The recipe for good adventure games is one part visuals, one part atmosphere, and three parts writing. A Case of Distrust gets most of the recipe right, but falls short in the writing department. While the prose and dialogue are very well-done, the plot leaves something to be desired. It's a crime story you've likely heard before, but the presentation still wraps it up in an engaging package.
Set in 1920s San Francisco, you take on the role of private investigator Phyllis Malone. She's usually stuck working adultery cases, but soon after you're introduced to the game, Mr. Green arrives asking for her help identifying who may have sent him a threatening letter. Phyllis accepts the job, but with some trepidation as Green is a known criminal who does not associate with the finer folks of San Francisco. The case continues to escalate until you collect enough evidence to definitively pin the crime on one person.
A Case of Distrust's presentation is remarkable. The art inspired by Saul Bass, a man whose work you have most likely seen and not known, fits the '20s setting perfectly. The clean colors and crisp lines form simple profiles of characters and objects that feed the illusion we hold of the time period. In our heads, everything was perfect and everyone was wealthy.
Clever use of language helps fully realize the setting. Words we'd expect to read like "bunk," "dick (detective)," and more make their appearance, while the more clichéd phrases are left on the shelf. There are no bee's knees to be found, I'm afraid. The diction fits the world as you would expect and the cadence built into the sentence structure fits the fast-talking confidence we associate with '20s media.
From the jazzy music to the great visuals, there's little more A Case of Distrust could do to capture the '20s better.
While investigating the crime as Phyllis Malone, you'll come across all kinds of characters. They are all warmly familiar as soon as you encounter them, even to a fault. It's not something I realized right away, but as I've had the opportunity to ponder my time with A Case of Distrust, I've realized that the characters are all archetypal and expected.
Set during Prohibition, things like speakeasies are common and everyone knows at least someone involved in rum-running, and the stereotypical '20s characters do make an appearance. There's a beautiful singer at the bar, a gangster who runs it, a friend to bounce case theories off of, a helpful officer helping your case even though he shouldn't ... the list goes on. Once I thought about who the characters are, it became readily apparent exactly where they fit into the story.
These archetypal characters are the most likely reason the plot is also so familiar. The plot is gripping in the moment, as I was wholly engaged and actively trying to figure out what was going on while playing. Events were well-paced, with new information and realizations happening at the right moments. Unfortunately, the easily understood characters restrict the plot significantly. It's not too noticeable while playing the game, but once you think about it some, the simplicity of it overall comes through.
Part of the reason the characters feel this way may be due to the mechanics of the game. You collect evidence by examining objects and can acquire statements by talking to other characters. That evidence can then be used to either contradict someone who is lying (which happens relatively frequently) or as a starter piece of dialogue to get a character talking about a certain topic. Knowing what to talk about and who to talk to is the name of the game, as finding key pieces of evidence is what moves the story along. So, the game needs you to be able to quickly put characters in certain categories mentally to know who to ask what. Archetypes we can immediately recognize and understand allow for that to happen. The depth of the characters has to remain shallow enough that we don't drown in what's before us and bring the plot to a grinding halt.
The immediately recognizable characters, their traits, and their motives are probably what holds A Case of Distrust back the most. Vague motives clear up quickly to allow a steady pace of "rewards" as we figure things out to move the plot along. In the moment, that's enough to hold our attention, but once you start to think about the overall plot once it's over, the impressiveness of your quick deductions diminishes greatly. The strings you've pegged to pictures on the cork board in your mind seem like a sprawling web at the time, but once you take a look, you realize just how few there really are. Part of it may be the small runtime of three hours, which doesn't allow for much time for characters to breathe or grow. Instead, the game sacrifices characterization to move the plot forward.
I can't praise the atmosphere and look of A Case of Distrust enough, as I think it more than accomplished its goal. The portrayal of an era cemented in American culture was more than done justice. The prose and dialogue are excellent, which should make reading less of a chore for some and more of a joy. The overall plot isn't bad and is done competently, it's just well-trod. Collecting evidence to contradict people was always fun, and finally putting all of the pieces together was satisfying. While the plotting holds A Case of Distrust back from greatness, it does everything else right that you'd want out of an adventure game.
A Case of Distrust was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
All of the parts of A Case of Distrust almost come together for an amazing adventure experience. Unfortunately, the all-important plot is too familiar to be wholly engaging.
- Captures 1920s Setting Near Perfectly
- Incredible Presentation
- Prose is Fun to Read
- Plot is Too Familiar
- Archetypal Characters