I don’t even know where to begin with this one.
PC Release: February 7, 2014
By Ian Coppock
What do you get when you combine Archer, the original Pink Panther films, the works of Hunter S. Thompson, and a gigantic bag of hallucinogens? Well, you get an aneurysm, but you also get this game. Equal parts spoof and surreal, Jazzpunk is a comedy adventure game that takes you on an absurd ride through a cyberpunk Cold War, and if your frontal lobe hasn’t completely dissolved by game’s end, I salute you.
Jazzpunk is yet another indie gem, the only video game format that really seems to be pushing the boundaries of art and story these days (insert hipster mustache here). You are Polyblank, a secret agent operating out of an abandoned subway station, and your job is to embark upon a number of missions wherein the fate of the world is, truly, at stake.
That, and your agency’s supply of good whoopee cushions is in peril.
Jazzpunk‘s visual style is a trip, to say the least. A big, blocky, colorful world inhabited by anthropomorphic men’s restroom symbols that walk around and sputter nonsense in robotic voices. Despite the potential for being a pure assault upon your senses, the art style of Jazzpunk is engaging. The world comprises outrageous colors and big shapes defined by the thick lines you might see in a graphic novel. It’s a lot of fun for your eyeballs and it’s something whose rarity makes it memorable by default.
The game also has a simplistic musical score inspired by 50s and 60s camp. The sudden horn blasts and subtle strings reminded me of the Pink Panther films and the old-school Batman series starring Adam West. It’s strongly evocative of that whole body of work that blends comedy and Cold War intrigue, and it adds nicely to the absurd atmosphere of Jazzpunk.
Jazzpunk is structured as a linear set of open worlds. Each mission takes place in a fairly large area, leaving you free to proceed straight to the objective (yawn), or poke around to find the jokes and the side missions (recommended). If the game were merely a cartoony spoof of the Cold War, that’d be one thing, but Jazzpunk pokes fun at pop culture and even other video games.
You can walk around in each level and find gags referencing game design. I clicked on an apartment building door and laughed when I was presented with the message “this door was placed here by the developers but is not an actual door.” These jokes are delivered constantly.
Jazzpunk carries this brand of humor even further with a small group of mini-games. Pop culture’s obsession with zombies is parodied in a “pizza zombie” game, where you roam around a giant supreme pizza and clobber pepperoni zombies with a shovel.
Another favorite, Wedding Qake, combines the deathmatch mode of Quake with a wedding setting. Between the jokes and the mini-games, it’s clear that the developers know not only how to find humor, but also how to implement it into a video game, which isn’t always an easy task. The developers claim that they were partially inspired by the humor of Portal, and my god does that show.
The reason why I bring up the jokes and side missions of the game before the plot is because the plot is really just a framing device for all of these jokes to inhabit. The side jokes and gags are the meat of the game, which is a refreshing deviation from a linear narrative containing all of the jokes sequentially. Players are left to discover each of these gags at their own pace and their own order, and continue the story as they see fit.
The game follows Polyblank through a variety of locales, including an NYC Soviet consulate, a Japanese sushi restaurant, and a luxurious Polynesian resort. As I said up top, these are open-world, and you can wander around at your own pace and engage in this delightfully absurd cartoon world. Humorous video games are rare, and quality humorous games even rarer, and the succession of mini-open worlds works well for this format.
Most of the missions revolve around the conventional Cold War-era fare, like breaking into restricted areas, meeting with covert agents and sabotaging enemy espionage. Hand-in-hand with these premises are ridiculous mechanics by which you move forward, like slaughtering robotic pigs and bombarding one gentleman with cheese spray.
The game is played from a first-person perspective and borrows from elements of FPS’s and old-school adventure games. You can pick up items, cycle through an inventory, and use these items to interact with world puzzles and challenges. Combat is about as humorous as you might expect by now; I was swatting fedora-adorned bowling ball pins with a flyswatter, and poisoning a cowboy’s sushi with a giant pufferfish LMG.
This game makes no sense. Just like real life. It’s great.
While Jazzpunk will get little but shameless praise from me, my biggest criticism of the game is its short length, clocking in at about 2-3 hours of gameplay. Fifteen bucks is a pretty steep price for so short a game.
Each of the missions were fleshed out reasonably well, but I wish they’d added more, both for the sake of comedy and for getting what I felt would’ve been my money’s worth. It’s one of those cases where you feel like the game is getting up and running at full speed just as it ends.
As for my usual anecdote about what innovations the video game I’m reviewing makes for the medium as a whole, Jazzpunk proves that the surreal comedy formula can be applied to video games. I hope to see more games like this where the humor is organic and the developers are unafraid to put their quirks to pixels.
Comedy games in general are pretty rare, but this is one of the good ones. Games in which the humor feels very forced, like Sunset Overdrive for the Xbone, are rendered non-humorous. Jazzpunk is funny because it’s unafraid to be weird. If you’re the same way, buy this game and give it a go.
And remember; wearing a kimono might make you look fat32.
You can buy Jazzpunk here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.