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A Case of Distrust Review — Intriguing and Innovative



A Case of Distrust

From Tex Murphy to Grim Fandango and L.A. Noire to Her Story, detective fiction is a genre that video games have long—but infrequently—explored, with varying degrees of success. The intricacies of real detective work—of different personalities, each with their own lives, backgrounds, and motives—makes the genre a laborious task for developers to explore in any comprehensive manner. With A Case of Distrust, former Visceral Games developer Ben Wander has undertaken that task, and the result is an intricate and eloquent narrative experience, flawed by the limits of the medium.

Players control Phyllis Cadence Malone, a private investigator and former San Francisco Police Department officer following in the footsteps of her late uncle, a famed officer in the department. Approached regarding a threatening and suspicious letter, Malone is forced to use her expertise to discover the truth behind the letter and, in doing so, enters the startling and multifaceted crime world of San Francisco. While the characters often fall into stereotypes of the 1920s, ranging from friendly bartenders to humourless criminals, they are typically well-written and provide great insight into the game’s universe. The character of Malone—a strong and determined woman stuck in a man’s world—often touches on the inequitable conditions of the time without allowing gender issues to overpower the narrative, instead opting to power through and focus on the case at hand—an admirable quality that makes her one of the strongest protagonists in video games.

Wander has cited the detective fiction novels of Raymond Chandler (The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye) and Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man, Red Harvest) as inspiration for the game’s narrative, and the influence is clear; Wander’s brilliantly crafted narrative has the quality of a novel, with eloquent language that accurately explores the human mind. Even without voice acting, players will find themselves deeply immersed in the story—in no small part by the narrative, spectacularly supported by the game’s surprisingly complex mechanics.

A Case of Distrust employs standard point-and-click gameplay, whereby the player selects items of interest and the game provides a brief description that is added to Malone’s notebook. This gameplay mechanic is expertly taught to the player in the game’s opening moments in a hilariously low-pressure situation, and the tutorial is so smoothly implemented it is nearly imperceptible. A similar mechanic is used during conversations, often providing several dialogue options for the player to determine the flow and outcome of the conversation. A subtle but effective usage of the dialogue system is in the taxis between locations; by choosing to participate in conversation with the driver, the player is provided with a deeper look at Malone’s personal life and views, and while the chats are typically irrelevant to the overall story and investigation, they allow the player insight into the unseen aspects of A Cast of Distrust’s world.

A Case of Distrust screenshot

The game world itself is a beautifully dramatised version of 1920s San Francisco, utilising a gorgeous 2D art technique reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s distinct style. Wander has cited the recognisable poster designs of Saul Bass as a major influence of the art style, which shines throughout the entire game, giving the environments a distinct and unforgettable look that truly captures the period. Even more reflective of the period is the game’s music, designed by Mark “Marowi” Wilson: an alluring medley of slow jazz music that provides deeper immersion into the atmosphere of the 1920s.

Unfortunately, full immersion is not quite achieved in A Case of Distrust—a flaw that can only truly be blamed on the medium in general. While viewers and readers of film, television, and books view their respective stories from an external view of a specific character or group, the interactive element of video games requires developers to manually explore, write, and implement every possible choice and dialogue option, and the project would likely never release—or remain locked in development hell—as a result. Often while interviewing suspects, the player may find themselves interested in asking a question about a certain piece of evidence, potentially relevant to the case or not; however, the game ultimately decides which evidence can be discussed, and any topics that avoid immediate narrative progression are avoided. Furthermore, asking the same questions multiple times lacks consequence, which would certainly not be the case in a real scenario. Ultimately, these flaws are due to the limits of the medium, as immersion is unachievable for such small independent developers. Nevertheless, A Case of Distrust manages to engage players into the game’s world and narrative very effectively, with a plethora of different choices and outcomes.

With A Case of Distrust, developer Ben Wander takes players on an intriguing narrative experience, with complex characters and intricate gameplay cleverly accompanied by a beautiful art style and charming soundtrack. For his first game as an independent developer, Wander has knocked it out of the park. For any fans of narrative games, or detective fiction in general, A Case of Distrust is a must play.

Reviewed on PC.

Rhain discovered a long time ago that mixing one of his passions (video games) with the other (writing) might be a good idea, and now he’s been stuck in the industry for over six years with no means of escaping. His favourite games are those with deep and captivating narratives: while it would take far too long to list them all, some include L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption (and its sequel), Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Last of Us, and the Uncharted series.


Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average



Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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