Detective Case and Clown Bot: Murder in the Hotel Lisbon review
If you’ve ever wondered how LucasArts’ classic Sam & Max Hit the Road might have turned out if an independent Portuguese developer had gotten their hands on it (and who hasn’t thought about that at least once, no?), Detective Case and Clown Bot: Murder in the Hotel Lisbon, a 2D point-and-click comic adventure from Nerd Monkeys, steps in to answer that question. Unfortunately, despite having a mildly entertaining plot and self-referential humor, the game is hampered by flat and off-color comedy, frustrating trial-and-error gameplay, and a variety of other annoyances that prevent the game from reaching its full potential.
On the positive side, Case & Bot’s premise is fairly wacky and, in general, a pretty interesting take on the whodunit genre: there’s been a murder at the Hotel Lisbon, but the ineptitude of the local police department has led them to the belief that the victim committed suicide—by stabbing himself in the back fourteen times. Obviously, a more competent investigator must be found if this mystery is to be solved. Enter: Detective Justin Case, boorish private eye with a penchant for floppy blue hats, and his floating robotic sidekick Clown Bot, whose true dream in life is to be a circus clown. And tell really, really bad jokes.
Graphically, the game does a good job imitating the cartoony, pixel art style of the LucasArts classics that clearly inspired it, and also manages to throw in some additional graphical flair. For example, instead of the city’s streets simply being empty, as is common in 2D adventures, silhouetted traffic occasionally passes by in the foreground. While initially interesting, this effect becomes distracting as cars and even a large trolley run in front of the scene at various times. While thankfully disabled when dialog bubbles are onscreen, it can become a hindrance when the interface buttons are momentarily obscured.
Sound effects are sparse, including a trumpet-like flourish when you successfully solve a puzzle and a few other sounds. There are no voiceovers. Contrasting with the notable lack of sound effects, the game’s music is ever-present, and despite making use of a full band and managing to have a few catchy tunes, the short, repetitive tracks become irritating very quickly. The soundtrack’s one bright spot is the inclusion of a traditional “fado” song (a Portuguese folk genre akin to the blues), performed by Alexandra Martins. However, the baffling decision to include only extremely low-bit-rate files for all of the music and sound results in such muffled and low-quality audio that it raises the question of whether this was intentional due to technical limitations, or was an oversight that somehow made it to release.
The interface is quite intuitive, requiring only a left-click to navigate the environment or to bring up a set of floating buttons for such options as “Pick Up” or “Talk.” Dialog with characters utilizes a menu at the top of the screen, with a series of sentences the player selects from to initiate conversation. Conversation choices can generally be revisited as many times as necessary in order to catch any clues missed the first time around, until that particular line of questioning is no longer needed. Although there is an inventory for collecting clues, players who dislike the task of combining items to solve puzzles will find inventory puzzles thankfully absent.
The city in which Case & Bot takes place is mostly unremarkable, consisting of several streets connected to each other by a sidewalk. Each of the street names helpfully corresponds to the main attraction there, such as Police Station Street or Hotel Street. Locations are largely functional in their design, though a few extra touches such as bullet holes in the door of the police station and crude drawings in a bar bathroom serve to provide a little bit of comical flavor to the environment. A fast-travel feature is also present, in the form of a taxi service that Clown Bot can call. In one of the game’s few successful attempts at comedy, this taxi has a particularly useful, and unexpected, ability (hint: try calling the taxi indoors).
Speaking of jokes, the first that you will encounter is an example of the game’s self-aware sense of humor: amid the raucous applause of a silhouetted audience, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000, a curtain draws back to reveal Act One. There are several instances of this type of meta-comedy, including a clever send-up of the ubiquitous “404 Not Found” browser message, appropriately located in room 404 of the Hotel Lisbon, and there are also a few winking references to other adventure games and franchises. Unfortunately, these dashes of self-reference constitute most of the game’s successful attempts at humor. The rest of the comedy fails to hold up, either from simply not being funny or from being rendered ineffective by the English translations, which have occasional typos and possess a somewhat bland tone at times.
More troubling is the potentially controversial humor on display throughout Case & Bot, including homophobic innuendo. While one such early comment by Detective Case is warily called out by another character as possibly inappropriate, the main problem is that the deadpan delivery makes the purpose of these jokes unclear. Moreover, the inclusion of a blatantly offensive joke in Clown Bot’s repertoire that he may recite if you click his “tell joke” button (What do you call a gay on an airplane? A fruit fly), makes it difficult to tell for sure whether this actually reflects the opinions of the developers, or if they are included to emphasize the ignorance of the characters who deliver them. Whatever the reason, I think it bears mentioning that, since I’m not one to be easily offended and even I found it uncomfortable, other players may find this off-color brand of comedy offensive, as well. Other tin-eared jabs were simply lost on me, such as the jokes about a character named Vila-Lobos, a Spanish restaurant owner who is obsessed with fish for some reason.
The writers did do a great job of imbuing each character’s dialog with unique personalities, however, such as a bartender who sounds like Humphrey Bogart, and Mrs. Love, the murder victim’s very voluptuous, very French wife. Detective Case comes across as a rather seedy, heavy-drinking character (in the game’s first scene, he wakes up with a hangover after a one-night stand with someone who is implied to have been underage). There is also a tiresome running gag about Detective Case’s inability to correctly pronounce words, although this character trait does have a use later on in the murder investigation. Clown Bot’s most useful skill is using his superior calculating ability to read the emotions of suspects you interrogate, making him ideal for characters who need grilling with a little more finesse. His role as sidekick puts him in the position of comic relief, as well, with occasional quips and comments regarding the action playing out onscreen, though, like the rest of the game’s humor, these range from mildly amusing to simply unfunny.
Gameplay involves finding and collecting clues about the crime scattered throughout the area, interacting with the motley assortment of characters you encounter in order to find out more about the crime and to gather leads, then “interviewing” them when they seem to be holding back information. On the whole, the interrogation mechanic works well: after collecting all the relevant clues, you click on the character and select the microphone symbol to initiate the dialog. You must match one of three available questions or accusations with the correct piece of evidence in order to compel the suspect to reveal what they know about the crime. Each interrogation is a three-part puzzle. Upon successfully pairing a piece of evidence with the correct accusation, the character will become nervous and a new trio of accusation dialogs will appear. The puzzle continues until you’ve successfully solved the three sequences, which finally breaks the suspect’s will so that they reveal the information they were hiding.
Unfortunately, there is little challenge to be found in the interrogations themselves, with the correct questions being obvious if you have been paying attention, and fairly easy to deduce in any case. It is also typically easy to determine through the wording of the choices which of the items needed are the correct ones. For example (so obvious it can’t even be considered a spoiler), if one of the interview dialogs mentions a photo, you then find the corresponding picture in inventory and pair it with the most obvious sentence option. If you fail, sometimes the suspect will refuse to go on and the interrogation must be restarted, but other times you get multiple chances to solve the sequence, though I was never entirely sure what caused the extra chance.
There is also the added twist of choosing between Detective Case and Clown Bot to conduct each interview, which becomes a puzzle in its own right as you must determine which character the suspect will ultimately be willing to confess to. While this is theoretically deducible from prior conversations with the suspect, in practice the lackluster English translation makes it difficult at times to tell which character should be used. The fact that you can get all three interrogation questions correct, only to be rebuffed at the last moment because the “wrong” character was used, introduces an overly-frustrating trial-and-error layer to what should have been a straightforward puzzle.
Players hoping for more depth to the gameplay will likely be disappointed, as finding clues and interrogating suspects constitutes the main objective of the game. In addition to the main quest, however, there are three optional “sidequest” investigations that can be solved, such as being hired to find a bartender’s missing friend, and a feature called “Stand-up Clown,” in which Clown Bot performs a stand-up routine in front of a theater audience. You must help Bot perform his act by selecting the funniest punchline for his jokes before the timer runs out, with the objective of making the audience laugh-o-meter climb higher and higher for points. If a joke falls flat, Bot is pelted with rotten tomatoes and other disgusting items, and members of the audience leave. Neither the sidequests nor the stand-up routine minigame have any bearing at all on the main murder mystery, and honestly feel like blatant attempts to pad the game length, a scant five hours even if these optional quests are pursued.
Available at the developer’s website, all in all Detective Case and Clown Bot: Murder at the Hotel Lisbon is a disappointment. There is fun to be had at times, especially in the silly twists and turns of the whodunit plot as you try to unravel the identity of the murderer from the bizarre evidence, but with comedy that is largely hit-and-miss (when it isn’t being offensive) and gameplay and sound effects that are neither polished nor innovative, this is one title that I can only recommend to players desperate for a retro-style adventure who are willing to overlook the game’s numerous faults. Everyone else can do a lot better – Case & Bot are definitely no Sam & Max.
Detective Case and Clown Bot’s fun plot and interesting characters get obscured by uneven and potentially offensive jokes, one-trick gameplay, and poor audio quality.
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