The 90s called, they want aaaaall of that that back.
Developer: XGen Studios
Publisher: XGen Studios
Released: July 27, 2017
I think I’ve made it pretty obvious from the considerable chunk of my review library that I’m a big fan of point-and-click adventure games. So I have to say that this year has certainly been a treat for the fans of the genre like myself who really should know better than to desperately cling to it like stubborn headlice. Take for example Thimbleweed Park, which offered a nostalgic throwback to its more popular days. Even Night in the Woods became my personal sleeper hit this year by delivering an honest portrayal of depression and mental illness and wrapped in the innocent guise of adorable animal people.
Developed by XGen Studios, The Low Road attempts to add itself to 2017’s growing list of stellar point-and-click adventures with a unique gouache-inspired art style, intriguing plot, and eye-catching puzzle design. But while that’s certainly an admirable goal to aim for, it doesn’t quite have the same charm or challenge to make it memorable, let alone enjoyable.
Set in the sexy, pulse-pounding world of the 1970s automobile industry, you play as Noomi Kovacs, a fresh-faced graduate from spy school who’s landed her first job at Penderbrook Motors. Expecting the world of corporate espionage to be full of car chases and adventures to exotic locales, Noomi is surprisingly shocked to discover her first day involves a mundane desk job.
Of course, through the magic of point-and-click shenanigans, Noomi quickly ends up partnered with ex-government agent, Turn, and sent out into the field to recover a missing agent and a kidnapped scientist from a rival company. But while eager to prove herself as a field agent, Noomi soon discovers that there may be more to her mission than meets the eye, testing not only her allegiances, but also her reasons for becoming a spy in the first place.
I have to admit, I was pretty surprised at how much I enjoyed The Low Road’s overall plot. Split into six chapters, it manages to set up an engaging mystery in its first half involving underground car company cults and perpetual motion plant motors before taking an interesting, if not fairly predictable twist around its midpoint. Unfortunately, it also ends rather abruptly on a disappointing note, leaving major plot threads to dangle for the sake of setting up a potential sequel.
But while I certainly enjoyed the plot, I often found myself getting distracted from it by the game’s dreadfully written characters. On one hand, a majority of the people you interact with end up being so unremarkable and two-dimensional that you could replace with them motionless cardboard cut-outs and lose nothing of value. Meanwhile, the few characters who do have some sort of personality all come across as astonishingly unlikable assholes that are trying far too hard to be witty and sarcastic every three seconds. Even Noomi starts right out of the gate as a selfish brat who won’t stop whining about not being taken seriously, despite her tenure as a spy being shorter than the lifespan of a fruit fly. And since the game offers no way for you to skip over any of its dialogue, you’ll have to sit through every one of these increasingly awkward, humourless interactions.
On top of that, the game’s puzzles end up being pretty disappointing as well. Admittedly, the game starts off fairly strong in this regard during its opening hour, swapping between some really cool traditional point-and-click puzzles and first-person brain teasers. One moment you’ll be talking to a woman over the phone, using small scraps of personal information to get her to open up to you, then the next you’ll be proving your haiku skills in a poetry slam with the company’s gadget guru.
Unfortunately, as the story goes on, the puzzles start relying more on the traditional inventory and dialogue puzzles, peppering only a few first-person segments throughout. And while I certainly don’t have any qualms with solving the usual “rub thing against other thing” style of puzzle, they’re designed to be so easy that very little thought even needs to go into figuring them out. The areas you explore within each chapter are incredibly tiny, offering only a handful of objects and characters to interact with. As a result, you’ll most likely know an item’s purpose the moment that you pick it up.
Honestly, the only real challenge you’ll end up encountering occurs during certain dialogue puzzles, playing out in a manner I can only describe as “trial and go fuck yourself”. Rearing their heads during game’s final hours, these puzzles will punish you hard for picking the wrong dialogue options, causing the game tell you off with a lengthy game over screen before booting you back at the start of the conversation. While the game does at least do away with the long game over ceremony after the first fuckup, it’s a little hard to see it as a kindness. Especially since a lot of these puzzles can take up to ten minutes to finish and have, once again for those in the back, no ability to skip dialogue. As a result, a lot of my time during the last half of the game was spent wondering just how many of the voice actors couldn’t afford proper soundproofing while I waited for them to finish quipping back and forth for the third time in a row.
Ultimately, despite its promising opening hour, The Low Road doesn’t live up to the lofty goals it sets for itself. While the game certainly delivers an intriguing plot, it’s far too easy to be distracted by its failings to appreciate it. With irritating characters, easily solved puzzles, and a lack of player-friendly functionality, The Low Road ends up being more of an infuriating experience than a memorable one.
An eye-catching yet troublesome point-and-click adventure.