Dry Drowning is a detective story set in a dark vision of the future. Taking the form of a visual novel, it features a branching storyline, multiple endings, an intriguing interrogation system, and "choices that really matter", at least according to its developer. I'm a sucker for a noir-tinged detective story, so I decided to take an early version of the game for a spin.
Founded in 2017, the city of Nova Polemos was once a bastion of freedom and independence, welcoming anyone looking for a new country to belong to. The city saw incredible economic and social growth, eventually becoming an independent country recognised by the rest of the world. But when the bubble burst in 2030, an extremist political party called the Black Bands swept in, took control, and closed the city off, killing anyone who enters illegally.
"Their extremist and nostalgic ideas took hold," reads an in-game document, which are unlocked as you play and fill in some of the backstory. "And they decided to vent their frustration by voting for the party en masse." Not exactly a subtle nod to current events, but it's encouraging to discover that Dry Drowning's world is more than just rain, neon, and Blade Runner skylines.
Although there are traces of Ridley Scott's influential film in Dry Drowning, particularly in its downbeat ambience, Italian developer Studio V says it's more inspired by the likes of Seven and True Detective. "We created an oppressive setting with a society that is not so different from the one we're living in now," the developer says. "And we want to challenge the player on sensitive themes such as racism, immigration, political extremism, and sexism."
In the game you play as 45-year-old Mordred Foley, a private detective who is, by his own admission, completely dedicated to his job—at the expense of his social life and his relationships with other people. The year is 2066 and Foley is asked to investigate a series of bizarre serial murders inspired by Greek mythology. But, being the star of a noir thriller, the killer isn't the only thing he has to contend with: he has his own personal demons to battle with as well.
Foley is something of a pariah when Dry Drowning begins. He was recently involved in the high profile capture and execution of two alleged serial killers, but was later found to have falsified the evidence leading to their conviction. He was acquitted due to lack of evidence, and continues to operate his business, Foley Investigations. But in the eyes of the media and the people of Nova Polemos he was directly responsible for the deaths of two innocent people.
It's interesting that Dry Drowning has you playing as a genuinely shady character, rather than that old film noir trope of a well-meaning private dick caught up in something beyond his control. But I wonder if, later in the game, we'll learn more about this case—perhaps discovering that the two people who were executed were guilty after all. I hope not, because I love a detective story where the protagonist's morals are as dubious as the people he's hunting down.
Despite his chequered past, a prominent Black Bands politician, who is a suspect in the aforementioned serial killings, asks Foley to clear his name in exchange for 500,000 credits and, more importantly, a clean slate. Things are complicated by the fact that Foley's assistant, Hera Kairis, is an immigrant: the kind of person the Black Bands party has murdered. She arrived in Nova Polemos aged five, just before the party took power and closed the city gates to outsiders.
She has understandable concerns about Foley accepting the case, and you can choose to promise you'll consider not taking it, or just straight up tell her you are. Choices like this will shape the narrative to come, as well as your relationships with its characters. Being a visual novel, the game is largely based around reading dialogue and selecting responses. And when it comes to investigation, it's a matter of finding every relevant clue to progress the story. If you're even vaguely familiar with the genre you'll feel right at home.
I get another taste of making on-the-spot decisions later when I'm investigating a crime scene—a woman killed and posed in a macabre tribute to the legend of Apollo and Daphne—and Hera is visibly distressed by the imagery. I can choose to handle the investigation on my own or tell her I can't do it without her. It'll be interesting to see how these choices are reflected back at me later in the game—if at all. I don't mind if a visual novel isn't that reactive to my choices if the story is good (the Danganronpa series being a prime example), but Studio V promises that your choices in Dry Drowning will impact the story.
I'm looking forward to seeing more of the so-called Living Nightmare system too, which are Dry Drowning's version of interrogations. Here you have to gather your clues and construct a case, and when someone's lying their deception is represented by creepy animal masks. Studio V cites L.A. Noire as one of the games that inspired it, so I wouldn't be surprised if some elements of Rockstar's interrogation system crept into the game. It certainly looks cool.
I'll be spending a lot more time with Dry Drowning, but for now I'm definitely intrigued. I love the atmosphere, the hand-painted art, and the music, although it's clear on occasion that English is not the developer's first language. But I've been told that the translation is still being proofread and will be improved when the game is released next month. Visual novels aren't for everyone, and if you aren't a fan of the genre this probably won't change your mind. However, if you're looking for a dark story set in a compelling, politically charged vision of the future, Dry Drowning might be worth investigating.