Mordred Foley is a disgrace. Once a noted detective, he has been under investigation for the last two years for falsifying evidence that led to the execution of two innocent people. However, law enforcement could not prove his crime, so he walked free only to get involved almost immediately in a new case.
Dry Drowning is an upcoming visual novel, but gamers should not write it off because of any preconceived notions of the genre. Studio V’s effort feels foremost like an investigation game, often challenging players to work out how evidence fits together or can be used to Mordred’s advantage. The gameplay for doing so adheres to the traditional point-and-click formula, though it feels more meaningful than normal thanks to a gripping storyline with plenty of branches.
Mordred may be brilliant, but, as his past demonstrates, he has no qualms about manipulating people and situations to achieve his desired ends. With this being the kind of character that players embody in Dry Drowning, tricky moral decisions are a given, and the game features some crackers. Every choice is bathed in shades of grey because even the option that seems better can have untoward, unexpected consequences.
Those outcomes can affect the gameworld in some instances, but more impressive is the way that affect Mordred’s interactions with other characters. Trying to protect his partner, Hera, for example, can create a strain on their relationship. Importantly, the shifts in mood feel proportionate to the decisions made, which ensures that each character feels rounded and human, rather than just a peg designed to fill a certain role. The overall tone is one of measured maturity, which fits well with the noir stylings of the game.
‘Take a look at the crime scene,’ the client says.
When he arrives at Treasury Park, Mordred is confronted with an echo from the past. From the modus operandi, the murder here seems to have been committed by the same serial killer that he previously failed to catch. Sometimes, the most ambitious decisions pay off the least.
One of the novel elements of Dry Drowning is the Mask of Deception mechanic. Mordred has the curious ability to see disfiguring masks on people’s faces when they lie. At such moments, the game pushes the player into interrogations, charging them to use evidence and intuition to uncover the truth. While the mechanic telegraphs challenge sections to come, less impressive is the three-strikes obstacle that sometimes accompanies it.
At certain points, Mordred has only three chances to see an interrogation through to its successful conclusion. The approach creates tension, though is undercut by the realisation that failure is impossible. If all three chances are used, a game over screen appears and the interrogation returns to its beginning. As a result, investigations feel on-rails and the agency in the storyline begins to seem a little hollow. Tying storyline changes to moral decisions but not to successes or failures within gameplay leaves those branches pruned, though the issue of complexity goes some way towards forgiving the problem.
Compounding the issue is the way the game harries often players on to the next scene when every clue or dialogue option is exhausted. Indicating completion in such an obvious way may keep the pace up and prevent frustration, but it also robs players of a sense of control over events. Nevertheless, some of the puzzles are true mind-benders, though blessedly not of the obscure kind often found in the point-and-click puzzlers of yore.
The murder is ritualistic. Like the others committed by the serial killer, it attempts to recreate the myths of Ancient Greece—in this case, the tragic love of Apollo for Daphne. That image of a god in love with a lesser being reflects the interpersonal dynamics in play surrounding the killing. The victim is a woman, the prime suspect her lover and one of the pre-eminent politicians in the city.
To its credit, Dry Drowning refuses to shy away from politics. Although set in 2066 in a city-state that does not exist in the real world, the game engages with one of the most contentious issues of the modern day: immigration—among others. The rhetoric of immigrants being a drain on productive societies emerges in full force, and players can have a role in shaping the discourse through the decisions they make.
Nova Polemos is a dystopian city, the citizenry surveilled and downtrodden. That situation emerges from description and dialogue, as well as the stunning visual artwork. Mordred, Hera, and the myriad other characters are all rendered in fine detail, depicted in greyscale against moodily lit backdrops. The muted colour scheme is remarkable in the way it evokes a downbeat atmosphere, though to lay that solely at the feet of the visuals is to do the audio a disservice.
Players are assailed with some piano compositions, though most tracks pulse with an electronic authority that charges the scenery. The beats get the heart pumping, contributing to an overarching sense of unease that supplements the noir ethos baked into every moment of the game.
Dry Drowning could very well be the game to convince some people of the value of visual novels. The project drips with an atmosphere that many AAA games can only envy, and the story is frightfully compelling. Some fine tuning to the gameplay and the way it affects the branching of the narrative might make Dry Drowning more satisfying, but the development team still has several months to improve.
Currently, Dry Drowning is scheduled to launch in August for PC.
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