Review by Crythania
"Hey Larcen! Turn around!"
This game dishes out some monotonous fighting action in Chicago circa 1920 as Larcen Tyler of Eternal Champions fame mixes it up with the mob and wages a one-man war on organized crime. Larcen must be a favored character. He got his own game. Unfortunately, he's found himself placed in a mediocre gaming environment here.
Larcen is an ex cat burglar who somehow saved the police chief's life. In spite of that, Mr. Police Chief had to do his duty and arrest him anyway. As a way of returning the favor, Mr. Police Chief has accepted Larcen's offer to clean up Chicago and get rid of six brutal gangs in exchange for his freedom. Our hero has a year to lay down the hurt on the syndicate and face down Chicago's meanest mob bosses. If he doesn't get rid of them in time, he'll be thrown in jail with a "Thanks for trying" card courtesy of Hallmark and the city mayor.
This game has a unique and interesting game-play dynamic that I like very much. Each of the six gangs has stats that represent its strengths and/or weaknesses. At Larcen's "home base" in an abandoned warehouse, he can examine a Status Map that shows each gang's current condition. We're shown how many thugs the gang has employed, how much food and drink they have, how much by way of munitions they have, how many dependents they have, the gang's overall morale, and how much money they have available to purchase more of the above. These stats, represented on a bar graph, all affect the gang's condition in various ways. More thugs, obviously, means more bad guys that Larcen will have to wade through and beat up. Other stats affect how much damage thugs can do (munitions), how much damage Larcen's attacks do to them (morale), and how many thugs a gang can support (money, dependents, and food and drink). Each time we start a new game we'll see a different picture here, with some gangs being very powerful and others being weak. Some may have many thugs but poor morale. Others may be low on thugs but high on munitions and other stuff. During game-play this picture will constantly change as gangs skirmish with each other, receive new supplies, and suffer losses inflicted by our hero. As Larcen does damage and gets closer to putting a gang out of business, its morale will plummet, making his task easier. But while Larcen is out fighting one gang, the others may be getting stronger or weaker depending on what happens in the meantime. I like this very much. It adds a dimension of strategy to what might have otherwise been a very dull beat-em-up game.
We could start out by trying to tackle the gang with the most thugs first and try to get them out of the way. Or we could start off with the weaker ones and hope something happens to weaken the stronger ones over time. Then again, we could tackle a gang with low munitions or morale. There's a variety of strategies to explore here, with each gang's stats being an important factor to consider.
Each new game begins at Larcen's "home base" at the warehouse, where he can do a nice assortment of things before even leaving the comforts of home to begin the carnage. In addition to the Status Map, he can consult a Newspaper to keep up with current events (it tells what new supplies have recently arrived in town for the gangs). He can also have a look at a wanted poster for each mob boss that shows the guy's current strength, rest on a couch to recover health, have a look at his weapons locker to select an item to carry from whatever items he's collected, and most importantly, have a look at a wall calendar that shows the current date. In addition to all of this, the phone occasionally rings with the police chief or an anonymous informant calling with information about new supplies that are headed into town for the various gangs. We have access to all the information we'll need to formulate a strategy for toppling those gangs.
Unfortunately, game time passes while we're looking at all of this stuff. By the time I'm finished examining this wealth of information, it's January 5th. My guy wasted five days on research! This type of information gathering dynamic is better suited to a turn-based game where we can take as long as we need to absorb the prevalent information and devise our strategy. As it stands, we're under the gun here. Gotta be fast with our research and not waste too much time on it. I like this research dynamic and how it fits in with the overall game-play. Just would've been nice if I could take my time with it.
When Larcen is ready to get started on cleaning up the city, he can leave the warehouse and take the Chicago El railway to visit a neighborhood of his choice. We can visit the Old Stockyards, Hyde Park, Chinatown, Little Village, the Northwest, or Old Town. Each area is governed by a different mob boss that our hero has to defeat to put that particular gang out of business. The action here is on a side-scrolling field of play, with Larcen advancing to the right as he dispatches thugs and dukes it out with mini-bosses. Each thug is like a mini-boss in his own right, with a health bar that our hero has to deplete with punches, kicks, and other fighting moves. The game sports over 60 fighting moves for Larcen, most of which have convoluted button controls in the best tradition of the fighting game genre where this game has its roots. Controls and game-play here are very similar to a fighting game, with the two buttons doing punches and kicks, and jumping moves performed by pushing the D-Pad up. While the repertoire of moves here is impressive, most of them are hard to do. I mostly just used normal punches and kicks, with an occasional low sweep and Larcen's grappling hook that he can toss out. Perhaps making this harder than it should be, every move including the basic punch and kick has to be performed along with the D-Pad. To hit a guy with a punch or kick, we have to push right plus Button 1 or 2. You can't just move your guy where you want him to be and press the buttons to attack, which would be infinitely easier. Pressing Button 1 or 2 while he's standing still does nothing.
A further crippling blow to our mob fighting efforts, Larcen seems incapable of turning to face left. He's always facing right, and some of his moves attack to the left behind him. The first time you play this game, you'll probably choose a level and easily get through it to the end, defeating a few thugs on the way, but it won't let us in to see the boss until we've dispatched all of the gang's thugs; so thugs will show up from behind Larcen while he stands there facing right like an idiot.
This game isn't as much about making it to the end of the currently selected level (which is easy) as it is about getting rid of all the thugs in that level. These bad guys have various positions where they'll show up in the level, and there are always more thugs than can fit in the level (even for a gang that has a low number of them). So we have to advance, dispatch a thug, then back off to the left until a new guy shows up at the position where the first guy was, get rid of him, back off again so another guy appears, and so on. You could spend a lot of time in one small area of the level getting rid of thugs before new ones stop appearing there, at which time we advance a bit and do it all again. In this way, the levels are short yet long, with a huge number of thugs that need to be dispatched just to get rid of a weak gang. Advance too quickly through the level, and you'll arrive at the end with no way to get to the boss and thugs coming after you from behind. Thankfully, we can retreat from battle and return to base from a pause menu.
The assortment of bad guys here--ahem, calling it an "assortment" is charitable. Each gang appears to have employed the same guy and gal. There's two thugs who show up during the entire game. Mini-bosses are the same guy or gal with different colored shirt and pants. Whether we're going after Jerzy Slowacki's Meatpacker's Guild, Chiang Ch'ien and the Dragon Triad, or The Taglalini Gang, everyone looks alike. The crime bosses are the only guys who look unique. Even Cutthroat Island, which has us fighting the same band of scurvy dogs throughout, has more variety in bad guys than what we see here.
These look-alike bad guys aren't very aggressive. They slowly advance and occasionally throw a punch or do a jump kick or something. Some of them even wait for Larcen to advance on them. Thugs standing on scaffolding, verandas, and building ledges above will throw knives, shurikens, bottles, and other projectiles diagonally. Many of these ledges are too high for Larcen to jump up to. After we get rid of a good number of bad guys, a mini-boss shows up. Beat him down, then beat down more thugs, face another mini-boss, and so on. Finally, after a lengthy battle with what feels like a gazillion lackeys, we are permitted to see the gang's crime boss at the end of the level. Each guy has his own style of attack as they come after our hero, and they do a lot of damage if they score a hit. Thankfully, they're about as easy to beat as anyone else in the game (I just use low sweeps until he drops). One down, five to go. Return to the warehouse, do some more research, and decide who to go after next.
The research part and game-play dynamic with gang stats are more interesting than the monotonous journey to beat each boss.
This is a tough game. Time passes at a rabbit's pace while we're duking it out with ever-present thugs. It could take a couple months of game time just to defeat one gang. Larcen takes about two weeks to heal while he's sitting on that couch. The game starts on January 1st, and it'll be December before you know it. Defeating six gangs in one year is a tall order. Larcen has a decent amount of health, but he can easily find that whittled down if he's not careful. There are a lot of thugs to fight, and a mistake during a confrontation can be costly.
Visually, the game is pretty good. Our small cast of characters are well animated. Larcen is perhaps a bit too well animated, to a point where some of his moves take up too much time, rendering him vulnerable to an enemy attack. This makes the controls feel sluggish, often with a delayed reaction while he performs his moves. He jumps in slow motion. Come to think of it, almost everything happens in slow motion. He walks along at a slow, leisurely pace, and backs up very slowly. Sonic The Hedgehog would be long gone by the time this guy gets around to throwing a punch. Backgrounds are nothing special for the most part. Dirty city streets and interiors of buildings are detailed if not pretty to look at. There's a level that has some nice scenery in a waterfront area with docks, boats, and distant skyscrapers. Each of the six areas has its own background, with the waterfront area standing out while others tend to look rather drab.
Music is appropriate to the game's era (1920s), with ragtime tunes and other such themes produced in Game Gear signature tones. Some of it is kind of annoying after a while. Remarkably, they somehow managed to make an accordion sound like an accordion. No small feat with this portable's limited sound engine. A couple levels have decent "fighting game" type themes. Effects are nothing special. Larcen's footsteps and those of his opponents. Punches, kicks, and few other lackluster effects. This game doesn't do great punching effects, or kicks for that matter. The sound of the telephone ringing was nicely done.
Chicago Syndicate has a few good ideas mixed in with an El railway full of bad ones. It's not a terrible attempt at designing a good playable game, but neither is it anywhere approaching outstanding. While the unique and interesting game-play dynamics of gang stats and research are refreshing and welcome, the fighting part gets rather monotonous. There should have been way fewer thugs to slosh through, and a bit of variety would have helped. But most of all, Larcen Tyler needs to figure out how to turn around and face left.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 11/11/10, Updated 11/15/10
Game Release: Chicago Syndicate (US, 12/31/95)
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