16 Best Detective Games Everyone Should Play
Glass of whiskey, pouring rain, and tangled cases — we made a list of games that can make you feel like a real detective, either on the sunny streets of Los Angeles or filthy alleys of Ankh-Morpork
Ever since Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle invented and perfected the detective genre, millions of people became addicted to it. Whodunits continue appearing in cinemas, on TV screens and computer monitors. There aren’t nearly as many famous detective icons in the world of gaming, but there are a few of them that are worth mentioning. The genre continues to be relevant: in July alone we got the critically acclaimed Judgment and Cthulhu-infused The Sinking City.
Today we take a look at the best games with detective elements.
- Release year: 2011
- Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Switch
Despite probably not being a commercial success the publisher wanted, L.A. Noire remains one of the most expansive detective games… well, ever. It was, after all, published by Rockstar Games, and, as a result, was extremely polished. For a game released in 2011, it remains surprisingly innovative, with state of the art facial animation (courtesy of MotionScan technology) that playz a vital role in the gameplay.
In L.A. Noire, you play as officer Cole Phelps who solves one case after another in the gritty world of 1947 Los Angeles. Grisly murders, car chases, interrogations… the game has it all. It’s up to you to find clues, ask the right suspect the right questions and do it in the right succession. Every mistake can prove costly: talk to the wrong guy at the wrong time and witness unpleasant consequences.
When it comes to detective games, L.A. Noire is still the one and only true blockbuster. Many tried to achieve its level of details but failed: the open world feels alive and as authentic as possible. From the way people talk to music and cultural references – everything is as realistic as possible. If you’re a history buff, you won’t be disappointed. Unlike most of the other games in that genre, L.A. Noire has an open world and gives its players the freedom to do as they please.
- Release year: 2010
- Platforms: PS3, PS4, PC
Heavy Rain has always looked more like a movie than a video game. But don’t let it fool you: it allows for far more freedom than most of the other titles since its story is non-linear. Every little decision of the player has consequences, and there’s no way to backtrack and choose the other option. That alone leads to the game being very tense. It’s also probably the most famous work from Quantic Dream and its eccentric director David Cage.
In Heavy Rain, we play as four different characters: Scott Shelby (the PI), Norman Jayden (FBI profiler), Madison Paige (Journalist) and Ethan Mars (the victim). All of them have different paths they can take.
Heavy Rain tells a story of a father whose son was kidnapped by a mysterious Origami Killer. Unlike other games, Heavy Rain forces players to stay vigilant at all times. There’s no fixed plot – everything changes according to your actions. If you take too long, people will die. If you decide wrong, the killer might walk free. It’s a dark, gruesome game with twists, memorable characters, and a (reasonably, we’re talking David Cage here) good plot. It doesn’t amaze anymore with its graphics, but the remastered versions still looks mighty fine.
Batman: Arkham City
- Release year: 2011
- Platforms: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, Wii U
First of all, a disclaimer: strictly speaking, Batman: Arkham City is not a detective game but it stars “the world’s greatest detective”, so… we’ll allow it. Mostly because the game’s so good.
Rocksteady Studios’ Arkham games are legendary, and Batman: Arkham City is arguably the best of the bunch. It features, of course, the Bat himself, along with many of his adversaries. There’s a big open world, tons of missions, collectibles, and mysteries. Movies make it easy to forget that the Dark Knight considers himself to be a detective. Not only is he cunning, but he also has money, amazing technology and… Alfred.
Moviemakers only remember one side of Batman, but Rocksteady Studios gives us the definitive version of the famous character that heavily resembles the “true” comic book version. Sometimes, when he’s not fighting baddies, Batman whips out his “Detective Vision” that allows him to highlight elements of interest. Imagine Google Glass, but better: that way Batman can see different clues, character status, collectibles, and other details. He can track the source of a bullet, access criminal database and hack communication frequencies. It’s a neat bonus, although it hardly makes Arkham City a “true” detective game. But hey, Batman’s cool, right?
- Release year: 2018
- Platforms: PS4
And now about something fresh. Judgment is a brand-new game from the famed Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, known for its popular Yakuza series. It is a spin-off that just happens to be one of the best detective games of this console generation.
Judgment tells an intricate story about private detective Takayuki Yagami, formerly a brilliant lawyer with ties to the yakuza. Not only is he very smart, but he’s also an amazing fighter. However, fighting’s not gonna help him find the mysterious killer that’s lurking on the streets of Kamurocho, gouging out his victims’ eyes and disappearing without a trace. Even the mightiest of yakuza feel uneasy while the number of dead bodies increases with each month.
But unlike Batman, Yagami actually works as a detective, helping people with different cases, big and small. Search for clues and evidence, use disguises and catch the culprits – there’s a lot to do. Sure, sometimes it feels like busywork, but in the end, it’s worth it for the story alone, which is told via lots of cut scenes that look (and sound, thanks to Japanese and English actors) phenomenal.
The Last Express
- Release year: 1997
- Platforms: PC, Android, iOS
If you enjoy classic whodunits, you will surely get a kick out of The Last Express, which is loosely based on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.Designed by Jordan Mechner and published by Brøderbund in 1997 for PC, this classic title refuses to age and remains one of the most important representatives of the genre.
We play as an American by the name of Robert Cath who joins his friends on the Orient Express. Soon after he finds himself in the midst of conspiracy, murder, and romance – basically, all the good stuff. There’s a lot of things that separate The Last Express from the others and make it worth your while even after all this time. For example, it’s art nouveau style which comes to life thanks to the process of rotoscoping. Think about it: every character in the game was portrayed by a real actor in special makeup! That fact alone makes The Last Express a very curious game indeed. Good writing and the fact that every action takes place in real time make it a very ambitious game. It’s very easy to miss certain events, which in turn makes it even harder to prevail in the end. Sure, it’s not as breathtaking as it was in 1997, but interesting non-linear story and general atmosphere are always relevant.
The Last Express was never a commercial success, although the critics and the players loved it. In 2012, the creator Jordan Mechner and DotEmu released iOS and Android ports. In 2013, DotEmu revealed a Gold Edition for Windows on Steam.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments
- Release year: 2014
- Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
It’s fair to say that Sherlock Holmes will remain forever as the most famous fictional detective. And it’s only logical to have a game featuring him on the list. Frogwares have released quite a lot of them, but Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is probably the best of the bunch.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and features the world’s favorite detective. Among the stories that inspired the plot are The Adventure of Black Peter, The Story of the Lost Special and The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. Taking place in 1884 London, the game revolves around a terrorist group planning to “free the people from debt.” To reveal the truth, Sherlock has to solve six cases.
The game includes everything a fan might want from a detective title: exploring crime scenes, looking for clues, speaking with witnesses and, of course, putting deducting skills to use. It’s not as elementary as Sherlock might want: the game asks you to absolve or condemn a criminal, and your choice does influence the events afterwards. Different endings depending on the player’s choice are what makes Crimes & Punishments so great. And, thanks to Unreal Engine 3, it still looks the part – at least better than Frogwares’ previous offerings. Unfortunately, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter (2016) – the latest entry in the series – is not as universally adored due to a couple of unwelcome gameplay additions.
The Colonel's Bequest
- Release year: 1989
- Platforms: Amiga, MS-DOS, Atari ST, AmigaOS
Now, let us take you way back, to the times when gaming was still in its infancy. Back when Sierra On-Line was king, and its graphic adventure games set the standards for all the others. True, many of their titles have aged poorly, but some, like The Colonel's Bequest, have proven to be timeless.
The Colonel's Bequest is a brainchild of famous Roberta Williams, who is known for co-founding Sierra On-Line as well King’s Quest game series and Phantasmagoria. But exactly what makes it timeless? After all, it has all the features of Sierra On-Line titles, most of which have been long deemed archaic. But still, somehow, it just works – even in 2019. Just like The Last Express, it’s very Agatha Christie-esque: the story tells about certain Laura Bow, a detective’s daughter who is invited to Colonel Dijon’s estate, where he is prepared to reveal his will to a bunch of relatives. Then, as it usually happens in that sort of stories, people start bickering, fighting and… dying. It’s up to our new detective to crack the case.
What makes The Colonel's Bequest different from the other Sierra games is the fact that you don’t just mash different objects together in hopes of finding the nonsensical solution to a bunch of headscratchers. You’re not the centre of the universe – in fact, it exists around you. You may observe and come to conclusions, but the story just keeps on going nonetheless. You don’t even have to solve the mystery – first and foremost you need to survive. Now tell me that doesn’t sound exciting? They don’t make games like that anymore.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations
- Release year: 2004
- Platforms: Game Boy Advance, PC, Nintendo DS, Wii, Android, iOS, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
There have been lots of Ace Attorney games, and it’s almost impossible to choose just one. After a long process of elimination, we settled on Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney − Trials and Tribulations. In many ways, it’s a traditional game in the “Ace Attorney” genre: we follow defense attorneys Phoenix Wright and Mia Fey who not only have to work hard in court but also investigate the crimes themselves, gather evidence and talk to people.
There are five cases that tie into each other, surprises, twists, memorable characters and charismatic villains – especially prosecutor Godot. Shu Takumi has written Trials and Tribulation as the last episode in a trilogy, and you can feel that he gave it all to create a worthy conclusion. Some say it’s more of a legal drama than a detective, but the games offers the best of both worlds. There are a lot of things to do here outside the court of law.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
- Release year: 2010
- Platforms: PSP, PS Vita, PS4, Android, iOS, PC
It’s actually hard to distinguish the three games in the Danganronpa series, but after careful consideration we’ve decided to leave out Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair and Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony.
Why? While all three games are quite good, it’s hard to deny the fact that it was Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc that started it all, while the other two just copied the main formula, modifying certain bits here and there.
All Danganronpa games share the same premise: At Hope Peak’s Academy (in case of the first title) something weird is going on. Certain students find themselves trapped in. Now they are forced to play a twisted game: everyone has a motive to kill Monokuma, a creepy robotic bear. If the deed is done, all the students vote on whose done it. If they guess right, the culprit is executed. Otherwise, he or she gets to walk free while others die.
It’s an unsettling experience, but a very memorable one. Once again, we’re not talking traditional stereotypical detectives with bottles of whiskey and a dingy office, but all of the ingredients for a fantastic mystery story are here: we have to gather evidence, analyze the facts and really think. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the scariest games on our list.
Return of the Obra Dinn
- Release year: 2018
- Platforms: PC
“What’s this?” you might ask after looking at the screenshots of Return of the Obra Dinn. Your reaction would be understandable: monochrome and extremely anachronistic, the game from the famous indie developer Lucas Pope (known for Papers, Please) looks extremely weird. In fact, the game just imitates a 1-bit graphical style from the early Macintosh systems.
If you can get past its unusual appearance, it’s quite likely that you’ll be enchanted with Return of the Obra Dinn – one of the most surprising detective games on the list. And not only because of how it looks.
Return of the Obra Dinn tells a story of an East India Company ship, whose crew has long been deceased. We play as an agent of the shipping company whose task is to determine what – and when – exactly happened here. And it’s a morbid and gloomy as one might expect. Our unwilling detective has to use his notepad in order to deduce a chain of events that resulted in the disaster. There’s a lot of thinking involved: we look for the character, his killer, a murder weapon, and so forth.
You are alone in this task, except for an unusual device – the “Memento Mortem” pocket watch which transports you back in time to see the unfortunate demise of the (former) person before you.
One word that perfectly describes the game is “intricate”. From the sound design (that plays a major role here) to the stories and the art style, everything makes Return of the Obra Dinn a truly unique experience.
- Release year: 2015
- Platforms: PC, iOS, Android
“Unusual” describes Her Story perfectly. It plays and looks nothing like the other games on our list – in fact, it’s fair to call it more of an interactive movie, where live-action scenes play a vital role in your investigation. The famous designer Sam Barlow was inspired by numerous real-life police interviews and wanted to create a game where you make assumptions about a suspect based solely on such interviews. When you first boot up the title, you are presented with an old-fashioned PC with a couple of programs and files. That’s all. What, you think being detective is all fun and games?
All you have to do is watch a lot of footage of Hannah Smith, a British woman, played by Viva Seifert. Since the action takes place in the ‘90s, Barlow even ran the footage through two VHS players in order to make it look like it was from 1994.
When developing Her Story, Sam Barlow wanted to create a good and captivating detective game. He himself said that he was disappointed in the most popular similar games: he doesn’t share our appreciation for L.A. Noire, which “doesn’t let you feel like the awesome detective who was having to read things and follow up threads of investigation”, while Ace Attorney series, in his own words, is too “rigid”.
- Release year: 1998
- Platforms: PC, PS4, PS Vita, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android
When it comes to adventure games, two names come to mind – Sierra On-Line and LucasArts. We’ve already talked about the first, and now it’s time for LucasArts, whose Grim Fandango remains one of the best “investigational” adventure titles ever. And, as it is usual for such games, it offers a lot of classic film noir tropes, sprinkled with elements of Aztec/Mexican culture.
You play as Manny Calavera, a travel agent navigating the Underworld. Is it a detective game? Well, not exactly, although its noir style is reminiscent of classic mystery films. But we still do a lot of investigating and snooping around, as well as solving puzzles. Calavera does a lot of detective work by talking to the right people and connecting the dots. Grim Fandango forces you to think: the easiest way to spoil your time is to look up the solution in a walkthrough. Take your time. While it’s not easy, it’s by no means ruthless – Manny cannot die or get in a no-win situation.
- Release year: 2017
- Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Some games put story above all else. Some – style. Observer (or >observer_) from Bloober Team certainly wanted their game to stand out. Think Blade Runner, but creepier. Interested? Sure you are.
In Observer, we play as Daniel Lazarski (played by the one and only Rutger Hauer), a police detective in the city of Krakow who plugs into the neural implants of people in order to learn the truth. The story starts when Daniel receives a phone call from his son, leading him into an apartment complex. There, he has to use his detective skills to figure out the truth, solve the mystery and remember what’s real and what’s not.
Fans of the cyberpunk genre will be ecstatic since the game looks and sounds fantastic. Rutger Hauer’s detective also deserves a mention – it’s just great playing a cop in a futuristic environment that’s so different from everything else on our list. The game’s not only stylish but also terrifying at times, with gorgeous music by Arkadiusz Reikowski. The game turned to be so influential that Hollywood already wants to make a movie based on it.
- Release year: 1999
- Platforms: PC, PlayStation
We like detectives for their suspenseful atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean that humor cannot play a bigger role. If you’re a bit tired of being scared and depressed, you can take a breather by playing Discworld Noir – a game set in Terry Pratchett's satirical Discworld universe. The demiurge himself has helped create this masterpiece (he also voiced Commander Vimes) – even if the developers quickly got tired of his constant interference.
As expected, the game is a satire of many detective and film noir tropes that we all love. It even pokes fun at H. P. Lovecraft as well as cult films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. And, by looking at the year of the release we can easily deduce that this is an adventure game. We play as Lewton – “the Discworld's first and only private investigator.” Lewton investigates a gruesome murder that took place in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Unlike most of the other Discworld games, this one has a completely new story about the mad cult, bent on summoning Nylonathatep – already a reason alone to play it.
The gameplay is quite typical for a game from that time: we spend a lot of time conversing with NPCs and interrogating them. Lewton acts and looks like a classic PI, but despite the game being a spoof, it still has a great story and a mystery to crack, and the writing is top notch.
- Release year: 2010
- Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
It just so happens that detective games are usually quite scary. Deadly Premonition is no exception – in fact, it’s probably the scariest of the bunch. The title from Access Games tells a story of FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan who has to investigate the murder of an elderly woman. He notices that the crime resembles the ones that had already shaken the city, and starts digging up the truth.
Deadly Premonition is known for being realistic. It has an open world where people follow the 24-hour schedule; the protagonist eats and sleeps, or otherwise his health will go down. Cars that can be used to traverse the world have to be refueled and repaired if they take damage. Even the angles of the sun and weather patterns have been painstakingly calculated. When not investigating crimes scenes and interrogating suspects, Morgan lives his life: for instance, he can participate in races, play darts, or go fishing. And when things get tough, he gets to use firearms or melee weapons in order to fight off enemies, both supernatural and not. If we have to compare Deadly Premonition with something, Twin Peaks comes to mind.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215
- Release year: 2007
- Platforms: Nintendo DS
Rich story, intricate characters and memorable art styles are a must when it comes to good point-and-click adventure games. Thankfully, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, originally released in 2007 for Nintendo DS, has it all – and then some.
Developed by Cing, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is about titular Hotel Dusk in Nevada, where we find our protagonist Kyle Hyde, a detective-turned-salesman on the search for his former partner who has disappeared without a trace. Soon we discover that the hotel has lots of mysteries to offer.
It’s a point-and-click game, so you know the drill: Mr. Hyde moves around, interacts with objects and solves puzzles. The game uses all of the features of the DS, including microphone and a touch screen. Even more: you have to play the game by handing the console vertically, which makes it look more like a living book. Our hero speaks with different NPCs in order to uncover clues, but be careful: wrong questions at the wrong time can anger the person and slow down your progress.
Which detective games do you think are the best? Leave your ideas in the comments below.