Who hasn't dreamed of the exciting world of corporate espionage? The Low Road [official site] is an adventure about business spying in the 1970s, but does it survive inspection under a magnifying glass? Here's wot I think:
Set in 1976, in a sort of post-Bond world where technology is replacing derring-do, you play Noomi Kovacs on her first day working for corporate espionage agency L.I.E.S. Staffed with disgraced government spooks, confusing elderly gentlemen, and over-confident jackasses, Noomi is stuck on the bottom rung doing paperwork, when what she so desperately wants is to be out in the field.
The first scene of the game, after a brief chat with your new boss, tasks you with attempting to garner some information from a rival firm by deceiving a mark over the telephone. You're equipped with a brief file of paperwork about her, and tasked with lying your way into getting her to give you information. And immediately there's a game I want to play, plucking out salient facts to bluff my way through a conversation (aided enormously by the static time of a point-n-click) to successfully infiltrate and gain knowledge. Except this itself is a bluff - you can't win, no matter how good you try to be, because the game is setting you up to fail, to be relegated to admin work and to begin your - it turns out - very classic-style adventure of solving puzzles to remove obstacles (people) from your path to fieldwork.
I was, I confess, a little disappointed. That game I felt I was on the verge of playing was the one I now wanted to be playing. So it says much for The Low Road's charming design and splendid voice acting (albeit somewhat spoiled by some actors apparently recording their lines at the bottom of a well with a bin on their head) that I wanted to move on from that straight away. It's certainly evocative of many, many adventures to come before, when it has you immediately trying to work out how to manipulate every member of the team to leave their post or be otherwise indisposed via a series of traditional puzzles. (Guy relies on air conditioning, there's access to the air conditioning controls on the roof, but there's a guy looking who won't let you fiddle, so you need to send him off... etc.) The problem is, it's streamlined itself to the point where your role is pretty much reduced to clicking an imaginary 'next' button. And then despite this apparent simplicity, it delivers its story in the most garbled way.
Noomi is a fresh-out-of-spy-school enthusiast, peppy and ready for action, thrown into a dreary, bureaucratic office where spying is almost entirely done on the telephone. And she doesn't even get to do that. So you begin trying to push to the front of the queue. Except, rather than giving you a pile of interlocking puzzles to pick away at, as the story suggests, instead you can only do the one 'correct' act a time, each unlocking the path to the next. And whatever it is that unlocks can also feel arbitrary, meaning a conversation option with a character might not become available until you've finished something unrelated, so you have to keep clicking on everyone in an area just in case. More often than not, though, you're just doing the only thing possible at any given time.
And it's undeniably disappointing that there's no "look at" button. The gorgeously drawn rooms are bursting with interesting-looking items and objects, but only those plot critical can ever be clicked on, and then to perform an action. It would have added so much more if Noomi would look at one or two interesting things in a scene at the very least - it robs an adventure of so much potential colour when this is omitted. And of course the other side of this is your character will do a thing with an object when you click on it, when all you wanted to know was what it was. I imagine there are huge potential development savings of both time and money when looking at objects in adventures is omitted, but it's such a fundamental aspect of the genre that you might as well remove the fire button in an FPS to save resources. (Cf. why Schafer's Broken Age was such an anticlimax.)
Then there's the perennial issues of adventure games: clicking on an object might give a hint to a puzzle that's not yet been encountered, even referring to characters you've yet to meet; puzzle logic doesn't quite escape the designer's brain and reach the player's conscious; fails to prompt when there's a change in a difference location... But more than anything, as hard as I've tried to like this, there's this unshakable feeling of disjointedness. It has the effect of listening to a podcast when you're half asleep, half-remembering, half-tracking what's happening, as you sort of get half-told the story. Perhaps the gaming equivalent of a mobile conversation going through a tunnel. By the time its finale is delivered it's a moment of "Oh, right, I see what you were trying to do," rather than anything more revelatory or interesting.
Movement is outrageously slow, which becomes much more of a problem as the game starts to pad itself out by having puzzles that literally involve just traipsing back and forth across three screens, clicking, then traipsing back, four or five times. There are no courtesy options like double-clicking on exits to jump to a new room, either. And when you're already not really enjoying yourself, being made to not really enjoy yourself at an excruciatingly slow pace really does a game no favours at all.
The result is a game that despite such lovely art, really splendid voice acting from the two leads, and an amazing score, just doesn't hold together. It's annoying more than it's funny, it's frustrating more than it's clever, and it's just so damned incohesive. Even when it reaches its end, instead of feeling like a meaningful conclusion, it just stops. I tried so hard to like this one, because of its immediately attractive qualities, and the huge promise of that opening phone call subterfuge puzzle. But despite eventually revisiting that idea once, it never lives up to any of the early promise. Gosh though, someone ought to make that game.
The Low Road is out now for Windows and Mac for £15/$20/20€ via Steam.