I do have a soft spot for games that have their own catchy theme tunes. Even if it’s slightly lacking in other areas, The Big Con absolutely nails that.
The Big Con casts you as Ali, a precocious teenager who lives above a video rental shop owned by her mum. Just as Ali’s about to be shipped off to music camp for the summer, she catches wind that thugs are threatening to take the video store away, unless her mum can cough up close to $100,000. She doesn’t have that kind of money, so Ali takes it upon herself to help out; rather than going to camp, she travels across the country on a money-making expedition.
But just how is a teenager supposed to come up with that kind of money? By fleecing people and stealing from them, of course. And luckily for Ali, she meets a stranger who can teach her the ropes. She quickly learns to pickpocket before moving on to bigger and better heists.
Indeed, pickpocketing is how you’ll spend a significant amount of your time with The Big Con. There’s a minigame mechanic, which sees you approach a person, hold down the ‘pickpocket’ button and release just at the right moment. However, it’s needlessly difficult and far too easy to fail, leading to frustration before you’ve even managed to snaffle 50 cents out of someone’s back pocket. Thankfully the mechanic can be turned off in the menu; instead, you’ll automatically pickpocket as you approach someone and press a button. It’s a lifesaver, but having to disable a key mechanic isn’t a great start.
Still, without that to worry about, you’re free to concentrate on what matters about The Big Con; its narrative, and its sumptuous visuals. This really does look like a long-forgotten cartoon from 90s-era Nickelodeon. It’s bold and colourful, set in a world where people of fluorescent pink, blue and green hues live happily side-by-side, all sporting equally dazzling hair colours. It’s a feast for the eyes and a real treat for those of us who grew up in the 90s.
Of course, the story here is key, as it’s Ali’s whole motivation for becoming a not-so-petty thief. But with a surprisingly short run time – I was done with The Big Con in less than three hours – there’s not much time to truly care about the characters. You know why Ali wants to steal, sure. But beyond that it’s hard to truly care about her. With little meaningful narrative, Ali is nothing more than some shifty kid stealing from innocent people – and one who rarely even shows much remorse for what she’s doing.
Ultimately, The Big Con is too short to have any real meaning. What’s the lesson here? Stealing is fine as long as you have a good reason to be doing so? Er – not quite. To truly be a success, there needs to be more substance here. The majority of the game will be spent mindlessly pickpocketing everyone you walk past, the act of theft quickly not even raising an eyebrow as it becomes so commonplace. Other main quests typically involve you simply going from A to B, and occasionally wandering around aimlessly until you randomly stumble into the person you’re looking for. (At which point, you’ll probably just pickpocket them anyway.)
The most engaging parts of The Big Con are its optional side quests. Some of these are fairly straightforward – find a code for a suitcase, eavesdrop on a conversation to find a key piece of information. Others require multiple steps, like convincing a train passenger that you’re actually a stock market expert. It’s a shame the game doesn’t make these more of a focus, because they force you to get deeper into the world, interacting with elements you may otherwise have ignored. But ultimately, you don’t need to, because just by pickpocketing alone you’ll probably raise the money you need to proceed.
It’s entertaining while it lasts, and developer Mighty Yell has absolutely nailed the 90s cartoon aesthetic. But The Big Con is devoid of much real substance. Had there been more narrative, better character development and more engaging missions, this could have been something special. As it is, it feels like an underdeveloped concept that falls short of its promises.
The Big Con Review: GameSpew’s Score