America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 09th Nov 2020 | 668 views
Serial killers are among the most captivating case studies in modern society. To think of what's driving the mind behind such sadistic slayings consistently nets undivided attention across psychology and criminology fields. Given the volume of dramatized works about them, the general public seems fascinated as well. Like any other media then, it makes perfect sense for games to utilize one of America's most disturbed murderers: The Zodiac Killer. Unlike that ubiquitous spree-killer, however, developer Punch Punk Games isn't able to elude its gratuitous crimes.
1969-1970 San Francisco. You play as Robert, a seasoned journalist for one of the Bay Area newspapers which was teased by Zodiac during his crime spree. A patented indicator of his involvement in killings were cryptic ciphers sent to police and nearby newspaper rags; supposedly, should they have succeeded in cracking them they'd have lead right to him. Out of the blue, The Zodiac calls Robert's home phone and demands they meet. What follows is a story about not only this famed killer but also of Robert's long-buried trauma.
From this intro, no one would be surprised if the story's structure follows something akin to David Fincher's Zodiac to some extent. While it does in fact highlight two prominent cases, the Lake Berryessa murder and the Riverside College murder (it's unconfirmed if he committed the latter), the context for how Robert arrives there takes a left turn. Six months after Chapter 1, Robert is no longer working at his Bay Area newspaper, but is still haunted by The Zodiac in his dreams. He formally enlists help from a therapist in order to stop these nightmares and solve the cases. Things turn stranger as Robert commits to completing "rituals", as instructed by his therapist, and diving into his unconscious mind for answers.
Suspension of disbelief is one of the biggest hurdles I had with this idea. Sure, in concept there is something tantalizing about seeing this killer face-to-face and his presence making once-buried trauma come back to curse you - in a sense. Yet it's strange just how straight-faced Zodiac Speaking treats this type of woo-woo logic as a valid means for Robert solving cases. Instead of investigating areas like an inquisitive journalist, you're exploring them while Robert's napping and then, somehow, giving peace to a couple of the victims. It becomes fantastical in believing Inception-esque detective work nets the same results as actual investigating.
The story is further damaged by its underwhelming presentation. Between the faux-country accent of The Zodiac, to the uneven consistency elsewhere, this may be the worst voice-acting line-up I've heard in a game this year. Cases of mismatched dialogue between voiced lines and subtitles go so far as to suggest a lack of professional oversight. Then again, perhaps these faults shouldn't be solely mounted against actors wrestling with a comatose script. Whether it's with respect to visual direction or pacing, there's virtually nothing captivating about this story, despite being built upon one of the most captivating serial killers of all time.
In sum, Zodiac Speaking's greatest error is doing so little worthwhile with this source material. The melding of psychodrama and historical events sounds like a neat idea on paper. But through sole fault of its own, the game is never able to execute (pun intended) on its plan in a meaningful way. The surprises will leave you dumbfounded by their expectedness, the horror elements rarely elevate your heart rate, and the revelations leave you questioning why you ever bothered.
The disparity between respectable idea and poor foundation extends to gameplay as well. Imagine a low-budget Alien: Isolation replacing The Xenomorph with The Zodiac. Even without the likes of Isolation's budget or name recognition, there's something about this horror-stealth structure I can see being expanded upon. But despite there being rare positives I can at least mention, it's still fundamentally disjointed.
It's a simple process: a first-person stealther where you slink past The Zodiac in order to complete rudimentary puzzles, avoiding lights or making loud noise all the while. The first problem comes down to mechanics. Simple issues like automatically standing up after using the lean button resulting in him detecting you, getting stuck in the geometry when trying to go over steps, or Zodiac going through certain vehicles to catch you put a huge damper on the play experience. The stealth being so bare-bones also leaves little in the way of experimentation. There are no throwable items to create a distraction, no ingenuous traps to lay which can deter his chase, or anything more complex than avoiding line of sight; sadly, even this wasn't a guarantee thanks to several moments of the eyes in the back of his head sensing me. The slow, lumbering procession to uncover another clue against this unbeatable foe becomes more boring than frightening.
There's also something to be said about the ruleset. What I mean by that is acknowledgement of the noise and light meters nets you no tangible difference in success; the biggest problem being how unaccommodating they are to gauge, especially the light meter. After Chapter 1, each of Robert's dream sequences has this hazy-blue lens filter. This permeates the environment so much that you can't even tell if you're too close to a light source; you'll need to rely on your UI for that. The same could be said for finicky sound detection too. What's lacking here are the expected secondary auditory elements to compliment you walking around. On top of that, the sound of your shoes occasionally drops out, leaving you unsure if walking speed will draw his attention.
These frustrations would bubble up into a raging anger were your consequences given any impact, yet that also comes with its own issues. Since each solved mini-puzzle or acquired item is like a hidden checkpoint, getting caught simply brings you back to where you started. Hell, it was an effective method of fast travel on some occasions! Lacking impact also extends to the near-useless choice system. Aside from multiple endings - which I couldn't less about - there's no urgency or consequence felt with the presented options. Sometimes the game contradicts your own decisions anyways. I opted to bring Robert's stashed gun to the Zodiac meet-up in Chapter 1, but upon arrival Robert becomes contrite about deciding not to bring his firearm.
From beginning to end, Zodiac Speaking's gameplay structure scarcely gets off the ground. To its credit, the tense musical number whenever Zodiac gives chase really works, in spite of excessive repeating. Incorporating puzzles & discoveries directly based upon his real-life actions displays the fact that these developers did some homework too. And despite ragging on the overall puzzle structure, I did appreciate the rare creative ones; but it’s also in keeping with this game that I accidently completed the hardest one. That could be why it's barely tenable to emphasize the few gold stars: even Zodiac Speaking's successes can feel incidental compared to the flawed whole.
As some of the previous paragraphs suggest, neither the audio nor art design have any exemplary qualities. The art design has a sort of... "inspired dullness" radiating from it. The aesthetic is robbed a bit by the intrusive blue filter, but I can see what they were going for. The budget constraints in regard to locales, polish, etc. are easily noticeable. If you falter in providing quality textures I can easily forgive that... if your world has texture, meaning the world design still feels lived-in and vibrant. With respect to density or quality, the levels are rather stale facsimiles of their real-life counterparts. Just as the spiritless visuals fail to immerse you in 70s California, the sound design rarely gives true atmosphere to any environ.
Despite discussing the underwhelming art style, special credit should be given to Zodiac Speaking's unpolished technical graphics as well. Even when playing this dated title on an Xbox One X the screen-tearing was incredibly apparent. There are varying levels of quality to the empty levels, but the times at Robert's house can feel migraine-inducing upon arrival. Because of all the paraphernalia and extra rendered detail it's as though the game turns off anti-aliasing, resulting in a type of fuzziness wherever you look. I had to train myself not to get distracted by it to avoid further discomfort.
Whether with respect to the experience or dollar-per-hour value, I have a hard time deciphering much worth for Zodiac Speaking. My first playthrough on Serial Killer Mode lasted roughly three hours, which is quite pitiful for a $20 game. What softens that blow are the multiple endings (three in total) and alternate difficulty, dubbed "Story Mode," removing the stalking Zodiac from the equation. As much as I respect having the option, I believe this distorts the whole purpose of the game. As blundering as the horror-stealth glue is, a conflict-free walking sim featuring generic puzzles sounds monotonous as hell. Even as a curio of 8th-gen stealth games to examine and dissect I’d say flee the other way screaming as loudly as your lungs allow.
Like the letters sent by this title's inspiration, This Is The Zodiac Speaking remains a confounding mess to me with respect to its story and gameplay intentions. Again, there is credit due to the concept of combining personal trauma with investigative work on The Zodiac; the same can be said of an indie studio striving for horror-stealth tension a la Alien: Isolation in its game design. That's what makes its massive fumbles a sight to behold. Zodiac Speaking's woeful technical issues, jumbled story, stilted presentation, uncoordinated game design, and overestimated value all contribute to it being among the worst games I've reviewed thus far. Were this game - somehow - the only way uncover the truth about The Zodiac, I'd say let the case stay cold.
Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.