Monthly Archives: March 2015

Jazzpunk

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I don’t even know where to begin with this one.

PC Release: February 7, 2014

By Ian Coppock

What do you get when you combine Archer, the original Pink Panther films, the works of Hunter S. Thompson, and a gigantic bag of hallucinogens? Well, you get an aneurysm, but you also get this game. Equal parts spoof and surreal, Jazzpunk is a comedy adventure game that takes you on an absurd ride through a cyberpunk Cold War, and if your frontal lobe hasn’t completely dissolved by game’s end, I salute you.

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Jazzpunk is yet another indie gem, the only video game format that really seems to be pushing the boundaries of art and story these days (insert hipster mustache here). You are Polyblank, a secret agent operating out of an abandoned subway station, and your job is to embark upon a number of missions wherein the fate of the world is, truly, at stake.

That, and your agency’s supply of good whoopee cushions is in peril.

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The game’s visual style pays tribute to both 90s adventure games and dementia in equal measure.

Jazzpunk‘s visual style is a trip, to say the least. A big, blocky, colorful world inhabited by anthropomorphic men’s restroom symbols that walk around and sputter nonsense in robotic voices. Despite the potential for being a pure assault upon your senses, the art style of Jazzpunk is engaging. The world comprises outrageous colors and big shapes defined by the thick lines you might see in a graphic novel. It’s a lot of fun for your eyeballs and it’s something whose rarity makes it memorable by default.

The game also has a simplistic musical score inspired by 50s and 60s camp. The sudden horn blasts and subtle strings reminded me of the Pink Panther films and the old-school Batman series starring Adam West. It’s strongly evocative of that whole body of work that blends comedy and Cold War intrigue, and it adds nicely to the absurd atmosphere of Jazzpunk.

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Scoping out the Soviet consulate. Note the bright colors, giant shapes, and the art deco, gothic-style font.

Jazzpunk is structured as a linear set of open worlds. Each mission takes place in a fairly large area, leaving you free to proceed straight to the objective (yawn), or poke around to find the jokes and the side missions (recommended). If the game were merely a cartoony spoof of the Cold War, that’d be one thing, but Jazzpunk pokes fun at pop culture and even other video games.

You can walk around in each level and find gags referencing game design. I clicked on an apartment building door and laughed when I was presented with the message “this door was placed here by the developers but is not an actual door.” These jokes are delivered constantly.

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Hehehehe

Jazzpunk carries this brand of humor even further with a small group of mini-games. Pop culture’s obsession with zombies is parodied in a “pizza zombie” game, where you roam around a giant supreme pizza and clobber pepperoni zombies with a shovel.

Another favorite, Wedding Qake, combines the deathmatch mode of Quake with a wedding setting. Between the jokes and the mini-games, it’s clear that the developers know not only how to find humor, but also how to implement it into a video game, which isn’t always an easy task. The developers claim that they were partially inspired by the humor of Portal, and my god does that show.

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TRY GIVING ME AWAY NOW, FATHER! YOU SANCTIMONIOUS BASTARD!

The reason why I bring up the jokes and side missions of the game before the plot is because the plot is really just a framing device for all of these jokes to inhabit. The side jokes and gags are the meat of the game, which is a refreshing deviation from a linear narrative containing all of the jokes sequentially. Players are left to discover each of these gags at their own pace and their own order, and continue the story as they see fit.

The game follows Polyblank through a variety of locales, including an NYC Soviet consulate, a Japanese sushi restaurant, and a luxurious Polynesian resort. As I said up top, these are open-world, and you can wander around at your own pace and engage in this delightfully absurd cartoon world. Humorous video games are rare, and quality humorous games even rarer, and the succession of mini-open worlds works well for this format.

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Jazzpunk’s dark, dry humor won’t have you laughing uproariously, but you’ll enjoy it all the same. I’m also pretty sure this dude’s getup is a direct reference to Raoul Duke, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Most of the missions revolve around the conventional Cold War-era fare, like breaking into restricted areas, meeting with covert agents and sabotaging enemy espionage. Hand-in-hand with these premises are ridiculous mechanics by which you move forward, like slaughtering robotic pigs and bombarding one gentleman with cheese spray.

The game is played from a first-person perspective and borrows from elements of FPS’s and old-school adventure games. You can pick up items, cycle through an inventory, and use these items to interact with world puzzles and challenges. Combat is about as humorous as you might expect by now; I was swatting fedora-adorned bowling ball pins with a flyswatter, and poisoning a cowboy’s sushi with a giant pufferfish LMG.

This game makes no sense. Just like real life. It’s great.

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Smoking cigars and watching 30’s commercials in a luxurious theater, because screw logic.

While Jazzpunk will get little but shameless praise from me, my biggest criticism of the game is its short length, clocking in at about 2-3 hours of gameplay. Fifteen bucks is a pretty steep price for so short a game.

Each of the missions were fleshed out reasonably well, but I wish they’d added more, both for the sake of comedy and for getting what I felt would’ve been my money’s worth. It’s one of those cases where you feel like the game is getting up and running at full speed just as it ends.

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For all its humor and good design choices, Jazzpunk is simply too short.

As for my usual anecdote about what innovations the video game I’m reviewing makes for the medium as a whole, Jazzpunk proves that the surreal comedy formula can be applied to video games. I hope to see more games like this where the humor is organic and the developers are unafraid to put their quirks to pixels.

Comedy games in general are pretty rare, but this is one of the good ones. Games in which the humor feels very forced, like Sunset Overdrive for the Xbone, are rendered non-humorous. Jazzpunk is funny because it’s unafraid to be weird. If you’re the same way, buy this game and give it a go.

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Good advice.

And remember; wearing a kimono might make you look fat32.

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You can buy Jazzpunk here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

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Explore the origins and aftermath of one man’s murderous rampage.

PC Release: March 10, 2015

By Ian Coppock

I guess I’m cutting my retirement from blogging a little short. Sometimes you hit a dry patch, and sometimes you play games that are so great, you can’t not let the community know about what’s out there. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is one of these games. Let’s take a gander.

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Anyone who’s played the original Hotline Miami knows that it can’t be summed up in just a few words. It’s a retro-style, top-down shooter awash in a haze of drugs and neon, but it’s also so much more.

You play a nameless psychopath popularly titled Jacket, who tracks down and kills hordes of Russian mobsters at the behest of mysterious phone messages. An innocent-sounding request to deliver cookies is actually an insidious order to shoot, stab, and bash the shit out of as many Russian gangsters as possible. The game does not shirk on violence or gore.

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Casualties in this game are counted in limbs and cracked skulls, because corpses are obviously too boring.

Despite its simplistic, absurd premise, or perhaps because of it, Hotline Miami gained a large following, and now the sequel sets out to explore the origins of Jacket’s murder sprees and the aftermath of his grip on 1989 Miami. It’s a satisfying, if flawed, conclusion to the series.

In stark contrast to the original game’s single-person narrative, Hotline Miami 2 presents a diaspora of about one dozen characters, with interlocking story lines that take place before, during and after the events of Hotline Miami. In addition to psychopathic murderers in animal masks, players will also assume the roles of an earnest reporter, a sadistic police officer, a famous movie actor, and others. These story lines often intersect.

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Though the narrative structure has changed from the first game, Hotline Miami 2 is no less full of drugs, violence and surreal horror.

The first and largest change Dennaton Games brings with Hotline Miami 2 is the narrative. With the story being split between so many characters, it takes on a much larger scope than the rather linear story of the first game. Each tale is a piece of a larger, more complicated story, giving me the drama satisfaction that was far weaker in the first game.

Of course, the caveat with following over a dozen different people is that the game risks being too fragmented. Dennaton compensates for this risk by constantly rewarding players with pieces of the larger picture, but I felt like this game had almost too many characters. There are about 25 missions in this game, meaning that each character has only 2-3 levels. While the individual levels are fun and the larger context of the characters’ contribution is well-signified, it also left me feeling like each mini-story was shallow. This caused the overall narrative to suffer as a result.

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This game’s story could’ve been stronger if Dennaton had cut out a few characters and strengthened the subplots.

I realize that there’s a certain irony to wishing a Hotline Miami game had a stronger narrative, but that’s what a game that bills itself as “leaving no final questions” needs to do, no matter how ludicrous its predecessor.

The top-down, ultraviolent gameplay from Hotline Miami is little-changed in the sequel. Just like before, players must navigate mazes of rooms and take out all the baddies wtihin. The challenge is that if you get shot, stabbed, or swung at even once, you die. Luckily, you instantly re-spawn. The more people you kill quickly, the bigger combos you string up. The more combos you get, the higher your score at level’s end. If you care about those things.

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In the original, players donned one of several animal masks giving them different gameplay benefits, like lethal punches or starting out with a knife (my two favorite). But, many of the characters in the game don’t wear masks and must rely on their own specific combat techniques for those missions. There is a cabal of mask-wearing murderers who appear as an homage to Jacket, and to satisfy classic fans like myself.

The game has added a few noteworthy new mechanics. Certain masks allow players to roll out of the way of gunfire, or fire in two directions at once. One character refuses to kill and instead must knock out his adversaries. Another always starts out with a shotgun. New weapons, like sniper rifles and LMGs, are also added to round out the game’s already impressive arsenal.

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Whether you’re a sneaky stealth bastard or a rip-roaring gunslinger, Hotline Miami 2 will always leave you well-armed.

Though the game’s arsenal of weapons has become more diverse, the level design leaves a lot to be desired. Levels in Hotline Miami were compact, maze-like affairs that you could quickly move about in.

Hotline Miami 2 has those as well, but many of its levels contain huge rooms. The problem with this setup is that you’ll be walking along, only to get shot by a thug who was off screen. To scout for these dastardly foes, I had to fire wildly off-screen to draw enemies to me, while taking care not to get shot myself. It robbed me of a chance to be stealthy, and it’s a clumsy flaw, to say the least.

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Some of the levels in Hotline Miami 2 are cumbersome.

The electro-synth tracks of the original game were as much a piece of its legacy as the story or gameplay, and I felt like this game’s music, while not bad, just didn’t measure up to that of the original. For one thing, it’s a lot quieter and more somber, in stark contrast to the wild and free-flowing music of Hotline Miami.

The music came across as too subtle and too quiet for a Hotline Miami game. Music can inform a game’s narrative and atmosphere as much as any other element of art, and when the music is too slow or quiet to keep up with the game’s pacing, it’s noticeable. This was unfortunately true of my experience with the game.

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The score screen music was the worst, it was just morose and sluggish, whereas the energetic glee of the original music exalted your success in every raid.

To revisit the narrative just briefly, most of what I could say would spoil substantial pieces of the plot.It takes place about two years after the events of the first game, though about a third of the story also takes place in the years before and during Hotline Miami. Colombians have muscled in alongside drug dealers, bikers, and the returning Russian mob to form multiple antagonistic factions. Jacket and Richard both return in this game, though not in roles you might expect, and the game’s overarching themes of senseless violence and blood-drenched conspiracy return in full force.

In essence, Hotline Miami 2 is a fine-tuned top-down shooter and a worthy conclusion to the series. It runs the risk of being consumed by subplots, and the music is nothing to write home about, but the story is engrossing and the various characters make it a diverse and multifaceted narrative. It’s not the straightforward murderfest of the original game, but it hits the story notes that many of us were pining for after the first game left us with so many questions.

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Gory be thy name…

Plenty of guns and knives as well.

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You can buy Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.