The sales pitch for Chinatown Detective Agency won’t be for everyone, but in our case, it felt made for us. We found ourselves dead-centre of its demographic, where it promptly shot us between the eyes.
This is, in spirit, a Carmen Sandiego game. If you’ve never encountered Carmen Sandiego before, it was a mid-’80s Broderbund title that straddled the gap between educational games and the more traditional video games. It was a mystery where you had to find the elusive Carmen Sandiego by following clues to her whereabouts, and those clues were a test of general knowledge. In many instances, the clues were so complicated that you would be scouring real-world encyclopedias to find the answer. We were one of those kids, playing it while shouting questions to parents in the other room.
The Carmen Sandiego games then spun off into books and TV series, but – in modern terms – it’s all gone a bit quiet. Fans of the games have all aged and are squeaking into their forties or older. Which is where Chinatown Detective Agency comes in, guns blazing and chewing a film-noir cocktail stick. It’s a more mature, modern Carmen Sandiego, and we’re entirely here for it.
The setup is simple. The main character is Amira Darma, and she has recently set up the titular Chinatown Detective Agency. She’s a well-liked ex-cop, so she’s fed investigations by Justin, her old partner, allowing her to get kickstarted in the world of private investigation in Singapore.
Positioning Amira as a P.I. rather than a detective or police investigator is a golden move, as it allows the cases to step into a civil sphere. She’s just as likely to return valuable stamps to their country of origin as taking down a criminal drone ring. The swing from low-stakes to high-stakes is fantastic, and is one of Chinatown Detective Agency’s choice decisions.
The pattern of a case stays mostly the same throughout. Amira will be approached by a customer, who will explain their problem and get the ball rolling. But that ball will trundle along and stop at a puzzle that needs real-world smarts to solve. That stamp we mentioned might use an unusual alphabet, and a partial postmark from a specific city. So, off you go to your search engine and Wikipedia, scanning images of old alphabets and trying to find cities that might match the fragments that you have.
When we say search engines and Wikipedia, yes, we mean the real-world portals. You’re going to be playing Chinatown Detective Agency with a notepad and a second screen (ideally a laptop: we played with a mobile to hand, but the puzzles soon became so convoluted that we wanted multiple screens running). With an idea of the answer, you’re typing it into an in-game computer console, or travelling to the correct location in the world, in the hope that either of them gives you a big fat tick and congratulates you for getting it right.
Complicating it ever-so-slightly are a few systems that tick along in the background. We mean ticking quite literally in one case, as there is a real-time clock. Flights leave the airport at certain times, and people will only meet you at specific locales and periods. A ‘Wait’ function allows you to manage the flow of time, so that you can be ready for these moments.
Money is also a consideration, which makes sense as this is a fledgling business and Amira is self-employed. Successful cases net you cash, and that cash can pay for bills or even expansions to your office, as you rent the rooms next door. It also funds a hint system, as Mei, a local librarian, can be tapped up for a hint or even a solution, as long as the price is right (who knew that librarians were so mercenary?). Complete enough cases and characters begin to join your outfit, offering their expertise on individual problems.
We’re on the fence about these systems. They make perfect thematic sense, and they help to build a notion that you’re a growing, successful business. The money and time neatly loop into each other, as the longer you take on a case, the more money you are spending on various bills, and revealing hints only further damages your bottom line.
But, equally, they’re a faff. The time system reminded me how terrible I am at working 24-hour clocks, anticipating how long I would have to ‘Wait’ so that I’m not late for a 05:15 flight when it’s currently 17:50. I got some weird panics that I was going to sleep in and miss my flight, which wasn’t a feeling I expected (or necessarily wanted) from a video game. I get that enough in real life. Equally, the amount of money we received from a case was vague or never mentioned, so it became impossible (or pointless) to anticipate the pool of cash that we would have. That’s without mentioning the sheer awkwardness of navigating them in some painful UI, mapped to the LB and RB buttons.
But the real winners are the cases and puzzles within them. Chinatown Detective Agency adopts a lightweight point-and-click approach, allowing you to travel to locations, search for evidence or chat to suspects. While each location isn’t dense with stuff to do – you’re mostly being funnelled to a single puzzle – the richness of the locations makes it a constant delight to play through. The pixel art is moody, beautifully lit and detailed, reminding us of this year’s Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure, and we often found ourselves travelling to side locations just to see if they are as wonderfully wrought and – lo and behold – they were. The craft here is superb and complete, bringing a near-future world to life.
The writing is of the highest order, introducing characters that we warmed to hugely over the long and branching playtime (you will want to play through multiple times to choose different factional allegiances). The plot may be Scooby-Dooing all over the place, revealing red herrings and pulling back the hood to show that friends were foe, but there is a fierce believability to the dialogue that brings it back to earth.
We will say that the puzzles are patchy, though, although this is going to be subjective. As the story develops, some of the latter puzzles are astonishingly difficult. It’s hard to pinpoint exact examples without ruining the game, but Chinatown Detective Agency has a habit of presenting something fiendish but solvable (and would have been fine as a puzzle by itself) but then layering on some real-world complications that takes the problem into the stratosphere. A cipher is fine to solve, but did it have to be processed through a real-world machine to get a second layer of answer? That’s if you’ve even figured out that it needed to be processed through that machine at all.
And, like that annoying guy who questions the answers at a pub quiz, we found ourselves debating some of the answers. There was a morse code puzzle that we felt was simply incorrect, and we questioned the wording on an ancient alphabet puzzle. When you have to be incredibly precise for the search engine to acknowledge it as ‘right’, we needed to feel more trust in the game that it had our back. We were playing before walkthroughs and guides hit our local Gamefaq, though, so it might just be a problem for a matter of days. And there is a hint system, if you allow it to offer you a solution.
But more often than not, there’s a sequence of ‘Eureka!’ moments in Chinatown Detective Agency. The dopamine hit of finding an answer in Google and then typing it into a search engine is far greater than you might expect, and we loved the sensation. We even knew some answers off the bat, smugly typing them in without having to touch Wikipedia. Take that, Jeremy Paxman.
We’re so used to games preserving the separation between their world and the real-world; we’re reassuringly told to sit on the sofa and let the controller do the work. But Chinatown Detective Agency reminds why this thinking is limited, and why there are so many gaming possibilities if we throw open the doors a little more.
The sheer act of solving puzzles with a laptop and notebook on the table, sifting through the detritus of the internet, just feels so unusual and enjoyably deductive. My Googling skills came on leaps and bounds, as I mastered the art of Google Image Search, and my understanding of ancient civilisations has received a boost too. These aren’t common things to say about games, and Chinatown Detective Agency is such an unusual, refreshing experience that – some minor frustrations aside – we cannot hesitate to recommend.
Time is of the essence: you’re going to have to play Chinatown Detective Agency soon. The joy is finding needles in the internet’s haystacks, but walkthroughs are going to ruin all the fun. So, find a few evenings, get the pencil case out, and complete this modern-day Carmen Sandiego while it is still in its first days on Game Pass.
You can buy Chinatown Detective Agency from the Xbox Store