Einstein once said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’ An oddly applicable statement when discussing The Innsmouth Case, a H. P. Lovecraft-themed, choose-your-own-adventure game. It’s a genre that’s often criticized for its obtuse logic and how it makes the player retread a lot of familiar ground as they hope for a favourable outcome of events. But does The Innsmouth Case manage to do enough to shake the trappings of its genre to make for an entertaining and compelling game?
- Not really.
- All of the above.
Dead End Case
In a self-aware nod to film noir, things kick off just like any detective story does. A femme fatale walks into a PI’s office and offers him a job he can’t refuse. The case? A young girl called Tabitha has gone missing, suspected of being kidnapped in the enigmatic coastal town of Innsmouth. Upon arrival, it’s immediately clear that the town isn’t what it seems. Your detective does everything to suppress the Wicker Man vibes of the situation and soldiers on to solve the case.
It’s worth mentioning that The Innsmouth Case doesn’t play like a ‘whodunit’ detective game. There are no clues to collect, no witnesses to badger into confessions, and no revelatory leaps of logic. This is a classic choose-your-own-adventure game, meaning the gameplay largely consists of clicking through numerous dialogue trees and seeing where that takes you. It’s an antiquated approach to gameplay that’s initially charming, but that good will dissipates once the trial and error nature of the genre rears its head.
Locating the kidnapped girl turns out to be a McGuffin for the true gameplay objective: seeing all of the game’s endings. Not to be one-upped by Nier: Automata’s 26 endings, The Innsmouth Case boasts 27 unique conclusions, which is about a dozen too many. Your choices inevitably result in your detective getting shot, mauled by ferrets, or transformed into an eldritch horror. When any of those things happen, the game ends, prompting you to reload the journey from a previous checkpoint to hunt for alternative outcomes. While this is standard within the genre, The Innsmouth Case doesn’t do anything to expedite this process. The provided list of rewind time checkpoints are placed way too far back in the story, forcing you to replay lengthy sections before you can return to remake pivotal decisions. To make matters worse, if you unwittingly start wandering towards an ending you’ve already experienced, there’s no quick way to backpedal to a previous dialogue tree. Instead, you have to endure the ending playing out for what may be the upteenth time before you get the chance to turn back the clock and try again. As a result, working the case inadvertently becomes a test of patience that’d decidedly play quicker and easier if it were a book, not a game.
To combat this somewhat, the game wisely treats endings like ‘collectible dead ends’ – there’s even an in-game achievement menu that showcases all the conclusions you’ve discovered. However, the unfortunate side effect of having so many endings is how it trivializes your journey through the story. It’s difficult to stay emotionally invested in the case when whatever choices you make could result in a wacky outcome. Some of which don’t even constitute endings! I earned a ‘Game Over’ screen after simply attending a wellness spa treatment. I didn’t escape Innsmouth or die a gruesome death, but the game still unceremoniously plopped me back to the rewind screen once the scene concluded. The game wants you to enjoy hunting for every ending, but your motivation to do so will likely wane after finding only a handful, since the process is inherently unfulfilling.
A Way With Words
Choose your own adventure games typically live or die on the quality of their writing, and thankfully, the writing here is admittedly decent. Detailed location descriptions immediately give players a great sense of place while liberal use of short sentences during life and death sequences heighten the tension effectively. Similarly, your self-deprecating detective’s internal monologues fit the modern-day film noir tone. Though he’s not an especially unique character, it’s sometimes entertaining to see his inner voice conflict with his actions. The prose occasionally has a tendency to get a bit carried away with itself, so some brevity would help, especially since you’ll be re-reading or skipping so much of it just to get back onto your desired progression path.
The game’s sense of humour consistently falls flat, though, since the writer repeatedly selects the lowest hanging fruits as avenues for comedy. There are gags about veganism, mormons, and fat, obnoxious tourists. For a game that so readily pokes fun at film noir cliches, it’s hypocritical when the writing then indulges in stereotypes for a cheap laugh. Characters with joke names like ‘Muriel Poopingplace’ only serve to lower the game’s tone even further, and it made interacting with this world occasionally feel like rifling through a Cards Against Humanity deck written by tittering teenagers. When ‘9/11 was an inside job’ was prompted as a dialogue option after a murderous cultist asked my detective if he had any last words, I let out an audible groan. While the writing shows genuine signs of craft, the authors at Robot Pumpkin Games consistently let themselves down with a lack of maturity.
Pretty as a Picture Book
An appreciable effort has gone into giving this text-heavy game some visual flair. The presentation as a whole is reminiscent of board game box art. The town of Innsmouth glistens like fool’s gold during the day, but skulking shadows darken the streets at night as if to say, ‘you’re not welcome here.’ Many citizens of Innsmouth even have lightly animated character portraits that bob up and down during conversations. It ain’t exactly Pixar, but their designs help you fill in the blanks when your imagination fails.
Sound design is serviceable, if a little boring. The same piece of piano-led elevator music plays in the harbour, the town center, and the police station, which makes exploring feel a bit stale. Though some scenes, like the beach, use soundscapes effectively. Some more bespoke hustle and bustle in other areas would give them a greater sense of identity.
Playing The Innsmouth Case is a stark reminder why choose-your-own-adventure games never really caught on. Though the writing valiantly attempts to honour H. P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth, few will ultimately have the patience to whittle through the game’s labyrinthe of narrative choices while labouring through repeated chunks of text and juvenile jokes. If you’re an honest, die-hard fan of the genre, there may be some fun to be had here, but for everyone else, it’s best to leave this case closed.
This review was based upon the PC version of the game. A review code was provided for this purpose.
Semi-decent writing isn’t enough to save The Innsmouth Case’s unengaging, trial-and-error approach to gameplay. An eagerness to flaunt its own wacky sense of humour hamstrings this detective mystery further, making it tough to recommend to even Lovecraft’s biggest fans.
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