One thing I often hear as a critic is that no matter how bad I believe a game is, I need to find something positive about it. I admit that it mostly stems not from what I critique, but rather it comes from how I critique. After five years of this, I’ve never been one for pulling my punches and following a philosophy of, ‘would you rather take one to the head or five to the chest?’ doesn’t exactly engender a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings towards yours truly. I try my best to, if nothing else, be fair and point out the positives when I can. However, when the negatives are so overwhelming that you have to dig through hours of gameplay to try and find one small sliver of positivity; it’s a pretty big sign that something has gone very wrong.
I found myself in that exact situation with two visual novels a few months ago. One is Lucid9 and although there is much I want to say about that one, today is not its day. After I played Lucid9 though, I looked at Impulse! by New West Games and said, out loud, ‘Well, if nothing else it can’t be any worse than that!’ I proceeded to spend the next few days doing exactly as I described above: digging through the game for any shred of anything good to talk about. I wish I could report that I was successful, so please consider that your fair warning on what’s about to happen here. Here we go with Impulse!
Oh and SPOILER ALERT as well. If, for any reason, you were planning on playing this game, consider yourself warned!
- Genre: Mystery, Slice-of-Life
- Release Date: October 30, 2015
- Developer: New West Games
- Language: English
- Platform: PC
- Website: Steam
- Edited By: Ozzytizer
In Seattle, a young man named Chris and his friends are taking the indie music scene by storm as the band Impulse. Unfortunately, their rise is marred by the slight inconvenience of murders happening at their gigs. With the local police unable or unwilling to find the truth, it’s up to Chris and his fellow meddlin’ kids to find the murderer as well as fame as a band.
Now, to be absolutely fair to the game, the romance/slice-of-life sections of the game are just run of the mill and not completely terrible. Chris has the romantic options of either Laura or Li, as well as his friend Joe’s relationship with a singer in another band. You can hang out with them, but by doing so you’ll learn that the only real difference between them is aesthetics. They have very similar problems at home and barely any unique interactions with our protagonist to stand out. You can argue that it’s supposed to be a reprieve from the action, but it unfortunately serves as a constant reminder of just how empty the characters are.
Every character in this game breaks down on three lines: victims, villains and disillusioned. First you have your victims and we get just enough from them to know they either have a bright future ahead of them or some sort of sexual interest in the protagonist. As soon as someone points out how awesome is they are, you can start their death clock because they’re not going to last much longer. These girls exist solely to die and their narrative importance ends when the game gets bored with investigating their demise. They leave no lasting impact, which leaves them as even less than a Woman in a Refrigerator where you could argue that that fate at least led to some narrative weight and usefulness. The women here would kill to be killed for more than just an attempt to buy the writers time to figure out what the Hell they’re doing.
Next we have the characters that are bad guys, because the story needs bad guys. Long-time readers of VNs Now know that I have a special place in my weathered shell of a heart for the dark side. A well-crafted villain is more precious than frankincense and myrrh when it comes to visual novels: ESPECIALLY English Visual Novels. Impulse has its fair share of villains, but they are executed in a way that makes little sense. The most villainous of Impulse’s rogue gallery are the Seattle Police Department….no, I’m not joking. While they don’t actually commit any of the crimes on screen, they do not attempt to solve any of them. The reasons all sound different, but when you give it some thought, it’s all different variations of ‘we don’t really give a damn, but don’t want the negative publicity of not giving a damn’. Because of this depraved indifference, four women are killed.
Make no mistake here: that is what happens. The best the police ever look is incompetent thanks to one officer who represents truth and decency in the police force, but is not smart enough to actually solve the crimes he’s faced with. The rest of the force cares so little about an active serial killer that they rush the investigations to try and pen it on ANYTHING else that doesn’t require them to actually look into the crimes. I have seen some bad portrayals of police officers in my day (coughFisheyePlacebocough), but never in my life have I seen an entire police department portrayed as the willing accomplice to a serial killer. There is no other way to parse this portrayal. By their negligence in the face of an active killer, that is what they are.
Then you have the second tier baddies who Chris and his friends suspect at various points of the game to be the serial killer. These two men are given seedy backstories and act like braying jackasses whenever they’re on screen, so the audience can be immediately repulsed by how slimy they are and consider them a murder suspect. One problem: at no time do they present any actual evidence that either of these two are potential murders. Maddeningly enough, they do the exact opposite. Yeah, the game gives you a metric butt ton of evidence that neither of them are responsible for the murders they’re accused of AND YET Chris and his merry band of dumbasses continue to investigate them because they’re just so slimy and mean, they must have had something to do with it!
Just like the various victims go beyond women in refrigerators, this turn laughs in the face of Idiot Logic. Please understand; this game doesn’t even attempt to portray the suspected murderers as murderers. It exonerates them before the investigation even starts, so we end up burning time each following our main characters as they try to piece together circumstantial evidence to nail on someone the reader knows is innocent. The first time they try to pull this it’s simply stunning, but the second time is when Impulse starts outright slapping the reader in the face.
The second time has a slimy talent agent who signs his groups to unfair contracts and cheats on his wife. Chris and his friends are convinced he’s the serial killer and dig into his life until they feel they have enough evidence to confront him…in a place of the agent’s choosing…without telling anyone else where they’re going. You see where this is going, I see where this is going. Anyone with a functional frontal lobe sees where this is going. Guess who didn’t see where this was going? YUP: Chris and his friends get captured by the agent in his apparent warehouse/torture chamber/underground fighting pit/they never really explain what the Hell the place was, and are kept there for several days…alive.
Again, I’d like to state for the record that Impulse is still trying to convince the audience that this man is not only a murderer, but a serial murderer. Chris and his friends have, presumably, found a place he didn’t want found that could tie him to several crimes that would end up badly for him if discovered. He cannot let them go, yet he keeps them alive. Why? Well, plot armor.
Clearly the writing team thought that this would be a ‘dramatic’ turn, but they couldn’t actually kill a main member of the cast. The same thing infuriatingly happens in the murder before this scene where another woman is killed and her boyfriend, one of the main members of the cast, is only badly beaten. Chris and his friends simply wait out their time, again simply adding to the runtime of this heap as they sit around doing nothing, until the plot resolves itself, the agent is arrested, and they’re rescued.
See? A bad man was arrested because Chris and his friends put their lives on the line to bring him to justice! That means the last hour and a half wasn’t a waste of time! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaanks.
Finally, yes finally, we have the disillusioned. That encompasses everyone else in this game, but like the two categories before, they dive beyond established character tropes to carve their own, awful niche. Fortunately, this also folds into the story structure, so this will cover the rest of the Story half of this review. I’ve hammered other titles for having misplaced or outright bad leads, but I’m not sure how to classify Impulse’s Chris. It never feels like anything that happens affects him outside of the immediate moment. Consider that his concerts have become the hunting ground for a serial killer that has targeted anyone who has gotten close, or is close, to him and his friends. At some point, anyone with half a brain says, ‘Guys, let’s not have a show tonight’ or ‘Let’s take a break from the band for a while because we’re becoming associated with death’ or ‘You guys can play if you want to, but too much is going on right now’. ANYTHING other than, ‘Yeah, let’s keep doing our concerts and hope that -whoops, another girl dies. Might as well investigate it.’
I might have actually assigned more energy to that chain of events than what actually transpires. The game drags its protagonist through this dark cycle and he barely musters the energy for even that. Nothing gets under his skin and it only cements the strange, dissociative mood of this game. As we’ve already covered, Chris and his friends spend most of their time looking for evidence the audience knows doesn’t exist. These investigations follow a set pattern of the murder happening, Chris and his friends coming together to debate possible motives, looking for evidence, and finally presenting that evidence to the suspect; only to end with them getting shot down. This pattern is broken up by the romance bits I talked about earlier and ironically placed Slice-of-Life scenes which I’m sure were planned to serve as a moment of levity between all of the dark action, but unfortunately don’t. I’ll explain.
Just on the structure of this, you can tell the proper homework wasn’t done to ensure a consistent atmosphere and tone. Putting aside the fact that some of the deaths are absolutely absurd, it is nothing short of jarring to be dragged into a murder investigation because it’s a ‘thing’ this particular group of friends do, only to be rebuffed and go back to practicing their next big single. This dissonance spins the story right into a chapter that finds our main characters in a road trip/beach episode. Yeah, their concerts are literally the hunting grounds for a serial killer…and they’re going to the beach to unwind. How crazy is this train of thought? Let’s look at this through the lens of a mystery VN series that’s actually good: the Jisei Murder Mystery series.
Chronologically speaking Jisei and Kansei, the first and second chapters of the series, happen within a day of each other. Let say the beginning of Kansei started with Aki during her spiel on why Kanguy had to stay with them and then says, ‘Well at least you get to relax today because we’re going to the beach!’ This is quickly followed by all of the crew piling into Aki’s van, going to the beach and it playing out just like it would in a fanservice anime with long shots of the girls in their bikinis, playing some volleyball and, oh yeah, no concern about the MURDER that Kanguy witnessed and they helped solve literally a day ago. THEN they all go to the Auten household to start the next murder investigation.
Anyone reading this who has played that series has the deadest look on their face right now. They know that nonsense wouldn’t happen, because the tone and atmosphere of those games fit a murder mystery. This? I’m not sure what New West was trying to do with this. It never actually embraces one or the other and comes off as macabre in the end. When an investigative section starts off with, ‘So, are we doing our thing again tonight?’ as you and your friend sit around and discuss a murder with the same deference you would in ordering a pizza, you cannot expect the audience to take it seriously.
I can go on for another two thousand words dissecting every facet of where this game screws up. I haven’t even gotten into the actual identity of the serial killer. That could easily be its own feature because it is impossible who they say it is. I’m not going to spoil it here, but it is literally impossible for the killer to be who the game says it is. HOWEVER, there is so much more wrong with this game than just story that I have no choice but to move on. Hopefully, I’ve made clear just how wretched everything came out for Impulse in terms of narrative. It is an agonizing sit, and unfortunately that’s not even the worst of it.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation here is, hold on let me crack open the thesaurus for this one, wayward. Yeah, let’s go with wayward. Overall, the art is more bland than anything, but what sticks out the most is that it is one idea split into several artistic visions. The basic design of the game design follows on your standard-issue anime style that doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it must be noted that there are, at least, four different artists on this project: one for the character sprites and three for the Event Graphics. As you can guess, this doesn’t create the most harmonious presentation.
To be fair, the murder scenes themselves are usually just the sprites with blood spatter added, so Event Graphics are usually injected sporadically during the Slice-of-Life scenes. However, when we do get them it creates a distraction as each artist has a different interpretation of the game’s tone and what the scene is trying to accomplish. Case in point: here are two different CGs (One and Two) by two different artists trying to capture the exact same feeling of Chris and his band performing. Putting aside artistic critiques on perspective and body structure, which one gets the closest to portraying a concert? Well, it’s hard to say for either as far as I’m concerned, but capturing that emotion comes down to artistic interpretation. Clearly, they both have a different idea on how to do a concert scene, so we get two different interpretation of said scene at different parts of the game instead of a consistent rhythm for this sort of thing. It’s jarring and, again, since they’re at least four different artists here we get that for every Event Graphic.
As for the soundtrack and voice acting, I’m not a fan. The main soundtrack for this game is a looping bass track that repeats often regardless of scene and two other low key tracks that play sporadically through the game. The soundtrack add zero to the scenes they’re a part of and clashed with the voice acting thanks to the game’s lack of volume control. Considering that one of the main backdrops of the story is music and independent bands, crafting a soundtrack to give it a more indie rock feel would have been an incredible step forward. But there I go with my unrealistic expectations again.
The voice acting, however, that is just sad. Voice Acting is something close to me and how much fun the actors are having playing a character can often make a mediocre game more entertaining: see the voiced version of Pyrite Heart for proof of that. That said, the acting here is bad. With the exception of one character, everyone felt like they were just reading their lines with no attempt to emulate a character or even bring a little fun to this dirge. The only person who even sounds like they’re acting is the slimy agent’s assistant who takes over after he’s found out. Now, if he wasn’t acting and that was his real voice, I withdraw the previous sentence. But then, he has the most stereotypical gay voice I’ve heard since South Park’s Big Gay Al. Considering the emotionless acting before he appears, I’m not sure how to react here. I mean, it’s different but I’m not sure it’s better.
To make matters worse, you’re given an option right off the bat to have voice acting on or off. If you choose to keep it on, you cannot go back and change your mind. And with no volume control, your best option may just be to mute the entire damn thing to stop the cacophony from wrecking your ear drums. Actually, that’s a nice segue into the terrible technical values of this game. When I first played this game it was completely broken. The Save menu barely functioned and you had to click within a certain space to ensure that it works. The Load function was also spotty and could corrupt your save depending on its mood. Without a control interface, you’re forced to just push through and hope the best but it also means you cannot control simple things that we took for granted with Ren’py; like how big the window could be while maintaining its aspect ratio. The investigative sections, both the actual point-and-click searching and the back and forth conversation between Chris and his friends were already extraneous due to the nature of the story, but it didn’t stop these mechanics from having issues: especially with bad click detection.
The fact that I somehow managed to get through it in one piece while maintaining some aspect of my sanity is some kind of accomplishment, I’m sure. What I didn’t realize until after playing it some months ago was that New West patched the game extensively. So, I had to play through it one more time to see if the technical end now works…I’m sure you’re imagining my excitement. The click detection works much better and the Save and Load function has, so far, worked well for all new files: old files will not work at all. Unfortunately there are still major, game breaking bugs and character animations and transitions have been completely flushed down the toilet. There is still not a control panel either, so the upfront choice on voice acting is the only real say we have on the matter along with volume control.
So, it’s still broken despite the patch. And with New West moving on to their next title, I’m guessing that’s just going to be the state Impulse is left in.
Impulse is currently available on Steam for $14.99. I finished it in nine hours and I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to know that I won’t be going back to it anytime soon. Beyond my opinion though, there is the reality that choices really don’t matter. You have your two female band mates to decide between, however the mystery section is so on the rails that you cannot get anything wrong. Therefore, there are only two real endings of any note and since both girls are strikingly similar, there’s really only one.
Is it worth $15? Is it worth your time to buy and play Impulse? Is this something you really want to do with eight to nine hours of your life? The answer to these burning questions are in the next section!
Haven’t you been paying attention for the past three thousand words? I wish I could tell you that Impulse, at the very least, has the pieces necessary to grow from. But it is such a mess, I have nothing I can pull from it and say, ‘Focus here and here and you’ll be fine’. Honestly, it kind of baffles me as a critic and as a student of fiction because it clearly has a story it wants to tell but New West sincerely seems incapable of telling it. As much as I would like to cut New West some slack here because, again, the only way to get this point is if you just don’t know what you’re doing, the $15 price tag demands that we treat it at a level it isn’t ready to perform on.
I have burned up my time and, frankly, there is little else to say on the matter. I have played some train wrecks in my time, but nothing quite like this: even with Nowhere Safe back in 2012. It isn’t just that the story is bad or the presentation is disjointed: this game is broken. You can barely get through it without it falling apart. I know New West has another game slated for a release in the near future, so allow me to send this message specifically to them: please don’t do this again. Please? I’m not sure where you’d even begin to make sure this doesn’t happen again, so you might have to start from scratch. Just don’t do this again. That’s all I ask. I can’t take another round of this.
What in the Blue Hell Happened?