Somewhere between degaussing pigeons to make pie and fending off pizza zombies in an Evil Dead parody, it began to dawn on me that Jazzpunk isn’t quite what you’d call normal. Around the time I found a wedding-themed quake clone hidden in an ornate cake at a tiki-themed beach resort, I realized I was playing something transcendent. I can’t for the life of me pin down just what this game is, but I can honestly say that there’s no better name for it than Jazzpunk.
Jazz is a million different things to a million different people, but what pretty much everyone can agree on is that it’s something you feel. The music has a certain swing to it, an improvisational energy that varies from performer to performer, and while you can certainly enjoy a recorded piece, you don‘t really “get” it until you see it played live. Jazzpunk embraces that spirit and channels it into comedy, hurtling everything it can think of at the wall and hoping it sticks. The core game is a sendup of spy stories, but while you’re infiltrating the Russian consulate you might find yourself injuring a frog in a crappy Frogger clone, or paying a robot hooker 500 yen for sex.
“Wait,” you say. “Yen?” Jazzpunk’s world is a crazy hodgepodge of cold war paranoia and movie tropes, gussied up with a bit of cyberpunk flare and probably conquered by Japan for good measure. It’s never explicitly stated, but North America is called the “United Prefectures of Japanada” and most signs are written in Katakana, it seems like this is an alternate universe where Japan won World War 2. Other games might make a big deal of exploring that concept, but in Jazzpunk it appears they just ran with it because Japan is weird and funny. Y’know, why not?
You are Polyblank, a top-ranking secret agent in this strange, conspiratorial world. The opening moments of the game see you shipped across the world in a giant, man-shaped briefcase, presumably returning from some dangerous adventure. A strange old man in an office on a subway platform gives you missions (in the form of Missionoyl™ pills) and drinks himself to sleep under his desk. For some reason, other spies and criminal organizations take you very seriously. Sometimes you feed koi in a Zen garden. It may seem like I’m doing a poor job explaining this, but I promise you the game itself makes even less sense. You just have to roll with it.
Comedy is a hard thing to manage in games. We’ve gotten plenty of gems in recent years (especially thanks to the advent of improve slapstick games like Octodad), but we’re still faced by an overwhelming number of titles that just can’t be funny no matter how hard they try. Despite knowing TV comedy inside and out, Adult Swim have dumped a lot of crap on us over the years, but they’ve also brought us sublime works like Amateur Surgeon and Robot Unicorn Attack. Necrophone Games have the writing chops, thankfully, to put them in the latter category. Though the cheap visual gags strewn throughout levels elicit a lot of laughs, the absurdist script is quite clever in its own right.
Many studios clearly go to a lot of effort to bring their worlds to life, but with Jazzpunk I honestly think that effort would have ruined it. Characters are presented as barely-animate humanoid cutouts styled after washroom signs, and they inhabit a beautifully ugly world made of garish 60s Technicolor and rendered with harsh cel-shading. With the Japanese cyberpunk aesthetic it’s sometimes reminiscent of Jet Set Radio, but with none of the cohesion or design sense. At the same time, though, the visuals are certainly eye-catching, and you can’t fault the game for looking like anything other than what it is.
You also can’t fault the game for sounding any different than it looks. The music is a loud, bold mix of percussion, saxophone, and electronic noise. The game uses a lot of stock sound effects straight out of the era it’s aping, so expect a lot of cartoon wooshes and boinks, and of course, The Wilhelm Scream. Every character in the game is voiced, though not all of them by actual actors. Jazzpunk makes liberal use of (bad) text-to-speech to give the impression of a world inhabited by robots and cyborgs, or maybe just to save money on actors. I lean toward the latter explanation, because what few actors there are sound like they’ve been recorded on cassette. It’s all very rough around the edges, but it’s clearly intentional.
Another area where the game is rough around the edges, and almost certainly not in an intentional way, is in terms of stability. Over the 4 hours it took me to complete the game, it crashed on me twice, froze on me several times, dropped me out of the map once, and was generally packed with irritating bugs. Gags I had already triggered would inexplicably reactivate, the game would forget which secrets I’d uncovered, and yet somehow, unfailingly, the corpses of the pigeons I’d degaussed stayed where they’d dropped for all eternity – even though a character was supposed to have picked them up. I also had issues where the game wouldn’t recognize inputs from my controller, but refused to let me use my mouse and keyboard because it knew I had a controller plugged in.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I haven’t said much about the gameplay, and that’s because there isn’t really much to say. This is an explore-em-up similar to Gone Home and Dear Esther, where the goal is to walk around and trigger interesting things. The goal here is humor, rather than poignant musings on life and sexuality, so it’s a lot more fun, but it’s still fairly bare-bones. Attempts have been made to liven things up with low-rent minigames such as the aforementioned Frogger and Quake clones, but while these are certainly good for a chuckle, none of them are particularly fun on your own. The joy in this game comes in seeing what what wacky nonsense Necrophone are going to throw at you next, and how far it’ll go when they do.
Not loving Jazzpunk is as difficult as classifying it. Few games are this confidently weird, and even fewer manage to pull off anything even resembling humour. If you’re looking to laugh a lot, and maybe even think about stuff just a little bit, give it a play. If you’re looking to be a jerk in a movie theatre from the comfort of your own home, the game will also cater to that need. It’s weird that way, and apparently so are you.