Solve a grisly murder in 1920’s San Francisco.
PC Release: February 8, 2018
By Ian Coppock
All classic detective stories begin the same way. They open on a dingy apartment that’s full of nothing but flat light and cigarette smoke. A solitary protagonist heaves themselves off of their cot (or from a face-down position on the desk) to take that one case that’ll win them back their self-respect. This beginning is endemic to detective stories both great and terrible; which category the story falls in depends on where it goes from that premise. It’s time to see if A Case of Distrust achieves that greatness.
A Case of Distrust is a gritty crime noir created by a dev known as The Wandering Ben and/or Ben Wander (in either case, it’s safe to assume that his name is Benjamin and he enjoys aimless traveling). The game begins with the scene described above: a down-on-their luck detective comes to in a dirty flat and is given a chance to turn their dismal existence around. In A Case of Distrust‘s case, that chance falls to Phyllis Malone, an aspiring detective living in 1920’s San Francisco.
After convincing the neighborhood cat that there is, in fact, no food in her apartment (which is also the game’s tutorial), Phyllis gets a knock on her door from a slimy bootlegger whom she’d rather slam the door in front of than help. The catch is that this sleazeball’s just gotten a rather threatening letter, and finding out who sent it could be the big break that lands Phyllis back in the San Francisco PD. Against her better judgment (and with nothing better to do), she takes the case.
Even though Phyllis has a mind like a whip and some decent detective skills, she makes barely a dent in the investigation before her client bites a bullet. Yep; what started out as a case of return-to-[deadly]-sender expands into a full-blown murder mystery. San Francisco is hardly lesser for the death of a Prohibition-busting bootlegger, but Phyllis decides to continue the investigation still hoping that it’ll catch the SFPD’s attention. Besides, the cops sure won’t bother trying to solve the death of a known criminal.
Phyllis has a few cards up her sleeve for solving the murder. She keeps every statement and piece of evidence written down in her notebook, which players can reference anytime they get stuck. She has a keen eye for environmental details. Finally, she can also head to the local “coffee” shop (where the coffee is Irish free trade, wink wink nudge nudge), to shoot the breeze with her bartender—er—barista friend Frankie. Frankie’s no cop, but a lifetime of studying bar patrons has given him a talent for insight.
A Case of Distrust plays out like a point-and-click adventure game. As Phyllis, players can visit locales all over San Francisco to explore scenes and question witnesses. This game’s exploration is not dissimilar to that of a hidden object game: simply move the mouse around the screen until an object highlights itself and a note about it will pop up in Phyllis’s book. Some objects are more relevant than others; that dusty lamp in the corner will probably just keep collecting dust, but what about that hastily discarded gun in the trash?
Phyllis can also interrogate the people she finds at these scenes. As noir tales often go, the murder victim was a complete jackass, so of course everyone has a motive for offing the guy. Phyllis can ask each character a set of questions about the murder, oftentimes acquiring useful info about other characters in the process. She can also go Phoenix Wright on them by contradicting their narratives. When prompted to do so, players can catch a suspect in their lie or let that statement slide for next time.
The dialogue that fleshes these interrogations out is well-written. Each character has their own mannerisms that feel organic and grow more complex as the story progresses. Plus, Phyllis has plenty of her own witty observations about the people around her. These two writing elements produce an entertaining story, sans the occasional grammar error. A sentence like “I [know] all about you!” breaks immersion.
Phyllis also has plenty of stories to tell about her surroundings. Whether she’s describing the smoky basement of a bar or the murder victim’s apartment, these little anecdotes are great at setting the scene. This writing borrows heavily from the inner monologues of other crime stories without being too derivative, leaving the player feeling like they’re actually in jazz age-San Francisco.
A Case of Distrust‘s gritty vibe is further reinforced by its artwork. The entire game is done out in sketch-like scenes that look proto-art deco. Plus, each scene utilizes a single color that sets its mood. The bar that Phyllis hangs out in is painted a warm, reassuring orange, while the murder victim’s apartment is a dour blue. These strong colors are put to excellent effect creating the atmosphere for each locale.
Each character in A Case of Distrust bears minimalist visual attributes that help define their personality. The game confers just enough detail to outline each of its characters but leaves certain facial features blank so that players can imagine their expressions. It’s a bit creepy that none of the characters have eyeballs… but then again, it’d probably look creepier to see them just staring at Phyllis during interrogations.
A Case of Distrust‘s art is rounded out with excellent sound design. The game’s world sounds awesome; everything from the grumble of a motorcar speeding along to the opening of a barber shop door sounds rich and crisp. It’s easy to dismiss details like these as mere, well, details, but sound design goes a long way toward making a video game feel alive. A Case of Distrust‘s skill with a soundboard does as much to make players feel like they’re in San Francisco as the aforementioned writing.
Just like any Roaring Twenties-era game that aspires to be taken seriously, A Case of Distrust features a robust jazz soundtrack. Most of the sounds are low and moody, like the snare drums that play when Phyllis stops by Southern Coffee. Low music is another excellent means of giving scenes a tense tone, and it’s put to great effect in A Case of Distrust. Hopefully the soundtrack becomes available soon; its slow drums and bass strings are worth a listen.
The gameplay at the heart of all this art and writing starts off at a brisk pace, but occasionally gets players bogged down in asking the same questions over and over. It’s a bit tedious to visit the same locales time and again to double-check witnesses’ statements against each other. It’s not necessarily a bad setup, but the sudden slowdown in pacing from Phyllis’s breakneck letter investigation to sifting through murder witnesses is quite conspicuous.
Additionally, A Case of Distrust asks players to assert means, motive, and opportunity for the killer, but all Phyllis can actually do is speculate on those points. The game comes loaded with clues to sort through, but Phyllis is never actually able to definitively link those articles to the murderer. This makes the game a bit confusing, as it asks players to do one thing but expects another. It’s lucky for Phyllis that the perp immediately confesses upon being accused of the crime, because all even the most thorough players have to go on ends up being three hunches. Just something to bear in mind.
Despite A Case of Distrust‘s unsteady cross examination, the game’s story is well worth the time of any thriller fan. The narrative is tightly wound and the aforementioned writing is swell. The only problem is that A Case of Distrust is one of those games that sacrifices a lot of its ballast to make a plot twist work. Just when Phyllis thinks that she has the murderer in her sights, the game dumps a ton of exposition onto players that is in apropos of almost nothing else in the narrative.
A Case of Distrust‘s twist is hardly egregious (it’s one of the better such devices in recent detective video games), but narratives that drown players in peripheral detail to make a plot twist work risk making that twist too grand. It makes the game feel like it has a twist merely for the sake of having a twist instead of for the sake of a good narrative. A Case of Distrust still sticks its narrative landing, but not without a few wobbles.
A Case of Distrust isn’t without its rough edges and its gameplay can get tedious, but players who enjoy noir tales will get a kick out of this title. It begins with a premise virtually identical to that of a lot of murder mysteries, but combines believable characters and an unusually well-described world to provide a compelling tale. As such, the game is ultimately worth a try, and Ben Wander is ultimately a dev worth paying attention to.
You can buy A Case of Distrust here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.