It was after I’d been trapped in two rooms of a flat for an hour, unable to go anywhere else until I’d found the one or two remaining clues at the murder scene, that Tales of the Neon Sea revealed to me how much of an arse it was being. The vast majority of clues and interactive elements in the game are highlighted as such when you walk past them. I was used to this, so was looking for an interaction prompt I might have missed. Naturally, the clue I was looking for wasn’t highlighted, so it was blind chance (and button mashing) that helped me progress, not superstar cybernetic detective abilities.
Tales of the Neon Sea looks superb, and sounds even better, but after a short amount of time, this not-quite point-and-click detective/adventure game has shown you all it has.
There’s traipsing around (lovely-looking) areas, with a lot of ferrying back and forth. There’s a lot of interacting with clearly highlighted things, and a small amount of trying to find the stuff that isn’t highlighted. And there are puzzles, for some reason. Puzzles that make no sense in the game world, even when there’s an accompanying explanation as to why they’re there, and puzzles that – while sometimes fun – do little more than act as roadblocks to your inevitable progress.
Some roadblocks are bigger than others, thanks to a combination of the puzzles themselves being occasionally challenging and saddled with explanations that have been poorly translated. I won’t nitpick the translation elsewhere – Neon Sea is a game made by a small Chinese team, you’d be daft to expect perfection – but when the instructions to a minigame, one you have to complete in order to progress, are muddled at best, it does impact things negatively. Having to wrestle with the actual point of a puzzle before even starting to try and solve it in earnest is not what you’d call fun.
And, on reflection, I think that feeling carries throughout Neon Sea. It’s not a lot of fun.
It’s busywork, a lot of back and forth to grab item A and take it to place B, before solving a lockpick/Pipe Dream/line-drawing puzzle, then taking item C to place D and so on and so forth for about ten hours. Or 20 if you get stuck on a puzzle’s instructions and the lack of highlighted interactive elements. It’s a muddled experience, not quite being an adventure game in the point-and-click sense, nowhere near simple enough to be a casual visual novel-alike – it just comes across as unfocused, not really knowing its own identity.
Tales of the Neon Sea, as you can tell, is gorgeous. Its soundtrack is fantastic. The cyberpunk-lite setting is generally well thought-out and coherent. There’s a lot you’ll want to love about the game, especially the cheeky sense of humour and sections where you take control of a feline sidekick and see the secret world of the cats in all its glory. But looking at the package as a whole, it’s just a bit of an ill-defined, vague experience. It’ll stick with you in some ways, but otherwise, this is sadly a forgettable one.
Neon Sea’s musical score is fantastic, though its loops are a bit on the short side and can become an irritation when you’re stuck on a puzzle. Nonetheless, the lo-fi, synth-laden soundtrack is a fabulous accompaniment to your time in the game, and easily one of its strongest elements.
Gorgeous and atmospheric it might be, but Neon Sea flounders where it counts.
Genre: Detective/cat simulator
Format: PC (tested) / Consoles later in 2019
Developer: Palm Pioneer
Publisher: Zodiac Interactive
Release: Out now