Playing through Bouncer Story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, which didn’t bold well for the former. Developed by Helmi Games and published by Plug In Digital, Bouncer Story apparently seeks to take the former’s template and apply it to an urban setting. Yet in implementing role-playing systems, it ends up overstaying its welcome. That’s the short answer; for the longer one read on.
If the title didn’t give it away, Bouncer Story has a tale to tell- you play as big guy trying to pay off a massive gambling debt to the local mafia. To do this, he works shifts as a security guard at various night clubs in the city associated with this mob. While this is going on, a series of killings dubbed the “Blackjack Murders” occur in the background, sending the police into a frenzy. What’s going on and what’s your part in all this? That’s something you’re going to have to figure out for yourself should you choose to stay in for the long haul. And I say the long haul because the reality is there are significant pacing issues here not helped by heavy gameplay grind (more on that below).
To talk about the pacing, I should first explain why I made a comparison to Papers, Please in the introductory paragraph: during my playthrough of Bouncer Story, I noticed many similarities between the two, beginning with the premise of an average worker trying to earn enough cash to make it out of a tight situation. But it goes deeper than that. There were a lot of investigative authorities and interesting individuals who popped up throughout your journey in Papers, Please: characters who spruced up the narrative by way of their antics, requests, or general personality. They tied into the overarching issues plaguing Arstotzka, and helped shape your own views accordingly, whether it was sex traffickers trying to bribe you, managing officials implementing strict rules, or the wonderfully bizarre Jorji Costava.
Bouncer Story has those same archetypes, but their appearances with you are so spaced out that they don’t build-up the way the travelers in Papers, Please did. They are much more haphazard in nature- I’m not lying when I say 1-2 weeks can go by before you meet them again. And it’s a shame because the writers here are as talented as Pope- when you trigger these conversations, they build-up tension, raise heads, and make you question your role in this downtown conurbation. You know these mobsters are scumbags, but what difference does it make when they’ve had a history of holding sway over every citizen? It’s too bad I wasn’t consistently hooked on to care in the end.
That being said, though those encounters are limited, when they do happen they often come with choices. You’re offered to do tasks or oblige requests by one or more parties, and the best thing about them is that they’re morally-ambiguous. Something that may seem straight forward always has a caveat related to your character- you want to make a difference, yet you’re already in a hot mess and can’t risk angering your creditors, especially with an apparent hitman running loose. It’s a nice balance that opens the door to multiple endings depending on what you choose to do. Again, though, they are few and far between.
Outside of those direct scenes, you’re given a daily newspaper to read every night, with each entry being a single paragraph detailing some extraneous detail: maybe you’ll get a hot tip about a special event at a bar or an update on the Blackjack investigation. Unfortunately, just like with my previous complaints, it’s very sparse- these periodicals could have gone a long way towards fleshing out the backdrop of the area you’re in or at the very least covered more than a single topic. Compare this to the current events app in VA-11 HALL-A, which often had multiple feeds giving you information. Is there really nothing else beguiling going on in this sad sack of a place?
On that note of sadness, the graphics are up next, and they falter noticeably. As you can imagine, the role of an usher entails greeting a diversity of individuals. Yet Helmi Games decided that the best way to render those individuals was to take 3-4 basic templates, put their clothing and names through an RNG, and then spam them en masse in a single location and expect everyone to accept it.
I guess on the one hand I can’t really blame them- triple A titles like the Elder Scrolls or Arkham series have rehashed the same limited number of models for all their NPCs and received universal acclaim (it’s only the memeists that remind us otherwise!). My counterargument here, though, is that those games offer a lot more content and activities, and having a sprawling world with things to do offsets the clones galore.
Granted, Bethesda and Rocksteady were of course operating with bigger budgets, but when you choose to base your enterprise purely around the notion of NPC interaction, you are more obligated to commit resources towards at least making them seem like unique folks with different motivations. But no, not only is their dialogue painfully repeated, their clothing is, 50 percent of the time, flat-out ugly. The algorithm used to procedurally create the textiles doesn’t try to make color coding sense- you’ll see neons matched with secondary hues, like hot pink and brown, while crazy hair colors are outshined by weirder looking shoes. Procedural generation has been a great tool in video game productions, but here it feels like a lazy excuse by the developers to not do any extensive work. The sole exception to this are the special supporting characters. From Detective Samuel Gittes to the Don of the family, these beings were clearly given a dedicated makeover because they look amazing: their apparel is detailed, fits the setting, and makes them stand-out in a good way.
The generic character designs themselves aren’t inherently bad- they evoke a kind of late-90s/early-2000s feel with their realistic proportions and skin tones. However, they’re offset by a couple of additional factors: jagged edges outline the bodies and don’t feel natural, and their walking animations take limited to the next level- you will see moving legs better conveyed in flash animation productions from Newgrounds nearly 20 years ago. On top of this, shadows are reduced to small dark circles at the base of everyone’s feet.
If I can end on a positive note, it’s the backgrounds. You gain access to seven bars, and considerable effort was put into giving them a unique spin, and I don’t just mean thematic. Yes, the Irish Pub has shamrocks and the sports bar a giant soccer ball, but the decor, lighting, and general feel is specifically crafted. The Twelve Blues nightclub that caters to more economically-depressed clientele operates in a rundown area with cracked walls and graffiti. The aforestated Gaelic saloon has middle-class citizens on its mind, but it’s still financially hampered, as indicated by rats roaming nearby and its flickering fluorescents. Meanwhile, the fancy Delice has a cozier patio with soft yellow lights indicating a welcoming environment. These are static images conveying pure atmosphere, and it’s a testament to the color graders and designers for successfully doing so.
Sound is up next, and there isn’t much. Voice acting is constrained to grunts that don’t deviate based on gender, and is unimportant regardless. You get some SFX in the form of punching noises when a fight breaks out between you and an NPC, but it’s deliberately cartoonish. Other actions that produce an audible response, like throwing cash or calling people, produce a miniscule response that isn’t worth going in-depth.
That leaves the score, which is actually good. I was unable to find the composer’s name, but they have given each of the locales distinct harmonies that are as catchy as they are befitting: Twelve Blues is more low-key and moody in contrast with Goal 27’s lively leitmotifs. Because work days are short, these tunes don’t ever feel as looped as they are, and that goes a long way towards making the stints enjoyable. The composer even throws in a nice heavy beat that plays whenever the Mafia presence gets in your face, avoiding any fears of it being a Nino Rota ripoff.
Finally, we come to the gameplay, which, as I said beforehand, is very grindy. I hate to keep drawing comparisons to Paper, Please, but you do, do a very similar job as the inspector from it- deciding whether or not to let someone inside an establishment, in this case drinkeries. Much like Tinder, this is done via swiping left or right when presented with a new customer. It starts off simple, but things get complicated quickly with the introduction of IDs- evidently these bistros used to employ idiot security guards because you will have all sorts of morons trying to get in: bozos with fake IDs, underage kids, drunkards, and Mafia-banned boozers all blend in with the crowd Assassin’s Creed style, and the only way you can catch them is through their manner of speech and photo identification. For each legitimate patron approved, you get a small gratuity that makes up the majority of your daily income.
You could take it slow and avoid making any mistakes, but more people = more tips, and allowing certain demographics inside increases the “happy hour” meter: get it all the way up and you’ll get extra money from the casuals when they exit for the night.
As you can imagine, this positive feedback loop gets tiring very fast due to how repetitive it is. Yes, the shifts go by quickly as I mentioned above, however that doesn’t matter when you’re working consecutive days at a time without any change in the general situation. Special events trigger increased crowds at specific venues, yet you’re still doing the same thing, and because the story beats are spread so thin, you lack a compelling reason to trudge through this monotony.
Still, I would have been able to tolerate it were it not for the reskinned models hurting the ID examinations. See, because there is no differentiation between NPCs of the same prototype, you genuinely can’t tell what someone’s age is: a character who is 14 is a mirror image of a character who is 70. As a result, it genuinely makes no sense for the game to dock you over authorizing someone with phony credentials when the basis for that phoniness is being “too old.” Apparently there is some arbitrary age cut-off that the designers haphazardly decided designated someone as being a pretender.
Names are another annoying kink in the identification field. Once again that RNG factor is limited to the same 10 or so prosoponyms that are mixed and matched for everyone, and once again you’ll get docked for excusing a fake ID on the basis of it being the opposite gender. Not only is it frustrating, but considering all the advances that have been made on the subject of gender identity and naming conventions in the western world, it feels outdated and regressive. A simple solution to this would’ve been putting a “sex” label on the licenses much like, you guessed it, Papers, Please did!
The negative aspects of the procedural generation continue to the personalities of the crowds. The people who spawn in an area aren’t as divergent in their attitudes as they should be- you can enter a location only for it to mostly consist of posers, drunks or, worse, violent offenders, who will fight you if you refuse them service. There were many times where I had to relaunch my game because the crowd that was selected for me was either full of imposters that would have significantly hurt my income for the day, or ill-tempered hoodlums who knocked me out because I didn’t expect to take on three in one instance.
I know readers may criticize me for “gaming the game,” if it were, but I make it clear that the only reason I did this is because there is no deciding factor that determines the makeup of the alcoholic congregation. If the newspapers, for example, gave some indication that one place would be more prone to petty acts than another (and provided some reward to make it worth the risk), then I would have been fine with this, but no, you don’t get that. The closest that ever comes is one instance wherein a piece that tells you auditors are cracking down on a general increase in forged IDs, however I didn’t see this have any noticeable impact on the game at large.
I noted that you can get into fights- these are completely random and the outcome is automatically decided after a brief “cutscene” of the two of you duking it out. Whether or not you come out on top is determined by a trait called “strength,” which falls along three other skills: Energy, Charisma, and Intelligence. Their presence lends Bouncer Story a bit of an RPG feel since they are used for the sake of progression- charisma gets you access to more bars, intelligence gives you new abilities, and strength determines how much energy you survive with after a brawl. You increase each of them by way of buying their next level, with each upgrade costing more than its predecessor. While the investments are worth it so far as their effects are concerned, it is a heavy monetary sink that leads to a time sink by way of you having to grind for those greenbacks, bringing back painful memories of early JRPGs like the original Final Fantasy. In other words, it’s an outdated mechanic, no matter the fresh coat of paint.
If that weren’t bad enough, Bouncer Story also makes the oddball decision to throw in roguelike elements via permadeath. If your choices lead to you succumbing to a fatal end, you do not have the option to go back to any point in time and try something different. Some people may appreciate this, but when you consider the fact that you will have to go through that same grind all-over again, it significantly diminishes the forced replay value brought about by it, which unfortunately happened to me.
A couple of gambles are thrown in for good measure- blackjack and random events. Blackjack is literally the casino game Twenty-one wherein you can potentially earn $50.00 multiple times a day depending on the cards you and your opponent draw. Random events, on the other hand, involve clicking on a temporary icon on the map with a range of effects from winning money to losing a skill level. Personally, I found both of these too risky, but your mileage will vary.
Overall, Bouncer Story is a rare example of mediocre gameplay being brought down by direct problems with the graphics and narrative. If either of the latter categories had been amped up in terms of pacing, heterogeneity, or laid-out blueprints, we could have had a solid indie title. As it stands, Bouncer Story is another case of beautiful artistic endeavors like music and scenery being wasted on a product that does not live up to its potential.
It took me about 5 hours to “beat,” the game, but I put quotation marks around the term because I suffered from an untimely finale and didn’t have the motivation to start a new file. I was about two weeks away from the deadline to pay off the debt, so I imagine it would have taken no more than another 30 minutes to complete the game, putting my total playthrough at an estimate of 5.5 hours.
However, even if it was just the five, Bouncer Story’s pricing of $7.99 more than covers the $1.00 to 30 minute of gameplay ratio I require. However, I will openly admit I did not have as much fun with it as I should have. If you’re fine with an interesting storyline being unnecessarily dragged out alongside tedious clicking gameplay, you will find enjoyment, but otherwise I would just recommend playing Papers, Please.
+ Neo-noir terrain
+ Gritty story
+ Good OST
– Lazy character skins that hurt the gameplay
– Permanent death
Rating – 4/10