Sarawak is a charming narrative adventure brought to life by the two-man crew of Duncan and Maria over at Cowleyfornia Studios. And, this is their first title! With lots of interesting puzzles and characters to solve, this interactive mystery takes you on a short, but meaningful journey to unravel the secrets behind its main protagonist’s family in order to unmask a murderer. But what will you plan to do with that information once you find out the truth? Join us for our review of Sarawak.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Sarawak is a state of Malaysia situated on the beautiful island of Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, with one of the richest, and oldest rainforests that exist, and you’ll see a lot of those motifs spread throughout the story. To begin, Sarawak follows its unwitting but determined protagonist, Mia, as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life in Oxford, England. Right away, the player is introduced to the fact that Mia’s mother might not be as reliable or honest as one would hope. Their relationship is thoroughly strained, and we’re left to unravel bits and pieces of their relationship throughout the story. Meanwhile, the murder of an Oxford professor leads the detectives straight to her mother’s doorstep, and Mia is quickly wound up in a whirlwind of new faces, emotions, and memories that have nothing to do with her, and everything to do with her family’s questionable past. All of a sudden, Mia will have to follow a breadcrumb trail of clues left behind by a man she has never known as a father in order to prove her mother’s innocence.
The core gameplay revolves around scrolling downwards, ever forward as if reading an actual novel amidst a backdrop of beautifully coordinated, vivid illustrations. The effortless weaving in between image, color, and text provides a nice, steady bit of rest for the eye to take in the full breadth of the story, while also stimulating the mind and imagination. Sarawak is an interactive, artistic concoction of some of the best visuals that spring to mind when you lose yourself in a great novel. It gives you a gentle push when needed, with the help of its gorgeous illustrations, to help construct the picture of the world around Mia. The bright colors and vivid descriptions jog your creativity and give you a solid foundation in the fictional world, while granting you enough autonomy to imagine the scene playing out as you read along. Even most of the characters’ portraits are stylized in a way to represent their faces as blank slates, so that you aren’t so hung up on looks and accidentally halt the immersion of the story.
Sarawak’s puzzles present themselves as clues put forward by the now deceased and enigmatic Professor Samson. I’ve played very few games that truly excel in puzzle design and manage to be fun and challenging without making me want to pull my hair out. Though it is unfortunately painfully short, Sarawak really excels in its simplistic puzzle design. The art lends itself to a level of difficulty in the puzzles, because everything blends together so seamlessly. Not only are the puzzles interesting and diverse, but they’re not insanely difficult. That being said, there are a few that do stop you in your tracks and have you scratching your head for a few minutes as you try to force your way through.
This mixture of stimulating and enjoyable challenges lets you continue playing without a huge disconnect from the story’s immersion. I’ve had one too many playthroughs of Nancy Drew come to a halt because I spent hours trying to figure out a puzzle, only to sigh and pull up a walkthrough. Not only that, but the puzzles in Sarawak aren’t just thrown in there for the sake of stamping the “puzzles” tag on a Steam page. The puzzles are genuinely relevant to the story, and each one is cleverly used as a plot device to reveal something about the scene or characters to Mia and the player.
As a whole, it can probably take you less than 2 hours to play through the entirety of Sarawak. Each main scene is saved by short burst chapters that you can always go back and replay if you want to see different interactions or earn other achievements on Steam. I so wish that there was just a little bit more to the story. While all of the story elements were very well written, with lots of wonderful supporting details from the real places the authors have undoubtedly visited in their travels, the ending left me feeling slightly conflicted. It just felt like it ended far quicker than it should have, or didn’t have that resolution that I really craved. When I try to take a step back and wonder why the developers would have chosen that kind of ending, it seems a bit more meaningful. Real life doesn’t always give us exactly the answers we’re looking for, and when it does, it might not be the ones we want. It’s what you do with that information that really counts.
I definitely enjoyed my playthrough and will be keeping a close eye on Cowleyfornia Studios for the announcement of their next project!
A key was provided for the purpose of this review.