Ah, the 90’s. The colors were so loud you could hear them from the next room, the food was full to bursting with delicious chemicals that would get banned in a few years, and nu metal was inflicted on everybody’s ears. Us 90’s kids are grown enough to be making our own games now and some have taken on the challenging task of attempting to return our brethren to the halcyon days of Pizza Hut and PS1 demo discs. The Big Con is one such game, or claims to be. My 4 hour trip in its time machine left me questioning if I experienced the same decade the creators did.
In this off-brand Doug-looking world you play as Ali, and she’s as likable as any teen protagonist can be. She’s sharp, savvy, and as stubborn as a can of Surge is caffeinated. In a strange twist for a 90’s protagonist she actually loves her mom, the family business, and her small town, simply wanting their life to go on as-is. Which is why when her mom’s loan shark threatens to close the family video store due to a predatory $97,000 debt she takes matters into her own hands, skips band camp, and sets out out on a crime spree with the help of a new acquaintance named Ted. He has a plan, she doesn’t, but they’re convinced they’ll make it work somehow. She also masters pickpocketing alarmingly fast which is never acknowledged in-game but…damn, girl.
The actual process of crime-spree-ing often feels janky. Movement is slow, environments are easy to get stuck on, context sensitive inputs are fussy about positioning and sometimes just vanish, dialogues occasionally disappear unprompted, etc. Eavesdropping in particular was awkward, often taking multiple presses of the button and wiggles of Ali’s position before it would finally register. In some cases it took so many attempts that the eavesdrop-ee had time to walk away, resetting the entire process. I even had to uninstall and reinstall the game initially because it couldn’t advance past its first auto-save screen, though fortunately that fixed it. In summary: nothing gamebreaking, often jarring or frustrating.
Early on I dug the game’s structure: enter a new location with a minimum target for ill-gotten cash, move on by talking to a key NPC once you were at or above the dollar limit, or optionally dig deeper for side objectives and collectables. Essentially a point and click adventure that shepherds you from self-contained area to self-contained area. The obligatory item management puzzles and dialogue choices abounded and it seemed like it was only getting better as the stakes (and dollar amounts) kept rising. The targets were always relatively easy to achieve, but various ways to use items and area-to-area side quests with other travelers who happen to be sharing your route kept things interesting. I enjoyed feeling like I’d wrung every dollar from an unsuspecting mall, for example.
But it was not to be. From about the halfway point TBC completely ditches the structure and pace of the preceding areas, the relatively small maps densely packed with puzzles and people, opting instead to leave you in a wide open area to complete a laundry list of objectives. The game doesn’t give you a map or a way to check where anything is and your camera is quite zoomed in. I felt like a rat in a maze for much of it, and aside from an interlude at the start of the plot’s third act this was how the remaining areas behaved. It almost felt like a concession of an overwhelmed designer, an admittance of not being able to keep up the escalating, tight structure the game used up until that point. And TBC never recovered from this loss of steam.
Let me tell you about the lowest point I hit in my playthrough. Late in the game I cheated myself out of a fun sequence, not because of a bug or conscious choice, but because I already earned too much money from the area before the event triggered. The objective was completed the moment the leadup cutscene ended and the game pushed me along in a win state. This “boss fight” had a shorter life span than Crystal Pepsi. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement; I missed out on the closest thing TBC had to a final confrontation because I played the game as had been encouraged up until that point. The game unintentionally punished the thoroughness that it taught me to employ.
My most significant complaint is unfortunately with the handling of its setting. It’s frankly bizarre that this game doesn’t commit hard enough to being in and of the 90’s, but it doesn’t. Aside from the video store hook and a handful of references to 90s media and fads there’s nothing of substance to be found. I would like to give TBC the benefit of the doubt and say that this is intended as a critique of 90s ultra-consumerism, except it says the opposite throughout, with characters often excited to talk about a movie or try on new scrunchies. Eventually TBC runs out of 90s stuff to show off and drags you to locations that are unrecognizable as set in the 90s aside from the existence of payphones. Despite the insistences in its marketing and media references aplenty, this game has nothing to do with the 90’s at its core. It’s a plaid coat of paint on a featureless wall. Hypnospace Outlaw showed us what a game with reverence for an irreverent point in time could look like, and it’s not this.
The final nail in The Big Con‘s coffin is simply that it’s bland. So bland. Bland as a Burger King french fry. You walk, you talk, the optional laugh track signals another joke, repeat until the credits roll. It’s inoffensive, and even occasionally charming, but it felt like the idea well ran dry by the midpoint and they had an obligation to stretch it further. Had the humor and/or setting managed to carry the experience I could forgive it, but it whiffs far more than it hits. Even Ali’s relatively strong character arc can’t elevate the rest of the experience. What’s left is a mediocre adventure game that’s not outright terrible, but the lack of dedication to its inspirations makes it feel more like a nostalgia-bait marketing choice than a conscious design decision. I wanted to love it, instead I’m going to forget that I played it by the end of the year. Bogus.
A Steam code was independently purchased for review.