Review: Underdog Detective

Underdog Detective is a brand new live action FMV game charting the adventures of Du Xun, an amateur detective and antique dealer of charmingly questionable repute. He’s spent his whole life in Underdog Dwelling, Shendu’s (now Luoyang’s) 7th Century human rubbish dump, a place where the unlucky or unfavoured wash up against their will and the poor can’t escape from no matter how hard they try – in other words the perfect setting for a game filled with murder and mystery.

Happily it’s a game quick to demonstrate its strengths: The opening fight scene is interspersed with Du Xun’s narrative of these wholly untruthful events, the player encouraged at several points to decide whether he should keep on spinning his amusingly tall tale to impress a potential customer or attempt to explain the plot holes he’s introduced into his own story with varying degrees of success. It’s a clever, exciting, and funny sequence rolled into one.

Funny, but never stupid: Our lead is a likeable goof with a sharp eye for detail, not a bumbling Inspector Clouseau type. There’s a rich seam of humour running right through Underdog Detective, encompassing everything from pure physical comedy to more subtle jibes – and often at Du Xun’s expense. I’m pleasantly surprised to say that it’s often the translation that helps these gags land as much as it is the cast’s acting, the text as loose and lively as the exaggerated expressions and daft situations the characters find themselves in (including kissing a deadly zombie lady in the opening). Having said that there are a few avoidable errors in there such as English text getting cut off because it’s overrun the available space, but on the whole the these instances only stood out as much as they did because everything else is so well done.

The puzzles and other problems you have to overcome are equally impressive, covering a shockingly wide range of inventive styles in a very short space of time. Some of them are murder-mystery staples, such as being presented with a view of the crime scene or another important location and then asked to take note of every suspicious object or relevant clue, but even these have a unique twist to them. There are two different kinds of clue, with the UI always making it perfectly clear which one you’ve just found and how many more there are to uncover: Vital plot-progressing clues are marked in red on the top-right of the screen, whereas secondary clues – useful but not essential points that may help confirm an idea or rule out something else – are noted (where present) just underneath in grey. A more involved case later on then asks you to make your own connections between the information you’ve uncovered – the potential cause of death and the delivery system, for example – to solve the matter once and for all, the thought process beautifully presented as stars in the night sky.

The other problems you face are more unexpected, such as carefully tapping a mouse button to open a window without alerting the guard at the door, timing your creep up a set of stairs to someone’s snoring, twisting a puzzle box’s top into the correct pattern, or deftly using the right chain of responses to convince someone to go along with whatever our Underdog Detective’s currently trying to do. Every challenge feels complimentary rather than contrived, present because it’s a real issue Du Xun needs to overcome rather than an artificial hurdle invented to give players something to click on.

The game’s five chapters are totally linear: You either do the right thing or you don’t get to carry on. As railroaded as that can sometimes be here it means you never have to waste time examining somewhere you don’t need to be, never have to wearily rewatch a conversation or reaction you’ve already witnessed three times this session (and when things do repeat you discover Underdog Detective’s got a great range of playback controls, letting you skip, pause, and rewind whenever you please), and never find yourself stuck in an unwinnable situation because you failed to grab a particular earring, letter, or other miscellaneous knick-knack ten minutes ago.

That’s not to say your success is automatically guaranteed though: Leaping to an incorrect conclusion, antagonising the wrong person with the wrong item, or messing up one of the “action” segments (such as the sneaky stair-climbing mentioned earlier) can all lead to game-ending failure. These scenes are surprisingly solemn considering the lighthearted nature of the rest of the game; depending on how you mess up you could see Du Xun and friends starve, stabbed to death, or have their cold bodies thrown in the river. They do however bring a definite finality to your mistakes, firmly shutting down trains of thought such as “OK so that didn’t work but why can’t they just carry on and…” before they even begin. Luckily failing a scene is a temporary setback rather than a real problem, Underdog Detective keen on sending you back to a point as close to where you slipped up as possible. You’re even given clues as to what went wrong too, so when you return you’ve got a good idea of what the problem was and how to correct it.

So it’s a good thing then the puzzles you have to solve and the logical leaps you’re asked to make consistently make sense, and through a combination of my own efforts and a few death-led corrections I made it through the entire game alone without any great issue.

Unfortunately the entire process only took 106 minutes, and that’s including the time I spent poking around the menus and swigging mugs of tea.

That in itself isn’t an issue – I’ve said plenty of times before now that games should only be as long as they need to be and I’m sure I’ll say the same again in the future – the problem is that Underdog Detective sells itself as a complete experience and yet the truth is the end of the fifth chapter isn’t the conclusion to anything at all, but really just the end of the prologue. To continue on you must buy the DLC – which isn’t actually available or even priced at the time of writing – and to make matters worse the DLC’s Steam page makes no mention of whether you’re buying another incomplete chunk of an ongoing tale or the missing piece that makes an otherwise well made and very enjoyable beginning whole. Imagine someone offering to sell you a cake, showing you a picture of said cake… and then when you pay for the cake you end up with a single delicious slice with the promise that some more cake – maybe the rest of it, maybe just a few more slices – will definitely be along in a few weeks, but only if you choose pay extra for it: That’s Underdog Detective’s “base game” experience in a nutshell.

Having said that, I realise this is a problem that will fade with time as the remaining chapters become available and “Underdog Detective Complete” or some other similarly titled bundle eventually shows up. It’s just a shame this chopped-up way of selling an otherwise great adventure game spoils such an entertaining story.

[Ko-fi supporters made this article possible – and they got to read it a week early too!]

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