It is no mystery that the effect of a dystopian, cyberpunk world draws those towards a medium that promises narrative gusto. Especially recently, the appeal of the dystopian reality—set hundreds of years in the future—has given rise to a collection of stories that promise a future of public unrest and dangerous pockets of power that control the whole of cities, if not the world. With Tales of the Neon Sea, I expected much of the same from the outset, a setting glowing with a bittersweet aura of purples and pinks. Its scope was something to be admired.
Though not without some effort otherwise, I was rather surprised at just how little the dystopian aesthetic played a part in the whole of the game. More than anything, playing Tales of the Neon Sea reminded me greatly of playing The Spiral Scouts—a puzzle game with a cutesy aesthetic as a means of satire. Its narrative takes precedence overall, but the level at which the puzzle elements take over every other aspect, particularly through the gameplay, urges me to emphasize that Tales of the Neon Sea may better be dubbed “Puzzles of the Neon Sea.” This difference in perception may save those looking for more of one thing than the other. Above all, there’s much to be said about the entirety, primarily in how it attempts to weave it all together in a rich-looking product.
Tales of the Neon Sea is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Rex is a former police officer turned private detective (when he feels like it) constantly drowning his past regrets in alcohol. He spends his days lounging about in a city that never darkens, a lively setting unbecoming of its underlying hostility and crime. Upon starting the game, one will come face-to-face with the tail-end of the game’s events, which introduces things abruptly to ensure the player’s attention span and quick wit. It’s not until this prologue ends that the whole of the story opens up, backtracking the story to start at the beginning, with Rex finding himself upon a string of horrible cases, ironically caused by his need for self-preservation. What comes to face Rex, along with a cat named William that tends to follow him around, is an adventure unlike any this detective has found himself in.
As stated above, one could very likely see trailers or gameplay footage of this game and assume that it is more novel-esque than anything. One could assume from the vague synopsis and the moody aesthetic that there’s more to the world and to the placement of everything than on the surface. From my viewpoint, the story within is only an extension of the puzzle gameplay prowess that this title wishes to highlight. One is asked to do quite a bit within this game, from guiding Rex to places in search of clues, researching crime scenes, and a seemingly endless amount of puzzles required to advance the plot. As the game advances, there tends to be less of the world within its scope and more of the connections various characters have to criminals of the past, with everything else relegated to little notes and text files that one can peruse at their leisure. Without the use of these text files, everything comes straight from the journey, doing little to emphasize the world at large.
With most of the content of Tales of the Neon Sea coming through its narrative, there’s little need to go into vivid detail about the events of the game, especially in defense of spoiling the game for newcomers. Generally speaking, I found the story to be serviceable, providing a lot of interesting and suspenseful moments and suspicious characters, along with some silly moments which break up some of the tension, which I appreciate. Where I think it fails is when it tries to create a world, rather than a single, personal perspective.
Continuously, the game tries to incorporate both through the events that transpire and the countless text files that one accumulates throughout the story. The size and the vividness of the towns and areas one investigates could be buried with such interesting and symbolic things about current reality, though the game lives little chance to really explore everything. One can interact with various things in the background, though will only be given a line or two of dialogue from Rex about the scene. The most notable thing above all, especially visually (aside from a human vs. robot social war), is the amount of women with lots of skin exposed that are placed throughout the game. While understandable that dystopian futures typically portray women willing to appeal to their sexuality as a means of survival, having this be the most prominent thing—women shown both in person and on signs/posters—seems too underutilized.
As with characters, I also find them serviceable, if not likable enough to carry the story. One complaint I will throw out there is the use of Rex and his supposed alcoholism. It’s heavily implied that he’s an alcoholic and trying to hide himself from some struggles of his past, and yet there’s so little about his own struggle that it feels like a blanket attribute. Rex does not seem at all like an alcoholic, as he’ll only make passing mentions of it, along with one additional scene where he drinks himself into unconsciousness. I would’ve expected something about his actual person—perhaps a nervous tick, a refusal to speak of/think of certain things, or always carrying a canister of drink with him—that gives rise to this attribute that is publicized in the actual synopsis. Otherwise, he’s just a casual hero who occasionally spits one-liners.
Other noteworthy characters, specifically William (whom one controls every so often as a change of pace), are only given snippets of a personality to bounce off of Rex. No one is given much in terms of character development or depth, so one can only rely on the story at hand to give them a sense of belonging. Like with the whole of the world, there’s an ample bit of simplicity that doesn’t bring these characters to life, though that isn’t to say they’re entirely flat. It simply feels tight, a tightness that wanted to focus on the gameplay and aesthetic aspects over everything else.
The Spiral Scouts, in some parts, had me mentally exhausted. The heavy emphasis on puzzles, waiting around every corner, necessary to advance three steps only to come across another puzzle, was something that had me in agony—especially when I couldn’t figure it out. Any fans of Super Smash Bros. Brawl would know of The Great Maze at the end of the game’s solo-player campaign, The Subspace Emissary, and how long and arduous it was to complete it. Tales of the Neon Sea managed to combine every horrifying aspect of these two games into one notable part, one involving a complicated maze of tunnels and pathways in a sewer system.
It took me nearly two hours to get through it, capped off by a puzzle I had to cheese by guessing in order to overcome. A long, drawn-out sequence of puzzles and challenges the player is required to get through in order to return to any familiar territory that drained my soul of all energy. If nothing else, Tales of the Neon Sea is a gauntlet of puzzles specifically for those who felt the 100+ shrines in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were too tame. Let me state that there isn’t anything wrong with the idea of a puzzle gauntlet, nor is it an issue that they succeeded in creating one. My issue here, specifically, is that they tried too hard. These long sequences that necessitate a number of things to be set in a precise or specific order creates way too much potential for one thing off-base, causing confusion and long sequences of running around without reason. This one section of the game—which took two hours of a total of roughly twelve—was enough for me to question whether I even wanted to continue, what with the possibility that the end may promise something longer.
To speak of what the game requires on a more detailed basis, it is, again, quite similar to The Spiral Scouts. One must collect items, while occasionally combining them to make new items; speak with people, move around on a map, partake in puzzles that require basic movement and intellect, and unlock a mystery directly tied to the main character. While The Spiral Scouts is more satirical and centered around comedy, Tales of the Neon Sea feels more grounded and serious… as serious as a game harboring gangs comprised of only cats can be, anyway. One isn’t required to do too much from a physical standpoint, and about four buttons in total are used throughout a majority of the game. There are numerous sequences where one is asked to hammer one button, something I haven’t recalled doing in years, among other things such as controlling one thing with one button and so on.
What’s to be said about the puzzles is that many of them are fairly simple in theory. Many of them only require that the player move various things around, such as plot points on a graph or buttons on a line plot. The difficulty comes in overthinking things, or underestimating the simplicity of the puzzles. Plenty of things I initially believed would be easy turned out to stump me for some minutes, even when I believed I had them figured out. One has to be very careful when partaking in these puzzles, as some become that much harder when a mistake is made and the order becomes entirely jumbled. Most puzzles don’t ask a lot from the player, but all will ensure that someone is, at the very least, thinking while moving.
Another small complaint I have involves some of the explanations for the puzzles one has to complete prior to advancing. Hints can occasionally be incredibly vague, which I think is justified, but then there are instructions I think are incredibly vague or worded strangely, causing a lot of headache and trial and error that makes puzzle-solving that much more time-consuming. Occasionally, one can hold down a certain button to get additional help on a certain puzzle while on a specific screen, something I only had to do once throughout my playthrough of the game (which didn’t help). I think expanding on this might help ease the pain of feeling dragged around by misunderstanding or one miscue, something along the lines of a hint system that can be turned off or on that automatically detects when a player has been standing around or idle on a puzzle screen for a couple minutes.
From a performance standpoint, there is nothing to complain about here. Tales of the Neon Sea is a reliable 60 FPS game at all times, whether in cutscenes, general gameplay, or the endless amounts of puzzles one has to go through. Everything worked specifically as I felt was intended, including additional noises, controller rumbling, and button prompts. There were a few small bugs/errors, including permanent text after death and a plethora of typos within the text files, that broke the overall immersion for moments at a time, but nothing so substantial that I couldn’t finish the game because of it. As a measure of pure polish, Tales of the Neon Sea passes with colors similar to its brightened aesthetic.
Graphics & Audio
What is by far the greatest aspect of this game is in its artistic direction. The pixel graphics here are to die for, hosting a look of professionalism that many AAA companies could only dream of achieving. The colors that beckon each scene, whether bright and majestic or dark and grimy, are sure to attract a large amount of attention. The detail and work put into the designs of the characters, the cities, and the little details, such as button prompts or item icons, are the work of quality I rarely find in video games in general, much less the indie scene. For me, personally, I always find it hard to believe that the majority of people cannot see pixel graphics as anything more than a relic of the past, designated for games that only wish to call back to years prior. Tales of the Neon Sea has shown that pixel graphics can look just as good, if not better, than the hyper-realistic, 3D graphics that most AAA games churn out on a monthly basis. It’s absolutely beautiful, and nothing else can be said than that single statement.
The excessive amount of praise for the visual aesthetic isn’t quite as prominent for the auditory qualities, though I do still feel they can be praised. The background tracks for Tales of the Neon Sea has a sense of moral ambiguity that greatly matches the overall tone of the game. For as insufferable as the long sewer sequence was, I was quite unhinged by the creepy (and overall lack of) sound that played other than general ambience. It felt as though anything could pop up and swarm me at any moment, a feeling of true immersion. (Fun fact: There is one jumpscare hidden in this game that I did not appreciate.) I particularly liked the moodiness of the main theme, along with the relaxing and almost bland serenity of Rex’s home. There’s an emphasis on mood in every area, which is appropriate considering the emphasis on the narrative. While not the most memorable soundtrack out there, I feel the game is overall aided by the detail put into the emotional value of each scenario.