The sprawling concrete jungle has been host to more than its fair share of gritty crime stories and police procedurals. In any given form of media, it provides fertile ground for great drama, intriguing characters, and edge-of-your-seat action. Small wonder, then, that developer Rival Games tapped into this setting for its three-part crime thriller, The Detail. What emerges, though, is a game with a lofty premise that struggles with its own format, not quite able to overcome the limitations of its episodic presentation, even after the fact.
The Detail, which debuted with Where the Dead Lie in 2014, followed by From the Ashes and Devil in the Detail in 2015 and 2016, respectively, splits its time between a trio of characters as they trudge through the red tape and corruption inherent in the justice system of an unnamed contemporary metropolis. The main protagonist is Reggie Moore, a veteran Detective who, over time, has taken to viewing the letter of the law as more of a mild suggestion than the rule. Through years of dealing with the lowest of the low, it’s Reggie’s jaded outlook on the system that colors much of the game’s bleak tone. As Reggie and his partner Tyrone begin to investigate the brutal execution of a well-known player in the city’s drug game, murdered under an abandoned overpass on a rainy night, they bring in former gangbanger-turned-informant Joe Miller, who has been trying to get away from his old life and raise a family. Over the course of the game, control switches between Reggie, Joe, and Katelyn Hayes, a rookie cop with her own personal stake in seeing the perps taken down. By the end of episode one, these characters are reassigned from their respective duties to form the specially appointed task force from which The Detail takes its name.
Certain sections of the game sport a distinctive comic book look, with black-and-white panels – some partly animated – sliding across the screen with accompanying speech bubbles and phonetic sound effects. In some of these scenes, a particular element may be emphasized with a single splash of color in an otherwise starkly contrasting monochromatic world. It’s a style reminiscent of such Frank Miller books as Sin City, and it fits well with The Detail’s mature tone (apparent from the first few moments of gameplay, which involve stopping a psychopathic serial killer from abusing and killing a kidnapped child).
The visuals soon take a different tack, however, with the majority of the game taking place in full-color point-and-click sets. While I have no problems with the different graphical approaches for different beats in the story, especially on a shoestring indie budget, the inconsistent implementation left a few things to be desired. Some characters’ in-game models look jarringly different than the hand-drawn comic-style cinematics, to the point of being barely recognizable when the visual mediums change, while a few others look like each other’s long-lost twins, their dialog close-ups using the same model with different hair attached. In one unfortunate case, a character’s portrait simply doesn’t exist and has been replaced with a large pink rectangle during conversation.
For much of the first episode – that is to say for about 90 minutes or so – events are centered around the slaying of drug boss Arkany, as Reggie and Tyrone follow up on leads found at the crime scene. However, each of the two subsequent similar-length episodes largely follows its own track, with a different crime taking center stage. With the overarching story only occasionally connecting and moving forward, it is hard to really follow the meta-narrative with any gusto, and by the time events come full circle at the end, it barely feels like anything has really been solved. Instead, the game serves up a surprise twist that marginalizes most of the entire preceding investigation – and the player’s choices – as irrelevant. It’s not that such unpredictable moments are necessarily a bad thing, but this one certainly takes the wind out of the game’s sails at least a little.
And that’s a shame, because The Detail’s story features some genuinely good ideas: undercover gang infiltration, a detective battling his own demons at least as much as he battles the system, and a city-wide political conspiracy. But on the gameplay side of things, it’s less exciting. Each episode features a major crime scene to investigate by examining evidence, drawing conclusions, following up on leads, and even solving a mild puzzle or two, like unlocking a door or correctly deducing a vital clue.
A few more engaging puzzles do exist, such as using a map of gang territories and a photo lab watermark to determine the location of a suspect in the murder of Arkany. Yet even then, once they’ve arrived Reggie and Ty must find a way to enter the building without a warrant. Seems like a perfect opportunity for a more traditional adventure game puzzle, but in the end there’s very little thought or reasoning required to gain entrance, as the solution is made obvious after a quick peek in through the house’s rear entrance. Even the actual “detective work” is a pretty drab affair of simply clicking on each item of note at a crime scene, reading text, maybe selecting the best choice from a list of possible interpretations of the clue, then moving on to the next location. There isn’t much deduction taking place, nor any actual investigating using the tools of the trade to offer some gameplay variety.
When not spending time at crime scenes, Reggie & co. travel to different locations like the police station, the local strip club, and various residences around the city. You are free to explore each location at your leisure, though the scope of the areas turns out to be limited, with only a small handful of hotspots in a room available for examination. More often than not, the goal is to initiate conversation with a particular character, which will then automatically move the story forward, though on one or two occasions after being deposited at the police station, an unexpected puzzle presented itself to be solved: Why am I here, and what am I supposed to accomplish?Continued on the next page...