I like detective stories and video game adaptations of crime novels. It’s no secret that my favorite game of all time is LA Noire and that my nickname is a wordplay on one of Agatha Christie’s most elusive antagonists, U.N. Owen. Unknown until the appropriate moment, as any worthy mystery should be. A Case of Distrust is the Steam debut of Ben “The Wandering Ben” Wander, a gaming industry professional (not quite veteran yet) which left the AAA standard and its various limitations/pressures for the overall freedom offered by the indie scene. A wise choice, no doubt.
In what is accurately regarded as a narrative mystery more than a visual novel, A Case of Distrust features many hot topics for the time period it wishes to emulate. San Francisco in 1924, sure hasn’t remained untouched by the Roaring Twenties in all its few positive aspects and the very many negative ones. While California may not be a “traditional backdrop” for interwar gangsters, such as you’d imagine in, New York, Illinois or New Jersey, yet the Golden State did have its share of bootleggers and cold-blooded killers, dressed to impress. Prohibition (The Volstead Act, 1920-1933) was in full swing, so the illicit profits from selling the by now banned alcohol, would ensure that organized crime had every reason to cater to “thirsty” customers which didn’t mind bending the law for their favorite booze.
Phyllis Cadence “P.C.” Malone is a former policewoman turned private eye. If most private detectives were retired cops, P.C. didn’t leave the force for aging reasons, but rather because of the prevalent misogyny within American society at the time and the loss of her uncle and mentor (also an SFPD officer) in mysterious circumstances which their colleagues never really tried to uncover. Uncle Lewis is the unseen driving force behind our heroine’s efforts of never failing a case again. She first has to prove that a woman can be an efficient detective and that won’t be easy when you’re trying to convince a male-dominated crowd which barely accepted women’s right to vote only four years prior to the game’s events. Indeed, very few interwar tales feature a female protagonist, let alone a private eye from law enforcement background.
It certainly didn’t help the flawed perception that many Women’s Suffrage movements, such as the Temperance Union, played an active role in gaining both public and congressional support for the Prohibition in the first place. I sincerely enjoyed all the intricacies in Malone’s dialogue with various characters and how they all had their own opinion about national and international politics of 1924. Sure, you won’t go as far into detail as Boardwalk Empire could but for an adventure game, A Case of Distrust ticks all the right boxes. Random chats between the protagonist and taxi drivers, offer insight into a world that was still filled with hate and uncertainty, despite the horrors of war that left scars and bandages in equal measure. Sounds familiar, right? Well it’s a never ending tale which humanity can’t and won’t change.
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And yet the winds of change would take P.C. beyond even her wildest dreams. Detective trope or not, Malone’s out of work and deeply impoverished at the start of our game. A client finally appears and the case he offers, would become far more complicated than the initial clues might suggest. Phyllis accepts and thus, begins her journey in Frisco’s murky underworld, in search of answers and potential suspects. The latter part would form the basis of the title’s gameplay and I’ll refrain from any spoilers. Suffice to say, P.C. shall visit several locations, talk to both witnesses and suspects, while trying to piece together a dossier of her own, before she can hand out the culprit to the authorities capable of an official Indictment.
A Case of Distrust is powered by the Unity Engine and I had no qualms about it. Performance was solid throughout the several hours it took me to unravel the game’s mysteries. Since it follows the conventional looks of a visual novel, the title didn’t necessarily have to feature an Options menu and the frame rate reported by the Steam Overlay was constantly locked at 30fps. But again, the animations are barely showcasing any motion, so I doubt that 60 or even 1000fps would make a difference in this case.
Let’s just say that the game’s visuals aren’t anything special and that you should focus on the story instead of relying on eye candy every single time you’re playing something. Indie games should never be technological powerhouses, since that’s the opposite example of creativity more often than not. You’re not playing a Crysis for its “rich story” and you’re certainly not into narrative adventures for the “non-stop action”. To each their own fans and detractors. My advice? Mix them well, as the mood shall demand it and enjoy all sides of the spectrum.
Before I’ll throw in my “obligatory rant”, let me start by saying that the soundtrack is stellar from my point of view, yet it couldn’t save the overall sound selection enough for me to reconsider on lowering A Case of Distrust’s rating. I’m a self-declared fan of instrumentals and jazz, so the OST present in-game rang close to home, so to speak. The initial sequence within the Main Menu is almost mimicking LA Noire’s starting song. It may be just a coincidence, but smooth jazz is period appropriate and quite common, especially on the West Coast during our simulated events. Now for the least pleasant aspect in the sounds’ case. Why is there no voice acting in this title?
Even dollar bin visual novels focusing on scantily clad schoolgirls, seem to showcase a few giggles here and there, if not full-on dialogues in “Engrish”. You mean that a game with A Case of Distrust’s scope and pricing, couldn’t hire even the cheapest voice actors to phone in a couple of lines? In extremis if this was my own project, I would have recorded some mobster accents done by myself, no matter how unconvincing, rather than leave the game as silent as the grave. Such deficiency should not be repeated in the sequel, Wandering Ben.
It’s hard not to compare P.C. Malone once more with Cole Phelps, since they both rely on cold reading and extracting information through clever dialogues, backed by constantly discovered pieces of evidence or statements. Not all suspects show their true face that easily and not all innocents seem very obvious. Discerning fact from fiction while having the proof to strengthen your arguments, will make or break the case. You can potentially accuse the wrong person while setting the loose the real culprit, before the authorities can close in on the murderer or discover his or her identity at all. Yes, what was initially a death threat at the start of Malone’s case, eventually confirms itself through a very circumstantial murder case in which most characters you’ll interact with, had some motivation to despise the victim and harm him. The classic template for a whodunit.
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Players are given the freedom to interact with NPCs and locations at will, being able to travel to each site in whatever order they please. There’s no time constraint either, so you can think this through before you’ll consider the proof you have gathered already, as being sufficient for allegations that can sustain themselves in a courtroom. Use the statements of the suspects against themselves and they’ll crack under the pressure eventually. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” And they never remain silent if you push the right buttons. Outsmarting people and taking the unpredictable road, is what made LA Noire so appealing to me. Definitely not the driving through that “empty” city or the repetitive shoot-outs. The actual detective work is more about examining evidence and statements, than dodging bullets and returning fire from cover.
Almost as expected, the game finishes with a textbook example of a cliffhanger. Not entirely bothersome, since we have closure on the murder case, but this Uncle Lewis will apparently play a much larger role in Phyllis’ life, even after his untimely death. I’d call it irony if not fulfilling one’s destiny, but a sharp wit does not believe in such nonsense. The hunt for the truth continues and I can only hope we won’t have to wait too long for a sequel, if it shall be released at all. Right, Ben? Don’t take the Half-Life 3 route, please. Malone’s got plenty more stories to share with us. Take your time and give her a literal voice of reason next time around.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.