Lamplight City is a high-concept adventure game that will win some players over on premise alone. You play as Miles Fordham, a former detective turned disgraced private investigator following the death of his partner, Bill, during a case. The game is set in 1840s New Bretagne (a borough of Cholmondeley, England) and follows Miles as he takes cases off-the-books to try and keep busy–and block out the voice of Bill, which now haunts him wherever he goes. There are five cases to solve over the course of Lamplight City, but there’s an interesting twist: It’s possible to either accuse the wrong culprit or find that the case is unsolvable because of errors you’ve made.
Lamplight City is not the first game to do this–Frogwares’ last two Sherlock Holmes games, Crimes and Punishments and The Devil’s Daughter, tried something similar–but this time it’s all wrapped in a comfortingly familiar adventure game aesthetic, with pixel graphics, a simple point-and-click interface, and great-looking environments. The script is socially progressive and critical of the racism and homophobia of its 1840s setting, and Miles, for all his faults (he takes sleeping pills and drinks heavily to shut off Bill’s voice in his head), is a likeable character. What the game lacks, unfortunately, is depth. It’s full of great ideas, but isn’t quite able to pull them off effectively.
The ability to fail a case is an interesting mechanic that is never actually explained or really commented on in-game. I accused the wrong suspect in the first case, having exhausted my other options; I said the wrong thing in a conversation and a character that could have given me vital clues stopped talking to me, meaning that I only had one suspect to accuse. For the rest of the game I saved regularly so that I could reload and avoid a situation like this again, but the only concrete indication that I’d arrested the wrong person was their denial during the arrest cutscene. Later, in the third case, I wasn’t able to enter a certain area because a family member of the formerly accused threatened me, but otherwise, there were no repercussions or even explicit confirmations that I’d made the wrong accusation. I only know for sure that I picked the wrong culprit because of a Steam achievement I did not get.
But there was no room for misunderstanding in the other four cases. If you put in the work, you’ll likely never find yourself in a position where there are multiple plausible suspects–it’s very clear who the culprit is once you find all the evidence. The game will reward you, sometimes, for going the extra mile–if you locate the culprit in the second case before reporting their guilt, for instance, you’ll earn a new lead in the fifth case–but doing so isn’t particularly challenging, and a wrongful accusation is more likely to come from impatience than incompetence. These cases are fairly staid, and lack the spark of a good Agatha Christie mystery or the lunacy and twists of something like Phoenix Wright. While the final case–which sees you, inevitably, on the trail of Bill’s killer–is a bit more exciting than the others, Lamplight City squanders a very good idea on mediocre cases where there’s little room for error.
With this gimmick deflated, you’re left with an okay adventure game that’s low on exciting puzzles. You can brute force your way through most cases, visiting each location and clicking on everything and everyone to see if new interaction options have opened, with few real puzzles to solve. There’s no inventory management, so you don’t get to use ‘X’ on ‘Y’–everything is context sensitive, and Miles will use items or ask questions automatically if it makes sense for him to do so. This means that it’s easy to miss objects that can only be examined at first–signified by a magnifying glass when you mouse over them–but which become collectible after an objective is reached. The game’s sense of logic is extremely fair, and there are no ridiculous or irritating solutions, but it’s easy to disengage when cases involve asking the same questions of each character to see what turns up.
The characters are interesting, at least. The game’s dialogue is mostly well-written, and having Bill’s ever-present snarky voice in Miles’ head is a smart way to provide flavor to endless item descriptions as you click on everything in a room. Miles’ wife, Adelaide, is also a great character, and a subplot about their marriage issues is one of the more compelling strands. Sometimes the game asks you to make changes that have a proper payoff, and how you handle Miles’ marriage is a prime example.
There are many little aspects of the world of Lamplight City that exist mostly on the periphery of your experience. You often encounter characters engaged in steampunk experiments, looking to harness a new form of energy called “aethericity,” and there’s an undercurrent of political turmoil running throughout much of the dialogue in the fourth and fifth cases. The divide between the working class and the aristocracy comes up often too, but a lot of the observations the game makes only skim the surface. These details flesh out the game’s sense of place and give some context for the wider world Miles lives in. It’s a shame that few of these end up being important to the actual cases, though–there are running plot threads that ultimately go nowhere and cases that seem to involve some of the game’s kookier elements ultimately end up having mundane explanations behind them.
Lamplight City has a hell of a concept behind it, but unfortunately, the cases don’t deliver on its promise. When you strip away the idea that the game will let you fail, and that you need to pay particularly close attention to what’s happening, you’re left with an adequate adventure game that is low on great puzzles. It’s certainly not without charm, but the game’s inability to make a strong delivery on its fantastic central gimmick casts an unfortunate shadow over its unique setting and likeable cast.