After his partner Bill Leger dies in pursuit of a serial killer, police detective Miles Fordham becomes a private investigator who tries to solve crimes in the alternative 19th century Victorian steampunk city of New Bretagne without losing his mind because of Bill starting to talk in his head.
Victorian Dystopian nightmares
Francisco Gonzalez already did some interesting adventure games like A Golden Wake and Shardlight which might not have been perfect with their puzzles and storytelling, but which created memorable settings, the former portraying the golden past of the USA, the latter a dystopian future. Lamplight City combines the historic with the imaginative, namely a Steampunk version of Victorian times. It works as a backdrop for an old-school Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes-like investigation, but the sci-fi vibe makes it much more interesting.
New Bretagne is certainly not a happy place, as the industrial revolution with steam engines presents both progress and dangers with machines and automatons taking over to be more productive, but taking away people’s jobs and also being prone to failures. Social structures are criticized, too, with masters abusing their servants or the general lack of compassion among the higher classes, showing social injustice, domestic violence, and poverty. Looking at various environmental objects adds to authenticity, but if one wants to delve deeper into this world, reading the daily newspapers helps to immerse the player even more.
The anti-steam movement and its political implications also become part of the cases Miles has to solve later on. While the game wears its political message on its sleeve, the player can still decide who he or she wants to believe. One can often listen to NPCs talking about current events, e.g. in a bar where workers lament their harsh working conditions. It’s not all Charles Dickens material, though, as one also glimpses references to Edgar Allen Poe’s work, e.g. in one case where a person is buried alive, or characters are named Mr. Usher or Mr. Price.
Strong characterizations in an unstable society
The characters are all very well-written and memorable, e.g. a young woman who works with plants and compares them to people or a lady who has an eccentric love for squirrels and cats who are more important to her than human relationships. Despite offering natural dialogues, these can still be quite long, as almost every character, Miles and his wife included, are very talkative. The private investigator is more difficult to relate to than the typical adventure game hero, but due to his flaws much more interesting.
The relationship with his wife becomes both touching and important during the course of the story, because his addiction to a soporific drug and the loss of his partner doesn’t only bear heavily on his psyche, but also on his marital status. Trying to overcome their problems or drifting further apart, it’s a great portrait of social life and also shows a much stronger female character than one would be used to in Victorian times. Despite focusing on a semi-realistic setting, the supernatural elements are also part of storytelling, because Miles constantly listens to and speaks to the voice of his dead partner. Reminiscent of The Blackwell Legacy, these dialogues are full of witty and often sarcastic remarks which lighten the mood in an otherwise serious storyline.
A tangled web of crimes
Lamplight City clearly takes inspiration from classic detective adventures like Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers in the way how suspects are interrogated, new leads are followed, and clues are gathered. Slowly unlocking more locations to visit and more people to talk to is rewarding. One is highly motivated by piecing together information, and as it’s not always easy to keep track of everything one has to do, the notebook helps a lot with its inclusion of to-do, clues, suspects, and document lists to browse through. This isn’t only for organization purposes, but also for providing hints of what to do next. One has to be very thorough in the investigation to find all the evidence and gather all the clues in order to have enough suspects to present to a police contact at the end of a case.
The main storyline about Miles trying to find the killer of his partner isn’t particularly original or even suspenseful, as it takes too long before one makes any progress, spending more time on many cases. The identity of the killer as well as the final confrontation aren’t very satisfying, either. So it’s a good thing that the storylines of the cases and the characters Miles meets are interesting and fleshed-out enough.
Decision-making and failing
However, despite being able to choose which places to go to first and who to talk to, the game’s approach to choice-making can result in some unexpected situations. It’s possible to mess things up early by either using the wrong tone of voice, asking the wrong questions or giving the wrong answers. Because of this, many NPCs who hold vital information, e.g. to unlock the next location, suddenly refuse to talk to Miles anymore, making progress impossible. This adds to realism and authenticity when investigating a real case in which one can end up without enough clues, accusing the wrong suspect or simply not being able to solve the individual mysteries. The problem remains that one only later learns that another action would have been wiser. This holds especially true for bringing people to justice when they’re innocent or not. Depending on the relationship some of the other NPCs have, one can easily have problems in later cases to find a specific clue, because they won’t be cooperative. It’s certainly an interesting game mechanic, but it punishes players for trying out things.
Even restoring a former savegame doesn’t solve this problem, as one sometimes has to go two or more cases back to make things right again, which is made even worse with limited savegame slots (and the program not making the player aware that it overrode previous savegames!). Fortunately, this doesn’t prevent the player to finish the game, but if one messes up too many times due to some decisions, one can’t avoid a bad ending. There is even one special dialogue in a case that makes all the good decisions before redundant, again resulting in a bad ending. Granted, some bad decisions can be predicted and in some cases Miles’ ghostly advisor warns him not to do anything stupid, but even by being very careful and adhering to suggestions is it possible to miss many storylines.
There are also a few time-sensitive sequences and events, e.g. a trial can be missed (if it actually takes place, depending on a former decision), and some locations with suspects can disappear if one follows a different order, making the whole decision-making process a frustrating experience. In general, despite offering many choices, the game remains rather linear and in some cases makes the player question if what he does or says has any consequence. So even if one votes for a specific political candidate, one can’t change the outcome, although Miles’ political stance and his dialogue partners seem to make a big deal out of it. So one isn’t quite sure what plays an important part later on and what doesn’t.
Whodunnit with consequences
Finding out who is guilty or not is also rather difficult at times, which isn’t made any easier by leaving the player in the dark later on. It’s much more problematic that if one accuses the wrong people, it doesn’t have much of an effect on the storyline or Miles’ personality. Despite a few comments by his dead partner and the police contacts he has, one will feel the weight of the decisions only much later when it’s already too late. This is a shame, because the individual cases are generally well thought-out. For example, in one case one learns about members of high society’s unstable relationships, their use of drugs, and the abuse of servants. This again showcases well-written characters who might not be easy to like or relate to, but who are realistic portrayals of Victorian or any other society. Same-sex relationships as well as the prejudices against the practices of voodoo compared to healing, and the money-making practices of a secret society who pretends to communicate with the dead also show a much more mature look at individual parts of social life that is usually only talked about in hushed tones or not at all.
Detective work puzzles
Inventory-based puzzles aren’t very prominent, as it’s not possible to combine objects, only to use them in conversations or the environment. Funnily enough, if Miles carries around ashes, i.e. human remains, every NPC will have a less than friendly comment on his smell when he enters a new location. Despite being very dialogue-heavy, the puzzles are well-integrated in the story and quite varied, even if one shouldn’t expect anything too complex. So one has to collect evidence from crime scenes and analyze specific material in a laboratory environment. Comparing the results, one is provided with another clue. Of course this only works if one finds all the clues (which isn’t always easy because of the lack of a hotspot key) and hasn’t done anything that cuts off certain segments because of former decisions, which again shows that the player often stumbles and fumbles in the dark without knowing that he can’t progress anymore.
There are a few alternative puzzle solutions, though, so for example, a woman asks Miles to make her husband come home from his night out at a bar, and one can either convince him that it’s the right thing to do and that he should talk to his wife, or one can make the bartender throw him out. In another situation, the detective can either fix a boiler for a landlord or ask his wife to help him, so that he can gain access to a tenant/suspect’s room afterwards. But again if one fails in the attempt, one won’t have another chance and will have to follow up another lead.
Steampunk and Victorian presentation
Character animations are surprisingly good for a pixel art game, even if the faces are difficult to make out in their pixelated states. However, the portraits during dialogues showcase some nice art design and even feature facial changes depending on the situation, which is also true for the locations. With the use of painting-like coloring and many details these look quite good, and together with convincing environmental sound effects one feels being transported to Victorian times. Voice acting is of a very high quality, even with lip-sync during conversations, with only very few instances in which the speech isn’t quite natural and the actors/actresses don’t fit. The soundtrack is varied with lots of classical instruments and synthesizers adding to each individual location.
A great compilation of detective stories with choices that matter and frustrate
Lamplight City is probably the best adventure game Francisco Gonzalez has done yet, and it’s a great example of interactive detective stories in an interesting Steampunk Victorian setting. Populated with many believable characters, it’s a joy to explore the city of New Bretagne. However, despite being a great idea to present various clues to follow and suspects to accuse, the player is often left in a state of bewilderment, because too many decisions result in plot dead ends. While it might be realistic not to solve every case, a few more hints would have been nice to avoid further frustration. With a playtime of 10 hours the first time, one still wants to replay the game to see all the other endings, find even more evidence, and maybe bring every culprit to justice who deserves it, or simply try out different dialogues and puzzle solutions.
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