Review – Insecticide

DS Adventure-action hybrid Insecticide attracted some attention (on this site, if not from the videogame community as a whole) when the developer, Mike Levine, criticized negative reviews of the game for overlooking what he considered some of the game’s strengths. What are these supposed strengths? The game is in 3D and features voice acting. To me, the measure of a game isn’t the number of dimensions in which it resides, but how much fun it is to play, and whether I believe the developer tried to do something interesting or innovative.

The early criticisms, as well as Levine’s retort, turned on two key disagreements. Reviewers thought the controls were poor and the game had technical problems. Levine thought the reviewers did not completely explore the controls (ie complained about using the d-pad and buttons while stylus controls were available) and argued the game is technically very impressive (in 3D and featuring voice) even if there are a few hiccups. While I generally like to give developers the benefit of the doubt, especially when they talk about their game as a labor of love rather than a money making opportunity, Insecticide deserves most of the criticisms leveled at it.

Controls are not terribly important in adventure games. Since the execution of interacting with the environment is much less relevant than figuring out what those interactions should be, tank controls work just fine (and may even be the second best method after point and click). This is not true of action games, and when action games (such as early Resident Evil games) use tank controls the developer should tread very carefully.

Crackpot did not tread nearly carefully enough. I can not imagine playtesters spent time with Insecticide and never complained that the controls made the action sequences very frustrating. While playing, you will miss jumps after not lining them up perfectly, you will strafe sideways and off ledges because the distance moved per strafe is inconsistent, and you will very likely dodge into enemy fire because the controls will not respond quickly enough and you will mash the directional one too many times.

The stylus controls do not solve anything. The problem seems to be one in which the actions available to you and their responsiveness are just not up to the tasks the game requires of you, not one in which the actions are better executed using a different interface.

Some of the weapons are fun to use. They don’t have the variety of a Ratchet and Clank game, but each additional weapon will do more than simply kill faster than the previous one. Unfortunately, you will have to experiment quite a bit to figure out what each weapon does since the weapons are not named in a way that makes their use apparent, and the game never introduces a weapon to you, they will just appear in your inventory over the course of the game.

The sloppy controls lead to many unnecessary deaths. Death is not always problematic in action games since it may mean the game is simply challenging, and overcoming the incredible odds will feel rewarding. This is not the case in Insecticide. Alleviating the problem are the frequent checkpoints; exacerbating the problem is the music. Another of the complaints reviewers mentioned was that the music did not loop seamlessly (to this Levine apparently responded “3D!!”). Essentially, this means that the music plays for a minute, then ends, then restarts. This adds to the frustration of dying as a result of the bad controls since it feels like being mocked.

The music does not change during a level, and some levels are quite long. The lack of variety in music is almost excusable, since many games will replay a simple theme several times through out a game. The bigger problem is that the music stops and restarts every few minutes and, in doing so, draws attention to itself. In a related criticism, still images flash on screen after the ending, while the credits roll; there are about eight of these images and each appears about one-thousand times over the course of the credits. This seems like nitpicking, but it speaks to the overall lack of polish that causes many aspects of the game suffer.

All of these problems (which give the overall impression that the game is a beta or freeware and not a full release) are a real shame because the story is actually pretty good. Its a clever hard boiled film noir style mystery. The story takes advantage (and pokes fun at) many fun cop movie cliches, such as the acerbic police chief and the overweight doughnut-eating, past-his-prime partner of our heroine. There are murders to solve, conspiracies to uncover, and a few laughs to have along the way. The story is told through dialogue in the adventure levels, text next to still images, and a handful of full motion, high quality videos.

The adventure scenes are good, even if they are never quite great enough to earn a place in the hallowed halls of the genre. My main complaint about the adventure levels is that each level is relatively small and there are not many tasks to do or puzzles to solve in each one. When there are only two or three items in a couple of rooms, the problem solving does not require much deep thought.

If this game were just its action levels it would probably be mentioned in some “worst games of the year” conversations. The adventure levels, combined with the fun story and interesting characters salvage the experience somewhat and were definitely the reason I persisted. I can not recommend the game on its own merits, but if you are really curious for some reason, it is short and its adventure scenes and story have enough charm that you probably will not hate the experience.

Buy from Amazon: Insecticide
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