The hero of Dry Drowning is called Mordred Foley, but he’s not upset about it. While you might think he would mumble and flinch his way through introductions at parties, the city he lives in, Nova Polemos, is stuffed with eccentric names. There is Hera, Mordred’s partner at Foley Investigations; Freya, the prickly chief of police; and there’s a shady pharmaceutical company (is there any other kind?) called Hephaestus Tech, which manufactures a drug branded as Morpheus. When a serial killer shows up, it’s no surprise that he is dubbed ‘Pandora,’ but it is puzzling why Foley, who is put on the case, doesn’t just get out the phone book, start with ‘A,’ for Ares, then flip to ‘L,’ for Loki, or even ‘Z,’ for Zeus. In a place so obsessed with symbolism, he’s bound to find his man in no time!
Then, I suppose, we wouldn’t have much of a game. Dry Drowning is a visual novel, though it doesn’t rely on its visuals to grip you so much as its story, which is hardly novel. It’s set in 2066, in a ruined future, and begins, naturally, ‘on a rainy winter night’ – a dystopia needs a downpour, afterall. We follow Foley’s hunt for Pandora, who, politely in keeping with the city’s MO, lays out each murder to resemble a Greek myth. This is crosshatched with a shadowy tale of political intrigue that could do with being a lot more intriguing. The plot has you gathering evidence, clicking through crime scenes, and questioning the people that gather in their wake – police, witnesses, suspects. Imagine Phoenix Wright, but in a world where there will never be justice for all.
Early on, I found myself fidgeting with boredom, but the more I played the more its writing drew me in. Not in the sense that the game’s developer, Studio V, perhaps intended but rather in the way that it’s difficult to dislike a game in which one character says, ‘Pureness is a bullet’s favourite food.’ The first thing we do is search Foley’s office for his cigarettes, which he describes as his ‘pocket dispenser of death.’ (Fortunately, we are never asked to find his toothbrush, or his ‘bathroom bestower of dental health.’) I found myself getting sucked into the surreal pulp of it all. For instance, it became not so much difficult to accept as difficult to argue with the notion that Foley has superpowers; whether they be psychic or psychiatric, a blessing or a curse, he sees horrific masks on the faces of anyone that lies to him.
This leads to a bout of cross-examination of sorts, presenting evidence to contradict statements, pressing people to wring out any lies from their answers. In truth, these weren’t as entertaining as the mask themselves; it’s unnerving to see a secretary turn suddenly into a wolf, or the head of a middle-aged businessman cloud over into a many-mouthed beast. (What if people lie to Mordred over the phone?) Moreover, as you try and tease out the truth, three large, nervous eyeballs hang in the air above; should you fail to use the correct clue or pry in the right fashion, an eye will turn bloodied and shut. However, should all three be closed, you can always try again – the checkpoints are generous, allowing you the sort of loose, shrugging air that befits Foley.
But it isn’t as though I played the whole thing from a remove; the melodrama has its own kind of vortical pull. The game makes a show of big fork-in-the-road choices, misting the screen with a fog of pulsing veins, as two options float in front of you. But these seem weightless in such bizarre surroundings. What got me was the soap opera of the characters and their relation to one another. Needless to say, the cases not only tie in to the political situation – a government that feeds on fear and bears down on the masses like a rain cloud – but loop back to the characters’ pasts. When you meet Freya, for instance, she describes Foley as ‘the only bastard I couldn’t arrest.’ Hera, meanwhile, calls him ‘the only demon brave enough to stand beside me, when you could have left me to die on the street.’
In its striving for hard-boiled dialogue, Dry Drowning reminded of another noir that sought cachet in cliché: Max Payne. ‘It was colder than the devil’s heart,’ Max said, all those years ago, ‘raining ice pitchforks as if the heavens were ready to fall.’ That same winning earnestness shows up here. ‘I thought you had ice walls around your heart,’ someone says to Foley, ‘to protect your romantic soul.’ For all its outsized silliness, there is one wondrous touch that won’t soon leave me. As you sift your way through crime scenes, Mordred dons the Aqua OS, an augmented reality headband, which casts the world in a crackling glow. The bodies were cleared away before you arrived, and it’s only the holographic trace that remains – a pale shimmer of a person. Death has gone digital, and the city’s servers are crowded with ghosts. Consider my ice walls melted.
Developer: Studio V
Publisher: VLG Publishing
Available on: PC [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch
Release Date: August 2, 2019 [PC], Consoles [TBA]
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