A rain-slicked street bleeds neon on cracked cement and broken bones. A man in a red balaclava emerges from the shadows, gun in hand. “The name’s Sam Contino,” he grunts, “I lead these misfits”. Or, at least, this is how Vigilantes opening should’ve gone.
Instead, developer Timeslip Softworks presents an arduous introduction to our character, Contino, which equates to several still-frames overlaid with little more than a poor justification for the ski mask; complete with whiskey-laced voice-over.
For a title that drips of atmosphere, I was astounded by how little depth or nuance there is to Vigilantes‘ story. If Contino’s origin story hasn’t sold you, then the rest won’t either.
The Setup: Welcome to Reiker City
Here’s the setup: Contino finds a couple of thugs beating up a doctor in a back-alley. In a fit of mild psychotic rage, he pulls on the ski-mask, kills the two thugs, and befriends – as Contino himself would put it – a “Giggle Doctor”. Thus, our masked-vigilante is born.
However, to base this experience on story alone, would be a disservice. Vigilantes, for all its ineptitude of storytelling, is worth the price of admission. This lovechild of Fallout and XCOM succeeds in three aspects: the writing, the atmosphere, and the gameplay.
What Vigilantes lacks in plot, it makes up for in pulp. As an example, your arms-dealer, a businessman named Cuda, is described as: “more grizzled than geriatric. He looks the way Santa might if he’d packed in the toy racket, lit out of Lapland with a biker gang, dieted on hard liquor and smokes and just been paroled from a score.” And that’s not even the best I’ve found, just the earliest in a long line of brilliant demonstrations of pulpy noir.
Most characters that Contino will meet are similarly announced, and while I stayed for the ride, the continuous use of still-shots and voice-overs does start to wear. For a title that so thoroughly cultivates its aesthetic, I’d rather have watched the character models interact, even with minor motion.
Neon, Rain, and Gore
I’ve mentioned atmosphere several times, but the best demonstration of this is in the screenshots. Every in-game scene is rendered in an exquisite neon palette. Where the still-frames are stale and easily skipped, the level-design is a passionate appeal to those raised on Raymond Chandler and Blade Runner, with a healthy dose of Fallout‘s black humor. This acknowledgment of a genre that I cherish, kept me engaged for my entire experience with this title.
But what good would a review be if we didn’t talk about gameplay? If you are familiar with XCOM, then there is little surprise in Vigilantes core gameplay loop. It takes the standard RTS form and fits it about the setting of Reiker. Contino is tasked with defeating several lieutenants of various gangs. Throughout the journey, he will recruit a band of misfits who can be selected to go on various missions. Between these missions, Contino will return to his base of operations where the player can purchase, train, craft, investigate, and level-up.
I was quite taken with the various functions of the base, but I do wish that Vigilantes had doubled-down on tutorial design. Tutorials, for the most part, are relegated to a text box in the top-right corner of the screen. I found these hints to be too little, too late. If you are familiar with real time strategy, most of these controls will be familiar, but a newcomer would easily be overwhelmed by the many systems of Vigilantes.
Stayed for the Pulp, Never the Story
The gameplay is enjoyable, and the treasure trove of equipment is welcome, but Vigilantes doesn’t do enough to separate itself from other titles. I enjoyed my time with this game, but much of that came from my love of the niche genre it inhabits. Had the story been better or the character motivations more defined, I might’ve fallen in love with this game. Instead, I laughed with joy at many of the pulpy descriptions, but was ultimately dissatisfied with Sam Contio and Reiker City.
If you are a fan of a more old-fashioned RTS experience, this might still be for you, but don’t expect the story to keep you coming back. However, Vigilantes does offer an excellent framework for whatever project Timeslip Softworks chooses to develop next. If the genre interests or excites you, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Vigilantes is on sale now for 14.99 USD on Steam.