The belt-action beat ’em up is popping up in some unusual places this year. We’ve got Treachery in Beatdown City arriving in April, which is stapling the brawler to a turn-based RPG. And here we have BROK the InvestiGator, which has fused it with a point-and-click adventure. Perhaps we’ll get one mixed with a match-three puzzler or a karting game.
It actually makes a fair bit of sense for a point-and-click adventure. The genre has never handled threat and combat particularly well. If you ever get in trouble, the screen will go dark and you’ll be dumped out of a castle or whatever. Or you’re sword-fighting with insults, which is obviously brilliant, but can’t be done by every game. In BROK the InvestiGator (that capitalisation is going to get annoying), if there is a threat, BROK just tosses you at it.
BROK the InvestiGator imagines a far-future world populated by animals, but with just as much poverty and division as we experience now. The rich are ‘Dromers’, living in a domed city that is an oasis in a world that looks like it is recovering from an apocalypse. Outside of the dome is everyone else, with honest people just trying to make a living – like BROK and his son Graff – and criminal gangs, roughing up anyone who can’t pay for protection.
BROK is a private investigator, and – as anyone who watches film noir will tell you – that means he is a troubled soul. He has partial amnesia about the death of his wife, and carries a fear that he was involved in it in some way. He’s also desperately trying to make ends meet so that his son, Graff, can pass his citizenship tests and become a Dromer, moving out of the wasteland. But Graff is a textbook teenager and doesn’t see the point. He mostly wants to stay in his room and play on his tablet.
One morning, BROK gets a case. He’s hired by a cop called Sin, who wants to recover his stolen handgun (confessing it to his superiors would mean getting fired, and he’s not doing that). It’s not the most high profile of cases, but BROK goes along with it. Needless to say – and film noir fans again will know – that this is a single thread that, once pulled, causes all sorts of other plots to unravel. Before long, BROK is in jail, fighting in sewers, and generally switching between the Dome and the wasteland to clear his name. Even his son, Graff, gets roped in, with you controlling him for large swathes of the game.
This is, as mentioned, achieved in one of two modes. Most of the time, you will be playing BROK the InvestiGator as a graphic adventure. There are the usual 2D scenes to explore, with items to pick up and slot into your inventory, occasionally using them on one another or on things in the environment. There are people to chat to, with options on a radial menu, so you can Distract, Confront, Charm and more. How you approach dialogue will often determine how helpful your opposite number is.
The graphic adventure controls are pretty darn good, actually. You can skip from interactive element to element by tapping on the d-pad, which ensures that you exhaust everything in the scene and don’t have to go pixel hunting. You can also see all of the interactive elements in one overview, while a hint system means you can always fall back on half-cheating if you want to know what’s next. It can’t be used relentlessly, either: you have to find hint ‘ads’ in the scenes if you want to use them.
As a pure graphic adventure, BROK works like a bit of a dream. More and more areas open up over the course of BROK the InvestiGator’s rather ridiculous twenty-hour runtime, and the puzzles within them are perfectly logical. There were very few moments that we had to bring up a walkthrough or use the hint system, and we could always get the vague outline of what we were meant to do. Seen as a point-and-click adventure, BROK the InvestiGator is both easy to use and superbly constructed.
It’s everywhere else that we have a problem with BROK the InvestiGator. It’s not that the house of cards falls down thanks to its other elements; it’s more that the house gets boring after a while, and we found ourselves having to forcibly sit down to construct it.
A lot of the fault rests on the story. A far-future society filled with killer crocs, gangs full of mice and robot overlords should have been imaginative and enthralling, but it’s surprisingly dour. On the one hand, we felt like we had played the ‘animal gumshoe’ quite a lot, from Blacksad to Chicken Police, so the glamour wasn’t necessarily there to start with. But what surprised us most was how miserable everyone and everything is.
The writers want to poke and prod at class inequality, the hopelessness of being destitute, and the cruelty of autocratic governments. Those aren’t topics that are full of freewheeling happiness, and so it proves. We’ve seen enough Peaky Blinders to know that humour and joy doesn’t have to be a core component of a drama to make it engaging, but BROK the InvestiGator also doesn’t have the zip and interest in the dialogue to make it work. It mostly plods along, with slightly too much back and forth between each character, and very little in the way of colour (a friend, Shay, is about the closest that BROK gets to a memorable character over its runtime). We found it fascinating that a game that looks like this, with such a wild, varied cast could end up so dreary. It doesn’t help that the plot rarely goes anywhere, and we regularly had to forcibly remind ourselves of why we were doing what we were doing.
And then there’s the combat, which can’t hope to have the impact and depth of a Streets of Rage 4. Because of the flatness of the sprites, it felt a little like we were fighting with cardboard cutouts on sticks, which immediately softened everything that happened next. But we couldn’t get on with the fighting, mostly because the controls were so abstractly odd (we didn’t find or use the game’s block during the runtime – but we relied on a dodge-roll that was pulled off with an awkward back and B, away from the enemy), and because there wasn’t much depth to it to begin with. We found ourselves devolving to mashing buttons, mainly because we could juggle enemies on the spot as long as we were in their face and hit them enough.
A bit like BROK himself, BROK the InvestiGator is a bit of a hybrid. It’s a brawler spliced onto a graphic adventure, yet neither half of the gene pool is quite stable enough to support it. The graphic adventure logic is great, but we found the story to be a little meandering and dull. The beat ’em up stuff is nice in concept, but flat and awkward in execution. With their powers combined, you have a long, uninspiring adventure that we slogged through rather than enjoyed.
We loved the ambition of BROK the InvestiGator, but didn’t enjoy sticking around for the full twenty hours to see where it went.
You can buy BROK the InvestiGator from the Xbox Store
Edit: 21st March – Changed cop name to Sin | Amended mention of dodge/block-roll | Adding more personal comment in relation to the story arc
Inaccuracies in the review were rightly highlighted by the developers and some changes have been made. We would like to apologise to COWCAT for those errors. The changes did not impact on the final score.