Betrayal At Club Low has taught me that we're all taking puddles for granted
When all seems lost, stare at a small body of water
A lot of RPGs with stats and dialogue options don't actually give you options. Sometimes you're presented with a skill check and if one of your stats isn't an arbitrary number like, I dunno, seven, then whoever it is you spoke with (a king, a bard, an elf) might shutter their mouths forever.
Betrayal At Club Low is a CRPG that we're playing for our Game Club this month, and which understands the unpredictability of a face-to-face wobble of the lips, and how befriending or swindling or aggravating someone is determined by so much more than a single seven. And when all seems lost, how visiting a puddle can turn your entire evening around.
I hadn't played a Cosmo D game before, but they're all set in the same bizarre universe as Betrayal At Club Low. It's one with wonky skyscrapers and characters who look like the fallout from an explosion in Garry's Mod. Like Alice O mentioned in her review, I really like the way all the weirdness forms something that just makes sense… somehow. Yes, even your existence as an undercover pizzaiolo who must get into Club Low, find a compromised agent, and then make their escape makes perfect sense.
The game sees you guide a blue dude around using WASD, and if you click on people or things you'll wander over to them and see what's up. Many of these things are odd. A guard might stand up from his chair and suddenly tower above you. A mirror is a reflective wall of green ooze with a demonic jaw. There's a chef in the kitchen stirring a steaming pot of flamingo thigh stew. Not only does the weirdness lend every single interaction a true sense of the unexpected, the game ensures they're all meaningful too, as you never quite know what sort of information you're going to extract and, crucially, how it's going to affect either of you.
One thing I love most about the game is its understanding that doing 'stuff' is a two-way exercise. You might pick a lock and sneak up behind a bar attendant, taking them by surprise. Where other games might make mention of your exploits, perhaps docking a point from the bartender's single skill-check when you interrogate them about their drinks, Betrayal At Club Low ensures that your surprise entry rattles their psyche in all manner of ways.
Everything in the game runs on six-sided dice, with each interaction tested against one of your seven skills, each represented by seven dice. Whoever rolls the highest number wins, as per usual, so you'll choose the options that make the most of your Cooking or Observation or Music skills to get those advantages. But there are also temporary Condition dice which enter the mix if you succeed or fail a skill check, which can mess with or better your chances at a decent roll. So, surprising the bartender meant hitting them with a temporary condition die of their own. Dice govern everything.
Not only is the bartender's shock reflected through sudden afflictions, but you might ride a high having just picked the lock behind them successfully, and perhaps it makes you feel "Clever" or "Confident" and grants you bonuses to certain bits of your dice. On the flipside, you might have failed to convince the chef making the flamingo thigh stew to leave her post, which then results in a nagging "Awkward" feeling that trickles through certain elements of your psyche, hampering your chances of a successful swindle. The game recognises the importance of momentum swings in their shaping of lasting consequences, which I, personally, haven't encountered in any RPGs I've played before. It's brilliant.
Of course, constant failure might mean you lose your health and nerve. Or even if you don't, a string of failures, like awkwardness leading to sadness and so on. And at one point, I was there! I thought I'd never convince the flamingo stew chef to walk away, knowing full well there was so much more of the game to discover if I could just win her over. I was downtrodden and miserable. Until I remembered the puddle.
There's a puddle outside Club Low. In any other game it would be set dressing, but in Cosmo D's kooky universe it's a way back, a redemption arc, a murky swill of success. I returned to it when all seemed lost, as I remembered it offered comfort right at the beginning of my adventure when I took a sip from its waters. And so I stared into the puddle as an "Awkward" and "Embarrassed" individual, won the skill check, and emerged as no longer awkward or embarrassed but "Self-Actualised".
The puddle had splashed new life onto my character, and I went on to convince the flamingo stew chef to relieve her post with a roaringly successful skill check. The floodgates opened and - I won't spoil anything - I went from a downbeat individual to someone who couldn't stop seeing success. I rode the high and the momentum never let up, enabling me to rewire things, open up doors, and finally convince those last few quirky folks to part with those last morsels of intel.
Now, I can't stop thinking about Betrayal At Club Low and how a puddle turned things around for me. How did this game pass me by? Nevermind, I'm here now in Cosmo D's world and I don't particularly want to leave. I mean, I'm eyeing up some of his other releases too. The Norwood Suite and Tales From Off-Peak City, I'll be with you shortly.