Tales of the Neon Sea, published by Zodiac Interactive, is developer Palm Pioneer’s debut game outside of the mobile space. This “retro-style pixel-art adventure” has the player guide a private investigator named Mr. Mist through a cyberpunk under-city as he tries to solve a murder and grapple with hallucinations brought on by his rejecting cybernetic implants. Is this a mystery worth diving into?
The title screen of Tales of the Neon Sea features a gorgeously rendered skyline colored in neon purples and pinks as little lights representing hovering cars float across the screen. Our protagonist, Mr. Mist, stands next to William–a cat he knows, but doesn’t like, but tolerates if the scene demands it–as the hem of his coat blows a little in the wind. His eyeline guides the viewer’s eye to a giant hologram of a woman in a tube top just wide enough to cover her gigantic breasts which her broken spine somehow holds up like a Jim Lee drawing. She performs her idle animation, moving slightly up and down so her breasts slowly bounce as the player is treated to background music that begins in somber, synth-filled melancholy until the song crescendos out of nowhere into fast drums and electric guitar. This title screen does an excellent job of immediately conveying a couple things to the player. One, that the game is going to be just stuffed with images of women whose breasts are just barely stuffed into their outfits. Two, just as the tonal dissonance in the music suggests, the game is going to try to invoke completely contradicting moods while conveying absolutely nothing.
I’ll give the developers a little credit. This isn’t yet another cyberpunk world weighed down by angst-ridden, edgy characters hurling lines filled with profanity and existential dread. Instead, while a lot of the background NPCs do indeed worry about their socioeconomic hopelessness and oppressive government, Mr. Mist has more than enough attempts at humor to undercut any consistent sense of malaise the NPCs try and produce. I say “attempts” at humor because every joke falls flat. Whether it’s a clunky localization from the game’s native Chinese, tonally dissonant sarcasm that feels less Han Solo more socially inept YouTuber, or a mix of both, I never got a feel for what kind of mood the developers were trying to establish with the game thanks to the clunky dialogue’s tonal tug-o-war. This dissonance continues through the character illustrations that appear during dialogue, covering up the game’s stunning pixel art with very flat renderings of the major characters that blink on occasion and do little else.
When the characters aren’t making sarcastic jabs, almost all the dialogue consists of exposition and statements of the obvious. For example, a cashier at a bodega drops hints that there might be something supernatural going on with the line, and I quote, “There might be something supernatural going on.” The writers pull from every cyberpunk trope you might think of for their NPCs to invoke, from worrying about the government to expressing anxiety about human-robot relations. Oh, I forgot to mention. There’s an ongoing tension between humans and robots in this world, as robots work to gain election wins in the wake of a violent revolution. A revolution in which Mr. Mist, our protagonist, tried to suppress while he was still a cop. I was initially worried about where the game might take these heavy themes, but the game doesn’t really do anything with any of its themes or ideas. If the game committed to any of the many references or ideas it invokes–there’s a tea set that is literally just Mrs. Potts and Chip from Beauty and the Beast?–it may have risked grappling with the fact that you play a former cop who is nothing but sympathetic towards the robots he once oppressed? He bemoans the anti-robot propaganda plastered around the city, but also worked to keep them as second-class citizens? Don’t think to much about it, it’s all set dressing for the puzzles.
Did I say puzzles? I meant busywork. Okay, there are a handful of puzzles that involve the player looking at a problem to solve like a sliding-tile puzzle, a sliding-wheel puzzle, a harder sliding-tile puzzle, or a harder sliding-wheel puzzle and working through it. Otherwise, most of what you do in Tales of the Neon Sea is go up and down the same sets of stairs or elevators, run in and out of the same rooms, and look at the same black screen between these spaces over and over again. Fetch-quest after fetch-quest nests into one another as you are presented with countless artificial barriers for progressing through the game’s narrative. You need to find a robot who may know something about the murder, but you need to go through the sewers, but the entrance to the sewers requires a pass key, but the person with a pass key runs a gentleman’s club and her dancers are missing, but each of her dancers has another fetch quest for you to do, but you need to find and combine items with no suggested correlation to unlock the fuse box, to complete the circuitry puzzle, to move the platforms in place, so you can take the same elevator back up to the start, and go through each layer of the nest back up to the top where you get that card key. Who are you even looking for again? Why? Who knows?
There are also segments where you play as William the cat that involves a crime family of cats in an elaborate reference to The Godfather. The game makes absolutely sure you’ll know it’s referencing The Godfather, because at one point, William exclaims, “Seems like the Godfather has given me an offer I can’t refuse!” I found myself looking around the room for a camera to stare into. You’ve seen The Office, right? That’s what she said! That’s how delicately this game shoves its references down the player’s throat. During these segments, there’s one fetch-quest in which William hears about a cat who stashed away some catnip even though he claims he was “clean.” You see, in Tales of the Neon Sea, catnip is jokingly treated as a hard drug to cats and what better way to sell that joke than with a fetch-quest? You see, an addict cat is too busy looking for drugs to give you some information you need, you need to find some of his drug of choice, cook it for him, then get him his fix so he can stop rummaging around and talk to you. This whole bit comes off as clumsily and insensitively as it sounds.
Speaking of clumsy and insensitive, let’s finally get around to how women are presented in this game. You can’t swing a holographic geisha around any of this game’s environments without hitting at least three posters showing either bare, bulging breasts with text covering the nipples, or a repeatedly used print featuring a woman’s naked ass in a thong. We aren’t even talking about the usual Cyberpunk flavor of objectification men like to defend as “genre-defining” where you’ll have a cyborg woman with metal blades coming out of her arms and oh yeah giant boobs. These posters and signs feature regular human women, who are apparently never too sure without a pair of unnaturally large breasts spilling out of whatever their wearing–if they’re wearing anything at all. There are plenty of signs around bars and gentleman’s clubs which accompany these depictions of the female anatomy with catchy slogans like, “SEXUAL” and “FXCK.” It’d be one thing if the game was doing anything to comment on how women are portrayed in a lot of Cyberpunk works, or perhaps even leaning harder into the tropes and making the women seem further from human with cybernetic implants and the like. Instead, we just get a giant flickering hologram of a geisha in which the image flickers back and forth between her body in a kimono and her body in nothing at all, but the change goes back and forth so quickly you never get a clear view of either, only a tease. Even our protagonist looks at his phone at one point, treating the player to his background image of–and I know this may shock you–a woman with giant breasts spilling out of her top. Never fear, reader, his incoming text messages cover her face.
Not only is this immature portrayal of women completely repellent, but these images serve as stains that litter otherwise gorgeously rendered and animated environments. From sparking neon signs, to scurrying cyborg rats, to outlandishly dressed passersby, the environments of Tales of the Neon Sea are packed with details that make the city feel teeming with life. Even when passing by buildings that glow bright in spite of their ramshackle appearance, dark alleyways between them are adorned with hanging laundry and fire escapes. No matter where you are in the game, not one inch of the screen is left untouched giving the player plenty of opportunities to just stop and take in all the moving, colorful details, even if they have to try and look around the naked women to enjoy them.
Overall, I can’t say I enjoyed my time with Tales of the Neon Sea. It pulls from too many places for reference. It tries to invoke moody Cyberpunk dread and clunky comedy at the same time. It clumsily stumbles through a drawn-out addiction joke, slapping up as many objectifying depictions of women as it can before it hits the ground. The overall mystery doesn’t matter because the puzzle solving which ties its story beats together numb the mind with repetition and busy-work. I wish I could say the gorgeously rendered environments made the game worth slogging through, but I recommend looking at some screenshots and saving your money.
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