Every time you boot up Screencheat, the PlayStation 4 debut from Australian indie studio Samurai Punk, you're treated to the following informative phrase: "Screencheat: The splitscreen shooter where everyone is invisible so you have to screencheat." This is, for better or worse, the entire game summed up in twelve words.
Of course, we wouldn't really be doing our job if we ended the review there, so, to elaborate, this spirited shooter sees you running about various maps, attempting to gun down your invisible enemies. The catch, however, is that regardless of whether you're playing online or offline, you'll always be in splitscreen, and therefore you'll always see what your opponent is seeing.
This means that you not only have to pay attention to what you yourself are doing, but you also have to keep a constant eye on your foes' screens in order to figure out where they are and what they're up to.
This clever little nod to the sorts of squabbles that would emerge from late-night split-screen sessions of games like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark should indicate that the title is a very deliberate love letter to the first-person shooters of yore, and this is reflected in its gameplay. Indeed, this is not a complicated shooting game by any means. You don't have access to grenades, there aren't special attacks to master, and the entire experience feels distinctly floaty in the way that older shooters often do.
It plays out in a plethora of different modes. There's the standard fare – a deathmatch mode, an elimination mode, and a king of the hill mode – as well as some more interesting additions. Some of these intriguing variations, such as one which requires you to run around the stage holding a piñata to earn points, do a great job of leveraging the unique gameplay. Others, however, such as one which sees you earning points for shooting specific enemies with specific weapons, slow things down in a way that simply isn't fun.
There's also a wide variety of weird and interesting weapons to choose from, including a murderous hobby horse which allows you to charge your enemies, and a cuddly bear which is stuffed with dynamite. However, the relatively shallow nature of the moment to moment gunplay means that, barring some of the stranger entries, all of the guns present roughly the same tactical value. Indeed, in most cases, the bog-standard blunderbuss is the best way to go.
On the environmental side of things, there are eleven maps to choose from, each requiring you to subtly adjust your strategy in different ways. Some offer large arenas to roam, while others see you traipsing through tight corridors. Again, the design is heavily influenced by classic shooters, which means that the levels can sometimes be a bit nondescript and confusing.
There's also a rudimentary levelling system which allows you to unlock different skins for the ragdoll corpse which appears when you die and then remains in the environment for the rest of the match. It's a neat touch, and creates a nice sense of flow between games.
Finally, there's a time trial mode, which sees you taking out a series of bots in a given time limit. It's a novel distraction, as well as a relatively serviceable way of honing your screencheating skills in between multiplayer matches.
In terms of presentation, the title does a fairly good job of paying homage to the classic shooters that it idolises, while still keeping things fun and colourful. Similarly, the music mostly consists of frenetic electronic beats, which matches the fast paced action.
Ultimately, Screencheat's a clever concept, but not one without problems. Namely, it is incredibly difficult to maintain concentration on several different screens at once. Some measures have been put into place to help assuage these difficulties – areas of the levels are color-coded, and often feature distinctive and easily-recognisable landmarks – but this still doesn't help the fact that there will be times where you simply don't know what's going on.
At the end of the day, your ability to correctly judge where your opponents are at any given time is predicated on having an intimate knowledge of whatever level you happen to be playing. Again, steps have been taken to make this process easier – the previously mentioned colour-coding, for instance – but the levels simply aren't designed well enough to make this process smooth or particularly enjoyable.
Indeed, this is a game which sells itself as a wacky fun-filled party experience, but then presents a frustratingly high barrier for entry. And what's more, once that barrier has been leapt, there really isn't a great deal of depth to be found on the other side.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the online multiplayer, which becomes very dull after an hour or two of play. There's simply not enough fun to be had in playing randomised levels with randomised opponents. Furthermore, making judgements about what your foes are doing is incredibly frustrating when you're so far removed from them.
Naturally, then, it's in local play that the game really shines. It's much easier to forgive the annoying moments mentioned above when you can simply direct your frustrations towards the people that you're sitting on the couch with. As bizarre as it might sound, the grunts and angry outbursts from your friends can provide a surprisingly strategic advantage.
Despite a very novel central premise, Screencheat simply fails to maintain attention. The title features a variety of weapons, maps, and modes, but its mechanics take too long to grasp for it to succeed as a party game, while being too shallow for it to succeed as a serious shooter. To be clear, there's definitely some fun to be had here, and the goofy visuals and music help emphasize this, but the entire experience reeks of wasted potential.