True to its title, Tales of the Neon Sea is undoubtedly neon – and it looks really, really good. The game is set in a Blade Runner-esque world, and you play as Rex Mist, P.I. – an alcoholic ex-cop-now-private-detective. You go through your miserable life one bottle at a time, broke, confused, and perfectly in tune with the lawlessness of the year 2140. The metropolis itself is a sprawling cornucopia of lights and life, but in the underbelly of the city lies a rumbling discontent, as the tension between humans and sentient robots reach a dangerous boiling point.
Still, you have your own problems to worry about, what with having no money, your cybernetic parts breaking down, and those darn hallucinations that plague you every now and then. Thankfully, the stunning art and vibrant graphics paint an interesting backdrop in contrast to your inner gloom and doom, because even though you’re very noir, the setting is all colours and eye candy, and it’s just really, really pretty.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the whole gig, which is why you should never judge a book (or game) by its cover. Going into this, I was pumped – but it doesn’t take more than ten minutes before you realize what kind of game it really is, and then you wonder what the heck you just got yourself into. For an adventure game where you play as a crime-solving protagonist, it doesn’t really feel like an adventure so much as a puzzle game – and there are A LOT of puzzles. In fact, you can’t leave a place without having to solve some weird gear or machine or combination technique, even in your own apartment. I mean, Rex himself curses putting a puzzle inside his own home, for goodness’ sake (“Why would I design such an annoying thing?”).
There’s an upcoming election, and it’s the first time a robot is in the running against a human being. You’ve got a missing person’s case, plus you found your neighbor’s dead body in a dumpster with the help of a suave street cat. You always get these weird hallucinations, and while you’ve got a good buddy in the local police force helping you out, there’s one prick who basically has it out for you the whole time. There’s a lot going for this game’s story, and with the visually pleasing aesthetics (the character art is also top-notch), it’s a shame that it never really focuses on more of the narrative rather than all the darn puzzles.
To be fair, the puzzles do have some range to them. You can do anything from turning simple gears to “deduce” an investigation to combining scientific mumbo-jumbo to produce a laser gun. Even throwing together a recipe is a puzzle, and so is planning the best route on your commute to get the lowest fare (okay, so that one might just be accurate IRL). I’m actually in awe of how many puzzles they were able to cram into a single game. Because there are just too many to count, it almost feels like the puzzles could be stretched out to three or even four games. It takes away your focus on the story and it all eventually just gets tedious and forgettable.
As for the controls on iOS, you can choose between the Key Mode or the Touch mode. In the former, buttons appear on-screen for you to move left or right and interact with stuff. In the latter, there are no buttons on-screen, so you simply have to slide your finger left and right on the left side of the screen to move your character. On the right side of the screen, you tap to interact with something. Personally, I prefer using the Key Mode, but for both modes, it can get be annoying to keep tapping on the interact button, say, just to get your character to stand or to have him work on some machinery. I also wasn’t able to get my PS4 DualShock controller to work on the iOS, which is odd since the game should have controller support, what with it being out on Steam for a while now. It could simply be my own connection issues, but I never did get to use my controller on the game.
Anyway, I did appreciate the detective work you need to do here, for example, as examining a dead body will require you to use both your regular vision and your UV vision, almost Batman: TellTale-style. I also particularly loved how you can sometimes play as William the cat, and go through this futuristic Chinatown by diving deeper into cat politics and issues on bio-pets. Artwork for cats is fabulous too, and there’s lots of humour in the descriptions of items and places alone.
Easter eggs abound, and there are little wink-wink nods to various pop culture references for the more keen-eyed gamer to discover (e.g. cat families ala-The Godfather). In one particular area of your apartment, the cupboard under the stairs tells you there aren’t any little wizards living in there, while there’s a very Beauty and the Beast tea set in Mrs. Perry’s apartment. Your cop friend Royde pants when he runs along behind you, and in one puzzle where you’re trying to nurse the world’s worst hangover, you exclaim, “Damn it! Why did I set up a puzzle?”
Tales of the Neon Sea is actually super intriguing, and the trial-and-error reminds me of point-and-click DOS games of old. The setting is just absolutely breathtaking, but as a narrative-driven gamer, having to slog through the puzzles just to know what happens next is doubly frustrating for me. It almost seems like they tried too much and too hard, resulting in a slow pacing that’s incredibly painful to suffer through. It’s basically a puzzle game with a story sprinkled on the side. You might get stuck in one area for hours on end just because you can’t figure out how to work a gear, and when you finally get through it, you realize that there’s more – loads and loads more – where that came from.
I actually enjoyed the game for its art that’s better than a lot of AAA games out there, but halfway through the whole thing, I would have expected the story to open up by now. It unfortunately didn’t.