The Zodiac killer is one of the most infamous serial killers of all time, and for good reason. Whereas we generally know complete stories for most, we to this day, don’t actually know who Zodiac was, or perhaps is. This amount of unknowns serves as a perfect jumping-off point for Punch Punk Games’ detective walking sim, This Is the Zodiac Speaking.
Playing as Robert Hartnell – himself inspired by one of Zodiac’s surviving victims – you play as a news reporter... Trying to piece together the motives and possibly the identity of the Zodiac? We say that in a questioning tone because the narrative is almost completely indecipherable – much like one of Zodiac’s ciphers. There aren’t many vocal performances in the game, but what is there feels rather meandering and sometimes even pointless. Every situation that comes up feels akin to an “in media res” sequence, so nothing ever feels as if it builds on what came before. This makes the writing seem scattershot and unfulfilling. The voice work doesn’t help either. The performances for Zodiac and Robert are sufficient. But the other voices that pop up are clearly not professional voice actors and given where the Zodiac murders occurred, the obvious foreign accents are rather jarring.
The narrative is conveyed through a series of surreal dreams triggered by a therapist who may have your best interests at heart but comes off as suspicious at best. These dreams transport Robert to each of the Zodiac’s “famous” murder scenes, and you must flit around the environment, tracking down clues all the while avoiding the Zodiac himself, during some fairly easy stealth sections. Upon collecting the requisite information, you piece together events and then locate a “cipher”. This comprises almost the entire game, as the only other sequences revolve around walking through Robert’s home, also collecting clues.
The game’s dedication to conveying noteworthy and interesting information about Zodiac is commendable, though if you read every single thing you find, you’ll easily spend more than half of your playthrough just reading collectibles. Far too much information is isolated to the semi-functional menus, which in many cases don’t scroll properly or don’t bring up the correct information. Functionality in general is an issue, and it interferes with some of the game’s best features. The dream environments have a fantastic mood to them, between lots of fog, and low, rumbling musical cues. But the filters have a tendency to break, and the only discernible way to fix it is to fumble into walls until Zodiac catches you and you restart. And that’s to say nothing of the insane amount of screen-tearing that happens on nearly every texture for every frame, which the developer promises will be getting a fix in the near future. Ultimately the game feels like the first draft of a really great idea. Add some polish, and we’d love to see what it could become.