Captain Falcon has finally been executed for his crimes.
Video games that are genuinely funny stick out to me. Often, the humor can be the sole reason why I want to keep playing (look at the last two Saint’s Row games), as it’s ingrained in the story and world, or even better, the gameplay. Often, that comes in the case of a certain aspect of the gameplay being broken on purpose or in a beautiful coincidence, a fun bug. Necrophone Games’ Jazzpunk stands out in that it makes its sense of humor drive the game forward, even if it isn’t so much of a great video game. It’s got all the pieces and ideas of a great adventure game, and its moments pack a whole lot of punch. The biggest issue is one that plagues all other games that try to be funny, which is its pacing. Even with that issue, Jazzpunk is special and worth celebrating for how packed to the brim with unique style and spirit it is. The developers at Necrophone Games carved out a borderline auter-like voice for themselves in the creation of this game and its world, and despite it being more style than substance as a video game, with caution thrown to the wind, Jazzpunk happily blurs those lines for a short, simple, and memorable experience.
Right off the bat, it’s fair to say comedy is always subjective. It just so happens that Jazzpunk’s sense of humor is right up my alley, and is so relentless in presenting itself that even if a joke is incredibly stupid, the delivery system alone is worth admiring. Therein lies Jazzpunk’s greatest asset, and perhaps its most memorable, which is the style and world with which it presents itself. As part of an independent adventure game breed of common first person exploration gameplay and environments, a la (with no offense to) Gone Home, Slender, and many others, Jazzpunk manages to turn these conventions completely on their head by being so staggeringly visceral on first glance, starting with its intense and impression-making opening credits, and funneling into an off-kilter, but tonally stunning introduction into the game’s world and aesthetic existence. The art direction, combining colorful pop-art, soviet, technology-based, and cartoonish influences, stands out in a feverish, candy-coated fashion. The music grains up some intense, yet perfectly cheesy brass and drum based spy score that matches with the base aesthetic of 50s-80s spy culture. It’s a juxtaposition of excitement and ridiculousness that really sticks in a tonal landing. Most impressive is the writing, being so aggressive and strange, but consistent. It all adds up to a sensory experience that, alone, is one of the more fascinating pieces of world building and comedy in any TV show, film, book, or game in recent times that I can remember, or at least made as strong of an impact.
In light of such a unique and striking world, there isn’t necessarily a huge or impacting plot in Jazzpunk, and the same can be said about its mode of gameplay. If anything, there’s a solid story device for the game to kick-off through, which is that the player, Polyblank, is hired by an espionage-agency to undergo some missions that require attaining pieces of information or equipment. The eccentric and mostly drunk director of the agency gives Polyblank “Missionoyl”, a prescription drug that sends Polyblank into whichever location his mission is partaking… it’s pretty insane.
Once you’re in these mission areas, they more or less function as little worlds full of characters, items, and set-pieces that are worth exploring, mining strange one-off jokes, Easter eggs, and occasionally side-missions that can help the main mission. The actual gameplay when it comes to taking on these missions is quite simple, mainly involving items you pick up and choose from in an inventory, then utilize on a situational basis. You’re either picking up spiders or beating up flies/breaking huge vases with a fly swatter, or degaussing pigeons and secret agents, and so forth, all basically with a single action button. It’s all incredibly varied in content and capability, but in terms of playing it, none of it is really presented with any sense of challenge. Most of these missions work as puzzles requiring you to find one thing before getting to do the other, but honestly, the structure on a moment-to-moment basis is so generally straightforward that the exploring never adds obstacles to the objective at hand. That said, the mere fact that as the player, you get to trigger and stumble upon the humor and world, letting it unravel as opposed to it happening around you, is something special and smart when combined with the writing and direction.
Getting to each of these set pieces varies in terms of pacing, which is a curse and a blessing, depending on the space. The few maps Jazzpunk has the player traverse and wander through are all so unique in design, and serve similarly to survival horror games being riddled with scare closets, but instead of frights it’s a bunch of triggers for a beautiful menagerie of jokes. A couple of the maps are perfectly sized and straightforward so getting from bit-to-bit never becomes a hassle. On the other hand, some maps are a little too big and don’t meet the expectation set by previous maps in terms of having a whole lot of content. Perhaps it’s a bad assumption that everything will have something going on within it, but the early stages of the game have such great balance of timing and content that as it goes on, it’s a bit of a bummer when it doesn’t work as strongly. Similar to comedy films that lack in plot or cinematic depth but deliver on the joke-per-minute scale, Jazzpunk has the quality of being an elongated sketch of sorts, but full of video game based and occasionally centric humor that actually works on its own tonal merits.
One must wonder about the replay value of something like Jazzpunk. Similar to the show Arrested Development, Jazzpunk is so overflowing with insanity that if you get through the game efficiently enough, you might have missed a corner or two with, I don’t know, a Quake-clone that’s wedding themed, or a homeless man who kisses you unexpectedly. If you’re a fan of the humor that landed the first time around, then at least one or two more playthroughs after the fact might be rewarding; like the game’s humor, it’s subjective.
It’s a positive and a passionate bummer of a negative that the game is so short, in that I wish there was much more, but also as a standalone adventure and piece, it finishes right before it can obviously run out of its own juices. By its credits, as well as through them, I couldn’t help but feel excited at the notion of another Jazzpunk, maybe broader in ambition and scope, thus fighting to fix its follies when it comes to delivery. There’s also opportunity for a better video game to exist within these colorful, maniacal walls. I won’t backseat develop for Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse, as they really don’t need it, clearly. If anything, Jazzpunk is a perfect blueprint for more and more creative left-field ridiculousness. On its own, the game makes for such a surprise slap in the face, with an impact that, if it lands for you humor wise, is rewarding to the point of wanting and needing to talk about it with someone. As a game, it’s so intense in terms of how much it can catch you off guard that it offsets its actual standing as a game with good gameplay. The game that IS available actually functions as the humor delivery mechanism, for just the right amount of time considering the content and quality, thus making it one of the smartest video game and even comedy experiences I’ve come across in quite some time. Also, it might contain the best survival horror game ever made (that has to do with pizza). So take that for what you will.