In Restless Dreams I Walk Alone
I have a very odd relationship with the Point-and-Click genre of games. On one hand, I love clicking around, interacting with the world and characters, solving puzzles, and watching a game unfold one room at a time. On the other hand (despite screams of anger from Reb Tevya), Point-and-Click games can often frustrate me to no end with obtuse, nonsensical puzzles and solutions that I would never have figured out logically. Palm Pioneer, developers of Tales of the Neon Sea (which I have to say is one of my favorite game titles in recent memory), have seemingly tried their hardest to overcome many of the pitfalls of the genre and make their own unique game in the process. The question is, did they succeed in their endeavor? In my opinion- oh yes.
In Tales of the Neon Sea you play as Rex Mist, an android private detective, in a cyberpunk world. You start off having a horrible nightmare about a creepy and death-obsessed plague doctor chasing you through the dirty, dank sewers. Upon waking up, you take your cat William for a walk, only to discover that some poor old woman had been murdered. Seeing as you are a detective, you investigate the scene with the help of some trusty futuristic implants that rival even Batman’s trinkets. The more you discover about the murder, the more you realize it was anything but ordinary, and it has some ties to an old case that haunts you to this day.
The story unfolds in three chapters over a period of three days. (It is worth noting that the game is not done yet, and the final chapters will be released later this year – similar to Broken Age or the miscellaneous Telltale Games). During these days, you cover quite a bit of ground on the case and dig deep into the criminal underworld of the futuristic, neon splattered and Beijing-esque city. In a big surprise to me, you actually play as William about one-third of the game and follow him on his side adventures that intertwine with Mr. Mist’s Story. In order to proceed through this story, Mr. Mist (and sometimes William) solves puzzles, hacks computers, creates ridiculous new gadgets out of scrap, and helps the odd person in exchange for information.
I very rarely felt like a solution was “unfair” or “illogical”
This all sounds like a setup for a quality Point-and-Click adventure game, but the actual gameplay is where Tales of the Neon Sea breaks away from the standard tropes. Rather than actually pointing and clicking on every pixel on screen to decide what to interact with, you can only interact with what is immediately in front of you. Also, only an object that can be tinkered with becomes highlighted when you are by it, which is greatly appreciated as it helps clarify and simplify what to focus on. (So, technically, it is not a “Point-and-Click” game, but more of a “2D adventure, platforming, puzzle-solving game” – but who wants to write that out every time)? I greatly appreciated the simplification of options of what you can and cannot do, and it really helped me to streamline the problem solving process and allowed for more puzzles and less “what the heck do I do with this object” moments.
Overall, the quality of these many different puzzles is actually quite good! There is a good mix of logic problems, environmental interaction, small mazes, and even some card games to play! To me, as I said before, the best part of these portions of the game is the fact that I very rarely felt like a solution was “unfair” or “illogical” – a problem that I have with other games like Deponia, Grim Fandango, and even some parts of the fantastic Broken Age. Respecting a player’s time and intelligence are things that I greatly appreciate, and I felt like Tales of the Neon Sea did so much more than not.
There were a couple instances where I was very frustrated with the design, however. First, there was a lockpicking minigame that I found to be unnecessarily difficult and punishing, and I’m ashamed to say I spent nearly 20 anger-induced minutes on it total before finally beating it. Later, there was a segment where you are locked in a room and have to escape by looking for clues on the wall. After spending nearly a half hour trying different code combinations, I took the tedious mathematical approach and went through every possible iteration to crack a code because I couldn’t for the life of me make sense of the environmental clues.
Lastly, there is an extended segment on a boat in the third chapter before the conclusion that went on too long for its own good and could have used some more hints or guidance from Mr. Mist about what to do next. Again, the fact that I remember only three frustrations in a 15 hour experience is an enormous feat for the genre, and one that made it so much more fun for me to play!
The backgrounds of the neon city are meticulously detailed and vibrant.
The other thing that made Tales of the Neon Sea a delight to play was the utterly fantastic pixel art visuals. I love the cyberpunk genre, whether it be in a movie like Blade Runner 2049 or a game like The Red Strings Club, and this game just absolutely nailed the aesthetic. The backgrounds of the neon city are so meticulously detailed and vibrant that you cannot help but stand still and take it all in. Similarly, the amount detail in the foreground is just as detailed and beautiful, and particularly Mr. Mist’s apartment (despite the over-abundance of scantily-clad women posters) has so much charm and detail flowing out of every nook and cranny. The character art as well is original, detailed, and makes each person unique and memorable. Honestly, the visuals are what makes me the most excited for future chapters, and I cannot wait to see what Palm Pioneer creates next.
While not as high in quality as the visuals, the soundtrack also does a very good job at building on the great atmosphere. There aren’t all that many tracks, and they are looped probably more than they should be, but they are more of an ambient, synth-noir background sound that doesn’t sound repetitive. Also, if I had to nitpick on something, I would say the writing isn’t the most memorable either. Mr. Mist is relatively one-dimensional, and other side characters aren’t given great personalities or even enough screen time to become “great characters.” However, both of these aspects are very serviceable and do a good job of building on the world and do not detract from the overall experience at all.
It is a bit of a bummer that the full game couldn’t be released at once…
One thing that can sometimes slightly diminish the quality as a whole is the game does have some bugs. Firstly, even though it is a pixel art game, Tales of the Neon Sea, doesn’t seem to be the most optimized, as it lagged pretty heavily on a laptop that I play many other indie games on (I did switch to a different computer for the review and it ran better). Also, there were a few typos here and there, primarily due to the fact that the developer is from Chengdu, China and English is not their primary language. Also because of this, I had a few instances of in-game text popping up in Chinese rather than English. As I progressed through the game for the review, patches came out just about every day and and these issues became less and less abundant, so I imagine that in time they will iron out the kinks!
Overall, I think Palm Pioneer has created a very memorable and unique experience with Tales of the Neon Sea. While it is a bit of a bummer that the full game couldn’t be released at once, I am willing to wait for the future chapters to come out if it means I can get more of that beautiful artwork to look at! I have the most fun with Point-and-Click games when the focus is on quality environmental interaction and not obtuse puzzles, and this game was filled with great puzzles. By streamlining the gameplay and focusing on worldbuilding and visuals, I really think that Tales of the Neon Sea has successfully managed to avoid the many pitfalls of the genre and is a game that I cannot wait to play more!
Yes, if you:
- Love Point-and-Click adventure games, but not the obtuse puzzles
- Want top of the line cyberpunk pixel art
- Do not mind episodic releases of content
No, if you:
- Are looking for high quality writing and well-developed characters
- Cannot look past a few technical bugs
- Are looking for a short, few hour experience
Tales of the Neon Sea released on April 29th, 2019 on PC at an MSRP of $16.99. There is a plan to release on Switch, PS4, and Xbox One, but no release date as of yet.
Note: Cannonicity received a copy of Tales of the Neon Sea in exchange for a fair and honest review.