Failure is an interesting thing: Nobody wants to fail, but without the possibility of failure, the stakes and weight of an attempt can never really reach that high.
Lamplight City elevates itself above the vast crowd of point-and-click mystery adventures by allowing you to truly, spectacularly fail. This might not seem like a big draw at first, but this trust in the player’s abilities to investigate and deduce creates tension, and makes you feel like just as much a detective as the protagonist Miles Fordham.
SPOILER WARNING: This review discusses the event of the game’s opening/tutorial case, but will not spoil any of the details of the 5 key cases that follow.
Lamplight City is a detective adventure set in an alternate steampunk-ish “Victorian” past. The thriving port city of New Bretagne is a beacon of progress and industrial advancement in the New World. Yet beneath the promises of a shining 19th-century future, the city rests upon foundations of poverty, class struggle, and crime.
Lamplight City begins simply enough: Dectives Miles Fordham and Bill Leger are called to investigate a reported robbery at a flower shop in Cholmondeley, a borough regarded as the seedy side of the City of New Bretagne.
Even from those few names, places and spellings, the scene has been set: A Pseudo-Victorian Semi-Steampunk city of glowing gas lamps, smog and Dickensian characters.
Lamplight City’s world building is phenomenal and deserves to be applauded. It’s closer to alternate history than pure steampunk: you won’t see goggles and gears decorating every surface and outfit, but there’s many practical applications of steam power scattered throughout the city you’ll be combing through. More common that those classic steampunk trappings are the socioeconomic and class issues common to the works of Dickens, and the brooding Victorian sensibilities of Poe, which make New Bretagne instantly recognizable, even if you’ve never seen it before.
The sense of familiarity and reality is only reinforce by the characters of Lamplight City. The many people you meet throughout the game are rich and varied, but all feel very grounded in reality, if a bit exaggerated at times for effect. This is only helped by the fact that the game is fully voice acted, and the quality of the voice acting is phenomenal. Miles’ partner Bill, who mainly serves the role of a haunting and sarcastic commentator to your detective work, is a particular stand out, having some of the greatest effects on the game even if he’s not seen in most scenes.
Miles Fordham, the main character who you’ll be controlling, is also incredibly well realized. He’s at the end of his rope, stressed, and quite possibly mad, which makes it entirely believable that he, and thus you, could fail. This is important to Lamplight City‘s main triumph, but more on that in a bit.
The characterization of Miles and Bill, as well as the colorful cast of other characters, is reinforced by the game’s dialogue screens. While most of the game is put together in a very recognizable way, with gorgeous pixelated set pieces and characters, where you’ll walk about investigating objects and having conversation with people, the words dancing above your heads, once the conversation gets more in depth, the view changes.
A pitch black background pops up, populated by two incredibly detailed portraits of the characters. You’ll watch and listen to them converse, and direct the questioning when able. Not only is this different view visually striking, but it makes it very clear that the emphasis here is on the conversation. Unlike other point-and-click adventures, where you pick up everything not bolted to the ground and then see what that rubber duck/banana peel/stray booger could possibly combine with, you’ll be collecting ideas from conversations more than physical objects in Lamplight City. These are handily tracked in your case book, and it’s worth giving them a look over every once in a while as you progress through the game.
Paying attention to these conversations is important because Lamplight City asks you to actually act like a detective on the five different cases you take over the course of the game. Should you miss a vital clue, bungle a key conversation, or simply give in to emotion and prejudice, it is entirely possible for you and Miles to accuse someone who is completely innocent. A criminal can easily slip through your fingers and you’ll never see a “Game Over” screen.
There’s no one correct answer, no single correct combination of four random items to solve the cases you’re assigned, and Lamplight City doesn’t (wonderfully imho) fall into the trap of point-and-click logic. This feels like a real investigation, and I think that is pretty high praise for a mystery game. The pacing of these cases is also fantastic: I only got stuck a few times during my investigations, and was able to get back on track quickly by consulting my case book.
This has not been my past experience with point-and-click adventures…
My only real advice to you before playing Lamplight City is to not reload a previous save should you get yourself into trouble. I think this is a game where it is important to live with your decisions and their consequences. You won’t see the impact at first, but you may be surprised to see who pops back up, or how things trickle down through the story.
Lamplight City could be setting a trend for the future of point-and-click adventures with it’s emphasis of choice and consequence. More so than the stunning setting, more so than the phenomenal voice acting, more so than rich story and colorful characters, it’s Lamplight City‘s trust in you as a detective, and its willingness to let you fail, that makes the story unique and special. It’s a superbly refreshing take on the point-and-click genre.
I am willing to concede that fans of the classic point-and-click formula may be taken a bit aback by the absence of what they’ve come to expect: single solution point-and-click logic, inventories full of items to test on every character, conversation that you can loop through over and over, but I implore you not to let rose-tinted lenses of your past adventures dissuade you from giving this game a chance.
I haven’t seen everything Lamplight City has to offer: I’ve only played through the game once, I know I’ve missed conversations, and I know I wrongly accused one suspect, but even at this point I can honestly say that Lamplight City has taken the place of my favorite point-and-click adventure.
Want to learn more about the developer behind Lamplight City? Check out our Interview with Francisco Gonzalez where we talk about the game’s mechanics, inspiration and his story as an independent game developer!