Thursday, August 14, 2008

Insecticide Part 1 Review

By Zeus Poplar, Official Out of Eight Adventure and RPG Correspondent

Insecticide Part 1, developed by Crackpot Entertainment and CREAT Studio and published by Gamecock Media Group.
The Good: Vibrant setting, expressive characters, jazzy music, splendid detective sequences
The Not So Good: Uninspired action stages, spotty subtitles, the inability to save anywhere
What say you? A visual work of art with a couple of major problems 5/8

In this action/point-and-click adventure, players assume the role of rookie Detective Chrys Liszt, a spider-like insect with a mysterious past who suffers from amnesia (groan). Her partner is Roachy Caruthers, a gruff but lovable cockroach who's been shot forty-seven times (and counting!). Together they investigate a murder at the Nectarola Soft Drink Company, a MegaCorp seeking to “capture the remaining 2% market share from their last competitor... water.”

Insecticide Part 1's stylish visuals remind me of everything from James and the Giant Peach to The City of Lost Children. A toxic green sky hangs over the neon signs and filthy streets of Troi. Interiors are lovingly rendered, from the run down Precinct #47 with its whiteboard crammed with elaborate diagrams and theories about which fast food to order, to a greasy spoon where the greasy spoons are the least of your worries. Characters are expressive, living cartoons with distinct personalities; the rest of the Insect Squad appear only briefly, but they make an impression, especially a big purple poet who insists on playing Mad Libs with his police reports. During the detective sequences, it's almost as much fun to watch as it is to play.

Quality voice work further brings the inhabitants of Troi City to life. I liked every last denizen, especially Detective Chrys. Her raspy, incredulous and (dare I say) cute delivery was perfect. No matter how small their part, the actors were professional; never once sounding like programmers trying to save a buck. Unfortunately, there's a problem with the sound design. Chief Chigger's voice is tuned so quiet he's drowned out by the music. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but neither the FMV nor the initial in-game cinemas have subtitles! Irony struck when Chief Chigger mumbled some inaudible orders and Roachy barked, “You heard him, let's get moving!” As for the soundtrack, I could listen to it for hours. Hand me a sax and call me Bleeding Gums Murphy, this game made a jazz fan, man.

Insecticide Part 1's eight chapters are divided into two distinct modes: Detective and Action. I admire Crackpot Entertainment for trying to capture the full spectrum of detective stories, from investigations to shootouts, but the quality of the latter pales in comparison to the former. I have nothing against action sequences in adventure games so long as they're done well, but the ones in Insecticide play like a lackluster Dreamcast title from the late 90s. Platform games are supposed to bring something new to the table: Bionic Commando had a grappling hook, Sonic ran really fast, Mega Man ripped the limbs from his fallen opponents, grafted them onto his body and used them to take down a robot cartel one by one. All you can do in Insecticide is run, jump and shoot one of six different weapons. The only cool gun in the bunch is the Amberizer (a canon which freezes enemies in amber), which you get to use once before the end of the game. It's really too bad, because insects offer a world of gameplay possibilities: they fly, walk on walls, inject their prey with venom and suck the liquefied remains... okay, scrap that last one, but you get the idea. Why let Peter Parker have all the fun? He was just bitten by a radioactive spider: Chrys is a radioactive spider! Mission objectives range from “after that guy!” to “go find the missing lever.” Each stage features only a couple types of enemies. I guess there's nothing outrageously wrong with these levels -- the play control is fine -- but compared to the other half of the game, they're uninspired. Banjo-Kazooie this ain’t.

Detective stages are another beast entirely; lovingly crafted and drenched in enough detail to make players want to seek out every nook, cranny and crazy side character. Like the action stages, Chrys moves with the WASD keys and looks around with the mouse. In the upper-left corner of the screen sits a radar, which displays a question mark or character portrait whenever Examination Areas are near. With a single press of the space bar, the camera zooms in to a locked view, allowing the player to move a cursor around, grab items and access the inventory at the bottom of the screen. Most of the puzzles consist of finding clues and dragging items onto suspects. These stages may not be any more challenging than the action stages (which offer ample health ups and halfway points), but that doesn't keep them from being a blast. They immediately bring to mind classics like Day of the Tentacle. It's hard to describe, but the world just feels so unbelievably solid that you just want to hang out there. It's a combination of skilled craftsmanship from adventure game veterans and a rich 3D engine that lets you poke your noise in people's business, instead of having to view the world from a distance. Detective stages consist of a single highly detailed room, and yet they never feel the least bit claustrophobic. I haven't had this much fun exploring in an adventure game since Under a Killing Moon!

The divide in quality between these two modes is even apparent in the script. Insecticide Part 1 has a hard broiled narrative with great lines like, “They had all the answers, and she had a clip full of questions,” and, “Fact is, the kid always slept with one eye open, ‘cuz the stuff she saw when she closed her eyes was worse than any back alley in Troi.” I played that last one twice, just to hear it again. The detective stages have plenty of little jokes peppered throughout. Examine one of Precinct #47’s many Plaques for Heroism in the Line of Duty and Chrys says, “I expected the previous owners to come back for them, but they're ours now.” But in the action stages, the writing sort of falls apart. Roachy infinitely loops mission objectives (“Find those bombs! Find those bombs!”) and enemies shout incessant voice clips, the likes of which ceased being amusing around the time they stopped making Gex games.

One problem with both modes is the in-game save system, or rather, the lack thereof. Sure, Insecticide Part 1 saves automatically after each chapter, but if something comes up and you need to quit in the middle of a level, none of your progress is saved. That's inexcusable. I'd rather a Final Fantasy VII save point system. Hell, I'd rather a Resident Evil save point system with limited typewriter ribbons. The only way it could be any worse is if they used NES passwords. You know, where you had to write down 56 characters, and the 0's looked like O's? Yeah. On second thought, maybe that would have been better.

At least the game ends on a high note, thanks to a vertigo inducing skyscraper climb and the game's singular boss battle. And while I was never made to care about Chrys' mysterious past ("It's a cliche I try to keep to myself," she quips), the last few seconds reveal an unexpected plot twist that left me wanting more.

More than anything, Insecticide reminded me of Monkeybone, a supernatural comedy loaded with promise that fell short of being a classic. In Monkeybone, a cartoonist gets in a car accident and wakes up in Downtown, a jazz lounge limbo, home to coma patients and hallucinatory monsters. The Downtown sequences end all too quickly, replaced with wacky set pieces involving Chris Kattan running around being “funny.” Like Monkeybone, Insecticide Part 1 introduced you to wonderful, expressive characters and a city so crammed with detail you wanted to crane your neck for a better look, then forced you into questionable action sequences. It's like being invited to the Magic Kingdom and then told that in order to earn your keep, you must climb Cinderella Castle and clean every window.

It was hard to settle on a score for this game. I liked it despite its flaws. With a little more work (not to mention a proper save system), Insecticide Part 1 could have been a classic, right up there with Gabriel Knight and Tex Murphy. I'm not sure if chopping the game into two parts was the best idea, other titles give you more bang for your buck, but I still recommend you give Insecticide Part 1 a try, if only to walk the mean streets of Troi, gaze at the glowing green sky, and play police report Mad Libs with a six foot tall talking purple Rhino Beetle.