I love games where I get to play detective, finding thematic or narrative connections in seemingly unrelated item descriptions or the testimonies of NPCs. Chinatown Detective Agency doesn’t quite manage to fulfill that fantasy–surprising, given its title–but it still delivers an engrossing experience with investigations that require real-world sleuthing. I remain a bit bewildered about the implied importance of a few of the game’s mechanics, but its cases are thrilling for how each tests you on your research skills and problem-solving.
Chinatown Detective Agency sees you step into the gumshoes of Amira Darma, a former INTERPOL agent striving to break free from the bureaucratic nonsense and go freelance as a private investigator. The game takes place in 2037–10 years after a global economic collapse. Automated drones have displaced most of the jobs for the low and middle class, and corporations have commodified previously government-controlled services (what could possibly be morally wrong about a country’s water being sold to citizens via a tiered subscription service with each subsequent level improving upon the quality?).
It’s a bleak worldview of a broken future–a world that’s thematically and narratively juxtaposed against the brightly pixelated neon of Singapore, one of the few countries in the game that hasn’t completely gone to shit and where Amira sets up the titular agency. Though your investigations will take you to other countries across the globe, Singapore is where most of Chinatown Detective Agency takes place.
Given Singapore’s multicultural population, it’s a compelling setting for a cybernoir adventure game. The country is a melting pot of ideologies and technologies that reflects its prominence in the real-world history of southeast Asia, as well as being colonized by the British Empire in the 1800s and occupied by Japan during World War II. Everyone you meet may speak English, but excellent vocal performances (especially from Singaporean native Leonie Koh, who voices Amira) depict a variety of accents and further convey that this is a place where many different types of stories converge.
Singapore’s place in history and ongoing role as a hotbed of international intermingling informs the cases you receive, creating a believable background for dozens of compelling missions that range from investigating a group of international art thieves who are righting the wrongs of several centuries worth of colonization, to pursuing a mysterious killer who has managed to turn everyday drones into deadly bombs. There isn’t one type of case to take, and how you’ll need to solve them will change as regularly as whatever goal you’re trying to reach–a rewarding variety that encapsulates how Amira may need to adjust her behavior to account for working with so many different people that have issues stemming back to their unique cultures.
All of that is set-dressing to the point-and-click gameplay, which tasks you with successfully running your own detective business. In order to keep the lights on, you’ll need to earn a steady paycheck. If your bank account hits zero or you miss two months of rent in a row, it’s game over.
Budgeting would be a clever consideration if it weren’t for Amira starting out with a fairly decent bank account and then securing a clientele that isn’t afraid to drop huge payouts on a job well done. Not once in my playthrough did I ever run the risk of going broke, and even after I paid for an office expansion, I still had plenty left over for the higher rent and salary for the subordinate I hired.
As such, the game’s monetary system does create a bit of dissonance in Amira’s characterization, who, throughout, is written to be someone who’s always hustling to take on more work in order so she can make ends meet. In terms of gameplay, the system also feels superfluous. Since money is no concern, sitting down at your office computer and paying rent is just taking time away from the far more enjoyable aspect of Chinatown Detective Agency: the sleuthing.
In terms of collecting evidence and knowing where to go next, Amira has you covered. You don’t have to figure out what clues are important–Amira will automatically know what’s worth paying attention to. Nor do you have to figure out what the next step in a case is–Amira will know where to bring her findings to before she even has them. Instead, your sleuthing skills are put to the test in terms of fact-checking, researching, and code-breaking.
Early in Chinatown Detective Agency, Amira is drawn into three lines of work, aiding a fixer who works for the city’s shadowy elite, a socialite who supports an heir trying to dispose of his vast fortune, and a politician who is determined to clean out the rising corruption in Singapore’s government. After getting to know each client, you have to pick one that you’ll work with full-time. Doing so cuts off the other two storylines, affecting who Amira can ultimately meet and befriend, what enemies she makes, and how the final act of the game plays out.
Each client’s story is interesting and dives into a different kind of investigation, creating a compelling reason to play through Chinatown Detective Agency at least three times. For example, Rupert, the fixer, asks you to do a lot of undercover work, which requires you to solve riddles and meet informants at specific places at certain times–working with him will appeal to folks who enjoy puzzle-solving and code-breaking under pressure. As a counter-example, Tiger Lily’s cases will usually put a greater emphasis on your observational and research skills, prioritizing your ability to figure out the country of origin for artifacts from around the world.
Developer General Interactive Co. has been outspoken concerning its inspirations, oftentimes citing educational mystery series Carmen Sandiego when describing Chinatown Detective Agency’s gameplay. It’s an apt comparison–the solution to every case you’re hired for (regardless of client) in Chinatown Detective Agency is based upon an understanding of real-world history, religion, mathematics, language, architecture, philosophy, art, or literature. For example, when asked by Tiger Lily to deliver a collection of stamps to their country of origin, I had to parse the pixelated rendition of a building on the stamp to deduce where it came from.
Unless you happen to be an especially knowledgeable individual with a deep understanding of the various cultures found in countries across the globe, you’ll need to seek outside sources in order to figure out next steps. A helpful button is always present on the screen that suspends the game and opens up an online search engine (at least on PC where I played–I don’t know how the Xbox and Switch versions handle that yet), though I preferred having my smartphone handy instead.
Having a notebook on hand isn’t a bad idea either. This is not a game where you’re trying to figure out the answer from several choices. Chinatown Detective Agency will regularly require you to enter the answer to a question into a text chat, meaning you can’t confidently guess (the system is somewhat generous–your answers will be deemed wrong for incorrect spelling, but punctuation and grammar doesn’t seem to be a factor). You have to know what the answer is, and sometimes that answer can be long and difficult to parse–like breaking down a full page’s worth of seemingly random letters by using the mathematical concept of Fibonacci numbers. That…that one took a while to figure out.
One of my favorite cases saw me going undercover and needing to gain a person’s trust. After learning of his favorite bar, I scanned his past receipts and discovered he was a fan of red wine from Burgundy. Amira figured a bottle of the stuff was the best way to get the man to open up, but since she doesn’t know a thing about wine (and frankly, neither do I), when she arrived at the store, I grabbed my phone and took a quick history lesson on wine brands and their region of origin in order to figure out what’s considered a high-quality red wine from Burgundy. I then had Amira peruse the store to see if they had any of the wines I managed to discover. They did not, so back to Google I went until I figured it out. When Amira finally showed up to the meeting with the gift in hand, her mark’s praise for her exquisite taste made me feel genuinely smart–it wasn’t the game telling me what to do, I was figuring out solutions based on the limited details provided.
It’s satisfying to figure out a problem via observation and logic, which removes the human element of detective work but at least matches the deductive reasoning and critical thinking aspects of the job. As previously mentioned, Amira walks you through the case and how everything fits together so there’s never a “eureka!” moment, but the act of researching the clues to understand what they are and then being validated contributes to a sense of rewarding success. And knowing that you’ll progress and get more of the intriguing story when you figure things out is an excellent bonus.
If you happen to run into a difficult wall, Chinatown Detective Agency has an incredibly clever “help button.” Early into Amira’s first case, she meets one of the world’s last human librarians, Mei, who takes a liking to the P.I.’s work. You can call Mei whenever you like, and for a small fee get her to lend her massive literary expertise and offer you a hint on what you should be searching for in order to move forward. Pay a bit more and Mei will do some research, coming back with the answer in hand and allowing you to proceed. Mei’s services aren’t that expensive so turning to her a handful of times over the course of the campaign won’t break the bank but you may need to start actually worrying about making ends meet if you rely on her for every step of every case.
Mei is a great hint system, as it’s easy enough to ignore her if you don’t want the help while also ensuring you can keep playing if one or two problems ultimately stump you. Plus, she naturally integrates into the narrative of the game–like, of course, a detective would have someone on tap to turn to when stumped on a case.
You’ll encounter a few other mechanics across your playthrough that don’t relate back to sleuthing, and each feels tacked-on as a result–similar to the money management system. On occasion, Amira will be tasked with completing a small minigame to hack through a door or quickly pinpoint the spot on a person she wants to shoot to avoid taking the kill shot. Neither system adds anything thrilling to Chinatown Detective Agency’s gameplay, though their simplicity does provide a break for your brain.
Chinatown Detective Agency does try to pigeonhole a bit of mystery into its campaign in background events that ultimately culminate in one final case that defines most of the third act, giving you a chance to figure out how events may all connect prior to Amira discovering it for herself. It’s not a very compelling conclusion to what’s otherwise a strong story, veering from believable science fiction into implausible science fantasy. The goals of the final villain are delivered in long, text-heavy exposition as well, and though it seems like the game wishes you to view them as a tragic figure, there’s not enough nuance to warrant any real analysis of their motivations.
Several annoying bugs also dampened the experience. Most notably, I encountered audio problems in my playthrough. Near the end of the campaign, one of the cases that I took on required me to decode an audio message, but nothing played when I listened to the recording. After uninstalling and reinstalling the game, the audio recording reappeared. Additionally, the voice acting returned in the scene following that case after being absent from the latter half of the second act and most of the third. Until then, I had figured that Chinatown Detective Agency simply didn’t have voice acting once the game diverged into its three different campaigns. You may not be as unlucky as I was, but the audio bug was a major disappointment given how much the voice acting adds to characterization of the cast.
On top of audio issues, my game froze twice–one of which happened right at the end of a case, forcing me to close the game without saving and replay the entire thing again. Additionally, the game’s subtitles regularly do not match up with the voice acting. For the most part, it’s fine–Amira may say something one way while the text details the same sentence but with slightly different phrasing. It can occasionally still result in confusion, though, given that certain words and phrases can mean the same thing but have different conversational connotations.
The one solid throughline for Chinatown Detective Agency is Amira herself. She brings an impressively collected disposition and no-nonsense personality to every one of her cases, and tackles every situation with the suaveness of a seasoned noir detective. I’m never going to stand here and tell you all that she’s super cool–at the end of the day, she’s still a cop and tackles her workload with the black-and-white mentality of one for most of the game. Throughout the first and second acts, if someone is doing something illegal, she does what it takes to stop them, even if she’s stopping actions that are perhaps morally right.
For example, she steps in to take down a group of thieves who are only stealing art to return them to the countries they’ve been stolen from. Amira may be in the legal right in that situation, but it’s still a bit unsettling that she’s so okay with taking down the group even once she learns of their altruistic goals, simply because it’s against the law. Eventually, Amira does come around to a less rigid moral code as she’s drawn further into the worlds of gray of each of her three clients, which slowly transforms how she behaves–even committing actions that she’d normally condemn in order to solve a case and help people, like stealing evidence, breaking-and-entering, and shooting suspects before even attempting to peacefully talk them down.
It’s admittedly a bit too strong a swing in the other direction, coming just short of glorifying a results-oriented approach to policing. That would have also been a big no-no–we don’t need more stories that make the argument that police should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as the bad guys are punished, given how the world is not black-and-white to the point where every action can be easily defined as good or evil. And this game regularly reminds you of that, both in its campaign and the real-world history you have to peruse in order to beat it. So even though it does skate that line, Chinatown Detective Agency ultimately tells a story that’s more about a woman learning that the law isn’t geared towards helping the downtrodden and so should be bent sometimes, as opposed to a tale about a cop learning the benefits of being able to break the law and remain untouchable by most of society.
Chinatown Detective Agency goes down as one of my favorite detective games ever. You may not be actually doing any detective work and solving mysteries–you’re not asked to figure out what’s a clue, what it means, and how it may connect to other clues. But, even so, Chinatown Detective Agency successfully emulates the deductive reasoning necessary to be an investigator by simply tasking you with figuring out how to interpret a confusing clue. A collection of bugs and superfluous systems drag down the experience a bit, but the Singaporean setting makes for a thrilling setup for some real-world sleuthing, and excellent voice acting and a compelling protagonist sell the dystopian but somewhat tragically beautiful cybernoir future.