Chicken Police review
Turning point-and-click into point-and-cluck, The Wild Gentlemen’s Chicken Police is a delightfully mad love song to film noir. And as with all the best examples of that moody genre, though you'll inevitably first be smitten by its visuals – in this case, striking black-and-white scenes of freakish animals with human bodies – there's also a lot of substance to go with the style. Whilst its world is plunged into shades of dark and light, Chicken Police showcases plenty of colour elsewhere in its eccentric cast of characters, each accompanied by some excellent voice acting. All that means even a confusing interrogation feature and some tacked-on puzzles aren't enough to clip this game's ambitious wings.
You play as Sonny Featherland, a weary semi-alcoholic who once ruled the roost with his former partner Marty MacChicken as the famous detective duo the Chicken Police, before they nearly killed each other on their last case. But with only a few more weeks left until his retirement as he wallows in his office on paid leave, Sonny gets a mysterious visit from a doe-eyed ... well, doe named Deborah. Her mistress Natasha Catzenko (naturally, a cat) is being sent threats, in letters at first but now in the form of big red graffiti on the side of her house. It's up to a reluctant but intrigued Sonny to find out who's behind the threats, but as the story inevitably gets more and more out of hand, he’s forced to call on his old pal Marty to team up and become the infamous Chicken Police once more.
After being unlocked, each area in the game, be it Sonny's room at the near-empty Hotel Atlas or the classy Czar Bar, appears on a map that can be brought up with the click of an icon in the top right-hand corner. Some locations are “main scenes,” meaning visiting them will progress the story, whilst others are “limited scenes,” meaning you might unlock interesting tidbits about the world and its characters by visiting them, but there won't be anything crucial to the plot there. You won't always be able to revisit those limited scenes later on, either. Each locale and character is sumptuously brought to life in stylish monochrome by using a mixture of actual photos and realistically rendered backgrounds, and the effect is stunning. The team have done an excellent job of making you feel like you've instantly been dropped into the 1940s film set of a classic like The Maltese Falcon, where murder or intrigue is bound to be around every corner.
Upon arrival at a given location, there might be some detective work to be done. This mainly consists of Sonny searching a crime scene for clues to be stored in your inventory, which can be used in conversation as a new line of inquiry and possibly even reveal new locations. For the most part, though, it’s time to get chatting to the game’s cast of larger-than-life anthropomorphic animals. Whether its Royes, a Scottish porcupine in a punctured rain coat (because of his spikes); or Zip, a skittish racoon who knows how to get out of any rough situation, there's plenty of memorable characters to meet along the way. The developers have clearly given a lot of thought to, and had quite a bit of fun with, imagining what kind of animal would suit each personality and role. So the Chief of Police is Bloodboyle, a grizzled, tired old bloodhound; whilst the owner of an exclusive brothel and ex-spy, Madam Zaiwass, is of course a cold-blooded crocodile.
This distinctive collection of characters wouldn't be half as vivid were it not for the brilliant voice acting. Experienced actor Kerry Shale lends real weight to the gruff, seen-it-all-before persona of Sonny, whilst Shai Matheson elevates the unhinged yet youthful Marty as a sympathetic yet dangerous buddy. In fact, nearly all of the performers’ efforts are of a very high standard, bringing an even more cinematic quality to an already atmospheric title. Chicken Police becomes a delightful game to guess what each new character's accent may be, so varied and vast are the offerings.
Once you get over the slightly absurd sight of their half-animal, half-human bodies, you can choose to at first “Look” or “Speak” to your furry, feathered or scaly friends by clicking the appropriate function on the interaction wheel. Whilst each conversation with your associates is set against static backgrounds, characters are animated as you talk to them, mouths moving, hands (not paws!) gesturing and even shaking if under pressure. Chatting to everyone in the town of Clawville may unlock key information in your case, or it may just reveal a little more of the extensive lore of this unusual world you're inhabiting.
If you have the time and inclination, there's a whole notebook to be filled with historical details in the Codex section, as well as clues to the mystery, the people you meet, and places you discover during your investigation. It's a nice way of packing in additional background to the story, from the early “Meat Wars” to the founders of Clawville, without spelling everything out through in-game exposition. It's almost a shame that it's so easy to miss these extras if you don't pay close attention to your notes. Apart from a notification and sound that pop up when new information is first revealed, there isn't any clear way of finding which section of your book's been updated if you forget to examine it then and there; when delving into it later, you’ll often have to leaf through several sections to find it. Still, the fact that so much effort has been put into so richly building the world is always welcome.
After making idle chitchat with your animal acquaintances, you will frequently unlock the option to “Ask” them more detailed questions. With key characters, going through these lists of questions also tends to open the final interaction point, “Interrogate.” It's a little confusing having three interaction options all based around asking questions, but these fowl are clearly very thorough with their detective work.
Clicking “Interrogate” will bring up a mini-game. Stepping beyond the fourth wall a little bit, Sonny will tell you about a personality trait of the animal you're questioning – say, being very protective, or very honest – and how you should focus on that attribute in your line of inquiry. A “detective meter” on the right side of the screen shoots up or down after each question you ask, depending on how successfully you focused on this trait, and a ranking at the end of the mini-game shows how well you cracked your subject. The problem is that the particular characteristics are often quite abstract, such as “feels like an imposter,” so it’s very hard to link them to a specific question. There were also things I wanted to ask to uncover more details about the case, but which lost me points and gave me a lower ranking at the end of the round if I did. This punishment doesn't seem to have any bearing on the story, so it actually doesn't matter much except for achievement hunters, but it still feels like a clunky addition to an otherwise smooth experience.
Unfortunately, this is also the case with other puzzles and mini-games in between conversations. Some are fun, like a safecracking challenge that requires you to hunt around to find the code. There’s also a short and simple shooting section, as your car speeds away from gangsters hot on your tail, leaving you firing at them with a left-click and ducking bullets with a right. But other activities just feel tacked on, like a mini-game for zipping up the dress of an otherwise naked cat in a brothel, which feels creepy and put in for shock factor. Another sequence that sees you retire to your detective cork board to piece together people and clues should in theory be a great way of tying up everything that has happened recently, but because of the unclear manner in which things are worded, I was often left just dragging every option to the board until something worked. It's as if the developers decided that talking to lots of different animals wasn't quite enough variety for a 7-8 hour game, so they resolved to try a few things to shake it up a bit. They were probably right, but because of how enjoyable the main narrative elements are, these confused extra sections don't fit particularly well into the rest of the experience. Despite being somewhat essential to getting through the story, they are probably the weakest parts of the game.
One aspect of Chicken Police that is faultlessly implemented is its soundtrack. Bringing back memories of Grim Fandango's melancholic jazz-tinged score, the music here is every bit as brooding and epic as you would expect from a game inspired by film noir greats, full of wailing trumpets and grand pianos. An early number from songstress and femme fatale Natasha Catsenko performed in a cutscene at the chic Czar Bar is a highlight, even if the sight of watching a half-cat, half-human saunter seductively around a stage is a strange one.
The story itself is a rollercoaster of plot twists and turns, and for the most part they land well without requiring too many leaps of the imagination. In keeping with the mature noir setting, the writing is sweary but often reflective and even a touch poetic. Marty considers how “a fox is a wolf who sends flowers,” whilst Sonny's inner monologue remarks how a broad “uses danger like perfume.” There's also a fair bit of sexist language, with females often being talked down to or dismissed, but perhaps that’s to be expected for a game in an era not known for its feminist sensibilities. And whilst occasionally straying into hammy dialogue territory, Sonny's musings and bon mots are often bang-on for the genre.
It's this impressive ability to really ape a familiar style in such an unusual and striking way that makes the game stand out from the crowd despite its one or two notable gameplay implementation flaws. And for that, even in a seemingly ever-growing list of adventure games featuring anthropomorphic detectives, Chicken Police deserves to find itself near the top of the pecking order.