Chinatown Detective Agency Review – Like Sunglasses At Night

    Title: Chinatown Detective Agency
    Developer: WhisperGames
    Release Date: April 7, 2022
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Humble Games, General Interactive Co.
    Genre: Noir Cyberpunk

Last year, I reviewed several titles from publisher Humble Games, all of which were at the very least excellent. This year, I was really looking forward to keeping up that record with Chinatown Detective Agency. It’s intended to revive the ARG-esque investigation game format of the old Carmen Sandiego titles, where puzzles in the game would challenge you to do real-life research to find your answers. Those games’ wacky, kid-friendly tone is replaced with a mature, gritty, science-fiction story that blends L.A. Noire and Cyberpunk 2077…and unfortunately comes closer to the latter for the worst reasons.

You play as Amira Darma, a former Singapore cop who now runs the titular private investigation service. In a mostly-linear fashion, she receives clients, they give her evidence or leads, and the game will lead you through each case, stopping to solve puzzles that will require you to really throw off your Google search history. This is a neat concept that feels awesome when it works.

Unfortunately, some of these instances (one of which was at the very beginning of the game) are so obtuse that I felt forced to look up an actual walkthrough of the demo that had thankfully included that case, and then later, to utilize the in-game hint system once it became available. Unfortunately, some of the puzzles included in the game are too clever for their own good. Notably, I found an interaction with the developer where a demo player had run across the same problem, and their issue was not fixed in the final release.

A typical navigation screen in Chinatown Detective Agency.
The pixel art is frequently stunning, and it’s a shame that it’s wasted on a game this broken.

Speaking of issues that aren’t fixed, the biggest problem with this title is that it is loaded with bugs. For such a contained and simple game, I was alarmed at how much was breaking. For instance, after hiring my first employee, his animations broke, and for the entire rest of the game, they were all playing backward.

Watching him moonwalking took me right out of the experience, as did bugs where the main character had interacted with an object in the middle of her walk cycle and continued to walk infinitely in place, with the accompanying sound effect driving me insane. Many bugs were patched partway through the review period, only for me to find new ones that had popped up, one of which completely stopped my ability to progress in the game because a map refused to load no matter how many times I relaunched.

An unfortunate technical issue is also present that stops the most obvious method for PC players to do their internet research – if the game is in fullscreen, and the player clicks a window on a different screen, the entire game minimizes itself, cutting off any visual hint you may have been trying to look into. This could be remedied by using the windowed mode, except the resolution options are limited. If you don’t want part of the screen to be cut off at 1080p, you’ll have to bump it down to 720p, making the text difficult to read.

Screenshot 1

There’s also the strange save system. In order to stop the player from save-scumming, the game can only be saved between cases. While each case is only about twenty minutes, this feels like a player-hostile decision. There’s an auto-save system in place that only saves the game after you complete a mission. Further, half the time, the manual save (in the options menu on the title screen) doesn’t appear when it’s supposed to. If the player doesn’t stop the game right after an auto-save, there’s a strong chance they’ll lose progress.

But, even if the bugs were all fixed, the voice acting likely couldn’t be. Not all of Chinatown Detective Agency is voiced, but every single actor delivers stiff and uninspired performances. This was probably recorded remotely due to the ongoing pandemic. Still, I’ve heard much more lively projects with similar constraints, and at no point did it feel like any of the characters were having a conversation together. It all sounds like people reading from scripts in separate locations, and I’m aware that that’s most of what voice acting is outside of Japan, but generally, a good voice director can overcome that issue.

Screenshot 3

The voiced lines also present a strange accessibility issue. The lines heard in the voiceover are frequently different – sometimes entirely different – from the text boxes that are supposed to transcribe them. At one point, this created a jarring issue where Amira is meant to be under an assumed identity, and a character calls her “Charlene” in the text box but “Amira” in the voice line. It feels like the script wasn’t fully finished when the voice acting was done.

A few final, scattered notes. I’m not sure how long the game is because I was literally unable to finish it, but based on the achievements, I was close to the end. I would estimate that the game takes less than seven hours to complete, with limited replay value, only really including the branched path at the beginning that converges back into the main plot. Additionally, the game’s money system feels arbitrary. Unless you deliberately go out of your way to waste in-game time and fly around dozens of times for no reason, you’re unlikely to ever worry about running out of currency.

Screenshot 4

Chinatown Detective Agency is clearly a game that is aiming high, and I can appreciate its attempt to revive a genre closely tied to my childhood. But a game that creates this many roadblocks in the way of progress, some that make it nearly impossible without a guide, and some that are likely unintended, needs to be critiqued. This title feels unpolished and unfinished, and while I could see it eventually getting heavily patched to resolve its many issues, it will cost $25. With that price point, I expect far more quality control.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

This post may contain Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate Noisy Pixel earns from qualifying purchases.