Wot I Think: Roundabout
Roundabout is a very silly game about a limousine that is constantly rotating. No, that's not quite right. Roundabout is a sweet and surreal love story about the driver of a limousine that is constantly rotating. Closer.
Whatever else it is, Roundabout is the greatest example of the importance of a remarkable theme and visual style that I've seen this year.
I knew I'd played something very like Roundabout as soon as I saw the first trailer but I only found time to play No Goblin's driving simulator this weekend. The game I was thinking of was Kuru Kuru Kururin, in which a spinning stick must be maneuvred through a series of mazes. Roundabout is built on precisely the same principle. Object spins, locked to the centre of the screen, and you guide it through obstacles that are designed to allow passage but to make you rue the ceaseless rotation.
Beyond the basics, everything that Roundabout does feels almost entirely unlike anything else in gaming. The music is driven by slap bass and funky rhythms, the story is told through short live action cutscenes starring intentionally awkward costumed non-actors, and the bodycount is enormous but there isn't a mean streak in sight. It's a cohesive comedic package, which never made me laugh but kept a very happy smile on my face throughout.
There's a hint of Wes Anderson's self-conscious artifice in the cutscenes, which repurpose stock footage for their best gags, but feel like the contents of an alternate reality's cutting room floor throughout. If there's a tightrope above the Zany Canyon, Roundabout is undoubtedly teetering across it but it's far more in control of its passage than you'd expect given that it's a game about a rotating limousine.
Let's address that. The car spins, whether it's moving or not. The game acknowledges that this is happening - it's a major plot point and almost every character addresses the fact - but mostly to point out that it is an awesome thing for a limousine to do. It's intentional, the spinning - driver Giorgio Manos arrives at Limo Training School and ploughs through every obstacle in her path, rotating all the while.
Her instructor is surprised but he gives her a pass. Most of her passengers are delighted, if a little confused at first, when they see the eyecatching means of motion. Later, an evil businessman sees the spinning limousine as such an ingenious innovation that he figures he'll make millions if he steals the concept for his own uses. He's part of a cast that includes a skeleton called Jeffrey, a moonlighting baseball coach and the two most unenthusiastic enthusiastic children in the world. 'Yayyy', they mutter, as if the icecream had fallen out of the cone right before filming began.
There's plenty to do, although all of it revolves around revolving. Story missions lead you around the fairly small map and you'll be able to drive through the lot in a couple of hours if you don't get distracted by the minigames, high score chasing or unlockable upgrades, paint jobs and hats. Yes, the car can wear a hat. Remember - we're above the Zany Canyon.
I found it impossible to proceed without trying to gain every available star in some of the early tasks. Perfecting the game would take a great deal of effort and repetition. Stars are awarded for finishing levels within a certain time limit, for collecting every available star, for building bonus multipliers, and for managing to take a passenger from A to B without exploding en route. There's a lot of exploding in the game, as the limo can only take a limited amount of damage before the flames start to roar under the bonnet, but the punishment for fiery extinction is light. Explode during a mission and you'll be taken back to a checkpoint, very close at hand, and if you happen to be roaming the open world when disaster strikes, you'll respawn nearby.
There are modifiers in the game's menu that allow for instadeath to be applied, meaning any slight mistake is fatal, or for Big Head or 'non-violent' mode to be activated among other things. The first has a real effect on the game, as do several others, but the cosmetic changes are simply that - cosmetic. I'm glad that non-violence is an option, as the squirts of blood, garish and cartoonish though they are, didn't seem right in Giorgio's weird world. At one point she goes on a date, driving through a mall and obliterating everyone and everything in her way, and I felt much better about the prospects of continued romance when I didn't have to imagine the body parts clinging to the windscreen wipers.
The layouts of the roads and parks, which form the levels and puzzles of the game as it were, are probably less diverse and fiendish than Kuru Kuru Kururin's maps. I couldn't say for sure and the less abstract form of Roundabout obscures some of the design, making a direct comparison tricky. There's plenty of satisfaction in mastering the limo's timing though, as well as the various power-ups that are unlocked throughout, and performing a perfect run is a source of glee.
But it's everything that happens around the puzzles that makes Roundabout such a delightful thing. It doesn't even feel like a puzzle game because the open world and narrative structure disguise the fact so well. The performances and the visuals are like an act of legerdemain, designed to fool people like me into enjoying a game that they would have dismissed if it had simply been a construction of lines and shapes. A minimalist design might have made sections easier, or allowed developers No Goblin to create terrifyingly complex suburbs to navigate, but Roundabout is a game about a lady called Giorgio who drives a limousine that is constantly rotating.
It's a very silly game indeed but there's a sweetness at its centre that would put even the finest fondant to shame. Through all the raised eyebrows, ill-fitting costumes and fluffed lines, Roundabout has a sincerity that makes me happy to recommend it to anyone, even if it did fool me into playing a puzzle game.
Roundabout is out now.