It must have been some sort of coincidence that the week I played indie platformer Spate was the week I finished up watching HBO’s True Detective. It seemed given that both are noir detective stories with a good chunk of horror elements that I could reference one within the other as an easy way to grab your attention. And I need it now, because if there’s a game I’m asking you to check out, it’s Spate.
As I mentioned earlier, Spate is a 2.5D platformer starring a private investigator sporting the best New York accent this side of Christopher Walken. It begins in media res with our hero falling to his death and continues as he begins his investigation for a missing business mogul in the toxic, abandoned X Zone. The gameplay is most reminiscent of early platformers from long ago; Abe’s Odyssey comes to mind. Simple jumping and avoiding buzzsaws, along with several interactive puzzles in between like navigating a steampunk airship through various hazards or using a cannon to aim at various targets and switches. It’s old-fashioned, but it’s well designed and fun and does better with old concepts than several games do while “innovating”.
What makes this game unique is its dedication to the noir detective story. While the world is reminiscent of some sort of cross between James and the Giant Peach and the spider baby from Toy Story, the world and genre are hardcore noir staples. The detective, having lost his daughter and wife years ago, fell hard into the absinthe and continues to drown in it, in between long monologues about nature of his life and all life around him. It treads the line, as all noir detectives do, between insightful and silly but it’s always entertaining and never ridiculous. While the characters look like something out of a (Tim Burtonesque) child’s cartoon, the hero’s monologues regarding his alcoholism or his daughter only become more heart-wrenching as the game continues.
Video games are a craft, and it’s easy to forget that sometimes amongst the polygon count or the frames per seconds. Designed by a former Jim Henson (Muppets) and Disney animator, Spate looks like a handmade work of art. The graphics are all reminiscent of stop-motion while capturing a vaudevillian sense of theatrics. The camera in particular is so intuitive that it’s able to zoom in or out around the hero creating a sense of scale or intimacy at the turn of a dime. The only gameplay flourish works to heighten the visual splendor of the game. While controls are limited to basic jumping and talking, there is a third button that allows the hero to take a swig of absinthe from his flask. This gives no health or stat bonuses to the detective, in fact it causes the level to distort and twist in a way that makes the platforming more challenging. However, it does so in a way that makes the level, already twisted and nightmarish, somehow become more menacing. In certain areas more than others, a swig of absinthe transforms the whole area. The music relies heavily on orchestral strings and haunting vocals to complete the atmosphere.
My only complaints about this game are technical. There are a couple of times where the engine fails and I fall through certain platforms. Aside from that however, it’s a solid experience with little glitches or troubles.
If there was ever an art game that was equal parts art and equal parts game then Spate is that game. With a mastery of old school platforming mechanics and a visual style that’s more kitsch than dated, Spate weaves together a mature noir story with a visual style wholly unique but with influences from the animation studios the designer worked for. I appreciate Spate for its craftsmanship and love it for its story and atmosphere and for that I recommend you all check out this title.
[+Visuals that look handcrafted] [+Classic gameplay] [+Haunting story] [+Amazing sound design] [-Occasional technical glitches]