The Low Road opens with one of my favourite video game puzzles of the year. The rest of what I've played, sadly, isn't quite on the same level.
The game, a spy comedy adventure set in 1976, begins with rookie agent (and player character) Noomi Kovacs being thrown into the deep end. Her new boss, a former government agent named Turn, asks her to call up a woman working at a cult-like company called Rev to extract information.
All you've got to go on is a folder of documents that you can flip through (physically, with your in-game hands) while chatting with the woman, Lacey, on the phone. Using those documents — an old wedding invitation, a list of Lacey's residences, a student transcript, and a letter to a newspaper advice columnist from Lacey's concerned mother — you've gotta piece together a snapshot of Lacey's life story and trick her into spilling sweet, sweet deets on what Rev is up to. One clumsy slip of the tongue, and she'll slam the phone down and never look back.
You can fail miserably, fumble your way through the social labyrinth despite being functionally blind, or wind up somewhere in the middle. The game carries on regardless, and characters react to how well you did. The scene is thrilling, tension-ridden, and packed with options — a fittingly strong start for a game that greets you at the door with a slick art style, (original) period-appropriate music, and a cool demeanour.
However, your character, Noomi, clearly doesn't want to be stuck doing desk work. She longs to get out in the field, infiltrate a compound or two, and get her hands dirty rifling through other people's un-aired laundry. The game quickly shifts to focus on that, with Noomi sabotaging her way into a major operation she otherwise wouldn't have gotten a chance to work in years — if ever — by solving a series of more traditional point-and-click adventure puzzles around her office.
Before long, it's off to Rev's island cult lair with Noomi's justifiably distrustful boss (who is also sometimes playable) for some good old-fashioned sneaking, lying, and manipulating.
I've played for a couple hours at this point, and it's all cleverly presented. The writing is fun, with the relationship between Noomi and Turn developing in interesting, funny ways, and the music and voice acting are solid, if occasionally uneven. It's a tinge ironic, however, that the "real" spy stuff hasn't lived up to the excitement of Noomi's early game desk job. That puzzle was novel and multilayered. Everything else I've encountered, on the other hand, fits the traditional adventure game puzzle mould, for better or worse.
While The Low Road is nowhere near as complex as a classic LucasArts-era adventure, it's full of puzzles that involve inserting objects into other objects until a solution comes out. Most of the logic is fairly intuitive (as far as these sorts of games go), but sometimes you get things like a puzzle involving invisible ink that only turns invisible when exposed to heat, at which point you've got to bust an air conditioning unit on a roof so that the ink will work on somebody standing conveniently near an A/C vent.
It's some adventure-game-arse shit, in other words. In the game's second and third chapters, meanwhile, some puzzles feel rote, like something to do in between dialogue segments rather than fully developed ideas.
The portions of the game I've played so far do include additional first-person hand puzzles ala the phone scene at the beginning, but they feel more like window dressing than anything. Whether it's pick-pocketing a person or cutting through metal bars to infiltrate a compound, the solutions are immediately obvious and easily achievable. Opening aside, The Low Road currently strikes me as a game that does style better than substance. I do, however, want to play more of it to see where it goes, and that's as good of a sign as any. A strong first impression will do that, I suppose.