Dry Drowning blends hard-boiled detective tropes with an interesting dystopian mystery, which just about manages to cover its gameplay restrictions.
Dystopian futures and noir detective stories have regularly proved to work well together. From the iconic cityscape of Blade Runner through to the mind-bending technology of Altered Carbon, an old-fashioned gumshoe seems to fit well in a future where everything is not as it seems. The latest project to combine these two genres is the video game Dry Drowning.
Developed by Studio V, Dry Downing takes the form of a visual novel, with interactive elements thrown into what is generally a tightly woven story. Dry Drowning takes place in 2066 in the fictional city state of Nova Polemos, and casts the player as private detective Mordred Foley. A serial killer called Pandora is on the loose - a murderer that Mordred has plenty of previous with.
Dry Drowning has a little bit more interactivity than some other visual novels on the market, complete with puzzles and clues to uncover, but overall the game relies heavily on its narrative and art direction. The game has a strong art style, with character models cast in monochrome and shadow while heavier colors flicker here and there. It creates a vivid image of Nova Polemos and its citizens, further concentrating that overall noir feel.
Dry Drowning could work well as a first step into the visual novel territory. Those unfamiliar with the game type may find it restrictive, both in terms of its limited animations and an emphasis on dialogue and puzzles over action. However, Dry Drowning does try to emulate the better visual novels available, focusing on plot details and its mystery's interesting moments.
Studio V's story isn't a perfect one, but instead something that players may find comforting. Dry Drowning is full of noir clichés: the grizzled detective with a shady past, a bevy of corrupt authority figures, or the earnest and naive assistant. It's familiar in the same way that Max Payne revelled in detective fiction tropes, although Dry Drowning is certainly too heavy handed and not quite knowing enough about where it crosses the line.
Even so, its earnestness is quite compelling, and the story itself - albeit well-trodden - is an enjoyable detective romp to discover. Dry Drowning covers off a gruesome serial killer alongside the machinations of dangerous individuals who have claimed too much power. Add in the game's heavy imagery of mythology and it's a potent cocktail.
A lot of this comes from the location of Nova Polemos. Within this future city, Dry Drowning constantly toys with ideas of fascism and the exceptionalism myth of the isolated state. Nova Polemos may have elections, but there's a brutal totalitarian regime in place, rife with government surveillance, the brutal murder of migrants, corruption at the highest level, and the incarceration of citizens no longer deemed 'useful' in what is effectively a giant prison.
Dry Drowning achieves an impact in the little details that tie this into its sci-fi setting. Surveillance comes via a government sanctioned, hologram-based system called AquaOS. There's also a state-approved puzzle game that offers benefits to the Pattinson Test, a mandatory exam that guarantees a citizen's continued 'usefulness' to Nova Polemos. Among the bizarre and hokey that could make players step away from Dry Drowning, there are snippets of good dystopian themes here.
It's not all great, though. Dry Drowning suffers from picking up more than it can handle, with some heavy ideas mentioned briefly but barely dealt with. Given how familiar its noir elements will be, this has the potential to leave players feeling that Dry Drowning can't offer up too much that's fresh.
Gameplay-wise, there are some neat moments here and there, but the limits of its genre can't be overcome. There are occasional arbitrary binary choices that asks players to decide who lives and who dies, or whether to cover up grand secrets in the name of safety. Chuck in moments of awkward and on-the-nose dialogue, and it begins to feel a little dated at times.
The actual work of being a detective, though, is better. Mordred channels his inner LA Noire at times, hunting down evidence at crime scenes, talking to witnesses, and uncovering the truth through hard questioning and quick thinking. Dry Drowning mixes things up with different gameplay moments, too, delving into flashbacks and featuring small puzzles as mini-games.
Dry Drowning's best mechanic is Mordred's strange psychological super power. When a character lies to our protagonist, a grotesque mask flickers across their face. It's a neat design choice, with an art style reminiscent of cult indie horror game Darkwood, and it leads to some tense showdowns where the player has to find answers by choosing the correct evidence, witness, or narrative to slowly pull the mask away from a suspect.
So, Dry Drowning may be a fair bit messy, but there's charm here. Players who are willing to embrace the cheesier elements will find some joy in its well-crafted setting and a decent murder mystery plot. The game is constrictive and lacks the genuine shock and engagement of top tier visual novels like Doki Doki Literature Club, but there are some moments of clever world building and a strong enough mystery propelling it.
Dry Drowning is out now for PC. Screen Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.