Saturday, 30 May 2009

Game Review: Centaur City MCMXXXI

Here's a strange one for you. TeamDTs, the developers behind 2003's anthropomorphic rob'em'up Chicken Bandits, went into liquidation late last year, having spent more than half a decade working on an untitled mega-project involving a team of hundreds and costing something in the region of $40m. Assets were sold and employees were scattered to the far corners of the game-development world; it seemed for sure that the masterpiece was never to see the light of day.

Cut to only a few months later, and here's Centaur City MCMXXXI (that's 1931 for those uncomfortable with Roman numerals), landing unheralded like the cargo of a stork caught in a downdraft and forced to shed ballast in order to save its own skin. Funny old world, eh?

So what's it all about? Well, the game is "best described as a mytho-historical sandbox adventure", according to the backcover blurb. If you're buying a hardcopy, that's all you'll have to go on: the box is otherwise completely blank, and grey to boot (would black have been too glamorous?). Open it up and you'll be presented with a game disc and a slender volume of poetry entitled Cold Dreamers of Old Town:

First thing to go's the colors;
look out yonder on our fine city
and see how everything's now but one hue.
It's the color of money;
we painted all our rooftops
with them green bills, see?
And then when the rains came down,
they washed through;
they stained us all green,
and now there ain't one thing in this town
is worth the paper it's printed on.

Mysterious, n'est pas? And not a reference to secondary-fire mode in sight. In fact, it took a good three hours of gameplay before things started to make sense. The premise is this: the years is 1931, and the Great Depression is in full effect. Bendorion, an amnesiac drifter, arrives in the southern US city of Dustyville, where he immediately creates a stir among the locals. He's a centaur, see: from the waist upwards a man, below that a horse. And it doesn't help that he can't speak English (at the beginning of the game, the speech of the city's residents consists of nonsense syllables, which gradually morph into intelligibility as time passes); within minutes he's been attacked by an angry mob, who beat him into unconsciousness and steal his lute.

Awakening in a barn, Bendorion finds that he's been rescued by an old horse whisperer named Miller, who seems to know more about centaurs than he lets on. And so begins a mystery-adventure of uncommon ambition, set over the course of two decades and dealing with racism, poverty, the rise of nationalism, identity politics, quantum physics, prohibition, universal grammar, musical serialism and advertising.

C.C. MCMXXXI's gameplay is highly indebted to the GTA series: long periods are spent doing sub-quests for shady mobsters and corrupt policemen. However, these potentially tedious exercises are enlivened by the game's incredibly open-ended structure. One mission, in which Bendorion is assigned to assassinate a twelve-year-old witness, proved to have no fewer than fourteen possible outcomes, one of which involved an experimental theatre group performing the first scene from Ibsen's A Doll's House with the role of Nora played by a Model T Ford painted green.


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