Out of nowhere, indie Malaysian developer E-One Studio announced their debut adventure game Hoodwink mere weeks before release. Promising conspiratorial intrigue combined with dark, twisted humour in an adventure about a smart-mouthed scoundrel, all set in a dystopian future with a unique art style, it sure sounded good. Maybe even too good to be true? In some ways it is. The game really does have all of the above, but it has several serious downsides too, which can't be overlooked, especially the fact that it's not a standalone adventure.
The world where Hoodwink takes place is called Global-01. It's not a very nice place, as we witness when the game starts – which doesn't happen until after we've given Unicorp, the world's most powerful mega-corporation, our 32-digit product key (no copy-pasting!) to activate. Players assume the role of a young man named Michael Bezzle, a thief (though he prefers “acquisition expert”) who's broken into an office to steal one last item, a precious ring with which to propose to his girlfriend Francesca, a beautiful and brilliant woman who is somehow attracted to him. He'll also need chocolates and flowers, and those are hard to come by in a world where only those with power and money can afford to buy luxuries. When the rightful office occupant, a giant cat-like creature named Detective Pyre, walks in, Michael is in even deeper trouble than usual, but he manages to escape. Then the real adventure starts, in a quest to accumulate the necessary items for the proposal. The flowers, for instance, are guarded by a ferocious killer plant that won't stand still to get picked, while hippie stall owner Saffron has just sold her last box of chocolates. The ring still needs to be engraved with Francesca's name as well.
The screenshots don't really do Hoodwink justice, as the game itself looks far better and much less blurry in action. The cel-shaded graphics are a pleasure to look at even if the world itself is far from pretty, with garbage everywhere and patched-up buildings in obvious states of decay. It can be hard to distinguish between background clutter and useful items, unfortunately, and Michael walks like he's just soiled his pants in a bad way. Maybe he has, mind you, as the only food for sale on the streets is grilled rat, which is far from fresh and crawling with cockroaches. Global-01 is recovering from an epidemic and it looks like another is on its way. While slightly cartoony, the visuals really work, giving the action a dark, ominous atmosphere without feeling too oppressive. The ambience is further enhanced by a jazzy soundtrack that imbues a great film noir feel with lots of saxophone, growing more dynamic during cutscenes.
Michael's comments give us an excellent idea about the world he lives in, though much of it is by association rather than directly. For instance, there is a very (really, very) large litter box underneath the office desk, but all Michael cares about is that the desk is made of something cheap called Shamwood, which is common now that real wood is no longer available. And when he meets a depressed cyborg, he recalls that “Second Chancers” have only their brains left intact from their old bodies, courtesy of Unicorp, from which we can deduce how people are punished for crimes. The world feels believable, with plenty of little details both visual and aural. Advertising is everywhere, as a sound system blares out how wonderful Unicorp is for supplying everyone with their medication on every street corner.
As you explore, you'll see numerous people (including androids and giant cats called anthros) standing in the streets, talking to each other. When you get close, you can hear them speaking to each other, which isn't important for the story but does help to make the game world feel alive. Unfortunately, you can't interact with them in any way, and their lines do repeat after a few sentences. Some people on opposite sides of the same location even have the same lines, which spoils the principle a bit. Despite the desperate condition the world is in, humour is present in descriptions and dialogues (have you ever tried to convince a robot that it can't possibly be hungry?) and some situational comedy. It's a cynical, gritty kind of humour involving the sad state of the world and the inability of the populace to do anything about it, but it generally works well to lighten the mood.
Michael's tasks involve conversing with people and androids/robots on and beneath the streets of Global-01, and a few puzzles that take you through Hoodwink's handful of locations. Following the detective's office, you'll visit a circular building whose corridors house the likes of Saffron's stall and a greenhouse, an Asian-styled city square with a hawker peddling his wares, and the slums below the square. The supporting cast is a colourful and quirky lot, ranging from a depressed “Second Chancer” garbage can who tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into a trash compactor to a welder that has been on the job for so many hours he literally keels over from hunger and fatigue. These characters are all sympathetic and believable, as is Michael, an anti-hero and a crook forced into a life of crime by circumstances beyond his control. Everyone has a distinctive, radically different-sounding accent voiced by capable actors, and they all seem to have their own story, making you want to know more about them and what will happen to them next.Continued on the next page...