Chinatown Detective Agency Review – A Game That Assigns Homework

Chinatown Detective Agency Review

There’s nothing like a good murder mystery, doubly true in video games. The emphasis is on the good and while there are lots of murder mysteries that are good stories, how often do you really find yourself straining your detective brain? Enter Chinatown Detective Agency, a point-and-click adventure game published by Humble. You’ll find memorable characters and a good story, sure, but Chinatown Detective Agency takes the genre somewhere it’s never gone before. Namely, right back into your web browser.

Singapore is Beautiful in Pixels

Without any gimmicks, Chinatown Detective Agency is a very specific kind of game. It’s presented like a vintage point-and-click adventure game and plays a lot like one. This pairs nicely with a really gorgeous pixel art style, which in turn really sells the cyberpunk setting. That might be a poisoned word in gaming right now, but Chinatown Detective Agency takes place in the near future, and as such is in a world a lot like our own. You will zoom around Singapore a few decades from now, pounding the pavement for clues.

I’ve never actually been to Singapore so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but the setting of Chinatown Detective Agency feels more real than some places I’ve actually been. It’s a complicated place with centuries of history, most of it real, informing character motivations. Mysteries are a great way to learn about a new place. Clues are often things that are out of the ordinary and in order to spot the pattern, you need to learn how they are supposed to be.

Real Research!

That’s the secret mechanic in Chinatown Detective Agency: research. I’m talking actual Googling, reading Wikipedia, going to real company websites–actual research. As in, there is literally a button in Chinatown Detective Agency to minimize the game and open up your browser so you can read up on hieroglyphics and airports and all the other weird trivia that comes up as a hardboiled private eye. Eventually, the plots move into more sci-fi territory, but at that point, you will feel like a long-time resident of cyberpunk Singapore.

This mechanic… well, it won’t be for everyone. If you read that and thought, “that sounds an awful lot like homework,” then you are probably right. It is a lot like homework. And even as someone who dreams of a Benoit Blanc video game, it turns out I probably wouldn’t cut it as a real detective. But some of you out there, maybe I’ll call you nerds, could really get into this game. I can’t deny a certain thrill at actually learning something and applying it to the story.

There are also simulation aspects, where you will need to manage your detective agency’s staff and finances. As a management game fan, this was part of the game that really came alive for me. It also helped lay down the idea that this is the reality of the detective business, not the fantasy. And that in turn helps sell the whole robot part of the game. Everything is actually spectacularly coherent, and never once did I remember I was a real person reviewing a game. The world sucks you in.

Simulated Detective 

Does that mean that Chinatown Detective Agency is some sort of flawless masterpiece? It’s an indie game, and you can see the seams. The in-game representation of the characters doesn’t always match the portraits. Often, the voice actors are reading from a different script than the words on the screen. The saving system drove me bananas too, only autosaving at certain story-critical intervals. Oh, and everyone in Singapore was maybe too cute, like they all wanted to be a second-rate Riddler. This is an ensemble obsessed with games and trivia.

However, the flaws are superficial. Where it counts, Chinatown Detective Agency is a fantastic adventure game, with good writing and memorable characters. The genre is traditionally plagued by opaque puzzles, but here you are given a good set of tools to keep track of your motives. As a detective simulator, Chinatown Detective Agency knows no betters. As a mystery story, it’s pretty compelling!

But it’s that homework element that will make or break the game for you. If you have a truly open mind, and you want to look up the source of some weird quote, you will learn a lot, experience a well-realized world, and put away some fictional bad guys. You’ll get to see moody lighting, hear some catchy bleeps, and have the satisfaction of a mystery well solved. This is a genre without a lot of greats, and Chinatown Detective Agency comes pretty close.

***PC code provided by the developers for Review***

The Good

  • Great mystery story
  • Beautiful pixels
  • Real world research!

The Bad

  • Research can feel a lot like homework
  • Occasional hiccups