I enjoy media and genres that can take on different contexts over time. Mikey Neuman, over on his excellent YouTube show Movies with Mikey, did an excellent reading of the film Hot Fuzz, speaking about how fascinating it was that the film has remained exactly the same over the years but its extrapolated meaning has changed over time.
The movie was always a satire of ridiculous action films, with quick-cut action sequences of paper work and community assistance in place of guns, bullets and explosions but I think it’s more telling how real-life has allowed us to view the film in a different light. In an age were police violence is at an all time high, it’s interesting to see a film glorify the “by the book” parts of the job. Sure, there’s a big gunfight at the end, but no-one actually dies. Over the years, the Hot Fuzz’s ridiculous use of what was once the “boring” part of police movies as the high-octane action has turned into…well, it’s turned into a promotion of what good police work should be about. Police Stories reminded me a lot of this while I played as it not only serves as a great tactical shooter but also a critique of more brazen, less nuanced shooters.
It’s a trend in top-down shooters to make the experience one that’s flooded with enemies swarming your position, and in theory it’s a practical design decision. The top-down view allows players a much wider range of environmental awareness than something like a first-person shooter which is designed to limit a players view. Having this greater awareness of your surroundings allows many of these games to devolve into chaotic (but nonetheless fun) shoot-em-ups; it’s an example of a mechanic fitting a genre really well.
Police Stories sees that idea, kindly nods towards it’s existence and then promptly ignores it altogether. Instead of the frenetic speed associated with shooters like Hotline Miami, Police Stories is slow and tactical. The emphasis isn’t on twitchy reflexes or moving faster than the AI can fire, it’s about reading the environment, coming up with a plan of attack and taking care of business methodically.
While you’ll still need to shoot out thugs that pull a gun on you, the best way to do that isn’t to kick down every door and sprint through the map firing at everything that moves. Which, is honestly refreshing.
Quietly stalking the maps, honestly tense and at the ready for one of several baddies spawning in random places, it’s incredible how fragile I felt. In the same way Hot Fuzz satirised actions movies of a similar ilk, I believe Police Stories is trying to do the same thing. You’ll never feel empowered in Police Stories, but that’s the point. You’re always outnumbered, outgunned and sometimes pressed for time as you have to determine the location of a bomb or secure civilians.
You’re not invincible and you’re not fast, but you have the equipment and the wits to outplay the AI, who are absolutely deadly. You’ll die countless times as you get ambushed by a corner that wasn’t checked or stumble on a trip-wire that you weren’t expecting. Police Stories is a punishing game, but also quick enough to restart as you come to terms with the map and the possible spawns of the enemies. Even with the help of a co-op partner (and without, your AI buddy is fairly competent), an arsenal of flashbangs, pepper spray and tasers, you’ll have to run the levels plenty of times to get the best score you can.
Yet what I found perhaps most enjoyable was how the game encouraged you to be the best police officer you could possibly be. With a fairly simplistic scoring system, you’re incentivised to use non-lethal force as often as possible, using violence only when your life or the life of a civilian are in danger. You’ll be forced to order thugs to put their hands up, only being free to fire if they don’t comply. It’s a small yet well implemented way to makes things even more tense as you focus in on the enemy’s sprite, watching for any movement that could result in bodily harm. Police Stories is a game about keeping your cool in stressful situations; the completion of a level is never not satisfying as you successfully make it away alive.
It’s also fortunate for Police Stories that the game’s mechanics do such a good job of upholding it’s message and themes because the writing doesn’t amount to much. While I’m fairly sure the game is paying a tongue-in-cheek homage to cheesy cop films and TV series, it never goes far enough with it’s satire, often coming off as cliché and uninspired in terms of it’s plot and characters. While the structure of a good police procedural is in there somewhere, the game never really sticks the landing in making me care about anything happening in-between the tense planning within the game’s actual levels. That and some minor problems with the default button mappings, especially on the Switch, making aiming and ordering someone to drop their weapon a little too frustrating. Two points that stand out and that could have been improved on, but they did not deter from the experience in any significant way.
Police Stories isn’t a game for everyone. It’s slow-paced, tactical and often times feels overwhelmingly tough, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. You won’t step away from the experience pumped full of adrenaline due to high-octane gunfights and a thumping soundtrack, but you will fell satisfied.
It’s difficult to build a game around police procedural work, with the knee-jerk design decisions either wanting players to experience the explosions and car-chases that are totally removed from reality or in-games that have the tactics of something like SWAT but are also painful arduous to trek through. For me, Police Stories struck a balance between the two. It allowed me to arrest some thugs and defuse a bomb while also constantly checking every corner for some thug looking for a cheap ambush. It’s tense, unforgiving, slow and rewarding.
Kind of like how I imagine real police work (with less shooting of innocent people).
Last Updated: September 30, 2019