Tales from Off-Peak City: Volume 1 – Caetano’s Slice review
The term “Lynchian” frequently gets thrown around to describe any weird or unconventional media, but the first volume in the Tales from Off-Peak City anthology series truly does deserve the label. Used to describe the very particular eerie surrealism of a David Lynch film, it’s a concept that’s difficult to put into words, but easy enough to spot if you’re familiar with the renowned director’s work. Caetano’s Slice, the debut installment by indie developer Cosmo D Studios is surreal, unnerving, and dreamlike (or maybe nightmarish), but there’s an undercurrent of absurd humor that nicely balances out the tone. In the two hours it took me to complete the story and poke around Off-Peak City, there are more memorable moments than many bigger-budget games include in three or four times that length. While I wish it were a longer experience, this is a unique and distinctive adventure that anyone willing to roll with its off-kilter atmosphere should try for themselves.
A part of the larger Off-Peak universe, which also includes 2016’s free Off-Peak and 2017’s The Norwood Suite, Volume 1 of this new anthology begins with you facing a man and a woman on a boat making its way to the corner of July Avenue and Yam Street, located in what an average city neighborhood might look like in a nightmare. Your two companions give you a task: steal Caetano Grosso’s saxophone by getting a job at his pizza shop and slowly gaining his trust. The sax is extremely valuable, and the man and woman hope to use the money they make from selling it to pay the former’s medical bills. What they don’t tell you is just how many strange places your pizza deliveries will take you, and how important you will become to the mysterious city’s future.
You provide the unseen protagonist’s name, and you’re given no backstory to speak of. Instead, you’re left to explore a neighborhood full of eccentric characters, talking apartment buildings with faces, and intimidating goons eager to give you a “newcomer’s welcome.” Your character is controlled with the standard first-person 3D control scheme: WASD or arrow keys to move, mouse to look around and click to interact, and TAB to open your inventory. The game also has full controller support, as well as the ability to play (from what I can tell) with only the mouse, holding the right mouse button to move in the direction you’re facing, and hitting the middle button to bring up the inventory. Either way, the crosshair in the center of the screen becomes a hand symbol when you can take or interact with an item or open a door.
Save for a few light inventory puzzles and pizza-making (more on that later), the majority of the gameplay involves roaming the delightfully odd neighborhood, listening to residents talk (there are no dialogue options, just clicking to advance the text), taking photos, and scouring for film and pizza toppings. When I say “light” inventory puzzles, I mean it, as it’s never unclear what is meant to go where or be given to who without much thought. A better word might be inventory tasks, as exploration is the clear focus here rather than puzzle solving. The photo mode is optional, but the film collectibles give you access to different filters for the in-game camera, ranging from a simple black-and-white to a number of others that distort the color and texture of the image. In addition to the different film effects, you can adjust the zoom, focus, and shutter speed.
Once you’ve secured a job at Caetano’s pizza parlor, you can step into the kitchen and begin making pies. Orders come in on a small screen, but they’re all nonsensical; one simply reads, “We must, as always, consider the source.” You appear to be given carte blanche to make the pizzas however you choose, with as many or as few ingredients as you like. Here you can use the extra pizza toppings you’ve gathered, but toppings in Off-Peak City are not the type that you’d expect—they’re chocolate chips, worm gummies, and even some synthetic gray matter. One of mine had only sauce, one had flamingo meat and cheese, and another had every topping I could use. There’s no time limit, and no precision required; just click the order, drag the dough around to flatten it, and start dropping toppings on to your heart’s content.
After you’re done with your creation, the delivery address is on the box itself, which you can check at any time in your inventory. Navigating the neighborhood is simple, even without any kind of a map, thanks to the large building numbers and the fact that there are only two streets to deliver to. Each delivery earns you some money in tips, and each topping you chose will get an amusing comment from the customer. It seems that the tip is the same regardless of how you make the pizza, but I can’t say for certain—all I know is that I did whatever I wanted and everything still worked out just fine.
Each delivery you make introduces a new piece of the story, both from the customer’s dialogue and from snooping around their homes in classic adventure game fashion. The dialogue is well-written, but there’s no voice acting and I did notice a handful of typos and other small errors in the text. Not a huge problem, and considering how unconventional this game is, I wondered for a moment if they were intentional, but it doesn’t seem that way.
The mystery at the center of Off-Peak City is engaging, though it takes a bit of time for the pieces to fit together. For a game as short and distinctive as this one is, revealing more plot details would ruin a lot of what makes the experience so enjoyable, so I’ll leave that for anyone interested to discover for themselves. Besides, most of what I could share wouldn’t make much sense unless you see them play out personally (and even then only sometimes). You might stumble upon a room with windows looking out on an endless greyscale expanse, with only cows and a barn standing in what may or may not be water. Or you might walk in on a man fully clothed but sleeping in a bathtub of some sort of orange liquid. Off-Peak City is nothing if not unpredictable.
Volume 1 doesn’t hide the fact that it’s . . . well, the first volume in an ongoing series, but it works well enough all on its own. I was satisfied with what I’d discovered when I reached the end, though I still had plenty of questions. I wouldn’t call the ending a cliffhanger, but the final moments clearly set up a much larger story. Certain narrative elements are introduced throughout the game that aren’t resolved here, and those last scenes suggest that the actions you take in this volume are only the first steps towards solving the larger mysteries at work. I would say Caetano’s Slice strikes a balance between a rewarding standalone adventure and an intriguing piece of a bigger puzzle, and I’m eager to play the next episode.
The Off-Peak universe has a distinctive art style. Character models and animations, when they aren’t obviously “off” with heads that seem mismatched with their bodies, look and behave relatively normal but there are just enough strange details to make even these characters feel wrong—like their stiff, looping animations and heads that follow you if you move around while you’re having a conversation. Textures are either blurry or highly detailed, yet somehow none of what I’ve mentioned is a complaint in this particularly eccentric city. There’s a skill evident in the decidedly unusual aesthetic, with its atmospheric lighting and cohesive strangeness, and I honestly can’t imagine the atmosphere would come through as strongly if the developers had gone with more hyper-realistic graphics.
You visit a number of different apartments, as well as a few other locations over the course of the game. Each pizza order got me excited to see where the delivery would take me, whether it was a family home with mood lighting and a baby with a man’s face in the cradle; or a pawn shop with bowling pins, trout, and a nose broken off a sculpture sold side by side. Then there’s Caetano’s pizza parlor, with its bronze busts and spots along the walls to place your own photos taken with the camera. Head outside and you’ll see that architectural proportions are skewed and perspectives are warped. A metro car scatters sparks as it hangs off a broken track, and large heads (both human and animal) with glowing eyes are mounted around the city, sometimes even built right into the sides of the buildings. The city feels dangerous and unstable, but endlessly fascinating. All the areas I visited had something memorable to see, and I’m sure I missed a few places with even more to look at. It’s a joy to explore this world.
The odd visuals are accompanied by an equally odd soundtrack. (In fact, you might as well just use “odd” to describe every element of this game.) I liked the score right from the bass riff in the opening theme, and each of the 15 tracks is as sonically interesting as it is uncategorizable. There are elements of jazz, electronica, maybe even some psychedelia, but I’m not sure that I could place any of it into a single genre box. Of the many things that Cosmo D does well here, the atmosphere is among the best, thanks in large part to this terrific soundtrack.
Even beyond the background accompaniment, music is a part of the soundscape of Off-Peak City. You might hear discordant strings and see bright lights coming from a building as you pass, while characters “speak” with musical notes and percussive sounds, and even placing pizza toppings is punctuated by the sound of a musical instrument. A slice of pepperoni might produce a xylophone note, a basil leaf may land with the sound of a bongo—quite literally in this case, music is baked into nearly every element of Tales from Off-Peak City.
There’s a good chance, of course, that something this unusual and singular in its style will turn some players off. The sheer weirdness of this game might be more than some are willing to handle, not to mention the discomforting atmosphere that permeates just about everything in Off-Peak City. I wouldn’t call Caetano’s Slice a horror game (save for one scene towards the end that genuinely creeped me out), and it has plenty of funny moments, but those not willing to dive into an adventure that feels like an uneasy fever dream might want to avoid this one. For everyone else, however, especially those for whom the term “Lynchian” is of particular interest, go in with an open mind and I think you’ll have one of your more memorable gaming experiences. I know I certainly did.
A short but satisfying adventure in a surreal and creative world, Caetano’s Slice is a terrific entry in the Off-Peak series and a promising first volume of a new anthology.
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