Jazzpunk: you’ve never heard of it, and you’re really, really missing out. Brenna “investigates”. That’s a pun.
Jazzpunk was developed by a two-person team called Necrophone Games. The studio emphasised this in a recent email exchange, and as soon as I started up the game I stopped wondering why. From the glorious opening cinematic (thanks, Adult Swim Games, maybe?) onwards you’d never believe this was put together by two mates, because Jazzpunk is one of the slickest and most stylish packages I’ve seen recently, both in indie and mainstream gaming.
A major factor in my assessment is the remarkably consistent aesthetic. Thanks to a unique visual style combining gorgeous colours with a low polygon count, throughout Jazzpunk every graphical element flows naturally from the next, with everything feeling of a piece, even when logically their juxtaposition makes little sense. Similarly, the humour of the game, and its loving send up of espionage media, never wavers. Every minute is packed with cheeky little jokes, references and amusing happenings.
I’m finding it really hard to write about Jazzpunk because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you. If you’re the sort to call the Game Police you’re probably going to be a little disappointed, because there’s not a lot of shooting (although there is some, including a fully playable version of – whoops! You nearly got me) or whatever. Although it is, in some ways, a traditional adventure game, with items to collect, pixels to sort through and puzzles to solve, the real joy is in exploring the world around you.
The more you go looking, the more content unfolds before you, even on repeat play. If you don’t explore, you’ll miss half the game’s content – if not more. On my first play through I proceeded through my mission with such unerring skill that when I looked at the achievements later I was astonished by the amount of content I’d somehow missed. Happily, by the time I’d started the second mission I was on the alert and started poking into every corner. What I found there was – well, as discussed, I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’ve been playing games for a few years you’ll find plenty of things to make you at least give a smile of recognition if not a belly laugh.
In Jazzpunk, you play as Polyblank, a human agent based in Japan during the Cold War. In this alternate reality, robots and cyborgs are everywhere, and the game plays with tropes from the “cyber” genre as much as James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Problematic cultural stereotypes
Prior to playing Jazzpunk I had heard come critics express concern over its treatment of race and culture.
The Russian and especially Japanese characters in Jazzpunk are inarguably very shallow stereotypes. So is everyone else; deep characterisation is not really what this game is about. That said, the “barman” or “surfer dude” stereotypes aren’t attached to centuries of discrimination and ongoing ignorance, and so don’t require the same level of sensitivity in portrayal.
You may feel the stereotypes are excused in the context of the game’s positioning as a reaction to the espionage canon – or you may not find satire a sufficient justification. We’re pointing out that they exist because it’s important that these issues not be thoughtlessly swept under the rug.
Well, to be fair, James Bond isn’t the prime inspiration here, so much as the works that were themselves inspired by serious espionage media – think Leslie Nielsen, Get Smart, modern Charlie’s Angels. This is ridiculousness making fun of ridiculousness making fun of something that was originally also pretty ridiculous, but never say that in front of a diehard fan. The gadgets are huge clunky props covered in vacuum tubes, valves and light bulbs; the characters are straight out of Trope 101; and some of the jokes are going to be lost on those who grew up late enough to find TV weird if everyone doesn’t have a smartphone.
Jazzpunk leverages humour and nostalgia in a way that makes playing through an exercise in point, click and laugh, but there is a real adventure at the heart of it (along with various mini-games, like pool, jetski racing and shooting). It’s not a terrifically hard one, but as I’ve argued before most adventure games can be solved with the brute force method of picking everything up and slapping it on everything else, so I don’t much care. With Broken Age, I felt the humour and quirkiness made up for adventure’s inherent constraints, but that making the puzzles so simple was a betrayal of old school fans. With Jazzpunk, there’s no expectations to meet, and I honestly don’t think hardcore adventure puzzles are the point of it all.
What is the point of it all? Love letter to genre fiction – or to the people who make fun of it? Manifestation of the mindspace shared by two friends made unusually accessible to outsiders? Experiment in game design? That’s a question I can’t answer for you. I only know that the couple of hours I spent playing through Jazzpunk – from leafing through magazines in the director’s waiting room to marching through the digestive system of a reptile-man hybrid – felt like time well spent. Heartily recommended.