Freeburg City is suffering. Far from a shining beacon of American civilisation, it bears closer resemblance to a wounded fighter on the ropes, reeling from hit after hit but too old and stubborn to give up entirely. The neon skyline of the ’80s is fading, giving way to a new decade painted in varying shades of grey. What liberty there is suffers constantly under the influence of powerful gangs, a corrupt city hall, and escalating crime rates. At the centre of it all is a man as broken and weary as the city itself, struggling to hold all the pieces in place. This Is The Police.
For Jack Boyd, every day is just the same headache for a different reason. He’s the flabby, surly chief of police that’s way past his prime, and no stranger to his own list of personal vices. Like it or not, you’ll be stepping into his shoes for the last few months before his retirement, and Freeburg’s mess is now your responsibility to clean up. Weappy Games has mashed together elements of film noir, crime drama and strategy/simulation into a grim cocktail, and now that it’s available on the ever-portable Switch there’s simply no getting away from its gritty influence.
First impressions might lead you to believe that this is something of a power fantasy, enabling the player to control an entire city and the very laws that govern it. On the contrary, This Is The Police hammers home the point that power is fleeting, and rarely allows you to feel like you’re totally in charge. Your view of Freeburg is from the perspective of a miniature model found in Jack’s office, often obscured by shadows and flickering lights as one long day slowly rolls into the next. Each day is spent managing resources, assigning police to answer distress calls, and balancing allegiances with a number of shady third parties who have a hand in how your story will unfold. One of the first major decisions you’re asked to make is whether or not to sacrifice your integrity in the face of an offer from the mob, and it’s a punishing lesson that makes one thing very clear – there’s no place in the city for an honest man.
One way or another you need to make $500,000 dollars as a healthy nest egg in the 180 days before retirement, and while you could potentially scrape that amount by earning every bonus and flawlessly keeping the peace, the temptation to make a little extra on the side is always there, and your debt to a certain crime lord keeps the noose tight around your neck. From the outset you’re thrust into Jack’s troubled existence and surrounded by a cast of characters as memorable as they are villainous. Whether you’re pleading for an increased budget from city hall, wrestling with the media, or trying to keep out of the way of various gangs, everyone you interact with has their own distinct personality traits and agendas to contend with, and the already compelling story is bolstered even further by a cast of characters that wouldn’t feel out of place in an HBO drama.
Each in-game day begins with a flash of newspaper headlines, the rev of a car engine, and a choice of music to play in the background as work begins. You’ve got two shifts of police officers and detectives to command, assigning them to their relevant distress calls or investigative cases, and dealing with the fallout of each and every decision. Your employees have energy and skill ratings to keep in mind, alongside their own political and personal prejudices to make them feel that bit more believable. When a call comes in, you get a quick synopsis of the situation and need to gauge how many officers need to be on the scene, remembering that the more you send, the less you’ll have to respond to any further crimes. Some calls require a bit of extra decision making if your officers aren’t sure how to handle certain situations, but for the most part you’re simply asked to choose the best team for the job and hope they’re up to the task.
More serious situations might even require extra resources in the form of SWAT teams and paddy wagons, or employees with a higher skill rating than usual. Skimp out on your squads and you could end up losing the perp or suffering a civilian casualty, potentially even losing one of your officers if things really get out of hand. Devote too many of your resources to one distress call, however, and you’re left unable to respond to any others until they’re back in the station, so there’s a constant juggling act that demands time management and snap judgement. There’s nothing worse than sending top brass to answer a call, only to find out it was a hoax.
Your detectives, meanwhile, are reserved for more serious cases; ongoing investigations into repeat offenders or chasing a lead to take down a gang. These scenarios are a little more interactive, and require you to piece together a timeline of events as your team gathers eyewitness reports and evidence. As with all of your employees, there’s a chance that they’ll ask for days off, show up drunk, or decide to quit of their own free will, and you’ll need to deal with this however you see fit. Send your best officer out while exhausted or under the influence and he puts himself and others at severe risk, but sometimes you just need the extra help and have to take a chance. On top of all this, city hall will often ask you to give up officers for much more inane circumstances such as choral performances, spreading your resources even thinner.
Once this daily routine is in place and you grow more confident in your abilities, it unfortunately becomes a little too easy to start viewing everything as a raw resource instead of an actual person. Officers become numbers, the content of distress calls becomes less important, and you just work through strategies until you find a reliable (and repetitious) system. To its credit, the game does make an effort to keep things fresh, however, even going so far as to introduce a Hollywood-style criminal and a few unique gameplay scenarios later on, but the bulk of your time is still spent on repeat.
The stylish sheen begins to wear off as that repetition sets in, though a huge incentive to continue playing is actually the story itself. Interspersed throughout the game are cutscenes rendered in a gloriously restrained mix of block colours and harsh lines, removing intricate detail and allowing your imagination and the excellent voice work to fill in the blanks. Jack Boyd – voiced by the iconic Jon St.John of Duke Nukem fame – is a sympathetic protagonist despite all of his flaws, and while the tortured cop persona might not be the most original in noir storytelling, it’s more effective given that we have some sway over the path he takes. There are certain scenes that strike a particularly emotional chord, so these moments where the player can sit back and enjoy the dialogue offer a welcome respite. Of course you can skip these without much real consequence if you so choose, but we feel as though the heart of the experience is lost by doing so.
Less successful are some of the attempts to weigh in on widespread societal issues such as racism and sexism, largely as a result of the ridiculously monstrous mayor and his outlandish demands. Shocking requests such as firing all employees of a certain ethnicity overnight are enough to give the player serious pause, but even in the midst of protests and widespread unease within Freeburg, the whole affair comes to down to either complying with or refusing the request, and that’s that. It feels toothless to introduce such mature decision-making while neglecting to really make a statement with it. The consequence of meeting protests with violence is largely the same regardless of the nature of that protest, so at most the inclusion of these issues simply remind us that they exist, and to be mindful of the bias and corruption around us. It’s fine, but a missed opportunity given how serious the plot can be.
As everything is controlled via a series of menus and text boxes, it’s a huge plus that the interface is so clear and responsive. In fact, the entire aesthetic is phenomenal, right down to the choice of classical music and jazz which permeates each working day. Whether it’s the sound of raindrops hitting the window, the glow of sirens streaking through the city, or the smoke billowing from a half-chewed cigar, everything forms a cohesive vision of a dingy, late 1980s metropolis straight out of a detective novel. Better yet, the Switch version allows for touchscreen control while in handheld mode, which is a genuine improvement over standard inputs for certain tasks, such as placing crime scene photos in order during investigations. Some of the text also appears a little too small when viewed from a distance on the television, so we ended up primarily conducting investigations while on the go.
By the end of our stint as chief of police we’d clocked about 18 hours of gameplay overall. Despite several split paths during the course of the story, there isn’t any genuine replay value given the fact that each day is on a pre-determined schedule, rather than being randomly generated. There are some bonuses to discover – a “Dr.Boyd” mini game is one such surprise – but we actually found that towards the end we were very ready for retirement. The game begins to outstay its welcome after the first 7-8 hours, and while it does try to pull your attention back, by that point you’ve begun to recognise the patterns, too familiar with the daily routine to enjoy it to its fullest.