by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
A Classic Story
Police Stories is a game that hits pretty much all of your classic police game/movie cliches. Old partners. Foreign drug runners. Secret enemy hideouts. Corruption and betrayal. It’s all there, and it’s all familiar ground, but the classic narrative works with the classic, pixelated look you’ll enjoy as you shoot, bash, and arrest your way to the truth across 18 quick, mouse-smashingly difficult maps.
The non-narrative lead-in information I received before each mission was brief but contained some key useful information. Most notably was what my objective was, which affected the loadout I chose to take. If the mission was a simple catch/kill all the baddies, lethal was the way to go. Will a bomb need diffusing? Well, in those cases I brought pepper spray and a taser to quickly get the diffuse code from surrendered enemies (and rack up a few more non-lethal capture points). Other information includes the number of hostiles, hostages, and fake hostages (enemies dressed like civilians that can pull a gun). This information isn’t quite as useful, as I worked my way through entire maps anyways. Sure, I could count how many I’d captured or killed, but unless I was too the last room there was still always the option of any number of enemies being behind a door. Still, extra info never hurts.
Slow and Steady... Until it Isn’t
While Police Stories looks (and, to a degree, plays) a lot like genre-bigshot Hotline Miami, the feel is very different. While encounters with hostiles are fast-twitch affairs, overall progress through each mission (each less than 10 minutes) is slow. While your character can run, movement defaults to a walk. Entering new areas and rounding corners needs to be done slowly. Equipment needs to be considered and commands issued (if playing solo with an AI partner). A big part of what complicates confrontations is the fact that you can’t just shoot everyone you see. While it might make sense to call shots by a police officer justified in the middle of a gang hideout in which a dozen gangsters have already opened fire, Police Stories disagrees. You can only shoot someone if they’re pointing their gun at you. If they aren’t, you can shout at them to get down, shoot warning shots, or use a non-lethal weapon like pepper spray. Even one premature kill is a huge loss of points.
I actually really like the added stress of having to assess each enemy. After seeing someone, there’s only a split second in which to decide what to do. Enemies have fast hands, and it’s often less than a second between sight and them having a weapon out and shooting. It becomes frustrating, though, when this leads to “unfair” deaths. I’m all for a good challenge, but there were tons of times during gameplay where I was blasted by enemies I had absolutely no chance of succeeding against. Particularly in the early missions when equipment options are scarce, it’s not uncommon to open a door and have multiple enemies with their guns drawn. Add in the AI’s hyper-reflexes, and there’s no way to avoid death. The levels are short, but even 5 minutes seemed long when I kept dying late in the same first few missions. This is made worse by the fact that the partner AI is fairly inconsistent and not terribly useful. Sometime’s he’d be a crack shot taking out enemies and being a big help, other times he’d empty a clip and do nothing. Commands are taken incredibly literally, too. It’d be nice, for instance, if I could ask him to throw a grenade and have him move into position to do so instead of chucking it at a wall right next to him and blinding us both.
Go for the High Score
Regardless of what type of mission is at hand, surviving and completing all of the objectives is not necessarily enough to unlock the next one. Each mission is points-based; you’ll earn points for taking out enemies (and more for cuffing them), grabbing evidence, and completing maps quickly. You’ll lose them for shooting when you aren’t supposed to, getting shot, or harming hostages. It’s worth noting that any negatives are HUGE. Accidentally popping someone a bit too early, having yourself or your partner get shot without a med-pack, or finishing too slowly guarantee you a rating of no higher than C+ or so. Mistakes are serious business. Points to unlock new missions can come from anywhere though, so what I often found myself doing was sliding by on bad grades, earing some new equipment, then using that equipment to go back and earn points on early levels. Replaying isn’t just necessary for bragging rights, it’s necessary for progression.
The system makes sense, and it’s obviously an experience designed around perfecting performance and shaving off mistakes to nudge past your high scores. After 6 or 7 missions, it works, too. By that point, I had enough equipment unlocked that I could play with different loadouts and bounce between enough missions to keep things from growing stale. Before that, though... man, things drag. Playing the same mission with the same loadout dozens of times, making a single mistake or dying at the very end, gets old pretty darned fast. There are a few pieces of equipment, like the sensor that lets you see through doors, that change the game entirely once you get them- but it takes a lot of struggle to get there. There needs to be a small pool of missions available right off the bat, or maybe a larger set of weapons, to avoid players burning out and moving on before the game has enough breathing room to come into its own and live up to its potential.
While I have my complaints about the game, your mileage may vary. It’s not normally my style, but I actually had a ton more fun once I changed the difficulty from normal to easy. A heavy misnomer, dropping to easy doesn’t actually change much. Enemies are still plentiful and move just as fast. The only difference, as far as I could tell, is that I could take a shot or two more before dying. Now, maybe the proper response to that is "get gud", but I thought I’d throw it out there in case you’re looking for a way to get past those first few levels in a slightly more enjoyable way. Problems aside, Police Stories is fun. It’s not terribly long- the kind of game you could bust out in a weekend if you wanted to- but its bite-sized pieces and simple controls also make it a great game to digest at a more tempered pace.
Clear and simple graphics, lots of tactical options, interesting “don’t shoot first” mechanic.
First few levels before acquiring key equipment are a drag, partner AI is inconsistent