There’s a strong temptation to write this review in Japanese, because it would make precisely as much sense. That’s because Jazzpunk is one of the oddest creatures to ever emerge from the swamp that is independent gaming, and that is a very strange swamp indeed.
The difficulty comes because much of Jazzpunk is hard to express in cogent sentences, and there’s a fair probability the game’s script was written in the same way. The basic premise is this: You are some variety of secret agent in a retro-futuristic, neon-coloured world where cel-shaded robots, not people, walk the streets. The Cold War is still going on and your job is usually to obtain some intelligence, assassinate someone or, erm, spray orange cheeselike substance into the mouth of a posh robot voiced by Jim Sterling.
A typical mission will include a myriad of references to gaming and geek culture, including a puzzle of a locked phone being solved by emptying a box of Communist cereal to obtain a whistle, which is used to overwrite the lock and allow access to the phone. Oh, and all of this takes place inside a virtual reality, which itself exists in a world generated by you taking a strange pill before every mission. Other odd nods include a Frogger-esque minigame in order to let a talking frog watch what’s strongly hinted to be porn on Starbucks internet, and an entirely purposeless segment where you journey across a giant pizza cutting up zombies with a pizza slicer. Oh, and “Wedding Quake” which sees you running around shooting other robots with champagne corks, and which should totally be a real game.
The graphical style explores the palette to an almost worrying degree, and one can’t help but worry that the game should come with an epilepsy warning, so rapidly flashing and full of discordant noise is the opening cinematic. Whether it’s an island resort, a Japanese restaurant toilet or a Communist embassy, Jazzpunk is never afraid to dial up the colour.
The aesthetic (and come to mention it, much of the odd, stilted dialogue) is quite reminiscent of the Katamari Damacy series or Noby Noby Boy, and that’s by all means a positive thing. The overwhelming feeling while playing it was “This is the sort of weird stuff that used to get full releases”. In some ways that’s good, because not only is that variety and vibrancy still alive and, more to the point, at a knock-down indie game price. On the other hand, the fact that that thought occurs at all could be taken as proof that mainstream gaming lacks difference and an ability to act out of the ordinary.
Audio is very high-quality, although like the graphics it’s hard to compare to any existing product. The soundtrack on offer is adequate, but the really noticeable part of Jazzpunk’s soundscape is the voice acting. All the spoken dialogue has been put through noise and pitch filters until it’s distorted and strange, and while this works to add to the “What am I playing?” factor, it can sometimes make objectives difficult to make out.
What’s nice about the quite open level layouts is that they allow for plenty of exploration without there being any driver to do so – completing sidequests and finding easter eggs is a task undertaken mostly for one’s own enjoyment, and perhaps there’s something more pure about them as a result. In some cases they’re more detailed than the main plot of the level. Breaking into the Soviet embassy in the first level, for example, merely requires changing a clock and completing a handful of easy puzzles. The major sidequest though requires obtaining a gun, roaming the level shooting down stray pigeons, then talking to a series of other agents to learn a secret knock to access the pigeon coop.
On occasion the weirdness can be a little much and the game strays from humorous oddness into outright confusion. In the second level the enemy agents who attack on your attempts to leave constantly make bowling references as you knock them over with a giant cotton bud. No explanation for this is ever given – they don’t particularly resemble bowling pins and you’re not attacking them with a bowling ball – and the moment loses something when other equally strange but more funny comments could have been made.
The plot being essentially an afterthought used to string together collections of zany jokes may appeal to you or it may not, but the humour is consistently of excellent quality. The strange secret service boss who finds odd reasons to disappear behind his desk after every mission assignment is a regular dose of humour, as is the way your character bounces with a comedy “boioing” every time they fall from a great height.
If what you want is wacky then Jazzpunk will deliver it. Players looking for story, intelligent puzzle design and gameplay won’t find it in great quality or quantity here, but it’s quite easy to ignore while chucking popcorn at people in a movie theatre while a kitschy 1960s advert plays on the screen. Even if this review hasn’t sold you on Jazzpunk, it’s worth playing just for the water cooler moments. It’s an experience unlike any other, and it’s earned its 90%