A Case of Distrust review: Well worth the clams (Switch)

(Image courtesy of The Wandering Ben)

This is a spoiler-free review.

A Case of Distrust, the first project from developer The Wandering Ben, makes a solid case for the recent resurgence in small-scale gaming. It’s a murder-mystery experience built which on intimate mystery and intrigue as opposed to guts and glory.

Having forwent overblown Hollywood theatrics, Ben Wander and team recreated the 1920s in a way that feels mostly authentic in its depiction of the era as well as it’s portrayal of the seedier side of old San Francisco. The dialogue and rotoscoped visuals bring characters to life in a world without voices, but the final act undermines the otherwise immersive and interactive story.

THE NARRATIVE

The story begins when Phyllis Cadence (P.C.) Malone is approached by local sleazeball Connor Green to investigate a threat on his life. Being a former cop turned private investigator (and a woman on top of it all), Malone has little choice but to accept his money and the problems that come with it. And if she didn’t have trouble on her hands before, she certainly does then.

Armed with a keen eye and the guidance of Frankie Conway, her friendly neighborhood bartender, Malone strikes out to scrounge San Fran for clues.

Before too long there’s more than one mystery on her hands and several suspects. Could it be the local gangster and ladies man Tiny Paul? Or the seemingly nerve-wracked wife Fanny Green? There are a lot of questions, some of which remain unanswered at the end of the roughly three to four hour quest.

Most of the 2D characters have well-written 3D personalities that provide flavor in a genre which could easily be rendered trite. Take Fanny Green, for example. When she’s sober — and not berating you for one reason or another — there is genuine emotion and motive behind her actions and dialogue.

On the other end of the spectrum is poor Ella Smith who comes across as a one-dimensional attempt to make a statement on racial prejudice in the time period; she technically serves a role within the narrative, but it’s utilitarian at best. (Asian American representation is severely lacking in western games beyond stereotypes, so the attempt is appreciated.) Musician Ray Carter has a lot more to say on the subject, both figuratively and literally.

Thankfully most of the characters are interesting to interact with at their worst and a great example of period writing at their best.

However, the lack of LGBT representation is a glaring omission among the varied cast. Urban areas (see: San Francisco) had large minority and homosexual populations. Gay clubs, often referred to as “pansy clubs,” operated freely (thanks Wikipedia); prominent actors and musicians had openly recognized relationships with the same sex. This material went unused when it could have further grounded the game in its portrayal of the Roaring Twenties.

In a genre that necessitates a lot of back and forth — both physically and in dialogue between characters — A Case of Distrust makes great use of its minimal downtime. The player can choose to converse with cab drivers when traveling between locations and it’s almost always recommended. Cabbies have long been revered as sages of the streets; this insight into national happenings from the 20s helps further ground the narrative and offers relief from the tense story.

But though Malone is a likable character in how she interacts with others, she has failings which keep her from being a even greater protagonist.

Her observations are thorough, if not clinical at times. Her musings on a character’s smirk, stance or styling adds depth to said character, though they’re often written in a way that seems like force-fed exposition. The writing here isn’t bad; Malone’s characterization would simply benefit from more expressive critical thought.

Malone’s ambitions should have similarly been expanded upon. She seeks to derive purpose from her work in a field dominated by men. It’s a simple premise with a lot of promise but one which is never fully explored or resolved; a protagonist’s motives are simply a crutch if they don’t lead to real change within the character. Again, Malone is likable enough and we sympathize with her cause, but she remains largely static in her overarching emotional journey.

(Minor Spoiler Warning: And what will become of the coat and Malone’s unresolved questions surrounding her uncle? We can assume the ending hints at a potential sequel or follow up, but that remains to be seen.)

The final act may be the most disappointing part of A Case of Distrust. There is quite a bit of buildup to the climax: threats, shady suspects, a murder. And once the player believes they have the culprit cornered… they don’t. The real criminal is handed to the player without any real footwork. It cheapens the experience even if a particularly keen-eyed player might have picked up on the slight nudges towards to the real culprit along the way.

Ultimately we play mystery games to exercise our wit and skills of observation. Hurtling the player through the last few minutes of the game without the chance to figure it out for themselves was a bad choice. It’s akin to walking away from a nearly finished puzzle only to return five minutes later to find someone finished it without you — one would be cheated out of the satisfaction of completing it themselves despite their hard work. (This concept of Fumbled Final Act syndrome is common among narrative games and will be discussed in a later blog.)

Thanks to a diverse cast with emotional depth and concise, period-appropriate dialogue, the narrative is dynamic and fresh, even if the ending is unsatisfying.

GAMEPLAY

The controls and mechanics of A Case of Distrust — a game originally created for Mac and PC then ported to the Nintendo Switch — perform just as they should with no issues.

The Nintendo Switch’s controls are perfect for this point-and-click-esque game as long as the player utilizes the touchscreen. Save yourself the trouble and avoid using the joysticks like this reviewer did. Spotting clues is as easy as gliding over various objects and scenery. Sometimes even the most mundane items are critically important, so search carefully. Moving the cursor via the joysticks is cumbersome and slow, but not so much so that it can’t be done; the touchscreen is just a lot more intuitive.

Enjoyment derived from mystery titles is proportional to how easy it is to navigate a sea of suspects, clues and dialogue. Longer ventures with more to sift through can be just as enjoyable as shorter ones, but only if there’s a clear path of progression.

The path forward isn’t always as clear as it could be. Though players are advised to visit their confidant Frankie if they need help moving forward, his advice isn’t always helpful. The notebook system for organizing clues is well organized and an invaluable resource for keeping track of truly important information. But even with this function it can be difficult to figure out what a suspect needs to hear to give up valuable information.

Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, though some might say even two or three times in such a short game is too many. There is a fine line between hand holding and being frustrating, and the experience as a whole tends to teeter on one side or another of that line a bit too often.

Overall, from beginning to end, the game runs smoothly — no glitching visuals, no framerate issues. Many studios are far too ambitious, letting the quantity of characters, environments and interactable objects trump their quality. As a reaction to said trends in the AAA gaming market, A Case of Distrust gets more than enough right to put The Wandering Ben on the map.

VISUALS AND SOUNDTRACK

The visuals and music are a testament to the effectiveness of simplicity when it’s executed with purpose.

Character models were created with a technique called rotoscoping, a process in which frames from a video sequence are isolated then painted over. This allows for the artist to render movement and facial expressions accurately while retaining control over how the stills are stylized.

Expressing and evoking emotions is critical to story-based gaming; rotoscoping allows an artist to select specific frames which best accomplish this. This technique was masterfully utilized, a feat made even more impressive by the choice to forgo specific facial details. The  monochromatic palette and minimalistic environments further keep the player from becoming distracted from what matters like a slightly arched eyebrow or a knowing smirk. Small details matter and A Case of Distrust has more of these than Tiny Paul has lovers.

Jazz is as much a hallmark of the Roaring Twenties as flappers and the Prohibition. Here it is less boisterous than what would permeate the halls of a speakeasy of the day. It’s a cautious whisper — low but constant —  one that seemingly urges you to trust no one. The soundtrack isn’t extensive, but it certainly sets the mood.

VERDICT

A Case of Distrust serves as a beacon of hope for those who feel that the world of small-scale, narrative storytelling games has been left by the wayside. It proves that a well-written mystery with excellent art and solid gameplay can be crafted without a multimillion-dollar budget.

Despite its imperfections — most notable of which is Fumbled Final Act syndrome — any gaymer should be happy to find this game wander into their collection.

4/5

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