You may have heard of a little game releasing on Switch this month – a point-and-click graphic adventure featuring Voodoo mysticism, set in the Caribbean and with music by Peter McConnell, composer on Monkey Island 2? That’s right! It’s Voodoo Detective, the magical, mystical debut from Short Sleeve Studio, hot on the heels of fan-craze juggernaut Return to Monkey Island. Timing-wise, this Switch release is like arriving at a fancy dress party with a rubber glove on your head and yoghurt pot on your nose, only to meet Mel Gibson wearing the rooster suit from Chicken Run.
However, having taken advantage of that particular monkey in the room for an intro paragraph, we can confess that Voodoo Detective is very much its own thing – not simply the comedy Caribbean voodoo graphic adventure a grandparent bought you by mistake. The setting is Zo Wanga Isle, an island increasingly overrun by tourists thanks to the growing commercial operations of a corrupt corporation, Island Ventures. Native Zowangians like Voodoo Detective (that’s his name – competing for silliness with his brother Donut Hole Billy) are squeezed by real estate development and profit-digging commerce, cashing in on the local climate and culture.
Short Sleeve’s game is a noir detective story with all the classic ingredients. Voodoo is a private investigator, a decent guy down on his luck and not helped by having a code of ethics in a rotten world. He’s cleverer than the world but not doing too well for it. Then, in walks the femme fatale, Mary, a woman seeking help but quick to remind you she’s your boss, no pushover despite her predicament of a lost memory and few leads to go on. The only noir story ingredient not needed here is the “noir” part, being – as any screenshot will show you – decidedly clair.
The bright locales are not only vividly colourful but exceptionally transparent in showing what there is in the world for you to interact with and explore. This is, of course, a good thing in some ways – no scrabbling about the screen wondering what a fuzzy or over-stylised shape is supposed to be – but it also feels extremely earnest. Everything is displayed so literally and openly that there’s little left to the imagination. There’s no mystery, no half-glimpsed intrigue, no layers of depth from tantalising fringes of foregrounds to bustling backgrounds – everything’s just there on the screen for you to see at first glance. This openness is reflected in the overall tone of the game, and without some darkness or a bit of an edge, it does feel like the humour struggles to really bite. When it could do with being cheeky – the small talk with a bored, rich wife interested in getting to know Mr. Detective, for example – things feel too strait-laced to make some fun out of it.
That said, Voodoo Detective certainly doesn’t want to take itself too seriously. It opens with fourth-wall-breaking surrealism that establishes its license for the inherent silliness of point-and-click adventures, like picking up improbably large items or committing cruel acts to solve trivial problems. There’s an instant-classic gag made out of a “you can’t use that with that” line in the early game, too. The plot then moves steadily to absurd places and never gets bogged down in itself.
However, the humour doesn’t quite find its rhythm, and isn’t helped by the visual-novel style talking-head approach to displaying dialogue, which effectively puts the world on hold – characters included – to let only one face onto the screen at a time. These spot animations are nice but, in practice, the charisma and chemistry of the characters has to fight against the taking-turns approach.
In line with this very careful presentation, Voodoo Detective’s comic-book-hokum treatment of voodoo is less lurid than the Monkey Island series. It introduces concepts and language as parts of religious custom and opens with a screen of text gently excusing its adoption of them for the purposes of telling a funny story. It’s a great idea, even if the game does still mostly boil it down to a book of spells and love potions. Unless Voodoo is a religion based around collect-the-ingredients fetch quests, we didn’t come away culturally enlightened, but this quite serious framing contributes brilliantly to the worldbuilding.
Talking of fetch-quests, the puzzle design in Voodoo Detective has some weak spots. The occasional highlights of manipulating items, environments, and NPCs in coordination to make progress (a neat set of interactions with a ship’s captain stuck with us) are outnumbered by the times you need to walk back and forth between screens to pick up a new item. The worse crime here, though, is that the items are sometimes obtained via dialogue options that only become available once the item is needed. As a result, an environment that has been thoroughly scoured must be checked again, so you can’t quite be sure which avenues you’ve exhausted in narrowing down solutions when you’re stuck.
Although we had a few struggles with the puzzles, the user interface is dead simple. The model is a no-frills move-the-cursor-with-the-joystick setup with a single action button. Either stick works and any face button works, including the D-pad, so you can play with a single Joy-Con in one hand without having to even change any settings. To boot, there’s touchscreen support – that nice Switch bonus in games also releasing on mobile. If we had to have a grumble, it would be that moving the cursor to open your inventory instead of using a dedicated button is a slog. It’s another obstacle to the game finding a rhythm, so we just had to lean into the easy-going vibe of Zo Wonga Isle – or use a finger on the screen.
Ultimately, it’s the vibe that will have to win you over if Voodoo Detective is going to be worth your time and money. The graphical work is consistent and clean, the voice acting is strong if a little po-faced, and McConnell's music has a sort of calypso/smooth-jazz sense of humour that doesn’t get old.
Voodoo Detective is an attractive, old-school point-and-click adventure with a lighthearted, dime-store pulp story and a decent handful of laughs. Its vividly descriptive art style and writing are accessible and low-stress, if short on intrigue and surprise. Meanwhile, the music is fun and the voices are memorable. Although the puzzles can be ropey, the story moves along steadily enough, and at five hours or so, it doesn’t ask too much. This is a steady debut from Short Sleeve Studio and, while it’s not turning every head at the party, it’s a good laugh if you try to get to know it.