’t really a huge amount of time that can pass, is there? In fact the biggest time sink in the game is the scripted week-long wait between the end of one case and the start of the next, followed by the enforced time-wasting inherent in the flight booking system. The actual cases themselves take a couple of in-game days to finish at most. And so I ask: since the flights and the management of money and the paying of rent turned out to be both massive points of friction and utterly inconsequential, why are they still in the game? Why haven’t they been removed, or in the case of the flights, reduced to a single button-press similar to the subway system travel?
Ah, but I suspect I know the answer, and it’s a depressingly familiar one: given the sheer number of bugs I encountered, especially towards the end of the game, it’s clear that Chinatown Detective Agency has been released long before it was ready. The game starts off small with the odd piece of missing dialogue or non-functioning button that can be worked around, but after I passed the three hour mark things escalated quickly. There was a persistent audio bug where all sounds other than ambient background noises would stop playing, which led to a couple of silent movie shootouts, and at one point the interface completely locked up and I had to restart the game — since Chinatown Detective Agency only lets you save your game in between cases, this meant I had to restart the case I was working on from scratch. The passage of time seemed to go haywire at the end of the game and demanded three rent payments in one go, which would have potentially been game-ending if money actually mattered in any way whatsoever. Most unforgivably of all, though, is that, in a game with puzzle mechanics no more complex than “look at this image and then type an answer into a text box”, there are still puzzles that are flat-out broken. The most annoying example of this was a puzzle where I had to get a code by converting ancient Babylonian numbers into Arabic ones; the image you’re shown has five space-separated numbers, but the solution assumes that you only have four, with the third and fourth “digits” concatenated into a single number. Babylonian numbers are a base 60 counting system so the principles don’t fully translate, but a bad analogy is that it’s a bit like accidentally giving a puzzle clue that led to an answer of 10,140 instead of 1,014. You had one job, Chinatown Detective Agency! And you couldn’t even do that right.
It was at this point that I stopped giving Chinatown Detective Agency the benefit of the doubt. It’s a fundamentally misconceived game that has no idea how to leverage its strengths and which spends most of its time actively sabotaging itself, and whose few good ideas are truly exceptional because they fly in the face of the entire rest of the game. It has a main story that goes nowhere, it contains far too much mechanical friction for something that’s so lightweight thanks to outsourcing most of its gameplay to Google, and while it’s not the worst adventure game I’ve played recently — Zak McKraken made me truly miserable, while Chinatown Detective Agency merely made me extremely pissed off — Chinatown Detective Agency doesn’t have the excuse of being released in 1988 before we’d really figured out how to do graphic adventure games. I don’t think it’s a game I’d recommend to anyone, under any circumstances; if you have a particular hankering for a cyberpunk adventure game, try the Wadjet Eye stuff instead.