Cyanide & Happiness: Freakpocalypse – Part 1: Hall Pass to Hell review
Crude, rude and hilarious, web comic Cyanide & Happiness has spawned quite the franchise since its creation in 2005. There have been several seasons of an animated show, a couple of creatively funny card games (I’d highly recommend checking out Joking Hazard), a few books, even a multiplayer battle royale-style video game. And now (after a successful Kickstarter and a few years of waiting) there’s Cyanide & Happiness: Freakpocalypse, a joint venture with developers Skeleton Crew Studios. Specifically, this is Part 1: Hall Pass to Hell, billed as the first of a ‘trilogy of tragedy,’ and it’s a beautiful-looking traditional point-and-click adventure that’s heavy on the jokes but light on story and challenge so far.
If you’re not familiar with it, the comic features simple stick figures trading insults and getting into outrageous situations. Freakpocalypse offers more of the same, providing the opportunity to step right into an interactive Cyanide & Happiness animated short and treat yourself to a slice of their trademark adult humour.
At the beginning of the game we find ourselves in the superhero-themed daydream of Coop McCarthy, a student at Netherton High School who seems to be picked on by teachers and pupils alike. This fantasy prelude acts as a tutorial, with ‘Super Coop’ (helped by Psionic Psteve) tracking down the menacing Dr Dropout and putting a stop to his dastardly plan to make everybody idiots with his Stupid Goop. It’s an adorable way to start the adventure, but Coop is soon brought back to reality with a bump and ordered to go to the office after being falsely accused of cheating.
Thanks to a fortuitously timed phone call for Principal McNally, you’re provided the perfect opportunity to creatively alter your permanent record, then it’s time to find a ‘Holly Pass’ in order to walk the halls unhindered and pick up your signed permission slip for the epic field trip to the bomb shelter. After putting up some fliers for your best (and only) friend Sawyer, school’s out and you get to explore the neighbourhood a little, heading to your grandma’s house and stopping for some pizza along the way. Unfortunately, the perplexingly popular bully Kent is lying in wait with his goons, ready to ruin your day. Most of the 4-6 hour playtime (more if you want to examine everything) is really just a loosely strung together set of chores, and then just as the plot starts to get interesting, ‘To be continued’ flashes up on the screen.
The game has a huge number of interesting people to meet, although your interaction with most of them is brief – just enough to enjoy their puntastic name and then move on. Don’t expect complex and rich characters; do expect exactly the same sort of wit you’d see in a Cyanide & Happiness comic. Even a brief stroll around the school will introduce you to a plethora of pupils with silly names, including the indecisive book lover Ian Conclusive; Walter Fountain, who’s trying to break the record for most water consumed from a fountain; Peeter Tinklage (guess what’s he’s up to); the marker-sniffing Mark Huffington; and Warren Wonderwall, who only communicates through song. Conversations with them will sometimes give you the option of a few different topics, and you’ll solve the occasional puzzle too if you choose the right ones. Given that Coop is pretty lonely and a little desperate, you can ask most people if they’ll go to the prom with you so you can experience a surprising amount of rejection.
All dialogue is fully voiced, and pretty skillfully too by American-sounding actors, with a wide variety of fitting performances for everyone you meet, like the meek-sounding Shark Dad, your neighbour who begs you not to interact with him. (In case you were wondering, he’s a shark who’s also a dad. You’re welcome). The quality acting thankfully extends to our main guy, Coop, who comes across very much as a stereotypical teen boy but somehow manages to be likeable too (even if his classmates don’t share that sentiment).
Every location, from the gym to the gas station, is also filled with interactive items and a bucketload of puns. Even talking to the floor tiles, windows and chairs provides amusing quips (“Talking to the floor isn’t my s-tile;” “This version of Windows sucks;” “Chairs – filmed in front of a live studio audience”). Examining the chalkboard will cause Coop to sadly reflect that “When nobody else is here, I drag my nails on this chalkboard so I can finally feel something for once.” The poor guy.
You can interact with almost everything – clearly a huge amount of time has gone into writing these one-liners, and it forms a significant part of the experience. If examining everything available isn’t your thing, you may find this game to be a little on the short side. It’s worth pointing out that this particular brand of humour isn’t suitable for kids due to swearing and some fairly low-brow jokes. At one point, for example, solving a puzzle in the local restaurant Le Telepathé will result in a narcissistic guy being served a plate of (pixelated) genitals.
In terms of tunes to bop along to as you explore Netherton High and its surroundings, the tutorial boasts an adrenaline-pumping number that signals ‘danger!’ well but is on a short loop so it gets samey quickly. While wandering the school, there’s a cheery, catchy pop instrumental, almost reminiscent of a Japanese dating sim, but it too gets repetitive real fast. When you’re finally free to roam the town a little further, the track switches but it’s along the same vein – light-hearted and chirpy – and then a more mellow piano and wind-instrument-based ditty greets you when you make it back home. There are some nice audio touches as well, like Legend of Zelda-style reward sounds when you pick up an item, and some disturbingly loud kissing noises from a couple in the corridor (“Like two slugs wrestling in a bowl of chilli”).
The colourful stickman graphics are crisp and clear, emulating the cartoons perfectly, with smooth animations from both the protagonist and the quirky characters you’re surrounded by. It’s so spot-on that playing is almost identical to an interactive episode of the show. The occasional short cutscene is simple, effective and beautifully animated. While you’re roaming the school’s halls and beyond, the backgrounds are full of life and motion: birds fly past in the sky; a student scribbles away in art class; Ed Spresso the coffee-loving teacher is constantly jittering, hopped up on caffeine in the staff room; and the heart-broken janitor going through a bitter divorce (who seems to be overwhelmed with work given the amount of trash littered around) glumly sweeps up in the canteen. And let’s not forget the guy outside the retirement home, who yells that he doesn’t care before opening his umbrella and floating off into the distance.
Freakpocalypse’s controls are fairly standard and intuitive. A green question mark will pop up when you roll your cursor over something you can inspect further; click on it and you’ll get a choice of how you can interact (looking, touching or talking). Once you’ve tried them all, the question mark will turn grey, providing a handy way to keep track of what’s still left to explore in any scene. There doesn’t appear to be a hotspot highlighter, which might have been helpful given the impressive number of items to interact with. It’d honestly be a shame to miss any of the gags. Navigating your surroundings can be done with a simple mouse click, and double-clicking on a door or exit will instantly transport you to the next screen.
There’s also the option to play entirely using the keyboard, with WASD to navigate Coop and a set of keys that can be used for moving your cursor around the screen and selecting items without ever touching a mouse. For most people, using the mouse will be far quicker, although there is a really odd and irritating ‘wobble’ to the cursor as you sweep it around the screen.
Most of the puzzles involve finding and using inventory items, which can easily be accessed by clicking on Coop’s bag in the bottom left corner of the screen. From there you can select, inspect or combine the things you’ve picked up along your adventure.
There’s a notebook that handily contains your objectives and an in-built hint system which nudges you in the right direction by giving you clues as to where to go to progress on a particular task. It’s somewhat cryptic at times but a helpful function to narrow down the options given that there are so many things to examine. However, the puzzles aren’t really that tricky, and quite a few of them have solutions that are clearly signalled (for example, on trying to open a locker to get your epic field trip slip, Coop will mutter that he could probably bust into it using a pencil). There are a few side quests that aren’t necessary for successfully completing the game, but are worth doing for more laughs along the way, such as setting up Crystal Sobs (whom you find crying her eyes out in the girls’ bathroom) with a prom date, or getting your hands on some ‘medicinal’ scented marker pens.
The real fun to be had here isn’t in the puzzles, it’s in interacting with everything around you and giggling at the juvenile humour. In the notebook you’ll find lists of trophies and nifty costumes you collect as you explore. You can use the wearable items to dress up your character in-game, including a rather fetching tin-foil hat. As well as the autosave, you can save your game manually via the notebook too. There aren’t multiple save slots to choose from, but you can have more than one profile, each of which has its own save file. The notebook also contains a map to help navigate your way around the school; there’s no fast-travel function, though.
It’s possible to die – at least, I managed it once, anyway – and the game will employ a movie-trailer style voice to tell you that since you're now deceased you’ve failed to do what Coop has been desperately trying to this whole time – find a prom date. Harsh but fair. You do get the option to continue though, so it’s just for giggles; no progress is lost.
Episodic games are always tricky. A series debut must leave players on tenterhooks to come back for Part 2, but feeling satisfied with the ending of the first instalment as well. I’m not sure Hall Pass to Hell really gets the balance right. Most of the story is primarily scene-setting, and you only get a very brief glimpse of the Freakpocalypse from the title near the end. If anything, this opening episode feels more like a prelude to the real adventure still to come, which isn’t at all indicated by the seemingly standalone game title. If you accept that it’s left unfinished, however, and don’t mind a game that focuses on exploration over puzzles, this pun-laden point-and-click should be right up your alley, particularly for existing fans of Explosm’s comics.
Although Freakpocalypse – Part 1: Hall Pass to Hell ends a little prematurely, this pun-packed and polished traditional point-and-click series debut should appeal both to fans of the Cyanide & Happiness web comic and genre aficionados looking for a fun cartoon-styled adventure.
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