On the outskirts of the neighbourhood, a train carriage dangles in mid-air, the final moments of a bygone catastrophe indefinitely postponed. Near the canal, piles of disused automobiles accumulate around a perpetually spinning roulette of gigantic proportions – the unclaimed spoils of some invisible victor? Around the intersection of Yam Street and July Avenue, building façades look suspiciously like heads, with a couple even demonstrating fundamental human traits like a penchant for small talk, or a taste for pizza with an assortment of (mostly) savoury toppings.
Welcome to Off-Peak City, the recurring setting for developer Cosmo D’s dizzying cocktails of surreal visuals, irresistible jazzy electronica, and unconventional storytelling.
You’ve been sent here with a task. Infiltrate the business of one Caetano Grosso – a once legendary saxophonist and currently distinguished pizza chef – gain the great man’s trust as his kitchen assistant, and find a way to steal the priceless brass instrument he keeps locked in a vault under his busy establishment.
As illustrated by that premise, everything in Tales From Off-Peak City Vol.1 revolves around music. It’s evident in the way characters tap their feet to the soundtrack, in the variety of intricately designed speakers installed in even the messiest apartments, and most of all in the profusion of trippy sounds which accompany every action in this peaceful corner of an otherwise – judging by the looming corporate towers in the distance – troubled world.
Even preparing a pizza for delivery doubles as a delightful full-orchestra improv session, each drop of marinara a string-section flourish, each slice of mozzarella a percussion beat.
Not that eyes are indulged less than ears. Cosmo D’s fluid architecture evokes Gaudi’s Basilica seen through funhouse mirrors, with lintels drooping from some unseen weight and frames buckling inwards, almost as if someone put the whole block in a microwave and let all that brownstone melt for a minute or two. There wasn’t a single edifice I didn’t want to gawk at, then use the game’s exquisite photo mode on.
Nevertheless, a neighbourhood is only as interesting as the lives it provides a backdrop to, and the intersection of Yam and July hosts a multitude of fascinating stories, some more deeply explored, others (like the background of our two shadowy handlers) tantalisingly implied.
Caetano’s own past is unearthed through a series of gradually accessed dioramas, but it’s the relationship between landlord/corporate goon/extortionist Big Mo and his rebellious daughter that’s most representative of the game’s complex moral core.
As for your own role in the cataclysmic changes befalling this part of town, that question remains unresolved. With Kentucky Route Zero finished, it was time for another serial adventure to sing the beauty of unheroic lives in a strange world full of familiar hardships.
The Empire stands untoppled at the end of the two-hour journey, and every aspect of life in the neighbourhood is still controlled by a megacorp – it’s not even clear you were working against them. But there’s warmth in sharing the struggles of the downtrodden, and maybe that’s fuel enough for some future revolution.
As if its scripted visual splendours weren’t enough, Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1 features one of the most engrossing photo modes I’ve ever come across in gaming, allowing deep but intuitive control of focus, exposure, and a variety of (collectable) filters, capable of further enhancing its already striking images.
A work of remarkable imagination and humanity, picking up where Kentucky Route Zero left off.
Genre: Walking sim
Format: PC / Mac
Developer: Cosmo D
Publisher: Cosmo D Studios
Price: £3.99/month (Humble Choice subscription)
Release: Out now