It’s a hard life, being a detective. The best years are the early ones, and they go fast. All that excellence that was bubbling up in you comes out. You catch the bad guys. You get your commendations. Time passes. People die. You don’t always catch the bad guys. But people always die. And it hollows you out inside. So you turn to drink to take away the pain and wash away the blood. You only realize years later that the alcohol isn’t a coping method. It’s slow, vomit-smeared suicide.
Also, the localization keeps screwing up, and you’re not sure if that little girl's name is Jenny or Jeane. How come she doesn’t have an actual bio on her profile? Hang on, why is everyone listed as being age zero?
That, disappointingly, is a decent encapsulation of my experience playing Tales of the Neon Sea, a new point-and-click adventure game by Palm Pioneer and Zodiac Interactive. The setting is a mishmash of Blade Runner, anime, comic books, and lots of neon. The premise goes like this: Mr. Mist, a detective with a promising career now behind him, passes his days in an alcohol-induced haze, keeping company with street cats and obsolete robots. His apartment is a cluttered, decaying collection of antiques, old trophies, and posters of scantily-clad women. He’s out on an errand one day when he discovers the scene of a murder. What first appears to be a robbery gone wrong soon has Mr. Mist untangling a web of conspiracy and confronting the looming specter of his troubled past.
Diving Into the World of Tales of the Neon Sea
If that sounds exciting, it’s because it is, at least initially. Early on, Neon Sea does a good job both of characterizing Mr. Mist and piquing your interest. He’s out exploring the neighborhood, searching for parts to fix his robot when a nearby alleyway suddenly becomes a crime scene. It’s good pacing that establishes the world. Bright lights and colorful characters characterize this quirky metropolis. Social unrest continually simmers between humans and robots. This all establishes Mr. Mist’s place in that world: drifting through each day, drinking himself into a stupor and busying himself with simple tasks. Then this status quo breaks apart just as the player descends into the first murder mystery.
This storytelling is great, and the gameplay manages to remain interesting along with it. The entire game is basically puzzle-solving, with a couple of (terrible, horrible) exceptions here and there. The puzzles, especially early on, are flavorful and varied. In a few spots, it's easy to find yourself stuck and even a little frustrated. Still, a bit of brow-furrowing and breaking tasks down into steps is usually enough to crack any problem. This makes puzzle-solving in the early game satisfying.
One recurring mechanic successfully blends story and gameplay, even if it’s quite simple. When you’ve come across a crime scene, the game will zoom in on a particular visual (usually a corpse or a suspicious object), allowing players to hover over certain parts with a robotic magnifying glass that collects and synthesizes clues. Again, it’s very simple, but it feeds details to the player, allowing them to wonder and speculate about the elements of a given crime scene. I wish that more mechanics could have achieved this goal because things go downhill from here.
Decoding the Story of Tales of a Neon Sea
As time wears on, the typos evolve from a minor annoyance to a near-omnipresent problem. The localization issues quickly trash any immersion the intro manages to construct. Palm Pioneer and Zodiac Interactive are both based in China, so it’s understandable that there would be a few typos and quirks here and there. Unfortunately, it’s not just a few typos. Errors are ubiquitous. There’s this whole cat society, which you explore as William (the aforementioned street cat). I’m still not sure what the name of a feline mob boss is. The names Vito, Vigo, and Vigor all appear in reference to this particular cat.
Consequently, the story loses a bit of its luster. What’s more, as the game progresses, it opts to include bigger, more interconnected environments with a deluge of traversal puzzles. People may obstruct the path ahead, and you’ll find yourself doing favors within favors to get by. Many of the puzzles remain interesting, but the cracks start to show, and the flavor is all but gone. Context is important, and it enhances even relatively mundane mechanics, provided that it leads to interesting discoveries.
This is why the traversal puzzles are so disappointing. They don’t provide any further insight into the characters or what’s going on, and they constitute large portions of the game. They also have a lot of moving parts, which increase the chances that you’ll be stuck for over an hour, fiddling with everything three times over just to realize that there was one step you forgot. These sprawling puzzles can be fun when you’ve got a thread to pull, but they’re mind-numbingly frustrating when you’re dead in the water.
Then there’s the story. Without getting into specific spoilers, Neon Sea has a tendency to throw a lot of balls in the air, and by the end, rather than trying to juggle them, it just lets them drop. The main characters are fine but underdeveloped. You really only get a taste of what matters to them or why. Other characters show up so briefly that they hardly make an impression at all. The ending isn’t very climactic or satisfying, but it is capped off by the most unintentionally perfect end screen I’ve seen in my entire life. And that’s not a good thing.
Tales of a Neon Sea Review | Final Thoughts
Tales of the Neon Sea is a profoundly frustrating game. Not because it’s terrible, but precisely because it’s not. The visuals are gorgeous, blending lush pixel art with a hand-drawn comic book style which allows the more interesting character designs to really shine. Furthermore, there’s a clear interest in environmental storytelling, and there’s at least one instance where perspective is used as a setup to be paid off later by the level design. There’s some interesting work going into Neon Sea, but unfortunately, it’s overshadowed by the numerous translation problems, by certain puzzles which feel like mindless busy work, by clunky menu design, and by the unfulfilled promise of the story.
Overall, I’m left pining for the Tales of the Neon Sea that could have been, but I’m not terribly interested in the sequel, despite the obvious lead up to one. The botched delivery tells me that a sequel will likely contain the same issues and the same letdowns. I simply don’t have the heart to endure them a second time.
TechRaptor reviewed Tales of the Neon Sea on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
- Gorgeous Visuals
- Engaging Puzzles
- Intriguing Opening
- Use of Environmental Storytelling
- Localization Issues
- Underdeveloped Story
- Overuse of Traversal Puzzles
- Terrible Ending