When one thinks of spy capers in the 1970s, more often than not the images conjured up are usually of dashing secret agents, car chases, explosions and dastardly evil supervillains hell-bent on world domination or destruction. But put such preconceptions aside. The Low Road, the first point-and-click adventure game from independent developer XGen Studios, is pretty much the antithesis of those notions, but with its combination of breezy story, delightful presentation and entertaining gameplay, it is certainly no less thrilling or fun.
The year is 1976, when Noomi Kovacs, a smart, overeager graduate of the LeCarre Institute for Exceptional Spies (love the acronym and the shout-out to one of my favourite authors) has been accepted into the Penderbrook Motors Division of Outside Intelligence under the supervision of Agent Barry 'Turn' Turner, a mysterious ex-government agent who clearly has something to hide. Noomi, whose ultimate goal is to become a globetrotting special agent, is clearly not impressed from the outset that corporate espionage occurs in offices and on telephones. Almost immediately, she sets about exploiting her colleagues and surroundings to get out from behind her desk and into the field.
After swiftly achieving her goal, Noomi is sent on her first mission with Agent Turn. However, over the course of six chapters she realises that being a superspy isn't quite what she expected, and that there are many more hidden truths and nefarious revelations in store for her. To triumph, she must not only learn to work with her partner, but also perfect the art of lying, blackmail and emotional manipulation if she wants to get through this mission in one piece.
Reading that synopsis, you might still think The Low Road is a tense experience full of darkness and shady characters, but really the story is presented in a colourful, comedic tone that has you quickly hopping from scene to scene without hovering in one place too long. It's reminiscent of early LucasArts adventures, remaining generally on the lighter side even when the action ramp ups and the stakes rise higher.
This light-hearted sense of whimsy is evident throughout the entire game, most notably in the oddball cast of fully voiced people populating this interesting little world. Noomi is a great protagonist who is equal parts cool, calm, collected and knows her way around a good lie or deception. Her interactions with the unimpressed Turn are fun to engage in, and I constantly had a grin on my face as their respect for each other grew as the game went on.
Apart from the two leads, the supporting characters are quite amusing as well, even if they don't have nearly as much screen time. A certain Hab Applerot, whose role is a clear play on the "Q" character from the early James Bond movies, speaks in rhymes and conversing with him leads to a dialogue puzzle that reminded me of Monkey Island, which is always a plus in my book.
The environments and 2D graphics complement the game's style wonderfully, from the top secret floating headquarters of REV Inc, whose workers are housed inside a large dome that simulates day and night, to a surreal hideout deep in the woods where masked villains wander about stalls and tents showcasing different despicable deeds. Each hand-drawn area is slick, vibrant, full of colour and bursting with a ton of personality. Couple that with the lovely cardboard cutout-styled characters with their deliberately awkward movements and it all serves as a nice feast for the eyes.
The only downside to these beautiful environments is that there aren't really enough hotspots to examine, giving the world a slightly empty feel. I'm not sure whether that was intentional or economically motivated, but I would have appreciated more of Noomi's sarcastic comments on the structures, items and people around her to help flesh out the crazy world of corporate automobile espionage that extra bit more.
As good as the visual design is, the real star of the game for me is its wonderfully psychedelic soundtrack. Composed by Eric Cheng and featuring tracks from the group Win Well, the mix of swirling, lightly distorted guitars, thick fuzzy bass lines and Americana-style vocal performances are excellent, really helping get you in the mood for a little madcap spy fun. Add a small helping of light vintage synth sounds and tight, groovy drumming, and you have a recipe for absolute aural pleasure. I particularly enjoyed the songs during the chapter breaks, which sound like a cross between The Beatles and David Bowie; more often than not I found myself forgetting to click to continue as I was too busy tapping away to the music.
While the soundtrack reaches amazing heights, there are certain moments during the game where the dialogue sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a well. Although each actor does a fine job voicing their respective character, ranging from good to great, it's a shame a little more time wasn't spent polishing these voice-overs when clearly everything else was so lovingly put together.
The Low Road’s gameplay has three distinct elements. Controlled simply by the mouse, the main crux of play is classic point-and-click: explore areas, pick up items, talk to people, use them on other things – seasoned adventurers know the drill. There's no item combining, and it's always pretty clear what the objective is, so you won't be left ambling about wondering what to do next.
Then there are dialogue puzzles. In a game about espionage, it's a no-brainer that there would be parts where Noomi would have to bluff her way out of sticky situations. These sequences are always entertaining and lead to many amusing conversations between characters. One puzzle in particular resulted in a fantastic game-over gag I wasn't expecting before rewinding itself to the point I made the mistake. Similar failures can occur during the more critical dialogue puzzle sections, and I found myself intentionally choosing poorly so I could read the random epilogues. The final exchange leads to one of two different endings, and since the game can be saved anywhere and features regular checkpoints, it's very simple to go back and witness the other ending.
There are also multiple branching dialogues that subtly change people’s reactions to Noomi, but overall these don't affect the story or gameplay. There are no avenues closed off by choosing an incorrect response, nor does the narrative spin off wildly if you chose the wrong reply. Fortunately, the options available are varied enough to offer a little bit of replayability to uncover more funny exchanges once you've gone through the game the first time.
The final gameplay feature takes the form of simple first-person, minigame-type puzzles that very lightly test your lateral thinking. These include such tasks as pickpocketing an ID card without being noticed, solving slider-type lock puzzles, one incredibly easy Quick Time Event that I think might actually be a parody, and a really cool sun dial puzzle that actually had me scratching my head for a second. Even though nine times out of ten these puzzles are incredibly easy, they are all different from each other, appropriately spy-like and represent a fun change of pace from the rest of the game without feeling overbearing.
With all these approaches packaged together, The Low Road never feels stale, but there is a part of me that wishes XGen had pushed the difficulty at least a bit more. There are some great ideas and puzzles here that just feel a little undercooked. Not enough to derail enjoyment, of course, but like the random poor dialogue recordings, these passing disappointments are noticeable enough to warrant mention.
Overall, The Low Road is a great little game that doesn't outstay its welcome over the course of its roughly 5-6 hour play time. It may be a little too easy for some, and it's not the most original game you'll ever play; the developers clearly wear their Golden Era influences on their sleeves, but they are so successful in giving it a style all its own that it's hard to believe this is their first adventure. There's a cool confidence that oozes from every pore of this product, from its assured comic-themed story to the groovy 1970s settings and fun characters, right down to the elegantly simple point-and-click gameplay. Ultimately, it just begs to be played and enjoyed, which is really all that matters.