As soon as I saw the first trailer for This is the Zodiac Speaking, I knew I had to play the game. Whilst I don’t have an unhealthy obsession with serial killers, I did watch the 2007 movie based around the killings and found myself drawn in by the brash actions and mysterious clues left behind by the famed murderer – especially since his case never was fully solved. Naturally then, a video game that was based around the mystery was always going to appeal to me.
Unfortunately, whilst This is the Zodiac Speaking has intrigue and authenticity in abundance, some unspired gameplay mechanics and the awful visuals can make this murder-mystery a chore to unravel.
This is the Zodiac Speaking puts players into the role of Robert Hartnell, a San Francisco journalist who survives a run-in with the elusive Zodiac killer. Whilst still alive, his mental state has taken a blow, with Robert also visiting a psychiatrist to come to terms with the disturbing experience that befell him. Despite being traumatised, he still wants to do everything he can to unmask the Zodiac killer and see him put behind bars, so continues to investigate the murders – even if it does put his safety and well-being at risk.
With multiple endings on offer in the game, this investigation can end in a few different ways…
Whilst the narrative itself takes a somewhat original approach with a fictional protagonist, it’s based around real-life murders that have already been popularised further with the Zodiac movie. This authenticity is really well-presented throughout the game too, with the player unravelling one of the real murders that the Zodiac killer committed, examining the locations tied to the investigation, and probing further into the clues left behind to try and work out the killer’s identity. If you have any interest in the Zodiac killer, you’ll definitely find it easy (and morbidly satisfying) to delve further into the mystery offered here.
The core gameplay experience of This is the Zodiac Speaking revolves around investigating a series of crime scenes linked to the Zodiac killings as you try to unravel the identity of the enigmatic murderer. Progression is mostly linked to solving a series of small puzzles within the crime scenes by gathering an array of objects, each of which is littered around the environment for the player to find. There’ll also be moments where you have to piece together the crimes that have already been committed by the killer within your diary, adding an extra element of investigative work to the experience.
Admittedly, there’s nothing within the gameplay mechanics that you wouldn’t have seen done better before in similar titles, but the fact that This is the Zodiac Speaking is tied to real-life events somehow made it more compelling. It’s plays it very by the numbers with its puzzling, but it’s competent enough to keep players invested in what is going on.
Outside of all of the investigative elements and the puzzling, there’ll also be moments where you need to escape from the elusive killer himself. Yes, the Zodiac killer will often be at the scene of the crimes and all it takes is one blow from him to put you in the history books as one of his victims.
These instances should add an extra element of tension to the game, with early encounters certainly startling me as I sneakily tried to keep out of his line of sight and make my way across locales unseen. However, it didn’t take long for me to realise that one, the AI of the killer isn’t really the brightest, and two, it’s incredibly easy to evade him even if he does catch you in his sight. I didn’t dislike these segments and they do add a bit of extra variety to the experience, but they could feel like more of a formality once you realised how easy it is to exploit the Zodiac killer’s behaviour.
Whilst the gameplay mechanics of This is the Zodiac Speaking are competent (if a little uninspired), it’s completely let down by its visual presentation on the Nintendo Switch. It’s not as if it’s a graphically-intensive game in the first place, but between the ugly textures, the terrible pop-in, and the blurry resolution, it’s hard to find yourself enveloped in this mysterious world. The fact that the blurry visuals and dark tones of the environments can often make it difficult to make out the objects you actually need to find affects the gameplay mechanics of the game too, making this problem more than just an aesthetic one.
I’m not sure how it performs on other platforms, but it is a little bit surprising that the developer was willing to release it in its current form of the Nintendo Switch – especially since it seems to have a lot of these issues in both the handheld and docked modes. Whilst the concept builds enough mystery and intrigue to draw players in, the poor visuals completely pulls it all apart and will leave players aghast at how ugly the game can be.
Want a positive? The frame rate is mostly fine, and sure, some interiors manage to look passable thanks to the fact that you’re not having random objects pop into the screen from out of nowhere all of the time. Everything else? It’s just poor and in desperate need of a patch.
The core mechanics of This is the Zodiac Speaking and the mystery that it offers are intriguing, but the ugly visuals make it extremely difficult to recommend on the Nintendo Switch. I can’t deny that actually enjoyed investigating the case and seeing how it affects Robert does add a neat personal touch to proceedings, but the fact that it has such a blurry resolution, dark environments that are difficult to make out, and terrible pop-in that springs objects into your viewpoint from out of nowhere just soured the whole experience for me.
This is the Zodiac Speaking is certainly playable on the Nintendo Switch and in fairness it does have its moments where even the graphics are passable (even if they are few and far between) – if you really want to enjoy the clever concept of the game though, I’d implore you to try it on a platform where the awful visuals won’t ruin the experience for you.
Developer: Punch Punk Games
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC