crawls onto DS
There’s lots of adventure-loving gamers out there still pining for the good old days; you, know, back when LucasArts was consistently cranking out point-and-click yarns such as Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. The return of Sam and Max, through GameTap’s online service, has helped fill this void a bit, and now Insecticide has arrived with hopes of further bringing classic gaming adventures back into the spotlight.
Crackpot Entertainment, the developers behind this unique little DS title, have played it a bit safe though. They do provide some of that old school adventure flare, but also attempt to balance it with the kind of action-packed play that today’s gamers might be more accustomed to. The results are mixed in the gameplay department, but an offbeat story and quirky presentation mostly outshine the few flaws.
The first thing that occurred to me while playing Insecticide was that it would make a great Disney/Pixar movie. The writing would have to be kicked up several creative notches, but the idea of bug detectives solving crimes in an insect-controlled world seems like a natural fit for the Bug’s Life and Monster’s Inc. creators. The game’s four-legged protagonist Chrys is adorable and engaging–definite big screen potential–and her world is a fully realized one where bugs are in charge and humans have been driven to the sewers as the lowest life form. It’s unfortunate that the writing doesn’t quite live up to the inspired design; it’s not bad, mind you, and is actually quite funny at times, but the reliance on cheesy bug puns is way over the top. Your partner’s name, for example, is Roachy and even the title is a play on the word “Homicide.” There’s lots of this, and although it’s fun at first, it gets a bit cringe-worthy after you’ve heard the hundredth or so bug-related reference. Still, if this is the only price we have to pay for an otherwise original experience, then bring on the insect humor.
While you’ll find the world and its arachnid inhabitants immediately appealing, it might take a bit longer to get into the gameplay. The split between adventure style gaming and more action-fueled platforming and shooting is pretty even. The former will be familiar to anyone brought up on this type of gaming, as you’ll be pointing and clicking (except with stylus and touch-screen) through dialogue trees as well as specific story-driving items. The narrative is a nicely spun detective noir, so these segments are heavily slanted towards questioning suspects and witnesses and studying evidence for clues. It’s mostly fun, but occasionally frustrating; it’s extremely satisfying to crack a case-solving puzzle, but some obscure clues will have you head-scratching beyond the point of fun. These instances are few and far between, and the reward of solving a difficult puzzle generally outweighs the moments when you just sort of accidentally figure something out before hopelessly pulling out your hair. Plus, this intermittent frustration won’t be new to fans of the genre as it’s pretty common in adventure games. Additionally, the great characters and clever story make the trial-and-error moments mostly tolerable.
When wannabe bug detectives aren’t cracking cases, they’re unleashed on the streets to take a more hands-on approach to insect style crime fighting. The action sequences incorporate both shooting and platforming. The gunplay, supported by a nice lock-on targeting system is simple and fun. You’ll take on all sorts of bug baddies and occasionally face-off against screen-filling bosses rendered fairy impressively on the modestly powered DS. Weapon variety is also there, although, due to some questionable balancing, you won’t find yourself straying far from your default pistol–it gets the job done, and switching weapons via stylus will often get you squashed like, well, a bug. There’s also an upgrade option where you collect pollen to tweak your firepower, but again, regardless of upgrades, the weapons aren’t different enough to make it worth the work.
Insecticide’s platforming, when it works, is fine. However, more often than not, a tricky camera and imprecise controls will leave you restarting at the last checkpoint. The worst offender here are the too-frequent tight rope walks that quickly become tedious as you constantly–and unfairly–get knocked off your narrow path. Combined with unevenly placed checkpoints, the platforming can be brutal. If we had to rate the individual gameplay mechanics of Insecticide, we’d place the adventuring at the top of the list, shooting second, and platforming a distant third.
Insecticide does a great job of showing off what the DS can do in terms of audio and visual presentation. The graphics, especially the characters, look fantastic, sporting plenty of detail and imagination. The environments don’t fare quite as well, as they can be a bit blocky and too dark, but overall they succeed in selling this futuristic bug-inhabited world. The score is also cool, nicely complementing the game’s film noirish style. We could’ve used a bit more of a meaty pop in the sound effects, especially during the boss battles, but given the DS’s restrictive ability in this area, Insecticide generally pulls off the important background stuff–explosions, passing cars, and ambient city sounds are all good.
This bug-based title definitely has its share of flaws, some minor, some glaring. And, if it wasn’t for its great presentation, buoyed by strong characters and a twisty narrative, those gameplay annoyances would really kill the experience. However, playing as a fun protagonist, interacting with some of the most original characters we’ve seen in a DS game, and getting to flex our brains in the process through clever adventuring allows it to rise above its mediocre moments. You’ll have a good time with this welcome portable offering, but you’ll also experience the bittersweet realization that it could’ve been so much more. As is, Insecticide is good, but with more polish and equal attention paid to story and gameplay, it could’ve been great. Thankfully, this industry cranks out more sequels than Hollywood, and we can definitely see an Insecticide follow-up living up to the full potential hinted at here.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Nicely pushes the DS’s limited power, especially with clever character designs. 2.5 Control
Simple and intuitive for shooting and adventuring, but not so much for the platforming. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Good score and ambient sounds. Some effects could use a boost, though. 3.5
This ones all about the presentation. Original story, creative characters, and a fully realized fictional bug world allow this one to rise above its shortcomings.
3.5 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.