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Jazzpunk: A Spy Game Full Of Jokes, Blokes And Cold War Tropes

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Just last week I was lamenting a severe lack of comedy-based video games, where perhaps a hearty laugh is the goal and not quelling a rebellion or fighting off hordes of zombies.

As if on well-timed comedic cue, the new adventure game Jazzpunk comes sliding in like Kramer through Seinfeld's door. Released earlier this month, the game was developed by Necrophone Games (Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse) and published by Adult Swim. The game, which has been nominated for the grand prize at the 2014 Independent Games Festival, is to video games what movies like Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Hot Shots are to film. Perhaps a more apt comparison might be the improvisational game show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where "everything is made up and the points don't matter."

The genius of Jazzpunk, however, is that the comedy isn't just happening around you, it is also happening to you and because of you. The player more often than not gets to deliver the punch line or perform a joke. You are an active participant and ingredient in the comedic soup instead of just the spoon slurping it up.

A Mad, Mad World

The setup is charmingly basic and silly, like the rest of the game. After an upbeat and stylized Saul Bass-inspired intro, you are plopped into your role as Polyblank, a spy for an unnamed organization helmed by a bureau chief who makes his office in a subway car and sounds like the person that delivered Ethan Hunt his impossible missions, perhaps if he was talking through a fishbowl.

With the satisfying wheeze of an obviously placed whoopee cushion, the game wastes no time letting you know you are here for the gags, not the story. And unlike games where humor is a garnish on an otherwise bitter and gritty dish, the humor in Jazzpunk is the whole meal. It's a dozen Krispy Kremes of comedy that aims to serve up a bellyache of laughter.

Your first mission is to infiltrate the Soviet consulate and retrieve your first of many MacGuffins in what passes in Jazzpunk for a plot. Then you are released into the game's mad, ridiculous world, an alternate-reality Cold War setting populated by Fisher-Price Little People-like characters that take on the roles of everything from flirty sex bots to a monocle-wearing English gentleman who asks you to satiate him with a blast of spray cheese to the face.

The actual main spy missions are pretty forgettable, but not in a negative way. They simply serve as the main hallway of a Minotaur's maze of jokes, sight gags, one-liners, pop culture references, puns and over-the-top satire. Once you've thoroughly explored each branch you can return to the main task at hand.

Basically every object and character you encounter along the way is an opportunity for the game to make you laugh or throw you into a mini game. One moment you might be helping a talking frog with his Internet connection by playing a game of Frogger, only to be rewarded with him shooing you away for some "private" time, and the next you're playing "Wedding Quake," a marital parody of the popular classic first-person shooter Quake.

The game does follow a slight arc, and there is a villain in the end, but again the gags and humor are the real characters here. Toward the beginning the jokes are flying fast and from all sides, and though the latter part of the game still has a lot of great comedy tangents, there are less of them. That said, it is still a fun romp from beginning to ridiculous end.

You Had Me At Hunter

I didn't really know what to expect before I played Jazzpunk. I only knew that it was a game meant to be funny. "Do I have something on my face?" asks one of the game's many unnamed characters near the beginning of the first mission. You respond by flicking breadcrumbs off of his mug in an uncomfortable close-up seemingly pulled straight from John Kricfalusi.

After that, I was totally onboard the Jazzpunk train.

What makes the jokes and gags so wonderful in Jazzpunk is not that every single one hits the mark, in fact some fall intentionally flat, but that there is just such a sheer volume of them. And the punch lines cull from such a vast array of pop culture references that you are almost guaranteed a few laughs that are in your immediate wheelhouse.

Sure, you might not get all of the jokes, but the ones that do hit close to home — especially the ones that use some really obscure references — feel like a wink and a nod or high-five between the player and the developers. From Wilhelm screams to fart jokes and movie clichés, there's a good chance there is something for any player's brand of humor. Even some of the game's sound effects seem like nostalgic hat tips to the old Tex Avery cartoons, another nod to comedy royalty.

Also, any game that populates a level with gibberish-spouting Hunter S. Thompsons is a game after my own heart.

There are those that might complain that the game's running time, at just a few hours, is a bit short. I don't have problem with this. To me it is no different than a short book or movie; as long as it serves up a complete experience I am OK with a shorter running time, which is common among a lot of indie games. Also, similar to last week's review subject, Octodad, if this game were much longer it might get a little stale.

The fact that you can't really die or fail in Jazzpunk might also put a bee in some gamers' bonnets. Some say that if you can't lose then it's not really a game. This notion of whether or not something is actually a game (see also Gone Home, The Stanley Parable) seems to be a big issue with some people these days and is a common criticism of the indie market. To me, this kindly kicking aside of conventional win states and video game formulas is a breath of fresh air. I'm glad games like Jazzpunk, and the others mentioned, aren't following the supposed "rules" and are willing to break free of the mold to bring something new to the table.

Jazzpunk is available now for Windows PC, Mac and Linux.

Steve Mullis is an associate Web producer at NPR. If you want to suggest an independent game worth featuring here, please write or tweet him. You can also follow us on our Tumblr blog NPR Plays.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Source: NPR

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