Vapid – adjective: Offering nothing that is stimulating or challenging; bland – e.g.: “Fat City, while fun in parts, is almost entirely vapid”.
There’s really no better word to describe the shallowness of Fat City than “vapid”. Set across New York City’s famous boroughs, this path-drawing puzzle game tells the story of Chris Knox, a *sigh* ex-US marine pressed into the service of an anonymous crime boss in an effort to *double-sigh* save his kidnapped sister. If you’re looking for a puzzle game with a story (they do exist), you’ll need to look elsewhere. Fat City sums up the entire plot in the first 20 seconds of the game (quicker, if you skip through the text) in a cringe-worthily cliché message to Mr. Knox, whose “unique set of skills” put him, apparently, in the perfect position to be blackmailed by any mobster with an email account. Without so much as a “how do you do”, Knox is off and doing the bidding of the disembodied coercer – robbing banks, art galleries and laboratories in an effort to take back his loved one.
The game takes place in a top-down grid-patterned New York, whose buildings are all blue and semi-transparent. Each job begins with a summary screen that includes a brief, flavour description and, though I didn’t discover its existence until I was about 80% of the way through the game, when I did finally spot them, I wished that I hadn’t – they’re almost exclusively from the “big book of crime clichés” and add incredibly little. I certainly didn’t read any more of them. In the job’s strategy-planning phase, you mark the route of each of your characters – represented in this and every other screen as a little counter – drawing their path to complete the mission (which is always stealing loot) and get back home without any altercations with the cops. Missions become tougher with the addition of more patrolling Po-Po, faster police cars, alarmed vaults and a variety of walls that Chris can’t get over, despite all of that US Marine training.
What Chris does have is a set of power-ups to help him if he gets in a sticky situation. These are: a safe cracking skill that lets him nab the loot in half the time, a speed-changing power-up to force him to slow down or speed up and – and this is the biggy – a facial recognition scrambler. This last powerup – which lets you breeze past any cop – is, basically, a big “WIN” button. While you have to purchase each individual use of a power-up in the planning phase, their cost is in no way prohibitive and you’ll be making enough money on each heist to stock up for each new mission and, with Chris’ facial scrambler, you’ll never lose out on any cash whatsoever. However, during the game you will unlock additional crew members who can help you in specific ways and, in some missions, they are incredibly useful (even with Chris and his face thing). Ace is a hacker who can disarm security systems, stun the police with an EMP and lower traffic-calming bollards; Fish is the demolitions guy with access to barrier-blowing C4 and smoke grenades and Daliya, the driver, can pick up any team member and drive them, very fast, to wherever you want them, giving you access to their abilities as well as hers.
The game’s planning phase will be pretty recognisable to anyone who’s ever sat down with a puzzle game – it’s here where you draw the paths for all of the crew and attempt to determine the best and fastest route around the grid. Each character moves at a predetermined speed from point to point and, in later levels, you’ll have to pay close attention to the timings of each move in order to avoid the police and ensure that everyone is where you need them to be when you need them to be there. For instance, you’ll want to make sure that Ace has disabled the alarm before Chris grabs the cash but, to do that, you’re going to have to send Chris around the houses a bit (pun intended) to give Ace time to hack the system. This part of Fat City is easily the most fun but, to be fair, it’s never really a challenge. Most of the time roadblocks (which are impassable) limit you to certain routes and it’s always obvious exactly who has to do what, when and where.
Actually carrying out the heist is probably the most challenging part. You’ll need to watch for clues as to when to pop your crews’ power-ups and, if you’re running more than just Chris on a particular job, you’ll need to actively switch between the crew members in time to use their abilities. Again, though, this isn’t really that hard and the difficulty never seems to increase to a point where I was constantly failing a level through anything other than my own lack of awareness. I’d be focusing on grabbing the cash with Chris while Ace was busy loitering on a police patrol route – oops, busted! But even that doesn’t really impede progress – you just pick up from the planning screen (with your pathing intact) and have another crack at it.
Annoyingly, some of the levels are actually quite fun. When you’ve got the mix of crew members in there and you’ve had to draw some really sneaky paths – to make sure that Ace and Fish meet up to get through a roadblock on the way to the alarm building while Chris circles down to get the diamond before heading back up for the money – and you’ve executed the job perfectly, each little power-up popping at exactly the right time, it’s quite rewarding. What’s annoying is that this is most certainly not the norm in Fat City. Usually, you’ve picked your path in a few seconds, started the job, popped Chris’ scrambled face and it’s all over; I was completing some missions over ten seconds faster than the goal time suggested, even without using boost abilities and the like.
The game isn’t even very long. I managed to complete it in a little over two hours and I wouldn’t consider myself to be a particularly cunning or wily gamer – it’s just that easy. There are other issues, too: the menu system is terrible – you have to wait for a specific screen to show up before pressing down on the right stick to get the menu up but then you press up and down to go through menu screens and, sometimes, it just doesn’t seem to want to work at all. The graphics really are pretty awful, even for a puzzle game; the audio is terribly repetitive and adds nothing and the ending is abysmal (SPOILER: you don’t get your sister back because developers, Heavy Iron, are going to make a sequel, probably set in Europe, though I will not be going with them). But my biggest problem with the game is that it is vapid: it’s not challenging in any way. I think I would have had more fun attempting to unpick a pair of incredibly knotty laces for two hours than trudging through the tedium of Fat City.
I said at the start of the review that there was no better word than “vapid” to describe Fat City and, while there are no better words, there are alternatives. Let me share a few with you: insipid, uninspired, uninteresting, bland, boring, tedious, unexciting, uninspiring, unimaginative, tame, vacuous, jejune…