There are many different approaches to the adventure detective genre, but I have not played one quite as gripping or as beautiful as developer Palm Pioneer’s Tales of the Neon Sea. From earlier screenshots, I knew this was one adventure that I had to go through and after playing through its captivating and well-rounded narrative, I was left wildly impress with what this studio accomplished. Tales of the Neon Sea excels in so many areas of adventure game design and presents it all in some of the most beautiful environments that I have ever played.
Tales of the Neon Sea tells the story of a legendary detective named Rex who has retired from his place on the police force and now works as a private detective. However, we meet Rex while he’s gotten into some supernatural trouble and while not much is explained storywise in the opening act of the game, the developers do an excellent job with teaching the player the game’s adventure systems. How Rex got to this point is then told through flashbacks to before he was nearly dead in a sewer with a strange cat named William.
The story of Tales of the Neon Sea features some of the best moments of detective storytelling that I have experienced in a long time. It’s clear that the city is in a state of divide as robots are becoming more independent, one is even running for office. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this as well as other political commentaries that unfold as Rex interacts with NPCs.
I didn’t know if I would like Rex as a person, but during the first real mission of exploring his house, we learn that his cold exterior is just a shell for a fairly comedic and light-hearted old detective. Without much of a warning, Rex finds himself at the scene of a murder that leads him down a much larger path of corruption and the supernatural elements.
While the story is what locks you in, the puzzles and investigation features are what will hold your interest for the entirety of the game. Puzzle design has a mix of known and unique puzzles, but even the known puzzles have a twist to them. Every scene in Tales of the Neon Sea has some kind of puzzle to work through so nothing in the environment should ever be taken for granted or overlooked. The game has a nice balance of easy to work through and difficult puzzle designs. There is no puzzle in the game that can’t be worked through, even if it takes a few tries. I felt that the developer used extremely clever ways to help lead the player to the right answer whether it be finding a four-digit code to open a door or organizing a neon sign with the right colors. I was impressed by the number of puzzles the game offers and rarely felt that they used the same or similar puzzle design throughout the entire game.
With that said, the game also allows players to assume the role of William. Yes, that cat that I briefly mentioned above. William has his own personality and ways of tackling investigations. While playing as William, players will need to look at puzzles and level design differently because of Williams skillset. William is able to jump across distance, talk to animals, and be a little more stealthy than Rex. He’s just as clever as Rex and also just as determined to find the truth.
Tales of the Neon Sea knows exactly when to switch between Rex and William and I felt that each of their respective story scenes were necessary to progress the narrative. Nothing feels like filler during the game or, in this case, puzzles for the sake of puzzles. The game’s pacing was a thrill to experience and the puzzle design provided just enough of a challenge to not hinder that.
Alternative modes in the game involve investigating crime scenes and collecting evidence. During investigation mode, players will search over a victim or area of interest collecting data and clues about what happened. After enough is collected they’ll be able to complete the search and turn their clues into a metaphorical cog. Evidence is also turned into cogs which unlocks an additional puzzle where players need to arrange these cogs in a watch to get them all to spin and work together. After, Rex will replay the events in a flashback scene.
I ended up really enjoying these moments as they broke the more straight forward puzzle after puzzle approach. Rex is supposed to be a legendary investigator and the investigation mode proves his knowledge in the field. These investigation moments also convinced me that playing with a controller is the best way to experience this game because the controller’s vibration feature is activated when a point of interest is hovered over which makes finding things easier. While I tried playing the game with a mouse and keyboard, I just couldn’t really get as immersed in the world as I did with a controller.
Tales of the Neon Sea is simply gorgeous. Every environment I entered had me waiting about 20 or so seconds at the entrance so I could just look around at everything and take in all the beautiful pixel art details. There are moments in the game where Rex has to walk through the city and I could only marvel at just how gorgeous and alive the city looked. To complement these gorgeous visuals is an amazing soundtrack that is tough to put into words.
With all the things right that Tales of the Neon Sea does, it’s hard to bring up where it falls short. Things like points of interest during the investigation mode can be a little small and easily overlooked and there are times when the game’s linear nature can make it feel like the developer is holding the players hand a little too much. Many times during the game, you won’t be allowed to go anywhere outside of where the game wants you to go, but this does limit the number of times you’d get lost or unsure about where to go next.
Tales of the Neon Sea has some really deep lore and character development over the course of the game. There are plenty of little extra features that will satisfy players who want the most out of a detective adventure. With that said, Palm Pioneer has developed such an exciting and beautiful mystery game that all gamers should experience whether they consider themselves fans of the genre or not. Each scene and puzzle in the game is a joy to play through and discovering more about Rex and William over the course of it is the icing on the cake.
Tales of the Neon Sea is a testament that small indie teams can create compelling and high-quality titles that stand out prominently in the sea of large budget games. This is just one of those games that I could easily recommend to both murder mystery and puzzle fans, but I also think that the story in Tales of the Neon Sea deserves attention from anyone who is remotely interested in the adventure genre. I had an amazing time with Tales of the Neon Sea can’t wait for the continuation of the series because this first part of the story has me begging for more.
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