This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review: Deciphering What Works
Every October feels like the perfect time for a scary game, but this year, the month of Halloween really delivers with plenty of new releases in the horror genre to satisfy all kinds of fans. This Is The Zodiac is one of those games.
While other scary games in October 2020 will let you fend off twisted caretakers, maddening monsters, or ancestral witches, only one game pits players against a real-life monster like The Zodiac Killer.
This Is The Zodiac Speaking seeks to be a largely faithful historical fiction game using both elements of horror and crime scene investigation. In neither case does it feel like it does enough, but there are still parts of the game true-crime obsessives will appreciate.
This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review: Deciphering What Works
It's a great premise, but in practice, things never quite live up to their potential. The voice acting misses more than it hits.
Decades ago, The Zodiac Killer terrorized California's Bay Area for years and ultimately went uncaught. Whoever the Zodiac killer was may still be alive today, taunting the police and journalists who sought to unravel their cryptic letters and establish the modus operandi and criminal profile for the slippery assailant.
Seemingly inspired by Fincher's Zodiac, which chronicles the efforts of a real-life local newspaper grappling with the Zodiac murders, This Is The Zodiac Speaking casts players as an investigative journalist. The masked murderer takes a strange liking to you early on, and when you barely escape his grasp, it leaves you traumatized but unable to step away from the investigation.
It's a great premise, but in practice, things never quite live up to their potential. The voice acting misses more than it hits. Largely, this game made overseas uses actors foreign to the roles they're playing. Virtually everyone you meet, besides a handful of characters, has a European accent.
This is the sort of compromise one often sees in an indie game. I can almost forgive it entirely because other parts of Zodiac show a detail-oriented interest in the subject matter, so you figure it must've been a dream project for the developers.
But then such a project deserves a more fitting cast. It's regularly jarring to hear these characters talk, and even those who do sound American don't deliver any standout performances. I like the tone of the protagonist's voice, but his delivery often leaves immersion out of the equation.
Gameplay mainly consists of investigative sections, both in the safety of your own home, as well as at several crime scenes. Players must retrace the steps of the Zodiac and their victims one murder plot at a time by exploring an area and finding clues that eventually create a timeline. Once more, it's interesting in theory, but it doesn't hold up in practice.
This loop ends up meaning players will scan high and low over every object and surface to find interactable items, many of which are just there for show or to spur a voice line on the side. The main items you'll need to find can sometimes be frustratingly difficult to discover, and this process is made worse depending on which game mode you chose at the outset.
The game's greatest attribute is its understanding of the Zodiac murders.
This Is The Zodiac Speaking smartly offers two ways to play: Serial Killer Mode and an investigation mode. The former is more akin to a hide-and-seek horror game, where Zodiac will often be at the crime scenes, and it's your job to avoid their gaze or else wind up their next victim.
This mode quickly turned me off from the game because the Zodiac's vision cone is faulty and frustrating to navigate. The distance at which they could spot me seemed inconsistent at best and unfair at worst, and after a short while with the game, I switched to the investigations mode, which I enjoyed more.
In investigations, the game essentially pivots to a "walking sim," which I use as a term only because it's so familiar. I happen to enjoy such games quite a lot, and Zodiac benefits from this alternative gameplay style because it's the better way to play, giving players unlimited time and space within a level to piece together clues.
These parts work better because the game's greatest attribute is its understanding of the Zodiac murders. It may seem insensitive to some, but This Is The Zodiac Speaking's many crime scenes are mostly faithful recreations of real-life incidents. When you're overlooking a parking lot or a churchyard, some of the scenery may be different, but the victims' names and modes of death are torn right from the police reports.
In this way, the game becomes a morbid museum to the subject matter in investigations mode, which I appreciate quite a lot. I've seen movies, read articles, and listened to podcasts on Zodiac, but this game still taught me some new things which I was later excited to see were based in fact.
Details are plentiful, and you're encouraged to pause to do more reading and explore levels to take in the game's retro-stylized presentation, which gives the whole game a look of a movie poster from the Zodiac era. Unlike the voice acting, the developers seem to understand the limitations placed on them and work well to make the game stand out a bit, even with something looking so low-res.
In between the investigative sections, the game's fiction portion of its historical fiction genre classification continues to flesh out the story of the journalist who seeks some sort of closure with the case, but these elements aren't ever as interesting because the truth is already stranger than this fiction. Plus, those voiceovers never deliver the cinematic quality the game clearly wishes it had.
This Is The Zodiac Speaking Review — The Bottom Line
- At its best, it's like a museum to one of true crime's great mysteries
- Uses limited resources to give the game its own visual style
- At its worst, it's like a faulty hide-and-seek horror game
- Voice acting and fiction plot set within the real-life events both underwhelm
This Is The Zodiac Speaking is two games in one, and while neither is stellar, one of them is certainly better than the other. In Serial Killer Mode, the Zodiac's pursuits feel broken and will leave you more frustrated than frightened, but switch the game over to its more investigations-heavy mode, and the true-crime nerds will get a kick out of the many details strewn about the game.
All other scary games in October 2020 will likely better serve your Halloween horror fix, but this game will be the only one among them that simulates a museum-like approach to a real-life monster.
[Note: PlayWay provided the copy of This Is The Zodiac Speaking used for this review.]