Title: This is the Zodiac Speaking
Developer: Punch Punk Games
Release Date: October 15, 2020
Reviewed On: Switch
I’m sure by now everyone knows about the Zodiac killer, so I don’t need to go into too much detail. Still, it is a rather interesting subject that hasn’t really found its way into gaming. In the Punch Punk Games-developed adventure horror, This is the Zodiac Speaking; players can approach the subject from a journalist’s perspective. However, the Nintendo Switch is probably the worst way to experience the best elements this game has to offer.
This is the Zodiac Speaking has players assume the role of Robert Hartnell as he receives a call from the famous serial killer, the Zodiac. It’s then that we see elements of Robert’s life become consumed by the killer. So much so that he even seeks psychiatric help, which plays a substantial role in the gameplay loop. Over time, Robert could be considered another of the Zodiac’s victims even if he’s still alive as he loses much of his loved ones since the only thing he cares about serial killer’s motives.
I was pretty conflicted with Robert at first. The story doesn’t seem to want you to like or hate him. Instead, you feel like you’re just on a ride through his recovery as he pieces together these events. However, it’s then you learn that the game is non-linear, and you’ve had an effect on the plot for longer then you might have guessed.
The game doesn’t explicitly tell you things about the narrative and how your choices can weigh on the multiple endings it offers. However, it also seems to leave out important gameplay elements as players conduct detective work and piece together clues. The problem with this is that you aren’t a detective, so its not clear why Robert is the one that has to do this.
These elements make you question what is real and what is a part of Robert’s deteriorating mental state. It makes for some of the more interesting gameplay moments that leave the narrative being the most redeeming factor about the experience, at least when it comes to the Switch version.
While you recount some of the murders conducted by the Zodiac killer, you are thrust into an environment where you can investigate the area, collect items, look for clues, and then bring it all together. While this works, for the most part, the game does a pretty bad job of explaining it and opts to instead focus on the fact that while you’re doing all of this, this Zodiac killer is walking around ready to kill you.
Interestingly, this does make sense since we are looking into Robert’s idea of the murder scenes. It resembles how the Zodiac killer is constantly haunting him, so I guess I can’t knock the imaginative murderer for his lacking AI. As the Zodiac killer walks around, you must avoid him.
The Zodiac killer has an excellent sightline, but different elements factor into this, such as lighting and hiding behind structures. However, the Switch makes it incredibly difficult to know when you are in the light or not due to the lack of graphics. I took a look at the PC version and was simply blown away and a little jealous of how the developers used the lighting to set the tone of the level.
For the most part, the Switch version rips away everything that makes the stealth gameplay mechanics fun. You are left with cartoonish environments that look like they can out of the PlayStation era. The game loses any sense of tension because you are more focused on what is going to pop in as you navigate the stage. If that wasn’t bad enough, I became motion sick after playing the Switch version after 5 minutes and had to take numerous breaks. I’m not sure if this was me or the game, but I’m not really one to get motion sick during video games.
It’s around this time you’ll wish that you were playing the game on the PC if you hadn’t been already. The sound levels are all over the place, and the gameplay features become a chore because you start to wish that you just turned off the option for the Zodiac to be present. However, you want him there because he is supposed to give the levels an eerie feeling. Sadly, this version of the game puts a magnifying glass on everything that is lacking.
This is the Zodiac Speaking is a decent psychological thriller significantly hurt by the Switch’s underpowered hardware. The narrative is there, but everything else falls short in terms of visuals, graphical glitches, and sound. There are some nice features here, but I urge you to play the PC version if you can.
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