Over the course of the last few months we’ve found ourselves marvelling how very little press (apart from a slew of niche sites we frequent) and attention Crackpot Entertainment’s Insecticide has garnered.
The developers, after all, consist of several nigh-luminaries of yore, responsible for much of the heyday of LucasArts Entertainment Company: Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, that sort of stuff, and with LEC now a mere shadow of its former shelf, we might quite possibly have our next best thing in the form of Insecticide.
Here’s hoping the absence of press is not a prophetic sign, as Crackpot was solely founded with the intention of developing this film noir -tinged “bi-sodic” bugfest: In a GamaSutra interview, developer Larry Ahern indeed notes that Crackpot currently has no other products in the pipeline.
The game then! What we have here is an action-adventure - 50/50 split - and seen from the 3rd person perspective, over the small shoulders of the streetsmart rookie bug-cop Chrys Liszt and narrated by the hard-boiled sleuth Roachy Caruthers. The partners are called in to investigate a murder at the Nectarola Soft Drink Company - a corporation that has an exhaustive monopoly over the city’s soft drink manufacture. As the mystery begins to unravel, these hard-shelled investigators delve deeper and deeper into the seething underbelly of the city of Troi.
The first words springing to mind in describing the game’s pollinated atmosphere are obviously “film noir,” but over the course of the project, Crackpot President Mike Levine seems to have grown somewhat allergic to the term being so freely and regularly applied, and indeed points out the game’s design was equally informed by older TV shows such as The Wire and more recent films such as Sin City and The Professional, where according to Levine, the latter film directly translates into the relationship of the main characters.1
If we dare to boldly read in-between the lines, the words “film noir” do also inherently recall the ambiance of Grim Fandango - another visually striking game set in an atypical setting but still rooted in humanoid experience. Perhaps, in Levine’s mind, a degree of separation from their back catalogue is in order… in any case, in the adventure sections, players are tasked primarily with courier missions, and though the puzzles are very competently realized and delightfully culled from everyday experience, the sections nevertheless suffer from verbose (albeit tremendously well-written!) dialogue and a meditative pace.
The action half, on the other hand, is a perfectly ordinary platformer-shooter. According to Levine, the motivation to include not one but two different types of gameplay came naturally, and in another interview2, he argues that the aforementioned classic LucasArts games were just as much
“…not “pure” adventure games. The latest tech was always being used to add different forms of game play from mini games, to more action-y parts. This is the natural extension of that.”
While the platforming is fun and passable, these sections nevertheless recall the universally panned driving sequences of Full Throttle more than they do its excellent adventuring portions. It is also worth mentioning that since animated video cutscenes are used for conveying the actual plot, the interplay between action and adventure is basically absent.
Nevertheless, the production aesthetic closely follows the high standard set by its forerunners: The voice acting especially recalls the heyday of Sam & Max Hit the Road or Day of Tentacle. Cathleen McInerny (as Chrys) does a particularly sizzling job in conveying the sassy detective. This is in no small part thanks to the excellent character designs that should not come to us as a surprise, as Peter Chan (concept artist for Psychonauts and Grim Fandango) also worked “heavily” on Insecticide.
Archetypal and battle-hardened or not - we do have the “stereotypical girl with an unknown past, the gruff partner who lets you do all the work, and the police chief that’s always yelling at someone”3 - the matter of the fact is that the cast simply ticks.
The graphics, then, are just as good if low-poly and budget-y (a large degree of the game was outsourced to Russian developers Creat Studios). Everything from top to bottom is uniform and stylized, clear-cut and deliberate. Especially the Precint #47 detective office is a delightfully realized setting.
Some peculiar design-cions nevertheless hamper the action, and leave you wondering whether a modicum of extra polish could have helped make the platforming more pleasurable. For instance, jumping felt too vertically challenged and slothful to convey to me a proper feeling of reach, and the same type of sluggishness was also present in the adventuring, where the game would have greatly benefited from faster walking speed and a running mechanism. The lack of a save function did also stick out in the adventure portions, though in the action levels save points functioned fine enough.
As I mentioned earlier, the characters are well-realized and thus enjoyable to watch and listen to, but surprisingly this is somewhat diminished by the fact that the game is just as verbose as this review (Zing!), and no matter how well-written, the chit-chat does somewhat wear on you in the long run. Skipping dialogue, too, is just a little off, as you don’t actually get to see the lines in full before another click.
The aforementioned cutscenes also become a source of unintentional hilarity, that is, when you realize that each and every one of them is a depiction of a chase sequence. Thematic and fitting, obviously, but also repetitive. Ultimately, the most intriguing aspect of the game for me is not so much its gameplay, or its storyline, but its bold backdrop!
I for one thought the game was, based on pre-release trailers and materials, merely set in an alternative universe, but alas: In the future, humans come to be so allergic to pollen that its effect on humans becomes lethal; meanwhile, genetically engineered food makes the bug population ultra-resistant to new crops and poisons. Suddenly, the more resilient bugs take over in one fell swoop. With bugs now the dominant species on the planet, the pathetic, de-volved humans are now delegated to inhabiting the fringe settlement sewers.
The actual background, then, is decidedly more apocalyptic than what was expected, as such darkness is relatively absent from the first episode. As we established earlier, the actual written narrative of the game is more in the vein of classic, comedic action-adventuring, a barrage of wordplay and physical comedy.
To conclude: What happens when a new game - clearly a labour of love - boldly surfing against the current industry standards and realized by a very competent team of battle-hardened industry veterans ultimately fails to meet its heavy-handed expectations?
One the one hand, the game excels and shines in writing with its eloquent dialogue and an imaginative, finely realized dystopian look and feel. On the other hand, the game is remarkably clumsy in the gameplay department. Ultimately and regrettably, it is in the players’ hands to choose between narrative and gameplay.
There’s still hope that the second part on the PC has been improved, but with so little publicity we do fear for the worst. Insecticide is available now from Steam, Direct2Drive and Trygames.