Walking ‘Silent Streets’ makes for a sinister but short adventure

The mobile game is a nice way to spend an hour or two on a sunny afternoon.

My friends, who knew of my uncharacteristic love for Pokémon Go, suggested that I try Silent Streets. It's a brand-new mobile game that combines the same mechanics of augmented reality and walking that I enjoy so much. There's no magical critter-catching going in Silent Streets. It's a Victorian gothic detective story that sees you roaming your local area to solve a murder -- one that had me walking around trying to find "The Boy With the Flower Skin."

Once downloaded, there's no signup or login screen; you just tell the game your name and you're instantly thrust into the action. Your otherwise nameless character receives a plea for help from Thomas Horgan, a disgraced former great detective currently in exile. After a period of stalling, you answer his call and set off to the grim, far-flung town of Snowport, only to discover him brutally murdered.

As you're under suspicion for Horgan's murder, you must prove your innocence by solving his last case. That means battling the rogue gallery of Snowport's locals, plus the machinations of both the Royal Society and a dangerous cult that lurks in the shadows. It's the sort of delicious gothic horror that I have something of a soft spot for, and one that ensured I kept playing.

As for the game's mechanics, Snowport itself is a map with key locations -- your lodgings, the police station, tavern, etc. -- all highlighted. Getting between them requires the burning of actual shoe leather, as your steps, as monitored by the phone, are counted. You need to walk between 300 and 500 steps to reach most of the locations, where you then interview suspects or search for clues.

The interviews are of the traditional, branching style you find in many RPGs: Say the right thing at the right time and you'll be rewarded. Say the wrong thing and the suspects and witnesses soon turn hostile and ask you to leave. At specific points, you'll be able to switch into AR mode to hunt for clues around your local location. Then it's off to the next building, a few hundred steps away.

Most of the game can be played at a leisurely pace, but there are certain moments where you're given a deadline. These challenges are either related to important side quests that help you complete the entire chapter or are used to build tension toward the climax. The deadlines aren't particularly taxing -- five minutes to walk 100 steps or 20 to walk 500 -- but they mean you can't put the game down even, for instance, if your lunch break has ended.

If you want to play the game without the walking, either due to indolence or bad weather, you can skip it by calling for a cab. You're given one for free at the start of the game, with additional rides setting you back £1.99 ($2.56) for 12 or £2.99 ($3.80) for 30. Subsequent chapters, of which there are four, will set you back a further £2.65 ($3.40) per time. As the first part of the game is free, the overall price you'll pay is around £8 / $10.

Silent Streets has plenty of things going for it, including a well-written and intriguing story, beautiful hand-drawn artwork and good voice acting. But its game mechanics feel less like a way to make the story more immersive and more like a way of stretching out what little content there is. Without the walking -- which I do enjoy, especially as motivation to get me out of the house -- the chapter would last half an hour, tops.

There are a couple of other glitches that the studio will need to work out, including app crashes if you pick the "wrong" option at a key moment in the game. But that's a small issue -- and it helped me avoid ruining the ending by picking the wrong culprit.

Similarly, the AR features are barely used, and when they are, it's simple enough to scroll around until you've spotted all the incongruous objects. One issue with AR games in their current form is that it's impossible to miss the crudely rendered item floating in midair, like point-and-click detective games before them, where if you were stuck, you could simply scan your mouse pointer left to right to find when the cursor changed icon.

The biggest joy of Silent Streets is the reward on the investment that you put into it, and I was hooked while I played it. Toward the climax, the aforementioned timed challenges were ever present, with a race against the clock to prevent a tragedy. I'll confess, knowing that I was saving someone, I actually broke out into a run to reach the conclusion faster. That was a mistake, because my phone registered fewer steps as a result, slowing me down.

The satisfaction of completing the chapter, finishing the five side quests and getting all that delicious exercise was enormous. If there's a drawback, it's the niggling factor that having to buy each chapter individually, as well as walking powerups, feels a little like being nickeled-and-dimed. But it's the unfortunate reality of the economics of the app store that if the game was priced at its actual worth, it would be seen as a rip-off.

Overall, however, I enjoyed my sojourn through the darker corners of Victorian Britain and will probably go back there soon. Silent Streets captured the dark, Holmesian vibe that makes those stories so engaging. If the following chapters are as engaging as the first, I'm sure the game will do well, and I'll continue to get more of that much-needed fresh air and exercise.