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To Hell With The Ugly Review

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To Hell With The Ugly is something we don’t see enough of. It’s an adaptation of a novel, but not a novel that’s been subsequently made into a film or TV series. Written by Boris Vian in 1948, it was once described by its English translator as “a pornographic Hardy Boys novel set on the Island of Dr. Moreau to a be-bop soundtrack”. Which is an adequate description of the game adaption, as it happens.

In To Hell With The Ugly, the main character is Rock Bailey, a 19-year old boy who cruises the jazz scene of Los Angeles. We’re told that he’s distractingly beautiful, and he proudly wears his virginity on his sleeve, determined to maintain his chastity until he’s older and meets the right person. That’s too much of a temptation for the female clientele of the Zooty Slammer, Rock’s favourite jazz club, as they swarm him in the hope of plucking his cherry. 

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To Hell With The Ugly is pretty fascinating.

It’s fascinating to see the 1948 sensibilities transposed onto a modern game. In any other modern TV or film show, Rock would be taken down a peg. He’d be the good-looking buffoon with air between his ears. But in Boris Vian’s To Hell With The Ugly, he’s taken at literal face value. Men want to be him, women want to be with him, and he’s the hero of the hour. 

It takes a bit of mental calibration, if we’re being honest. He’s a tease, flirting with everyone but with no intention of following up. We wondered what his end-game was. He doesn’t say anything of merit, but everyone’s swooning around him. It’s a struggle, because we didn’t like him, not a jot, and that’s a massive obstacle to swing a leg over for a narrative adventure game. 

We can offer some reassurance: he does get his comeuppance. In a way. And we think that Boris Vian and the developers at La Poule Noire – ARTE France are of the same opinion that he is a buffoon, constructing – ever so slowly – a case against him and his type. But you don’t get that sense for a large proportion of the story, and you have to put up with him in the meantime. 

So, we follow this unlikeable douchebag as he meets a gangster in a back-alley and gets drugged and kidnapped. He awakes in a hospital ward of some sort, where a naked woman lies in his bed. He refuses to comply – chastity and all that – so he’s whipped off behind a curtain where he’s, um, helped to a climax against his will. The resulting emission is taken away, and out of the two, Rock is one that is dumped into the gutter. 

Rock returns to the Zooty Slammer to meet back up with his mates, only to find that a dead body is lying in the club’s phone booth. The police are called, and Rock assumes – correctly – that his swift capture and the murder are connected. So begins a film noir-esque mystery, as Rock works with his editor friend, Gary Killian, the police and the FBI to investigate whatever is going on, and bring down the crime ring that enables it.

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Mystery comes to the fore

Rock aside, I was quite taken with To Hell With The Ugly, particularly in its opening moments. It’s absolutely flipping gorgeous, for one, leaning into the original illustrations from the Boris Vian book to create a stylish, pop-art style. It reminded us quite a bit of the fabulous Genesis Noir in look, feel and adoration of jazz. It might not be quite as abstract and imaginative as that game, but they would make for a great double-feature. 

It also likes to stray from the narrative template reasonably frequently. Sure, a lot of the runtime is spent walking around claustrophobic environments, chatting to people about the case. But often there are distractions which display a passion for the source material. 

Combat, for example, takes place as ATB-style turn-based encounters. You choose an attack, and QTE-style prompts appear to determine whether you hit, critical hit or just plain miss. The same goes for defending, as the lackeys and henchmen try to knock you out with a hook. If it were the central game mechanic, it would be pretty naff: the QTEs are oddly inconsistent and there isn’t enough strategy in what you choose. But as an infrequent aside, it works fine.

There’s some extremely rudimentary stealth stuff (hide behind a fern when the goon comes past), some crime-scene investigation (actually really good, with the ability to swing the camera round the room and view under tables and chairs), and some deduction, as you piece together word fragments to make full statements. As with the combat, if you made a game focused on any of them, it would collapse like a house of cards. But because To Hell With The Ugly is so excitable, trying out ideas over a short-ish runtime, nothing becomes a problem for too long. 

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Yeah, there’s combat…

At about the halfway point, the story goes precisely in the direction you expect. You might even have read our preamble about the story and guessed (with a little help from the title) what the big deal is. But it’s testament to the delightful art, the knack for film-noir dialogue, and the hope that Rock might get more than a black eye that drives things along. We could sense that we were in for the long haul. 

But something really odd happens in the final straight, and we’re not sure how to properly digest it. We haven’t read the original Boris Vian text to know how true to the novel it is, but it is profoundly unsatisfying. Unless you can accept the nihilistic viewpoint, which comes to a couple of damning conclusions about where society is heading and who we all really are, then it will feel at best like a cliffhanger, at worst a betrayal of everything that came before. 

We were sprinting to the end of To Hell With The Ugly with a very strong score in mind – until that ending hit. It’s thrown us for a loop, as the characters would say. But it undercuts everything else so dramatically that we can’t help reflect it in the score. Which is a shame, as this jazz-tinged narrative adventure is as stylish as it is daft, and we don’t get enough of its like on the Xbox.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Absolutely gorgeous pop-art styling
  • Jazz soundtrack is great
  • Bizarre, daft and fresh
Cons:
  • Ending knocks the wind out of you
  • Individual minigames are a little rickety
  • Main character can be unsufferable
Info:
  • Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Purchased by TXH
  • Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One
  • Release date and price - 30 May 2023 | £16.74
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Absolutely gorgeous pop-art styling</li> <li>Jazz soundtrack is great</li> <li>Bizarre, daft and fresh</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Ending knocks the wind out of you</li> <li>Individual minigames are a little rickety</li> <li>Main character can be unsufferable</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Purchased by TXH</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), Xbox One <li>Release date and price - 30 May 2023 | £16.74</li> </ul>To Hell With The Ugly Review
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