Adventure Gamers Awards
Somewhere along the line, Goin’ Downtown took a detour on the way to its English-language release. This futuristic sci-fi whodunit debuted in Germany in 2008 and took nearly three years to be localized, no doubt due to its original publisher, The Games Company, going bankrupt in the meantime. Fortunately, Kalypso Media finally picked it up and saw it through to completion, although only in downloadable, subtitled form. Even with these limitations, many will be glad they did, as it’s a stylish-looking adventure with an impressive atmosphere and setting, user-friendly interface, and a compelling mystery premise that can make for quite a ride. The downside is, its rather bare-bones plot development and overly simplistic gameplay will have you speeding through to the end in no time.
Goin’ Downtown begins with a jolt – literally. A man is strapped to an electric chair moments before death, leading the game’s protagonist to reflect back on the dramatic events leading to that point. (Maybe one’s life really does flash before your eyes right before you die?) Once a rising star of New York City’s finest, Jake McCorly’s career as a cop has seriously hit the skids in recent years. It’s the late 21st century, and police are paid strictly through rewards for arrests, but Jake can only wallow in the misery of his wife’s death. A holographic news report details the increasing disappearance of prostitutes, but nothing can shake Jake’s apathy until an explosion outside his high-rise apartment sends him out to investigate. Finding a beautiful call girl named Rose unconscious in the street, Jake shelters her while she recovers. But when Rose goes missing under suspicious circumstances several hours later, the wheels of a much larger mystery are set in motion, finally rousing Jake to action.
Wheels are an important part of this adventure, as you’ll zip around between locations on a motorcycle. All events occur within a small inner city radius, from the police station to various homes and factory warehouses to Fat Franzy’s bar. A slick quick travel map can be called up just about any time, which shows a miniature of the city and any destinations Jake can drive to at that time. But the impressive visual presentation doesn’t end there. The locations themselves are done in a wonderful hand-drawn comic fashion with cel-shaded characters. Backgrounds aren’t overly detailed, but they’re richly coloured and nicely designed with little touches like wall graffiti in the Red Light District, a lotus pond in a Chinese mall, and blurred streams of traffic racing below Jake’s pad. There aren’t many cinematics or ambient animations, but character actions are generously displayed, from Fido the robodog performing tricks to an Itchy & Scratchy-like cartoon playing on TV, although we probably could have done without watching Jake relieve himself. Character models are quite blocky and the shadows are distractingly heavy, but each one is distinctively designed, whether the mohawked paramedic, the pink-and-blue-haired junkie, or the pony-tailed child pickpocket. Non-interactive characters, on the other hand, appear as featureless moving background props, which is surprisingly effective.
Just as important as the artistic quality is the futuristic vision of the world itself. This is a society much like our own, full of elevators and key cards and old-fashioned guns, yet advanced enough to create an immersive urban sci-fi atmosphere. Jake’s apartment comes complete with a personal ATM (where can I get one of those?) and an automated “TeleDoc”, which offers personal psychiatric advice (forget the bank machine, where can I get one of THOSE?!!). Elsewhere, you’ll encounter finger chips and thumb scanners that log all relevant personal details for 70 years, weapon detectors, and a Cerebro-like simulation room where you can recreate and interact with recorded personal events. It’s a good mix of present fact and future fiction that keeps the story grounded in reality but refreshingly different, like the use of mobile handsets for stationary “ComStations” to make phone calls and access police files, now necessary due to electromagnetic pollution from excessive cell phone use.
Not all of these Big Brother-ish technologies would be welcome, which highlights the grittier side of Goin’ Downtown. This isn’t a relentlessly bleak, dystopian future, but it does involve a raw, edgy storyline that doesn’t shy away from unpleasant realities, like prostitution, drug abuse, rape, and murder. Apart from the odd bit of bad language and sexual innuendo, there’s nothing here that could be considered offensive to anyone, but the game does deal in mature themes. Of course, a murder mystery without some dark content wouldn’t be much of a story. The powers-that-be care little of the fates of hookers, so Jake is on his own to investigate Rose’s case, against his chief’s wishes. This gets him into a variety of scrapes and shady tasks, from committing identity fraud to finding substitute drugs for an addicted informant, devising makeshift poison darts, and finding the appropriate outfit to attend an upper-class sex party. Jake has some friends whose help he enlists by performing favours, such as setting the crime lab technician up with an escort or testing Fat Franzy’s booze for toxins, but he soon makes some enemies as well, who have no qualms about shooting, capturing, or pummeling him senseless.
Despite the occasional violent encounter, Goin’ Downtown is a traditional adventure in all respects. A context-sensitive cursor allows you to examine items with a right-click and interact with a left. Just like the developer’s recent Simon the Sorcerer adventures, Jake will intuitively run to any point clicked far away and walk to those nearby, though you can double-click to instantly exit. Each location consists of only a couple screens max, so you never have much ground to cover, though the screen scrolls in some of the larger areas. You’ll acquire numerous objects as you go along, all stored in a hidden inventory called up by mousing over the bottom of the screen, where you can select, examine, and even combine items for use. There are quite a few optional hotspots, though rarely do these yield any comments of interest. In general, any item showing a “use” cursor will be important at some point, though not necessarily. Even the highlighter designed to show only relevant objects (the “G” key; “H” reveals all hotspots onscreen) displays some that are never used, like a shooting range, a skull, and an elevated railway. This gives the impression that a larger adventure was originally planned and then scaled back to its current version.
A more fully fleshed-out version would have been preferable, as what’s left is a very short, easy game that should take no more than five hours to complete. Apart from a few simple dialogue puzzles, two of which determine the outcome of fistfights (like insult swordfighting without the swords or any real strategy) and a faux stealth section that involves no actual sneaking, all obstacles in Goin’ Downtown are inventory-based and quite straightforward to solve. The only real challenge comes from knowing where to go and when, as sometimes triggers will pop up in unlikely places… or more often, unlikely times. Borrowing a feature from its own Everlight, Silver Style once again allows players to switch from day to night at the click of button. Usually the need is fairly logical, but it’s a poorly implemented gimmick. As if by magic, the scene simply changes to the new time, with Jake still standing in place, now surrounded by different lighting and the odd altered detail.
This same concept is employed, to varying degrees of success, in the Crime Investigation Simulation. Through this prototype technology, Jake is able to recreate what happened to Rose the night before he met her, though he wasn’t there originally. Here the environment is tinted green, though the locations are all the same otherwise. Since you’re a tangible physical presence in this sim, there’s a gauge that measures how dramatically you’re altering the actual events, and if it falls to zero or you make a significant error, you’re booted out and forced to restart, watching the same introductory cutscene all over again. The simulator lets you pick up where you left off, however, with the gauge completely reset, so the restriction is rather pointless. It could have been a welcome reward for thinking deductively, but all too often solutions are simply trial-and-error, and you’ll feel punished just for guessing wrong. What’s worse, you won’t be able to overcome all the challenges in the simulator without exiting to the real world for some additional errands, which comes across as little more than busywork.
Despite the ease of the puzzle solutions themselves, the scattered nature of certain triggers may cause you to turn to the hint system occasionally. Jake’s diary lists your current objectives, each of which has three progressive levels of hints available, from a subtle nudge to all but an outright spoiler. I only needed the hints a couple times, once from another sloppy technical issue. A particular puzzle involves ordering fast food from an automated dispenser. But since I couldn’t find a way to pay (clearly marked as rule #1) and Jake responded to the offered food by saying “Good thing I’m not hungry” with no apparent way to take it, I assumed I’d done something incorrectly. Only later did I realize that Jake was secretly stuffing my inventory full of hot dogs and saucy tacos the whole time. Another involved a completely unintuitive inventory combination, the solution to which made less sense than the one I was already trying. A few hiccups aside, however, there is very little in Goin’ Downtown that will trip you up for long, even if you do resort to trying everything on everything once in a while.
Puzzles aren’t the only things given short-shrift here. While the plot is certainly intriguing, the wafer-thin storyline is littered with massive holes and huge leaps of logic. Jake spends more time committing crimes than solving them, while key people and events are introduced randomly right at the most opportune times, then essentially forgotten. Conversations are shown from a variety of different angles to make them visually interesting, and there’s a nice selection of optional dialogue topics, usually approaching the same topic with different attitudes. This can lead to some fun exchanges, like the newsstand lady updating Jake on the latest gossip and a telephone runaround that all of us can surely relate to, but most characters are simply plot devices to serve a purpose. Even the grieving Jake, who showed the potential to be a compelling, multi-dimensional protagonist driven by his demons, soon sees his character arc flatline apart from a few shallow, Dr. Phil-level discussions about his personal problems that are quickly dismissed.
What the characters may lack in personality, they make up with quality voice acting… at least, I think it’s quality, because it’s all in German. The English version is limited to subtitles only, conveyed through large white speech bubbles. There’s an option to turn the voices off if you wish, but I kept them on, as they add nicely to the ambience. Jake’s deep, somewhat gravelly tone perfectly captures his world-weary cynicism, and there’s a better sense of narrative flow when hearing two people converse in any language. (And let’s face it, don’t many of us read ahead of the voiceovers anyway?) The translation is generally decent, though there’s enough awkward grammar to remind you that English isn’t the native language. If you do turn the speech off, you’ll be left with a mix of synthesized techno musical themes and dramatic pianos and violins, sprinkled occasionally with periods of silence or location-specific scores, like a more Asian tune playing at the meeting site of the Chinese Triad. Music abruptly cuts off in close-up scenes, which is unfortunate, as some of Jake’s comments aren’t subtitled there either (an omission that shouldn’t impact your progress at all). Sound effects are limited but adequate, from water dripping to steam hissing to the deep rumblings of Jake’s “chopper” as it prowls the city streets.
If the brisk pacing feels like a race to the finish, the ending feels even more rushed. All the main plot issues are resolved with a satisfying conclusion to your investigation, but major events are quickly glossed over in a fairly anti-climactic finale, and the epilogue arrives completely out of the blue. Perhaps it’s fitting that the last impression is a desire for more, as the same can be said of the game itself. With a little more story depth, gameplay substance, and character development, Goin’ Downtown could have gone down as one the sci-fi genre greats. Aside from a few wonky design issues, the game doesn’t do anything wrong, just not enough of what it seemed close to getting so right. As it is, it provides a great atmosphere with a compelling futuristic vision, a solid murder mystery, and it looks great. Think of it more like an interactive graphic novel and you’ll likely find it a sweet ride; hope for much more and you’ll want to steer clear. If you’re thinking of Goin’ Downtown yourself, just remember to take your time and enjoy the scenery along the way, because the trip won’t last you long.