Dry Drowning by the Italian developers of Studio V Games features a serial killer mystery with a focus on a choice-driven narrative in a cyberpunk setting. The visual novel features a haunting soundtrack, beautiful hand-painted art, and point-and-click adventure puzzles. The game delivers the classic set-up of a melancholy private eye trying to reconcile his past and future by following a trail of clues left by a Greek mythology-obsessed serial killer. Will you discover the truth or is it all just a sinister trap?
Story – It’s all doom and gloom in Nova Polemos
The game opens with a moody introduction to the world of Mordred Foley and the cast of characters that populate the technologically-advanced yet corrupted city of Nova Polemos. Each case reveals more about the structure of the city and the powers fighting over total control, while the working class wastes away at their mercy.
Detective Foley isn’t the first hardboiled, chain-smoking private eye in video games, and he’s not going to be the last. A focus of the game is the partner Hera’s attempts to temper Mordred’s aggressive investigation style and desire for recognition for his work. You will be able to pick up this struggle in how he relates to the people he works with and those he meets. You will also have a hand at which fate he will receive at the end of the game.
Many visual novels claim to have choices that matter, but would only reflect in very minor and expected details to the story. Dry Drowning not only succeeds in having choices that impact the story in significant ways but also presents them in a heart-racing manner. The best kinds of choices in games are the ones that reveal something about yourself in the process, and this game accomplishes this important effect in interactive storytelling. Not only do these decisions impact your story, but also how you progress through your adventure, becoming an integral part of the gameplay.
Despite this, the effects of these decisions don’t really make for a branching narrative per se; everything progresses towards a few endings with a few details mixed and matched in. As the story goes on, the serial killer mystery does become more contrived, as the fate of the city hinges on one character. However, seeing the consequences become fleshed out is still worthwhile, and you continuously question whether you made the best decision that Mordred and Hera can live with.
Nova Polemos’ descent into dystopian chaos makes it a memorable setting. The game is heavy on politics, reflecting the struggle of authority and civilians so prominent in cyberpunk media. The twists in the story and its charming (if over-dramatic) characters are enough to rope you in to play to the end. Its short run-time barely accommodates the number of plot points, the rich lore, and heavy themes present in the game, so the endings aren’t as satisfying as they could be.
Gameplay – Point, Click, and Object!
The game’s mechanics will be familiar to visual novel players. It has point-and-click portions where you investigate crime scenes and look for clues that help you in the “Living Nightmares” interrogation section. The detective work required of players is typical “present evidence” to refute statements of guilty individuals. It’s been hinted that it’s seedy for a detective to utilize someone’s worst fears to get what they want out of them. But Mordred, haunted by the masks of those who lie, considers it an everyday occurrence – a boon, even. These sections are straightforward with no real stretch of the imagination involved, so the logic is simple and convincing enough, as compared to many other detective games out in the market.
Outside of the interrogations, you will also encounter environmental puzzles that you must solve in order to move forward with the case. They are presented sparingly and a unique puzzle pops up once or twice during each chapter, but they’re really nothing special, serving as convenient ways to break up the pace of the point-and-click scenes and dialogue scenes. The narrative can actually get rid of them and the whole game would still work.
Another part of the gameplay that is fascinating is the fact that it can be affected by your in-game choices, as mentioned in the previous section. It’s one of the very few games which will make you think about what would have happened should you have chosen differently just a few decisions ago. This adds to the mystery – and replayability – of the game. The game should take around 5 to 6 hours to finish a playthrough of the main story. According to the developers, it will take 20 hours to experience all the choices and endings.
Audio and Graphics – Do my eyes deceive me?
The character art and backgrounds are fleshed out in black and white, with bright neon colors highlighting the technology and “progress” surrounding the city. The game’s strength is in its detailed and evocative art style, and it never fails to deliver a really dreary atmosphere – in a good way! It’s a great-looking, eye-catching game that will appeal to a wider set of players.
The biggest issue in the visual arena is the UI. On the screen of the Switch, the text throughout the game is painfully small. Worst still, some of the text is white with a light cyan background, making it so much more difficult to read. Since this is a visual novel on the Switch, the design is a critical error.
With sound design becoming an increasingly important factor in modern visual novels, Dry Drowning provided a decent soundtrack and environmental sound landscape that fleshed out the city of Nova Polemos. The piano tracks that accompany solemn scenes are a standout.
While some games can get by without voice acting, or just having a few characteristic barks here and there, this game would have benefitted from voice-overs. The introduction was very well done and set a mood that could have been continued with the inclusion of voice acting. It would also have helped the issue of difficult-to-read text, and added another level of charm to the game’s interesting cast of characters.
Dry Drowning was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with a key provided by Press Engine.