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February 2023

Chinatown Detective Agency

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Developer: General Interactive
Release Date: Spring 2022


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Switch/XOne/PC Preview - 'Chinatown Detective Agency'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Feb. 16, 2022 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Inspired by the classic Carmen Sandiego games of the '80s and '90s, Chinatown Detective Agency is a mystery adventure game that will take you across Singapore and the world in hot pursuit of criminals, witnesses and clues.

Chinatown Detective Agency is an interesting take on the noir detective genre. At first blush, it looks a lot like Ace Attorney Investigations and its ilk. You move your character around the map, go to different places, find clues, and solve mysteries. Chinatown Detective Agency is significantly more international than one would guess. Most mysteries involve traveling to other countries, an activity that can be costly and time-consuming. In a way, it's more like Carmen Sandiego than anything else. I'm not going to call it educational, but it can feel that way.

Set in a cyberpunk dystopian future version of the real world, Chinatown Detective Agency has players taking control of Amira Darma, an ex-cop who has started her own detective agency. In a decaying world, there's plenty of work for those who are outside the system, and some shadowy figures approach Amira and ask her to use her detective skills. There's obviously something bigger going on in the background.

There always is.

The unusual thing about CDA is that it fully embraces the "I don't know something, so I'll Google it" aspect of mystery titles. The game specifically does not contain certain clues in-game and expects players to Google it to find the answer. There's even a dedicated Web button that does nothing but open up your browser. In essence, this means that rather than puzzling out what the game wants, it gives you a task and expects you to do some actual research.

For example, the second case involved returning lost stamps to their home countries. All I had to work with was the stamps themselves and the hints I could read from that. I started by looking at the language on the stamp, which narrowed down the country of origin. A quick Google allowed me to find the same (or similar) stamps. I found almost the exact one I was looking for on a stamp collector's forum, which also gave me a starting point for figuring out the exact city. Since I could see a few letters, it only took a few moments on Wikipedia to figure it out. It felt like a neat little puzzle that used knowledge I already had and allowed me to figure it out on my own, which is a really cool concept. I only needed to figure out the country, but figuring out the exact city earned some extra cash for my coffers.

I enjoyed that idea for a puzzle game. Getting a clue and having to use real-world knowledge to solve it feels a lot more appealing than trying to guess the one correct thing the designer had in mind. The only concern I have is that I'm not sure how long-lasting this can be. As anyone who has ever looked for game help online would know, once a game has been out for a while, you'll see it in the search results for unrelated things, and I worry that a game based on Googling things will lose a lot of value once searching for a clue leads you directly to someone's guide. Hopefully the later puzzles are more esoteric to prevent this.

There are still puzzles within the game, but they're simpler. There's a hacking minigame that revolves around playing a game of Memory, with a limited number of attempts. There are also in-game mysteries to solve, such as having to figure out a clue based on a cipher in a book and a string of digits. They're a nice break from the Google-heavy mechanics of the main puzzles, but they feel more generic. There is also gunplay, but it also seems like a puzzle. Instead of a shootout, you need to figure out how to target the character's arms or legs or other non-lethal areas. Your goal isn't to win the fight so much as figure out how to end it without having to kill.

Chinatown Detective Agency is a neat concept for a game, and I hope it lives up to its ideas in the final release, which is expected in spring 2022. A mystery game that asks you to do your own research on real-world history and facts is a delightful concept, and it brings me back to the days of playing educational games on an old Mac. The setting is grimmer and more adult, but the same pleasant rush of satisfaction is there. I look forward to seeing more when the final version is released, but a limited "Day One" demo is currently available on Steam for those who want a taste.

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