Jazzpunk review: Doo-wop skidoo bop pow

Jazzpunk occupies a crossbreed universe of 1950s Americana and modern convenience. It's an alternate-history exploration of the Cold War era: The world is occupied and run by machines in a society that appears to be equal parts Russian, Japanese and American. The construction workers are robots. The sushi chefs are robots. The police force is made up of robots. Pretty much everyone is a robot – except for you.

In this PC, Mac and Linux adventure, you are a crooked-fingered, human detective who accepts secret missions by popping psychedelic pills. You're a spy in the oddest interpretation of the most romanticized espionage era ever. Buried in Jazzpunk's dissonant settings and puerile puzzles lies a bucket of laughs at the expense of Russians, Americans, islanders, Japanese, Scots, robots and humans – everyone.

Nothing is off-limits in Jazzpunk, and everything is funny.
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The introductory cutscene presents an era ruled by machines, with bright, minimalistic animation showing silhouettes of robots traveling through an X-ray machine, and then one human. He is picked up by a giant claw and thrown into a tunnel of metal tubes that quickly transform into dozens of simplistic images – planes, gears, massive computers – with jazzy music behind it all. It's as if minimalist artist Olly Moss dropped acid while listening to 1960s Pan Am radio ads.

This first (and only) cutscene distills the essence of Jazzpunk so succinctly – the entire game is polished and fresh, in a weird, retro kind of way. It's also vague. The images in the cutscene provide a little context, and the story itself unfolds from there. There's no background narrative that provides your character's name or motivation, but the cardboard-cutout, human arm that you use to make phone calls and press buttons is evidence that you are, indeed, a person. That's all you get, and it's all I needed to enjoy everything that follows.

Including the fart joke.

It's tricky to artfully pull off a fart joke in any medium, but Jazzpunk does so in the first two minutes of gameplay. The moment feels both refreshing (never thought I'd say that about a fart) and fitting within the newly constructed world.

As the game itself begins, you find yourself in a dreary, cartoonish, 3D office hallway with one door open at its end. A robot secretary with curly red hair (because real secretaries have red hair) sits behind a desk and asks your character to wait before seeing The Director. Players are prompted to look at magazines while waiting, guided by large, white, san-serif text hovering above the chairs and table. Magazine titles support Jazzpunk's playful tone: Reader's Digestive Organs and Playbot, to name two.

The Director lets you into his office and, while there's plenty to look at, there's only one place to sit. Directly in front of The Director's desk, on top of a Whoopee Cushion. You know it's going to happen; you know it has to happen, yet when it does, it's brilliant. The dry, slightly high-pitched sound is held just long enough, and The Director completely ignores it, ensuring the gag hits the funny bullseye, rather than the awkward one.

Therein lies the genius of Jazzpunk's formula. It's a balance of subtlety and in-your-face ridiculousness, each aspect playing off of one another to craft a world that isn't trying to prove its hilarity; it simply is hilarious.

Gameplay revolves around a set of missions – invading the Russian Consulate, harvesting an organ that is already inside of a sushi-loving robot, hanging out at a beachside resort to mess with secret meetings – and each mission begins with the player popping a pill that alters reality.

The mission worlds are contained areas of bright lights, colors and characters, complete with touches of humor for those who seek it out. In the Russian consulate, for example, a timetable lists activities like "Communist Plotting," "Vodka & Biscuits," "Potato Sack Race" and "Lunch Time." In other games, with other styles, these jokes could come off as cheap shots at best, or racist at worst. The happy-go-lucky world of Jazzpunk, however, lends them a light-hearted tone, the same vibe that applies to jokes aimed at Japanese or American culture throughout the game. It's all in good fun, the game seems to say.

It's impossible to explore the larger Jazzpunk world, since each level exists in a few buildings, across a few streets, and nowhere else. Each mission is a tease, presenting a beautiful, intriguing setting but restricting access to select parts. The missions themselves aren't particularly challenging, but it doesn't feel as if they're supposed to be. The point of Jazzpunk isn't to confuse players or even make them think very hard; it's to entertain.

To that end, Jazzpunk gives players plenty of objects to interact with, mini-games to play and hidden jokes to find. In one level, you're able to photocopy your butt and play a tiny game of Asteroids in a microscope. In another, a caricature of Hunter S. Thompson (as his fictional alter-ego Raoul Duke) says, without context, "The human mouth, a tapestry of horrors," and also something raunchy about crabs.

The puzzles themselves are vague but easily solved, sometimes even by accident. I turned off the game at one point while in the resort mission, attempting to escape its island. I came back later and forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I wandered, discovered a few more cute moments, and eventually ran into a pig on wheels. I hit it, picked it up and carried it to a giant spit I'd noticed earlier. As it happened, this was exactly what Jazzpunk wants players to do, and the secret passage opened up, allowing for my escape.

Jazzpunk invites and rewards playful inquisitiveness. It's a comedy game wrapped in a point-and-click puzzler; it's intense spy action in an adorable, cartoony world. As inviting as that might be, it's still limited. There's only so far these jokes can go – especially fart jokes – and the world supports only what it knows it can handle. This makes for a short game, by most standards, but an entirely enjoyable one.

I'd rather have a short game that gets fart jokes right than a long one full of hot air.

This review is based on a Steam download of Jazzpunk, provided by Adult Swim. Images: Adult Swim.

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