In Dangeresque 3: The Criminal Projective, the fourth episode of Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, we’re reminded more forcefully than ever that the series really is for fans. No, not fans of action movies (though Shaft, Police Academy, Indiana Jones, Bond and more are thoroughly referenced in this latest adventure), but fans of HomestarRunner.com. In fact, to even get why you’re playing Dangeresque 3 as opposed to Dangeresque 1, it helps to have specifically watched two Strong Bad Emails now buried in the creators’ website content. Same kind of logic applies, of course, with many of the in-jokes.
Needless to say, if you’re new to SBCG4AP, this is most definitely not the place to jump in. But if you’re at least a little familiar with the zany world created by Mike and Matt Chapman, all you really need to know is that “Dangeresque” is a homespun film series Strong Bad and friends, with Strong Bad playing the part of Dangeresque himself. And this game? It’s essentially you playing in your own film. Regrettably, this film isn’t really a good one, for too many unintended reasons. At its best, it cleverly pokes fun of detective films and amateur filmmaking, but mostly it comes off as too juvenile, too inane, and too… well, boring, to make for a film you’d really want to play.
You begin in an office, celebrating an upcoming retirement with cake and diet soda. The retiree in question is Renaldo, your law-enforcement brethren (who in “real life” is Coach Z). The action takes a while to kick in, offering multiple dialogue trees before you first begin exploring, but when one of your first items is a “nunchuck gun”, you know you’re in for something ridiculous. Especially with the blend of secret agent, private eye, and ladies man that is Dangeresque. When Cutesy Buttons (played by Marzipan) enters your office with a new mission, it’s clear that Renaldo will have to join Dangeresque for one last adventure, this time to procure a tree-saving rainforest formula. Like in previous “Dangeresque” films, the evil Perducci (The King of Town) is involved, but this time around you get to travel all over the world. That is, if you consider a cardboard cutout indicative of a new country.
Along with the main characters in new roles, most of the other series staples are in place but with different looks and uses. For example, your “lappy” is still your laptop, only it’s referred to as the “Dangeresque Database”, while the washing machine now serves as a rocket ship air lock, Bubs’ (now known as Diamonocle) concession stand is now the city prison, and Free Town, U.S.A. itself has become Brainblow City. Of course, don’t expect anything to look too different – it’s an in-game home video you’re experiencing, and the homemade props are purposely minimal. The creative variation is a nice surprise after so many similar-looking episodes, but the backgrounds still end up feeling a little too familiar. In the “deleted scenes” available after the credits roll, a character remarks that the game should’ve been in black and white to enhance the noir feel, and I couldn’t help but think how that would have improved the game’s aesthetic.
Not everything in Dangeresque 3 is recycled from previous episodes, I’m pleased to say. There’s also a new character! New to the games, anyway, if not the world of Homestar Runner. For the first time, Strong Bad’s derelict, strung-out father makes an appearance, and steals the show with his illogical, practically incomprehensible ramblings, though he doesn't stick around for long.
To add further variety, there’s always the latest Videlectrix offering you can play, and this time around it’s “Space Circus Catastrophe!” The new first-person arcade offering sees you floating through a horribly pixelated outer space, destroying killer clowns while trying to save circus performers. It’s surprisingly fun, and white-knuckle-challenging during the final, more fast-paced stages. Unlike previous SBCG4AP episodes, playing the minigame is a requirement at one point, but only the very early, very easy stages. Oh, but “Teen Girl Squad”? You won’t see it in this episode, which is unfortunate. Personally, that’s what I’ve started to look forward to the most.
As for the puzzles, they feel too easy, too simple. The challenge has been a concern for this series all along, but it’s even more pronounced here. Most tasks can be solved with a thoughtless few clicks, and sadly they are a little less clever than the other episodes as well. That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting ones, though. Take the bizarre card minigame “Rock, paper, Burt Bacharach”, for example, wherein you’re dealt two cards from various games bearing the likes of Uno, Magic: The Gathering, and others, and left to find out what-beats-what. Figuring out how to break the rules (would Strong Bad want to win any other way?) will take some doing in a game whose rules are practically unintelligible.
Of course, if one thing has become clear in the first four episodes, it’s that SBCG4AP is more about style than gameplay substance. In presenting the movie that is “Dangeresque 3”, the game constantly references amateur film mistakes: misspoken scripted dialogue, improper enunciation—it’s all hilarious, as is the sloppy, hodgepodge editing, where different film takes overlap or a clumsily-costumed stunt-double remains in a scene. But while these are all good for a laugh the first time around, most of it feels old and overdone during the second half of the game. The music is sexed up a bit when you’re entering and leaving areas with forgettable, sleazy-sounding funk, but if there’s anything interesting for your ears, it’s the sound effects and variations on the Shaft theme as performed by Strong Bad himself.
Unfortunately, where the humor has been the highlight of the series so far, this episode comes off as almost too childish, even for these guys. Sure, it’s cute when you use a fake ring to power a rocket, but as an adult—even an immature one at that—without some adult humor, the jokes aren’t universal or interesting enough to stave off boredom. Speaking of boredom, there’s one stretch of the game where you must talk to several different informants in various locations, all played by Strong Sad. Gathering clues from each one can take quite a while, and in such a short game, talking to the depressive, long-winded Strong Sad for that long kills the otherwise snappy pacing.
It also doesn’t help that the character dynamic is lacking. Dangeresque 3 mostly falls into the buddy cop category, and those movies are only great when there’s a good buddy; the interaction, the banter, the cheesy teamwork, it’s crucial. And this episode doesn’t have a good buddy. Renaldo is the one you’re stuck with. He’s a blend of cultures (he seems Middle Eastern, yet his Midwest American accent is still intact) without a distinct persona and is quite dull as a character. As partners, he and Dangeresque feel very isolated from one another, hardly buddies at all, as Renaldo stays put in each area while Dangeresque does his thing. Banter is minimal, as is the genre-requisite male bonding. Homestar (known in this episode as Homestar, Too?) plays more of a nemesis in this episode, but he clearly would’ve been a better pairing with Strong Bad as a buddy. Sure, Strong Bad ventured solo in previous episodes, but this time around it’s practically illogical. If Renaldo is going to just stand there, perhaps he could be taking notes, smoking a cigarette, or at least following his partner occasionally.
While this episode still hints at the underlying brilliance of the Chapman Brothers, it ultimately mucks about in too much pre-adolescent nonsense to carry much weight or ever feel very engaging. Not that the writing’s bad; it’s the material, characters, and puzzles that ultimately fall short here. It’s amusing to see the characters play such silly (make that sillier) roles, and it shows that the crew had a blast making it, but over the course of its four hours, the game rarely amounts to what I’d call fun. In fact, at times it feels more like it is a clichéd detective flick rather than a parody of one. For those diehard Homestar Runner fans who have been pining for the next “movie” in the years since the cartoon-only Dangeresque 1 and Dangeresque 2, the game-of-the-movie that is Dangeresque 3: The Criminal Projective should surely deliver, but others are best advised to look hard before deciding whether to jump in nunchuks a-blazing.