I understand that there are people out there in the world today who don’t actually find the likes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Airplane! or other hit comedies funny. And that’s fine, because these poor souls lacking in any sense of humour are destined for greatness, to be dour chartered accountants or stock brokers. For the rest of us, cursed with the ability to laugh, there is much to laugh about from the world of video games.
Last year, The Stanley Parable managed to deliver some chuckles whilst articulating quite a nuanced argument over the nature of freedom with games. Jazzpunk has no such delusions. Jazzpunk is a wild, chaotic, nightmarish trip into the bizarre, firing off puns and one-liners without rhyme or reason as you wander around a colourfully realized world filled with trench coated spies, degaussed pigeons, and robotic concierge. Whilst some jokes fall flat, most of the humour of Jazzpunk succeeds simply because of its downright wackiness.
Believe it or not, Jazzpunk does have a story. You star as Polyblank, a freelance spy working for an undercover agency of some kind based out of an old subway train in Darlington station, headed by the moustachioed Director, a man who sounds like he runs Anonymous. He sends you on various espionage assignments, from infiltrating the Soviet Consulate to assassinating cowboys with expensive kidneys. The plot and characters take many cues from old James Bond films and other early 60’s nostalgia, including a number of generic NPCs at a beach resort who are clearly modelled after Hunter S. Thompson.
However, the plot is not the driving force of the game and its actual ending has zero resolution and is a leftfield bit of nonsense which comes out of nowhere. The main reason for playing is to simply explore and witness all of the crazy, stupid stuff it contains. This is a game where you throw pies in people’s faces; where you collect deadly spiders just to hurl them at Chinese restaurant chefs, filled with talking newspaper boxes and spies in trashcans. It doesn’t want you to take it seriously and revels in its own ludicrousness.
Alongside the first-person adventure segments of the game, Jazzpunk hosts an eclectic mix of mini-games which add a spice of variety to proceedings. Throughout the three-hour running time you’ll encounter rip-offs of Frogger, Quake, Space Invaders, and, of all things, Fruit Ninja. While most of these feel very gimmicky, they’re perfectly acceptable in a game whose defining characteristic is being gimmicky.
For the most part, if you were to make a beeline for the main objective in every level, Jazzpunk would be over in under an hour. The real pleasure to be had is to be found by poking around, examining everything and seeing what random gags crop up. It is rare for the game to reuse any jokes and its main approach to humour is a decidedly slapdash, including puns, slapstick, and even a few darker, saucier references. If you know a decent amount about technology and a have relatively goofy sense of humour, Jazzpunk will deliver, but those looking for satire or high-brow laughs will be left disappointed.
Graphically the game isn’t going to blow you away, but it has an aesthetic and sticks to it. In the same way that Thirty Flights of Loving established a definite style using merely the Quake 2 engine, Jazzpunk uses its low-detail environments as an artistic choice. The world is one filled with garish colours and liberal Japanese text, possibly imagining an alternative retro-futuristic 1950s where Japan won the Second World War (judging by the fact the United States is called the United Prefectures of Japaneda on the world map in one level). It takes much inspiration from the world of Blendo Games’ Gravity Bone, so much so you could imagine both games were set in the same universe. Characters are blocky cut-outs and often have zero faces at all, while the buildings have only superficial detailing. All of your in-game instructions are delivered in clean, Toronto Subway font (the developers are from Toronto) super-imposed into the world (think Splinter Cell: Conviction but cooler). When chatting to characters, the gist of their words will also be super-imposed in front of them, although it will often widely deviate.
Musically the game uses a combination of short clips from old jazz and big band tracks inter-spliced with some electronica which loop regularly and play ambiently depending on where you stand in a map. While not musically complex, it is effective in conveying a jaunty and whimsical atmosphere, although I did find the soundtrack repetitive after a while. Voice-acting is bizarre and varied, from the crazed hobos to the hipster beach dudes, plus some characters voiced by The Escapist’s own Jim Sterling. All of them play with long established stereotypes, my favourite being a pompous aristocrat who wants you to cover him with aerosol cheese sauce. If only I was kidding.
Some of the best gags in Jazzpunk are some of the most throw-away; your cardboard cut-out hands that are discarded on the floor every time you use them, the pheromones which if sprayed on unsuspecting passers-by result in the person being physically carried off by a flock pigeons, or the action-combat roll you execute when entering the Soviet embassy. Whilst there is little in Jazzpunk which will reward additional playthroughs besides hunting for missed jokes, it remains an enjoyable, silly way to pass a couple of hours. It isn’t challenging and it isn’t incisive; it just wants to make you laugh.