Detective games are hard to pull off. There has to be a healthy balance between story, gameplay, and player involvement in the plot. A Case of Distrust is an elegant visual novel set in Prohibition-era San Francisco. Player’s take on the role of Malone, a private detective tasked with investigating possible threats, rum-running, and eventually, murder. The game itself is aesthetically pleasing, with a well designed minimalist visual style, and an appropriately jazzy sound design.
As Malone, the game takes you through the investigation of two interweaving crimes ala Phoenix Wright or LA Noir. Unlike those titles, it feels more open-ended. The game gives you the freedom to go from location to location as you please and interview the available characters as you wish. It’s this aspect of the title that I enjoy the most, especially since in a game like LA Noir, you sort of felt tied down to where the game wants you to go. A Case of Distrust does feel like an open choose-your-own-adventure book with a small interactive element attached. Overall, the presentation is clear and distinct.
Close But No Cigar
Everything from a gameplay perspective should make for an amazing indie title, but A Case of Distrust tends to fall short in the major aspect of any detective game – the storytelling. The story is set up in long-winded segments that take about an hour to establish. The story’s main conflict didn’t become present until a little over an hour into gameplay.
Then, just when I felt the game was picking up speed, and I was beginning to get heavily invested, it was over. It was an hour of set up, an hour of gameplay, and then it was done, making me honestly question if the game was over. And indeed it was.
A Case of Distrust is, unfortunately, unfocused. That’s primarily where the game falls through; there is interesting dialogue, but a heavy disconnect between the overall story, and what your actions are as a character. A Case of Distrust relies heavily on rising action and dialogue and less on conflict and the main character’s journey to overcome it.
Malone’s central conflict was just the fact that she’s a woman in a man’s world, which doesn’t make for interesting storytelling, as “being a woman” isn’t a character trait. Neither is “Chinese” or “Black” as other characters are essentially reduced to. Her oppressors are not usually seen directly and do not seem to triumph over the stigmas placed on her gender.
The writer sloppily handles major themes like sexism and racism. They simply don’t seem to have a firm enough grasp on the issues to write about them in the meaningful way they deserve. These are not social aspects that can simply be thrown into the plot for added flavor. They need to be given the weight they deserve. Again, this simply reduces down to flaws in the storytelling.
Style and Substance
Another aspect that this game doesn’t flesh out is the consequences of your actions as a character in the story. Without spoiling, it feels like the game tosses out any work that you’ve done as an investigator in lieu of a “surprise” ending. It doesn’t vindicate the fact that the player was a good investigator and solved the crime. Rather, it has the story overtake the player’s actions in an attempt to make the resolution more interesting. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth and the sense that your actions had zero weight on the outcome overall.
Where A Case of Distrust does shine through is in the games dialogue and knowledge of 1924 American prohibition. It’s absolutely clear that the developer watched that three-part Ken Burns documentary. Kidding aside, the game has a strong sense of dialogue and setting. It is simply and elegantly designed and absolutely reads more like a good mystery novel than a game.
At the end of A Case of Distrust, I honestly wished that there were more content and story to explore. An excellent word to describe A Case of Distrust is potential. The game contains an enormous amount of potential, but ultimately doesn’t quite accomplish what it sets out to do. If you enjoy visual novels and noir, I still recommend picking it up despite some of the major flaws. I sincerely hope that Ben Wander continues to develop, as this was an overall good experience with the potential to become an amazing one. As I said before, detective games are hard to pull off.