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To Hell With The Ugly is a cracking name and even better game

Celibate good times

Handsome blonde muscled protagonist Rock addresses his team of pals in To Hell With The Ugly
Image credit: ARTE France

A decent name is one thing, but one like To Hell With The Ugly plain demands to be looked up. That's when you see the striking art style, and yeah okay, I'm already on on board.

Based on a French novel by Boris Vian, this tells a strange and surprisingly dark story about a famously handsome young himbo who gets caught up in a sinister plot in 1950s Los Angeles and has to adventure, talk, fight, and - horrors - reason his way to the truth. It's an adventure game with quick-time event bits, and a 50s America setting, all of which could put me off it entirely, but I can't bring myself to say anything bad about it at all.

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The aesthetic is superb, striking and fitting for the era but with its own distinct style to mark it as more than thoughtless window dressing. Your main character, Rock Bailey, is 80% legs and often fights goons who are 80% torso. The soundtrack's appropriately jazzy without making a fuss about it, and the combat animations in particular are full of character. Its confidence in its own style is matched by the pacey, intriguing storytelling and likeable, expressive characters, including several who say almost nothing but immediately give off a unique vibe.

Rock himself is a great protagonist, too. The phrase "big himbo energy" comes to mind, but also does him a disservice. He's not half as dim as people assume, but he is a little on the dope side. Moreover, he's slightly strange. He's in love with dancing with girls, but for the love of dance itself, not as a means to an end. Practically every woman he meets wants to sleep with him, which he meets with a Benton Fraser-esque celibacy. He's vain but not narcissistic, flirtatious but not manipulative. It'd be easy to make him a moron or an insensitive jerk and then use the plot to transform him into a better person, but he starts out a good lad, and that makes all the difference.

His innocence, and the snazzy jazzy setting, and the light wit of the dialogue (which I stress averts the insufferable quippy, snarky screwball tone that sometimes suffuses works set in the era) make it all the more striking when he's kidnapped and assaulted by people who, among other things, are apparently vivisectionists.

How it blends the light mystery adventure feel and such serious plot beats (not to mention the light sci-fi element) is one I'll need longer to ponder, but it's not just a riveting story: it plays damn well, too. The fights are simple turn-based affairs built on timing your keyboard taps, the detective parts are about assembling information before making some logical deductions, and even the stealth parts work. All of them take just a little thinking through, but are simple and brief enough to be natural parts of the adventure. To Hell With The Ugly is a damn likeable game, and assuming its core is a faithful adaptation, it definitely feels like Vian was seizing hold of a genre to make something bigger of it through subversion and critique. I'm certainly curious about his whole body of work, but for now this is an unqualified recommendation.

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