It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
It doesn’t take much to evoke the sense of a place. The right sound or the right look can be transportive, putting you in a location you’ve maybe never even been before, yet still intuitively understand. A Case of Distrust does this not by calling on cultural touchstones from its time period, but works by evoking a nostalgic style from the ‘50s that was used to invoke the ‘20s.
A Case of Distrust takes place in San Francisco in 1925, and puts you in the shoes of newly minted private detective, former SFPD officer Phyllis Malone. She left the force after the sudden death of her uncle, another SFPD detective, and suddenly finds herself hired by Mr. Green, a bootlegger and former informant of said uncle. Green received a threatening letter under his door, with the emblem of a black hand on it, and he wants Malone to find out who’s behind it.
From there, the game plays out a bit like a Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game with Malone interviewing different leads, collecting statements, and scouring for other potential evidence. But unlike the Ace Attorney games, where all this evidence is then used at a trial, here Malone is able to present it to the people she’s interviewing to get their take or contradict a potentially false statement they’ve made. Letting you dig deeper into the mystery, where each new statement or piece of evidence you gather starts to snowball into the next.
This narrative style fits the game’s 1950s detective noir film aesthetic. The minimalist art style puts a lot of emphasis on the text, which makes sense since that’s where you’ll be looking most of the time. You’ll also get a good look at the expressions of characters, and each location looks as though it was made up of pieces of paper with varying shades of color, giving a sense of depth to the flattened environment.
Each character appears cut from a single piece and shown in a close up portrait; they still look human, except for the fact that they have no eyes. This draws your attention instead to their mouths and eyebrows, which create exaggerated expressions to make the characters feel very animated. This also makes each character feel distinct, as the abstraction of their designs plays up their differences while also conveying a lot about their personalities and mood.
It’s when A Case of Distrust leans into that minimalism that it is at its best. This is especially true in the first half of the game as you try to figure out who sent the letter to Mr. Green. You have essentially three leads that you are able to approach in any order, and as you get new information from one you can use that to delve deeper into another lead. As the pieces of the investigation start to fall into place, everything snowballs to a sudden climax that completely changes your investigation.
The game slows down in the second half with more leads to investigate, and even more people to cross check your evidence against in hopes of furthering the investigation. It never feels like the investigation gets moving at a good pace where you start to see how clues come together like in the first half, but luckily it also wraps things before it begins to drag out too long.
This is one of the advantages of a shorter game. Sometimes game elements or other design choices are only enjoyable for a little while before becoming monotonous. A Case of Distrust starts to drag a bit at the end, but it doesn’t last so long as to detract from the rest of the game. It’s just enough to give the ending an emotional weighter, while still leaving me wanting to see more.