Chinatown Detective Agency Review – Singaporean Cyberpunk
Asianism and cyberpunk are inseparable from each other, and with Chinatown Detective Agency, cyberpunk has finally made its way to Singapore. And it was among the towering skyscrapers and the proliferation of futuristic technology that I noticed that this was not just another generic night city, but a city filled with very specific idiosyncrasies of the country itself: the accents of its city dwellers, familiar landmarks infused with a touch of neon, and a passing mention of the country’s current Smart Nation initiatives (in short, it’s about making extensive use of technology, networks and big data to transform Singapore into a digital city), reaching their logical conclusion decades later. It’s a game that can only be achieved by a team with intimate knowledge of the city.
And yet, I always approached Chinatown Detective Agency with some trepidation. As a Singaporean myself, I’ve often thought of my country as a natural sanctuary for cyberpunk, albeit not outwardly in terms of visual cues and the gritty nature of the genre. We still experience the usual day and night cycles here, of course, but consider our government’s relentless drive to install more police cameras in public places, or have robots patrol our streets for the purpose of to brake”unwanted social behavior”. Our state media also openly espouses the virtues of surveillance with articles like “How to make Singapore smile for the facial recognition camera”. Against this backdrop of current Singapore politics, it’s tempting to hope that Chinatown Detective Agency will somehow deliver a searing commentary on these near-dystopian politics via its cyberpunk tale.
That might be a tall order for most developers, but Chinatown Detective Agency has taken a few steps to at least achieve it. The game is of course about the eponymous agency, and as owner and private investigator Amira Darma, you’re here to solve crimes and hopefully make a quick buck by catching cheating husbands red-handed with a handy camera. Unfortunately for Amira, life is never so easy, and she is soon contacted by her mentor Justin Koh, who works in the Criminal Investigation Department, for some good old-fashioned detective work. But he’s not the only one turning to Amira for help; a few other personalities, from the shadowy Rupert Zhou who works for the country’s elites, to the mysterious information broker Tiger Lily, will soon approach him with their own offers and agendas.
Those narratives aside, the real nut and bolt of Chinatown Detective Agency is the detective, and it has a truly invigorating premise: you’ll have to do the actual detective work of searching for clues and looking for answers yourself. More than just looking at crime scenes and poking pixels, you’ll usually be presented with evidence, clues, or artifacts you’ll need to make sense of, and that means heading to the internet – the actual web that’s contained within the limitations of your browser, rather than in-game, to search for answers yourself. In one case, you’ll have to buy a bottle of red Burgundy wine for a potential informant from a winery, but all you’re given is a list of wine names. So the trick is to head to your nearest web browser and familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of Burgundy wine. This will help you know which bottle to buy for your informant.
Such an investigation, when done well, can be downright exhilarating, and that’s the magic behind Chinatown Detective Agency; such eureka moments can feel hard-earned and well-deserved when you manage to push your case forward. On the other hand, however, the puzzles can go from incredibly easy to ridiculously difficult. In one of the game’s first challenges, Amira is tasked with uncovering the origins of an ancient stamp, and this puzzle alone probably took at least two hours to attempt (in the end, I just asked the replies to a friend).
Meanwhile, another puzzle involving key phrases from literary classics was to simply search for said phrases online and head to their associated Wikipedia page for the answers. In those moments, that feeling of pure eureka is considerably toned down. Walking a tightrope between puzzles that aren’t too difficult, but provide enough of a challenge for players is an obstacle most developers will face, but I suspect it takes on an entirely different nature when it comes to process information on the Internet. Luckily, if you’re stuck with a puzzle – or feeling a little lazy – you can always ring a lifeline: a spunky librarian named Mei Ting who’s smart enough to somehow find another all the clues in your case, if you need help.
(It’s also crucial to note that some of the puzzles and sequences are incredibly buggy, which rightly steers the game towards complete unfairness. I’ve heard that some of these issues have been fixed, but not all of them are fixed yet. . )
But there is a catch; these puzzle-solving moments, while inventive, never quite feel like a cohesive part of the larger cyberpunk whole. Drones aside, Chinatown Detective Agency still seems to take place in modern Singapore. Your searches take place in the real world: on the World Wide Web, in your browser, in the search engine you are used to. Class division, as represented in the game through its mega-churches and the unbridled power of elite tycoons, is ingrained in the spirit of this current decade. Invoices, humorously, should always be paid by email. At times I almost forgot that this was a game set in a cyberpunk future of Singapore; everything seems too familiar, too routine, too worn out. I had wished that the Chinatown Detective Agency would take several additional steps to accentuate – perhaps even exaggerate – the peculiarities and flaws of the country.
It’s clear that its developers want to get out of the rote trappings of detective-focused point-and-click games; Chinatown Detective Agency is a game that often aspires to be more, and that’s no more obvious than the way it presents its puzzles. But it’s a shame, then, that he seems to be held back by something – perhaps, I think, an ideal or the pursuit of some form of authenticity? After all, scenes of a cyberpunk future outside of the usual locations – Japan, Hong Kong, or some unspecified Western land with a handful of Orientalist icons – are rare, and being able to see cyberpunk stories set in my own country can be immensely rewarding. So, it’s no wonder that its developers want this representation to be absolutely correct. But I would also like to see a game set in an alternate reality of the city that is so raw, so close to the bone, that it can shake up and revitalize the once dated cyberpunk genre. One that would not only turn heads for its incisive vision of a true cyberpunk corporate state, but would also warn us of our impending future: a future marked by persistent surveillance, safe spaces, and endemic inequality.
Nevertheless, impossible not to be charmed by Chinatown Detective Agency. Mei Ting, in particular, is rambunctious and feisty (she particularly relishes the promise of money), and the motley crew of characters that accompany you on your detective work is far from atypical, as you work together to unravel conspiracies and convoluted schemes. The treacherous plot at the heart of the game will also likely require repeat playthroughs to uncover, given the many routes and choices you can choose from throughout the game. For all the Chinatown Detective Agency’s imperfections, this is still a deal I would gladly take on again and again. Of course, with a web browser and a laptop in hand.
Rating: 3.5/5. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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