April 9, 2008

A quirky future Earth where mankind’s rampant genetic engineering both allowed for the evolution of intelligent bugs as the dominant species (or to be scientifically accurate, class) and the de-evolution of humans into hyper-allergic “hominids”; a noir-style murder mystery containing a personal quest to uncover one’s forgotten past; and well-written, humorous, fully-rendered, voice-acted cinema scenes: this is Insecticide, an almost well-executed game. Its one glaring flaw that drags it down to merely Above Average is, somehow, the decision to use the DS as a platform for the unique blend of genres.

Insecticide features two distinct styles of gameplay. One of them, “Detective Mode”, is a point-and-click puzzle interface in the vein of old-school LucasArts/Lucasfilm Games PC classics like Sam and Max Hit the Road — which is fitting, as several of the programmers at developer Crackpot Entertainment list that and other such titles on their resumes. This is the type of gameplay at which the DS excels, with its two screens and stylus interface, and it should come as no surprise to learn that this mode is incredibly solid. There is no voice acting during this mode, sadly, but the humor is brilliant and the puzzles are creative; a few key objects may be difficult to pick out from the backgrounds, but that’s the kind of thing that makes this types of game work — call it the “Oh! Why didn’t I think of that sooner!” factor.

The other half of the game is “Action Mode”, which turns the game into a third-person 3D platforming shooter along the lines of Ratchet & Clank. These types of game are completely dependent on their control schemes, and the DS simply cannot provide quality analog control to make this anything less than frustrating. You have the choice of using “Button Mode” or “Stylus Mode” to control rookie detective Chrys Liszt during these sequences, but neither one is acceptable. Button mode (the default setting) had a chance, with lock-on aiming included to help you navigate, but the inability to customize your buttons forces you to use the R button to shoot and the A button to lock on, which is backwards to everything my hands want to do in this situation; the fact that Chrys automatically “sidesteps” — a jerky, hopping motion that you can enable when not locked on by holding L — when moving while locked on was also a hindrance. Stylus mode features such ill-conceived ideas as tapping the screen to jump and having to cycle through two pages’ of weaponry once Chrys has accumulated more than four guns. The only saving grace of Action Mode is the fact that you have unlimited lives, which is fortunate as you will be dying with obnoxious frequency no matter which way you try to control the game.

The controls aren’t the only issue with Action Mode, sadly. One stage sees Chrys infiltrating a stronghold after being stripped of all her weapons; it would have been helpful if it was mentioned that she was capable of unarmed combat at any point, but on every level prior to this she had a pistol with unlimited ammo, so there is no reason for you to know this. It’s possible that it was mentioned via on-screen text and I just missed it somehow, but that’s probably because the text was red against a largely-red background and flashed past too quickly for me to notice; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that happened in this game. Additionally, the screens tend to be very dark (on my original non-Lite DS, at least), which can make discerning between a platform and a bottomless pit — or even a fall just slightly over Chrys’s very un-bug-like tolerances — a bit iffy. There are also the usual camera problems, but all of these are really minor when compared to the inability to reliably control Chrys at all for half the game — including three Boss Fights. You might get the hang of it eventually, or at least stumble your way through enough to clear the stages out of sheer perseverance, but you will probably never actually enjoy it.

I would love to see Insecticide done “correctly” on a console rather than a handheld (there is also a PC version), as just about everything else about the game, from the graphics to the sound to the concept, is rock-solid. If they find the time to add to the length a bit (by adding more Detective Mode scenes, ideally) that would also be a plus, as I was able to complete the game in a handful of hours — most of which were spent dying in Action Mode. I also wouldn’t be opposed to a sequel featuring some of the other characters in the 47th Precinct Insecticide Division, whom we only meet briefly in one Detective Mode scene. Overall, Insecticide works far better in concept than in actual execution, but the game is still fun on the whole and bonus points have to be awarded for at least trying something different.

Score: 3/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.