When I wrote up my advance look at Dry Drowning earlier this month, I made much fairly flattering comparison to L.A. Noire, which seems in retrospect to have been a preview for Rockstar’s focus on horse testicles and golf mini-games. What was and wasn’t central gameplay was obvious enough, but they seemed to want to chuck in everything they could – including that Rockstar staple, a huge open world, probably the main reason it stayed in development for seven years.
Dry Drowning, by contrast, is a lot leaner. Any extraneous content is kept to a minimum – the main example, a mini-game fronted by a grotesque anime girl, is not-so-secretly an ersatz version of China’s nascent social credit system. L.A. Noire, for all its good points, was always a grandiose experiment in the medium, whereas Dry Drowning is on a lot firmer ground, being completely clear that it’s a visual novel in the vein of Ace Attorney and titles like it. The core of any detective game is, by nature, rooting out evidence and interrogating people. These are things which, crucially, can be done with just pointing and clicking, a form of gameplay old enough that there’s some debate over what title started the genre. Additional features are nice, but can all too easily become a distraction.
At the nuts and bolts level, they’re both investigative thrillers, and quite similar when it comes to gameplay, but L.A. Noire is set firmly in the real world. Dry Drowning, on the other hand, might seem cyberpunk, with the excellent touch that murder scenes are only viewed through holographic recreations, but on the character level it actually ends up closer to magical realism. There’s no other word for the way the interface is played with when things get tense, especially combined with the regular references to Greek mythology.
My preview praised the device where suspects suddenly wear Slipknot-style masks when they lie to you, and I repeat that praise here. It’s never an instant ‘gotcha’, rather it spurs you on to ask them the right questions – while making you ponder the mental state of the protagonist. Too often we’re just told that grizzled detectives are ‘troubled’ in some way while they proceed to nail the baddies and bust this conspiracy wide open. Here, you can actually believe it.
Despite all the fanciful stuff, and there is a lot of it, Dry Drowning remains a distinct work of noir. The protagonists often find themselves rubbing up against corrupt, borderline evil institutions, but lack the power to solve any of these wider systemic problems, especially when they’re meant to be focusing on the murder du jour. Many of the larger questions are never resolved, and counter-intuitively this is an advantage. Indeed, when the ending does wrap up some of these, it feels like a misstep. One of the game’s most prominent and obvious strengths is the world-building, and any resolution of the bigger issues in play can only serve to diminish this.
Obviously the setting should, at some level, serve the narrative, but they needn’t be joined at the hip, bound to live and die together. At its best, Nova Polemos’s neon-soaked streets really do seem like the kind of naked city there could be a million stories in. Having seemingly all the major organs of the nation compartmentalised as part of this one narrative just seems like a waste of a good setting.
This is a ‘good’ setting only in the meta-sense. The characters are fully aware that they’re living in a classic-model dystopia, but really they don’t even need to say it. The occasional offhand detail is more than enough to add up to a compellingly uncomfortable picture. This is where the cyberpunk aspects really come out to shine: Nova Polemos is something straight out of a William Gibson novel, with plenty of parallels simply between it being a Balkanised splinter state and its government working hand in hand with the tech companies to invade everyone’s privacy.
Having pre-made dossiers on every man, woman, and child in the city is of course an advantage for you as a detective, but there’s times when this flood of information borders on deluge. Three separate menu screens, each constantly receiving new additions, can quickly become a headache, especially if you’re having to quickly flip back to some vital piece of evidence again and again. This doesn’t happen too much, but when it does you’ll know about it.
Some of the marketing material accused Dry Drowning of commenting on contemporary politics, but it never falls into the trap of doing it in that laboured, heavy-handed way a lot of alleged ‘satire’ these days does. Most of the ideas and tendencies brought up, even when they are made very explicit, are universal – the use of vulnerable groups of society as scapegoats, and the separation of people into the deserving and undeserving, ideas that probably ring a few bells for you and still would for most periods of human history.
Granted, Nova Polemos’s most prominent political party, the Black Bands, aren’t even pretending not to be fascists. The kindest way you could describe them would be nationalists with delusions of grandeur. However, the game’s made by a studio from Italy, the birthplace of fascism as an ideology and a country which has recently seen a member of the Mussolini family getting involved in frontline politics again, so really they’re just writing what they know.
Dry Drowning isn’t a massive game, you could probably blow through it in an evening on the trot, a long weekend at most. This would be mitigated by the multiple-choice gameplay, but that runs into its usual issues – the choices you make don’t create much differences beyond the superficial. There’s multiple endings, but the meat of the game will always stay the same.
This isn’t a huge black mark against Dry Drowning, considering that even your triple-Aest of titles haven’t ever gone much beyond that in terms of choosing your own adventure. The simple facts of the matter are the majority of players probably won’t go through the game more than once, so putting together the equivalent of five or six different games is like pissing in the wind. Still, given the magnitude of some of the decisions you’re presented with, it rankles a bit that most of them don’t make any particular difference to what happens next.
Really, the plotline branches function a lot better as a morality play. Most steer clear of being straightforward, black-and-white choices. In almost every case, both options have clear downsides, and the game isn’t shy about smacking you in the face with these. Nor are they quite as simplistic as the kinds of choice-based gameplay in stuff like Grand Theft Auto, where you kill or spare the occasional NPC. These strike at actual principles, unless you’re just playing like a sociopath, which is why a certain line about using games to gather information on their players works quite so well.
In that spirit, I should mention the major points of criticism I laid against the preview version. This is largely good news: the click detection has been tightened up, and the bulk of the translation issues have been fixed – but not all of them. Occasionally, ‘and’ is still replaced with ‘e’, which is amusing for me, who played a version where big chunks of text were still in the original Italian, but will doubtless just seem like an inexplicable clunker to the average player. This, like the earlier issues, will presumably be patched before too long, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call it out.
More broadly, a lot of the dialogue does have that distinct, indefinable feel where you can tell it’s been translated slightly too literally. I never feel great about ragging on foreign creators for this, though it’s mitigated to some degree by the fact that a lot of the characters like to wax philosophical in that way where you would sound slightly awkward as you search for the words to express what you’re thinking. The hardboiled Raymond Chandler style more usually associated with these kinds of stories, full of dames with legs that go right the way up to their armpits, would probably survive translation with far less intact.
That’s the thing, though – Dry Drowning usually doesn’t take the form you’d expect, but it still makes it all work. Detective yarns don’t usually have surreal asides (apart from Twin Peaks). Visual novels are usually a lot chummier than the gritty murders here. And even though it’s throwing a pack of quite disparate elements into one weird cocktail, the result doesn’t taste half bad.
An intriguing set of mysteries wrapped up in a gorgeous aesthetic.