For a genre that’s approaching its 100th year, there’s something punchy and stylish about Film Noir. The cigarette smoke, dames and rain-soaked trenchcoats feel effortlessly cool, while the black-and-white, good-versus-evil framing gives it a mythic feel. Then there’s the violence and sex, simmering and waiting to boil over, which give the genre an edge, making it feel like anything can happen.
Like the Western, Film Noir hasn’t gone away, even though we’ve moved further and further from eras they’re based on. You can see Noir surfacing in other genres, in examples like Blade Runner and Batman. And now we have Chicken Police – Paint it Red (dear god, the title is unforgivably bad, but don’t let it put you off). It’s a reasonably straight Film Noir, in that it’s told in delicious black and white, lifting details from America in the ‘40s, and telling a conventional detective yarn with it. Less conventional, however, is switching out humans for anthropomorphised animals (although Blacksad and Zootropolis beat them to the punch), delivering a world where species tensions are barbed, threatening to rip through society.
You play Sonny Featherland, a veteran detective (and chicken) who’s 121 days from retirement and serving a suspension. Into your apartment saunters a seductive goat called Deborah Ibanez (yep, a seductive goat, you’ll have to get used to it), who works for a Miss Natasha Catzenko, a cat-fatale who owns the city’s popular Czar Club and has been receiving death threats. She wants you to both protect her and find out who’s doing this. As with any Detective Noir, the case begins simply, but soon doom-spirals into intrigue, violence, double-crossing and tommy gun bullets in your sedan.
This all plays out as a point-and-click without items. The emphasis is on conversation, as you work through three tiers of interrogation with most of the characters you meet. You’ll start with basic conversation, which will lead to areas for questioning, which finally lead to interrogation. It’s in this last tier that you’ll have the most control: you’re given ‘Impressions’ of the subject’s mindset and motivations, and you’ll have to choose questions that probe at those weaknesses. Choose the questions poorly and the subject might recoil; get them right and they’ll be forthcoming, and your Questioning Rank, tallied at the end, will be particularly high.
Your case file will thicken as you discover more from these conversations, unlocking more areas to visit from the game’s map, and progression through the chapter. The game is broken up into five of these chapters, and each ends with an Investigation, where you’ll pause to literally string together suspects and motives, in a kind of end-of-term test (it doesn’t really matter if you forgot key events: there’s no punishment for failure here, and you can trial-and-error your way through it). That’s largely it: Chicken Police – Paint it Red isn’t interested in innovating with its mechanics particularly, and instead focuses on its visuals and storytelling.
Visually, Chicken Police – Paint it Red is slick and sensational. Developers The Wild Gentlemen have opted for a mixed media approach, combining photographs and 3D models to create a world that feels near-photorealistic. Honestly, you won’t see the seam. The black-and-white filter on everything is crisp and wonderfully lit, giving the experience a stylised look that is more Sin City than The Big Sleep, but stopping short of its splashes of colour and hyperactivity. Chicken Police sounds great too, with voice actors that get the reference material. Kerri Shale is blistering as Sonny Featherland, and he anchors everything with a gravelly stoicism.
Then there are the animal-humans. You’re going to have to overcome a bit of a kink here: Chicken Police sexualises them, and it becomes a fundamental plot point as the game veers into themes of sex workers. Lemurs, macaws and zebras lounge around seductively, their heads effectively grafted onto smooth human bodies, with all the curves and legs that brings (there are going to be some odd sexual awakenings based on this game, for sure). It’s something that you soon come to terms with, but it was definitely an initial break in our case. But while the choice of animal-headed characters seems gimmicky at first, it becomes vital as the relations between the species – insects being segregated into The Hive; predators still bruised from losing the Great Meat Wars – become core to the story.
While the dialogue starts off with a hiccup, too overwritten and full of Film Noir cliches in the opening section, it soon levels off and you begin to admire the quality of the writing. There are fantastically rounded characters here (we suppose they needed to be for the interrogation sections to work), and we would happily spend more time with them in future sequels. The world-building is impressive too, as you sense the edges of events and areas that the game doesn’t have time to explore. We loved how Sonny and Marty – the titular Chicken Police – were famous against their wishes (a journalist-seagull named Tim made them into overnight superstars), which meant that we never had to introduce ourselves in the game’s dialogue. It meant a lot of the game got straight to the point.
Plot-wise, it’s nothing to write home about, however. If you’ve watched more than a handful of Bogart joints then you’ll have experienced something similar to this, including a twist that leans too heavily on an overused trope. You’ll anticipate it way before the characters do, and it’s a particular shame, as it forms the pay-off for the whole kaboodle, making the ending a tad limp. Don’t let it put you off, though. If you’re a fan of single-player, narrative-driven games, the story, dialogue and characters are absolutely in the top tier, or close to it.
Regarding gameplay, Chicken Police will put a few people off. While there’s choice and gamification in the interrogation sequences, they are reasonably rare, meaning that – as a whole – there’s not a lot to actually do. You can choose the locations you visit and in what order (with some skippable moments, so you should make sure to visit them regularly), and there are three or four mini-game puzzles that crop up, but you’re mostly on a conveyor belt. For many, it won’t be enough, and the dialogue focus will grate. As someone who likes visual novels and loves graphic adventures, it wasn’t too much of an issue.
Less defensible is the divergence in the storytelling. We didn’t feel like we really made an impact on any of the characters or events in the game. For example, we fumbled through a couple of interrogations with only 20% ‘Focus’ (the measure of how correct your question choices were). It didn’t matter: we got what we wanted and were propelled to the next section regardless. It leaves you feeling a little inconsequential, that everything is predestined. It doesn’t look like there are multiple endings to unlock, for example.
Ultimately, the affection you feel for the characters, and the pull of the narrative, will keep you going all the way to the end. Chicken Police ends with something of a cliffhanger, and the two main characters natter about ‘another adventure being out of their hands’. The Wild Gentlemen would clearly like to tell more stories based on this cast, and we’d happily shell out some clams to experience it.
Chicken Police – Paint it Red on Xbox One is a real surprise – a glorious homage to Detective Noir fiction. It’s stylish, sassy and fun – Sin City with a wattle. But while it isn’t overloaded with gameplay, it’s a page-turner from start to finish, and we would happily spend more time with its characters in cases to come. In all honesty, we were expecting something of a bantam class, but Chicken Police turned out to be a heavyweight.