Beat Cop – The Switch Island Review
From the moment I saw that ‘Beat Cop’ was making its way to the Switch I knew I had to get my hands on it. Just looking at the screen shots you can see the passion the developers over at Pixel Crow clearly have for the setting. The game is a true love letter to the cop dramas of the 1980s, and if you couldn’t see that from the promo material, the game outright tells you so with a short message when you boot it up for the first time. But love for the material will only take you so far, the question is: after the references pass, how does the rest hold up?
In ‘Beat Cop’ you play as former Detective, Jack Kelly. After being framed for robbery, you’re demoted down to the lowly position of a bobby on the beat where you’ve got 21 days to clear your name before you’re charged for a crime you didn’t commit. The struggle starts with all your other commitments taking up the precious few hours you have on your shift. Each day you’ve got a quota to complete – you are a police officer after all – whether it’s writing up parking tickets, making house calls, or chasing down thieves, you better complete enough of them by the end of the day or you might be fired. All the while you’ll also struggle to keep favour with the two main gangs in the area: the Mafia and the Crew. Completing/Failing jobs for each of them will often gain or lose you their favour, and whoever you chose to help will probably end in the other side liking you less. Thats the crux of the gameplay loop in Beat Cop; there’s never enough time to do everything in a day – so set your priorities straight, try to balance your relationships or outright chose a side, and maybe you’ll make it to one of the game’s multiple endings.
Story wise the game starts out enjoyable and compelling, the references were funny (at least the ones I caught) and the narrative moves along at a comfortably familiar pace, but it doesn’t take long before I found myself questioning plot holes and reloading saves just to re-read story beats that I’d missed. Now’s probably a good time to mention that there doesn’t seem to be any way to read the dialogue at your own pace; you can skip it, slow it down or speed it up, but never stop it completely. This wasn’t a problem until I put the Switch down during the morning briefing and came back to find that I’d missed the whole thing. It’s never a huge problem as you’re always able to reload the game at the start of the current day, but it’s something to watch out for as I think most gamers would assume that dialogue delivered one line at a time would wait for player confirmation before preceding.
Speaking of dialogue, there is an awful lot of it. For my first play-through I was overwhelmed by how much there was to read in some of the interactions that I found myself often skimming and sometimes outright forgetting it. Luckily the open ended nature of the game is perfect for multiple play-throughs, which means any dialogue you may miss can always be seen again next time. This is probably down to the several intertwining stories that I sometimes had trouble distinguishing between. It’s a small issue that doesn’t spell the end of the game, but missing out on certain lines of dialogue can easily lead to confusion down the line.
Some dialogue that you might want to intentionally skip over however, is the game’s ham-fisted attempts at tackling racism. Racial slurs are used often and never seemed to be necessary. Some players may find this to be more of an issue than others, but for me personally I never felt that the writing would have suffered if it hadn’t been included, quite the opposite in fact. Of course there’s the argument of realism and the idea of “different times”, but as the game never focuses on either of these, the racist language just tends to fall flat. Again, it’s down to personal taste, but seeing black people being referred to as “darkies” for the umpteenth time left a real sour taste in my mouth – a setting to censor some of this dialogue would go a long way to improve the game’s quality of life.
Where ‘Beat Cop’ really shines is in its moment-to-moment gameplay. Starting each day really feels like gearing up for a tough run, you never know what the game may ask of you and having to make on the spot decisions whilst also working out if you’ll have enough time to see them out is incredibly tense, and equally as satisfying to pull off. It’s the constant time frame that looms over you that makes the game so satisfying, and knowing that you’ll never have enough time to do everything quickly throws any plans you may have had into disarray. It almost makes me wish for an endless-mode; where the story moments are cut and you play through day after day whilst seeing how long you can go before you get fired or piss off one of the gangs too much.
When I first saw pictures of the game it was easy to see the inspiration taken from the huge indie hit, ‘Papers Please’. Unfortunately it seems that the similarities are only skin-deep; the interface seems vaguely familiar, but it never finds the same strong sense of character and environment, and the story is so much more complex that ultimately it serves as a point against ‘Beat Cop’. In the end it feels like it’s trying to be two different games; one a rogue-like survival game where you struggle to keep up with a constant stream of tasks whilst fighting against the clock, and the other a hard-hitting narrative driven experience that wants you to feel. Unfortunately by trying to do both at once, neither one really wins out and we’re left with a promising, but ultimately unfulfilling game. Thats not to say I didn’t have fun though, this game is still enjoyable, and I really hope that Pixel Crow takes what they’ve learnt to heart and come back strong with a sequel – the potential is there, it just needs to be realised.