Voodoo Detective review – Beautiful point-and-click island mystery has the right magic
On the sunny yet noir-soaked isle of Zo Wanga circa 1934, local traditions clash with the soulless gears of corporate progress. Sure, the town’s still got plenty of appeal, but unchecked tourism and rampant gentrification threaten to rob the locals of their livelihood, and the island of its very identity. Amongst all this upheaval emerges an unlikely hero from a hole-in-the-wall detective agency … not to right these wrongs, but merely to get paid wherever he can and make his rent. A recent transplant to the island himself, he feels little attachment to his brother’s appeal to save it from a slow cultural death. But all that changes when an amnesiac dame strolls into his office with a plea for help to learn about who she is and, suspecting foul play, why someone erased her memories. Of course, there’s a deep (and zany) conspiracy at play.
Voodoo Detective is an impressive debut from Short Sleeve Studio—a point-and-click that feels lifted right from the 90s, from its tongue-in-cheek humor to its lush, pleasantly old-school animation. It feels like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango thrown into a blender (and served in a tall glass at a charming Tiki bar), and it doesn’t hurt that it sports a delightful jazzy score from Peter McConnell, known for his music on Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, and several Monkey Island sequels. There are a few narrative hitches holding it back from being on the same tier as the games it’s inspired by, but it’s inventive, fun, and has personality by the boatload.
Right from the get-go, Voodoo Detective wears its offbeat quirkiness on its sleeve. In a fourth-wall-demolishing gag, the text from the opening credits hovers too close to a lit candle, catches fire, and sets the protagonist’s office ablaze. Extinguishing the flames is Voodoo’s first task. Oh yeah… and yes, Voodoo Detective is the actual name of the voodoo-practicing detective of Voodoo Detective. Buckle up, as there’s a lot more of that silliness to come, all the way to the game’s wacky and bombastic conclusion.
The humor is pretty enjoyable throughout, although it comes with a caveat that sounds far deadlier than it is: throughout my entire playthrough, I never laughed out loud. I got close, multiple times, but even the best jokes prompted more of an exhale than a chuckle. I’m not saying all the jokes are a swing-and-a-near-miss—far from it. It’s just a much drier, sarcastic sort of humor, rather than the knee-slapping revelry of a Monkey Island or Sam & Max game. It’s a deliberate choice, and it works well. Just don’t enter with expectations for a comedic gut-buster.
The main thing that falls just a little flatter than I’d hoped for is the character of Voodoo Detective himself. Aesthetically, he’s got to be one of the most interesting-looking protagonists the genre’s seen in a while. Decked out in a trench coat and sporting voodoo face paint, Voodoo bucks the trends and occupies a space all to himself. He’s also voiced wonderfully by William Christopher Stephens—but on paper, he just isn’t given that much. Voodoo’s not a very lively fellow, with a perpetually unimpressed, world-weary demeanor at all times. This often works well for comic juxtaposition against the wild events unfolding around him, but his tendency to be the most bored person in the room also robs him of much emotion. He’s great at oscillating between being really smug and really cynical … and that’s about it. He does eventually get to stretch a little bit beyond that late in the game (once the plot really thickens), but not a lot. That said, he’s still pretty likable and I’d love to see where the character could go in a potential sequel.
The supporting cast is made up of fairly typical detective archetypes, and while very fun, these characters are about as 2D as the art depicting them. It’s another area that could have elevated the game even higher, and yet it also feels fitting for the satirical tone. Much of Voodoo Detective strikes the tricky balance between being a loving homage to mystery/noir and an outright sendup of the genre, so I’m going to cut it some slack here. While having no clear standouts, the characters are fairly solid and serve their purposes admirably, and the whole cast does a terrific job with what they’re given.
Midway through, the game raises the stakes with an exciting story twist that distinctly breaks from the laid-back, goofy vibe established so far. It certainly got my attention … but something about it didn’t feel quite right to me. Imagine if you were playing a lighthearted game like Day of the Tentacle, but a few hours in, it takes a hard left turn into dark supernatural murder mode, killing off several key characters in a humorless and very dramatic fashion, and then goes right back to harmless, playful fun again not long after. That’s the sort of tonal whiplash Voodoo Detective engages in, and the back half of the game struggles a bit to make the best of its new narrative course. Ultimately it sticks the landing well enough to wrap a neat little bow on things, but I still couldn’t help but think that story choice didn’t feel completely right—particularly with how it sidelines a certain supporting character who deserves better.
Let’s switch gears from narrative nitpicks though, and talk about the art, which is absolutely BEE-YOO-TI-FUL. Voodoo Detective’s visual style harkens back to the hand-drawn era of point-and-clicks that preceded 3D graphics, feeling more like a contemporary of the first two Broken Sword games than a 2022 release. Even if you took note of its clearly modern, high-definition polish (and modern conveniences like a much-appreciated fast-movement option that makes Voodoo zip across the landscape like a caffeinated rabbit), you could easily mistake it for a remastering of some forgotten mid-90s jewel; and I mean that in the highest praise I can give.
The locations are varied and memorable, including a fancy-schmancy mansion, an upscale hotel, an imposing art deco bank (that feels like something lifted right out of the world of Grim Fandango), haunted mausoleums, and a generous chunk of undeveloped jungle territory far from the city. One of the funnest locations is set aboard a private yacht hosting an unnerving business party (think more Eyes Wide Shut than a typical corporate retreat), but my favorite spot has got to be Donut Hole Billy’s, a charming bar run by Voodoo’s brother—and at risk for demolition by the corporations running rampant across Zo Wanga. This little lounge is so cozy and pleasing to the eye that I wouldn’t mind if the game had invented several more narrative reasons to keep bringing me back in. It’s also got some of the game’s most heartfelt moments, with the interactions between the brothers providing a nice, grounding energy to the other shenanigans … even though one of the first things you do there involves a series of ridiculous, slapstick antics to break Billy out of his piano playing trance (okay, that part may have gotten a laugh out of me, come to think of it).
Voodoo’s accidental quest to save the island—once it intersects with the more run-of-the-mill case he starts with, at least—is full of twists and turns, kooky characters, and mind-boggling challenges. Puzzle-wise, Voodoo Detective mostly avoids the cardinal sins of bad adventure game design, but I felt like it started off much too easy and eventually got too hard. If you find yourself getting comfortable with the level of challenge after an hour or two, you definitely shouldn’t take it as an indicator of what’s to come.
By the end of the journey, you’ll have a rather large and unwieldy inventory (it’s my own personal belief that any time you’re required to scroll down to see all your items, that’s too many items) and you’ll be expected to perform some rather lateral thinking to solve some of the puzzles.
Because of that, Voodoo Detective joins the ranks of a depressingly large number of adventure games that I had to resort to a walkthrough to complete (even though it has a decent but insufficient in-game hint system). Could I have finished it on my own by trying every item on every hotspot before making that lamentable choice? Sure. Would that have been a good use of my time? Well, clicking at random ad nauseam isn’t really my idea of entertainment, so no. Life is too short to resist hint guides when puzzles this obtuse are on the table.
There are a few puzzles that are highly enjoyable, however, and often involve using a certain book of voodoo recipes to gather components needed for spells. Part of the fun comes from being able to read through the spellbook at will, finding instructions for spells that you’re not even sure you’ll need yet, but it helps you keep your eyes peeled for situations where they might finally come in handy (and they do indeed).
I also have to hand it to Voodoo Detective for having one of the best finales I’ve played in an adventure game in a good while, elevating the stakes for a tense (and actually somewhat scary) cat-and-mouse chase through the climactic location, while still managing to hold onto its humor and sense of identity built up thus far … and the final showdown itself is too funny to spoil here. The adventure ends on a rollicking high, which took me about seven or eight hours in total (but that included a lot of aimless wandering—you could certainly beat it in half that time).
Aside from some brief moments of hair-pulling bewilderment, I remained totally delighted from beginning to end. If it had a bit stronger story (and a little more pep in its protagonist) the game could easily have established itself as an all-time classic of the genre, which in some ways is even more frustrating than its most confounding puzzles—it’s so close to greatness. Still, the fact that an adventure as original and imaginative as Voodoo Detective can come out in this day and age, embracing old-school techniques to look as good as it does—and all from a small, unheard-of studio on a presumably modest budget, no less—is really encouraging and bodes well for the future for more games of a similar throwback nature. It may have its share of bumps in the road, but Voodoo Detective is a joyful romp very much worth your time.
It may not quite reach the heights of its forebears, but like a lost gem from a bygone era, Voodoo Detective confidently carves out a niche for its cheeky brand of mystery satire.
- A visual feast in every scene
- Charming characters backed up by excellent voice acting
- Delightfully creative in all facets
- Main character could’ve used more emotional range
- Some puzzle solutions are just plain obscure
- A few storytelling bumps in an otherwise solid narrative
Sean played Voodoo Detective on PC using a review code provided by the game's publisher.
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