Review – This Is The Zodiac Speaking
We see a lot of horror games with the goriest of premises, but very rarely do we get a horror game based off a real story, especially one as famous and controversial as the Zodiac Killer murders. What makes these events even creepier and scarier is the fact that the killer has never been caught, with the case still being investigated to this day. Not only that, but he deliberately toyed with both the police and press, sending them letters with ciphers for them to try to solve, as well as plans for his next murders. This is the setting behind This Is The Zodiac Speaking, which was actually how the serial killer would introduce himself in letters and phone calls.
In This Is The Zodiac Speaking, you control a man called Robert Hartnell, whose surname is taken straight from one of the killer’s real-life survivors, Bryan Hartnell. Robert works as a journalist for one of the San Francisco newspapers which were contacted by the Zodiac back in the early ’70s. After receiving a package from the killer, he is attacked by him, but survives the assault. The remainder of the game is set six months later, with a mentally scarred Robert working alongside his psychiatrist in order to cope with his traumas. He’s also trying to solve the mystery behind the murder of Cheri Jo Bates, who was actually murdered by the Zodiac in real life.
If there’s one thing that This Is The Zodiac Speaking absolutely nails, that’s how faithful to the source material it is. Everything, from the exact location Cheri was murdered, to the physical description of the killer by one of the survivors of his attacks (an executioner’s hood with sunglasses attached to it), is featured in here. Other locations, such as Mount Diablo, which were settings of other murder attempts, are featured in here as well.
In short, if you’re actually into the case of the Zodiac killer, then this game is meant for you. It actually manages to be creepy and unsettling every now and then, especially when the killer calls you and starts taunting you, with the most disturbing of voices. As for the rest, however, This Is The Zodiac Speaking isn’t particularly good…
What we have here is a mixture between a first-person puzzle adventure and a survival horror game. This is a game about gathering clues, solving some simplistic puzzles, and walking around aimlessly around small maps. Plus you’ll have to run away from an assailant every now and then. Although, you can actually turn this last feature off if all you want is to play detective in a more “relaxing” manner. As if this could be possible in a game about real-life murders.
The first-person investigative sections are simple, but not exactly straightforward. You’ll be usually told to solve a small puzzle, with a small hint being given about which object you need in order to move the plot forward. You’ll spend a lot of time meandering through small maps, looking for ridiculously small objects that are needed in order to solve a nearby puzzle.
You will be occasionally thrown into dream-like sequences set in one of Cheri’s pre and post-murder scenes. You’ll have to solve some small puzzles for no particular reason, and then arrange the killer’s and Cheri’s actions in a certain order in order to move onto the next level. These event arrangement sections reminded me of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, albeit with less finesse. The puzzles felt a bit pointless, as there was no reason for the main character to have to fix the victim’s car in order to realize that the car had been hijacked in the first place, for instance. Those puzzles felt like filler sections just to tell people that there are things to do in the game.
Every now and then, you’ll be forced to run away from the Zodiac killer himself in some really dull and uninteresting chase sequences. Think of them as the chase sequences in Outlast 2, but once again, with less finesse. The Zodiac killer does kill you with one hit, and there’s no way to defend yourself against him, but it’s very easy to get past him. You can also turn this feature off if you want to. It does make the story a bit more confusing, as Robert will still mention that the killer is around even when he isn’t, but it does turn the game into a more puzzle-centered experience. I’d actually recommend playing it in Detective mode, as it improves its pacing.
Sadly, what really disappointed me in This Is the Zodiac Speaking wasn’t necessarily its gameplay, but its presentation. This is one ugly and under-performing game. It goes for a low-poly, minimalist art style, which is something I’d actually appreciate if the rest of the game wasn’t so hideous as a result. The draw distance is inexcusably bad, with trees and mountains popping up into existence just a few feet away from you. The resolution is also ridiculously low, even in docked mode, making it hard for the player to read notes and text-based puzzles. At the very least, the framerate is somewhat stable, but that’s not a trade-off I was particularly glad about.
Then there’s the sound design. In short, it’s a mixed bag. Some characters are well-voiced, most noticeably your protagonist and the Zodiac killer himself. I can’t say the same about everyone else, though. From your psychiatrist to a TV news reporter, they all deliver underwhelming performances that completely broke my immersion with the game. The soundtrack itself wasn’t particularly bad, as it even managed to creep me out one or two times throughout my playthrough, but it was subsequently ruined by the game’s poor sound mixing.
There are some really good things in This Is The Zodiac Speaking. It nails its setting, being shockingly faithful to its source material. The developers did a great job researching the subject matter, that’s for certain. Sadly, I can’t say the same about the game as a whole. Its graphics are cheap, its sound design is a mixed bag, and what’s worse, it’s just not very exciting to play. It’s a by-the-books puzzle adventure with a lot of filler and some terrible chase sequences. With a little more polish, This Is The Zodiac Speaking could have been something special. However, in its current state and with this particular gameplay loop, it’s just a half-baked disappointment.
I appreciate the minimalist art style, but the game’s terrible draw distance and pop-ins are inexcusably bad. It’s not as bad when you’re inside a house, though.
Walk around, solve simple puzzles, and partake in the easiest chase segments in the history of survival horror. At the very least, the controls are decent and the framerate is stable enough.
The main character is well voiced and there are instances in which the soundtrack actually manages to crank up the tension. The other characters in the game are poorly voiced and the overall sound mixing is bad.
Fun Factor: 5.5
It’s surprisingly faithful to its source material and there are some legit creepy moments, but the game as a whole is a standard first-person puzzle adventure with some stupidly easy chase segments.
Final Verdict: 5.5
This Is The Zodiac Speaking is available now on PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of This Is The Zodiac Speaking was provided by the publisher.