If you’re not overly familiar with the case of the Zodiac Killer, then chances are you’ve at least heard of it. The titular killer’s identity was never uncovered, and as such has been the focal point of many books, TV shows, and movies ever since. This is the Zodiac Speaking joins a growing list of games to tackle the subject, and although its investigative gameplay is – in many ways – authentic to the real-life case, it’s also an experience that’s riddled with technical hiccups, which makes it almost impossible to recommend.
You play as Robert Hartnell, who is directly based on the real-life Zodiac survivor Bryan Hartnell. After his close encounter with the killer, Robert suffers from psychological trauma, frequently experiencing nightmares and subsequently spending time in therapy to address his symptoms. The nightmares themselves form part of the gameplay, and from a pacing perspective, they do successfully inject some much-needed change from the rest of the monotonous gameplay.
The majority of the game sees you wandering around environments in a first-person perspective to investigate clues that might point to the identity of the Zodiac Killer (we should note, by the way, if you like to invert the Y-axis in first-person games, the option is available here, but doesn’t work at all we hope this will get addressed in a patch). A multitude of items can be picked up and scrutinised, but only a few actually count towards your investigation. It’s tedious, and after ogling over our tenth glass bottle, we’d had quite enough.
To break up the monotony slightly, you can occasionally run into the Zodiac Killer himself, and this triggers a stealth section in which you need to crouch and peer behind corners in order to remain unseen. These sections can be tense initially until you realise just how easy it is to avoid the killer. If you wish, the game allows you to turn off these encounters entirely if you’d prefer to purely focus on the investigative side.
Aside from doing your own investigation, you also take part in therapy sessions to address your psychological trauma. These are disappointingly boring at best, and some of the dialogue options presented to you simply make no sense. Your options are limited to one-word responses, and while these translate into coherent sentences spoken by the protagonist, as the player you’ll often have no idea what it is you’re actually about to say.
Perhaps the worst sin committed by This is the Zodiac Speaking is its visuals. We suspect the blocky shapes and dreary colours were ultimately a design choice, but taken as a whole, it’s just ugly. What’s more, although interior environments look mostly acceptable, the exterior locations are full of distracting pop-in. Imagine you’re looking into a kaleidoscope and see a constantly shifting image before your eyes; that’s what these environments look like as you navigate around them. Trees and buildings pop in and out constantly, and it’s almost nauseating to look at.
We commend the approach taken with this game. It’s a thoughtful take on a real-life murder mystery, and although the stealth sections felt a bit unnecessary, the experience as a whole at least felt relatively authentic. Ultimately, though, the gameplay and visuals just aren’t up to scratch at all, and there are far better examples of the genre on Switch that you’d be much better off playing.